Raising the Song: Creating Communities that Sing

Raising the Song participants gather at closing dinner

The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary recently gathered twelve musicians together with presenters Ysaÿe Barnwell, Marilyn Haskel, and Alice Parker for the concluding symposium, “Raising the Song: Creating Communities that Sing.” This two-day symposium offered a final opportunity to learn from these three women whose combined wisdom and experience is immense.

The group first gathered in October 2015, after applying to be a part of this unique venture. They spent two full days singing and discussing issues of philosophy and performance practice, as well as in small groups of 4 to 5, with each participant practicing his or her own song leading skills. At the end of the symposium each participant was given a commission—to go back to his/her community and to hold some sort of singing event using the skills they had been taught.

These projects took many different forms, from leading singing in the dementia wing of an assisted living facility to a community sing at a university; from experimental theater to numerous church events.

Last month everyone returned to campus to report on their projects and to get some additional coaching from our esteemed presenters. Each participant reported to the group about their events, how they came about, what worked, and what challenged them. Then each led the group in song. It was inspiring to hear of the different projects and to see how each participant had grown in confidence and ability from the prior year.

Participant Rochelle Felsburg describes her experience at the symposium:

“The presenters were excellent in giving me workable suggestions that I could follow as well as positive reinforcement for what I was already strong in. Because of their vast experience they had practical help from their different backgrounds.   They each have diverse backgrounds (from formal to global music) so we got a well-rounded presentation of how to help spread music to others.”

On Monday, October 24, a Community Sing was held at Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, led by the three presenters. This was yet another chance for our participants to observe the experts in action; likewise, all who attended the Sing had an unparalleled opportunity to sing together with the likes of Alice Parker, Ysaÿe Barnwell, and Marilyn Haskel.

On the last day of the symposium each participant was able to work with each presenter in small groups. The master class format gave each the opportunity to hone his/her skills and to ask questions. It was a very rich time for all. The symposium concluded with a dinner at the home of faculty consultant Bill Roberts. After dinner the group sang children’s songs, old hymns, and Halloween “scarols.”

Alice Parker, world-renowned composer, arranger, and song leader summed it up: “At the bottom it’s all about people—the personal sense we get in singing with a group. Singing brings down the social walls, makes us one. “

Participants in “Raising the Song: Creating Communities that Sing” included Seth Arnopole (Oakland, CA), Martha Burford (Richmond, VA), Rochelle Felsburg (Fredericksburg, VA), Ben Hensley (Dallas, TX), Ryan Luhrs (Hickory, NC), Jessica Nelson (Tupelo, MS), Kate Offer (Oakland, CA), C.J. Redden-Liotta (Vienna, VA), Shea Roane (Alexandria, VA), Samson Tarpeh (Lexington, KY), Colleen Toole (Princeton, NJ), and Eliza Watson (Grey, ME).

The Center for Liturgy and Music professes profound gratitude to Melodious Accord, the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, and Virginia Theological Seminary for their financial support. Without them this project would never have come to fruition.


Ellen Johnston is Director of the Center for Liturgy and Music.