Charlyn Bethell, Music Director

I recently was asked to fill out a survey for one of Mark’s students who is studying UU polity. Polity is defined as “a form or process of civil government or constitution, an organized society”. I think of polity as how the church is run—how we do what we do. The fact that we are congregational means that we do as the majority rules, most of the time. I think it is valuable to reflect on what we do with the goal of making improvements as we see fit. Some of the questions posed to me as Music Director in this survey were quite insightful and I wanted to share them with you, along with my answers. And if this could inspire a conversation about any of these issues, that would be ideal.

What inspires your choice of music for UU worship services? I do not see music as specifically UU. Music is music. All music chosen for services should be of the best quality both in its selection and its performance. I would consider the music’s tempo—the extremes of fast and slow are seldom appropriate. Choir anthems have the added dimension of the text to the music and bringing in the poetic word can definitely make the music UU. Guy and I both choose music we like based on our background of Classical training plus I have a strong sense of intuition that I trust in choosing music. What is unique about both Guy and me is that we embrace lots of different musical styles in our lives. We both love Rock n Roll, jazz, world music, and folk music besides the Classical repertory that spans the ages. We strive to bring a balance to the congregation of those historical periods and styles—perhaps it is the composite and diversity of all the above that makes the music UU.

2. Do UU principles influence your choice, if at all? Why or why not? This was a good year to ask me that question! One of my goals this year, inspired by Jason Shelton at a conference, was to bring music to the choir that addressed sources, but I would add the principles to that mix. Jason made it clear that we need to bring more than music that is “just beautiful” to our congregations. He said that if it doesn’t address the principles and sources, it has no place in our library. What if some of that music and/or lyrics make us uncomfortable? What if the music is “too Christian?” He would say, then that music could be transformational. For example, our choir sang the spiritual, Were You There? for our Easter service. The text is about the Easter story of Jesus dying and being laid to rest. This song gave us the chance to look at the text as a metaphor besides the fact that it affirms our Christian roots. Personally, the song described how I feel in our political atmosphere right now; many of the American values that I hold very dear are being crucified. But, it also is comforting and reassuring to know that if we stand together with our community, there can be a rebirth of our shared values. This music is then a call to action. We have not done enough music that is about gender questions and music that makes us feel safe. Going forward, I expect to keep our music aligned with what we do in worship services by coming back to our principles and sources.

3. Is there a type of emotional response that music in UU worship should invoke? Not a specific emotion, but emotions of all kinds make us human. Music can take away the obstacles that block our emotions, freeing us to be the people we want to be. The best artistic response is emotional—for any art form. Art can change the world because it can change us and get or keep us in touch with ourselves. Music for a transformational church service has to be music that moves people. Along with the realm of thought and words, services need to encompass music for its unspoken, emotional content.

4. To select music each Sunday, do you engage with the minister? If you act independently, would you prefer to coordinate with a team from the church? At First Parish in Watertown, we do not coordinate our efforts except for intergenerational and special services. Lay services are done cooperatively mostly within committees. Guy and I try to keep the music consistent with the overall theme we are given. Our minister chooses the hymns, as many ministers do. Personally, I do my best work in community and I like working with people from different backgrounds from mine. It will be interesting to work with our interim minister when it comes to planning services. That being said, I expect to miss Mark a great deal.

5. Globally, Unitarians and Universalists are active in various countries (England, Nigeria, India, Philippines, Hungary, Romania). Do you feel UU worship services in the US should engage with music from these traditions? I do. Yet, the reality is that people tend to prefer the music from their own backgrounds! For most, a church service is the only time they hear live-music making on a regular basis. I think a role of the music program is to educate the congregation about other musical traditions as they apply to worship. Doing this in small doses, thoughtfully, is my approach. We have had guest musicians that brought their ethnic instruments to play for us. I think that doing world music extends our everyday experiences and makes us more able to think like someone very difference from ourselves. I wish we could delve into the area of dance for this, as ethnic music is very accessible to us in the form of movement. Singing a folk song from another community, especially in their language, is the beginning of people seeing the world from another’s point of view. Could this be the start of world peace? I am sure of it!

I look forward to seeing you in church!

What is happening musically at First Parish in May?

Our choir is on a well-deserved holiday! We will be rehearsing on May 16th, 23rd, 30th in preparation for singing at the June 2nd service. At that service, we will sing Seasons of Love from RENT and Evening Song by Zoltan Kodaly, both to say goodbye to Mark as he retires this June.

May 19th: Our guest musician is Beth Welty, a familiar violinist, who has played for us before. We welcome her back to First Parish!

Charlyn Bethell
Music Director | + posts

Charlyn’s professional training has followed two paths: as a professional oboist and as a music teacher and conductor. As Music Director at First Parish, she joins these two paths of her musical life, conducting the choir, coordinating guest musicians, and performing on oboe.