Category Archives: Sacred Choir & Handbell

Catching Up With Ruth Elaine Schram

Ruth Elaine SchramMark Cabaniss, Managing Director of Alfred Sacred, caught up recently with veteran composer/arranger Ruth Elaine Schram to discuss her latest project released with Alfred Sacred, another project waiting in the wings, plus a bit about her career and philosophies as a writer.

MC: Hi Ruthie!  Thank you for taking the time today to chat a bit with us.  You’re enjoying such a wonderful and successful career as a composer for church and school (and more).  What year was your first  piece of music published?

RS: Hi Mark!  I actually received my first contract in 1986, and that was from Brentwood Music, for a song that never actually got published.  But that oversight on their part gave me the opportunity to write for other projects, including the very successful “Mother Goose Gospel” series which began as a recorded product but ended up with printed songbooks as well.  My first individual song to appear in print was published in 1988.

MC: How many compositions have you had published since that first one?

RS: My current count is right at 2,100.  I know that seems like a lot, but as I tell others, some of them are very short!

MC: Wow…that’s impressive! You’ve certainly developed a loyal following through the years, and we’re honored to have your numerous contributions to the Alfred Music catalog.  Shifting gears – let’s discuss your latest children’s project – a collection of songs for children’s choir called “Something’s Fishy.”  Tell us about that collection. What’s it about and how can it be used?

RS: This collection was so much fun to write!  It can be used as a musical (by using the included introductions as narration between songs), or as individual selections throughout the year.  Each song is about some aspect of God’s creation — the diverse creatures under the sea (Something Fishy’s Going On), the enormity of space (So Big), the different types of food we can grow which includes the parable of the sowing of seeds (Seeds and Soil and Such), how we can trust God because He is always watching over us in every season (Whatever the Weather), and the myriad animals God has designed (Birds and Bugs, Worms and Slugs).  The recurring theme that runs through the work is that God created everything, particularly us, and loves each of us and takes care of us.  We’ve also included thought-provoking discussion starters and suggested related Scripture passages that you can use in rehearsal to make these songs even more meaningful and memorable for your young singers.

MC: What do you like most about writing music for children’s choirs?

RS: Writing for children is very different from writing for adults, but I really love it.  First we’re a bit limited in range, as children’s voices will sound best and be most comfortable “from C to shining C” (Middle C to an octave above).  We’ll occasionally excursion beyond that, but that is the safest range for their voices.  The lyrics need to be written as something children would *say* so they will be able to remember and understand the words.  But what I love about it is its importance: we are instilling in them truths about our Creator, our Savior, God’s Word, and Biblical concepts that will stay with them for an entire lifetime.

MC: We know you and John Purifoy have been at work on a new adult Christmas musical for Alfred Sacred.  Any teaser you want to give us about that?

RS: It’s titled “Upon a Midnight Clear” and the lyrics and melody from that beautiful carol are peppered throughout the musical.  There are wonderful arrangements of many familiar Christmas songs as well as several stunning new works.  The orchestration by Ed Hogan is exquisitely beautiful.  There are opportunities to include your children’s choir and congregation.  And the incomparable Cynthia Clawson not only contributed a song to the musical, but sang on the recording!

MC: Thank you, Ruthie, for your time today!  Your contributions to sacred and secular choral music – for children and adults – are immeasurable, and we look forward to exciting new ideas coming from you in the years to come.

RS: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for continuing to give me opportunities to make my voice heard in the world of sacred choral music!  God has given me this wonderful gift, and I want to be faithful to always use it for His glory.  Writing sacred songs is an incredible blessing, being published is an honor.  But it is also a heavy responsibility — to be Biblically accurate requires a lot of study.  I take the process very seriously and am very grateful for every opportunity to contribute works for use in Worship Services for any age singer.  I pray for the churches that use my works, especially around Lent / Easter and Advent / Christmas, and I pray that I will never write anything that would inadvertently lead someone away from the truth.  It is my goal to make Jesus *real* to people through my music — young or old; singer or listener.  Thank you for helping to make that possible!

’Twas the Month Before Christmas

Andy BeckBy Andy Beck, Director of Choral Designs, Classroom, and Vocal Publications

’Twas the month before Christmas, a busy time at school,
But so far I’d managed to maintain my cool.

With extra rehearsals, and concerts, and such,
I started to think, “Have I scheduled too much?

Nursing homes, rotaries, gigs at the mall—
I honestly hope we can handle them all!

There are costumes to alter, and props still to get,
And that’s not to mention, we still need a set.”

Now, being optimistic, I knew we’d get done,
But started to doubt it would be any fun.

It was a typical Friday, at 10:54
(My ten-minute planning, I wish I had more),

With lists all around me, and feeling quite stressed,
I sat down to get some “to-do” things addressed.

When out on the stage, I heard such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a large group of kids from my choir that year.

They weren’t on the risers, just gathered around,
And my instinct at first was to say, “Quiet down.”

But then, when I realized what they’d come here for,
I wasn’t so eager to scold anymore …

Without my instruction, or cues, or a thing,
Suddenly, all of them started to sing.

The altos were flatting, the sopranos were, too.
The very best boys were at home with the flu.

The tempo was dragging, the dynamics were worse,
And most had forgotten the words to the verse.

But despite all the errors, the wrong notes, and flaws,
This beautiful moment, it gave me a pause.

As every last student sang deep from the heart,
I saw very clearly that I’d done my part.

For what could be better than teaching the joy
And the power of music to each girl and boy?

Listening more gave my spirits a lift,
And I’ll always remember this meaningful gift.

Though I was the teacher, my students taught me,
Which may be the best Christmas gift there can be!

Words of Worth

vanessa_christianBy Vanessa Christian, Associate Editor

For centuries composers have looked to great authors and poets for inspirational texts. Writers of the Baroque era often set stories of the Bible to music for their oratorios and operas. The tradition continued through later eras: Schubert had Goethe, Debussy had Baudelaire, Bernstein had Voltaire, and on and on.

Composers of today frequently find themselves setting the words of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, just to name a few. But what is it about classic poetry that marries itself so readily with musical composition? Most likely, they are the same elements that create a popular song:

  • Using stressed syllables and cadences, poets create a rhythmic structure to support their words. Since both poets and musicians rely on a catchy rhythm, starting with an existing poem provides a natural framework for an added melody and harmonies.
  • Poets use imagery that composers can bring out in musical ways, such as an icy river rushing through the accompaniment, or hushed prairie winds lingering in the voices.
  • When a poem impacts its reader, it elicits an emotional response, possibly by being extremely relatable or telling a beautiful story. The meaningful words are enhanced and built upon by a skilled composer.

These elements combine to make the union of poetry and music a natural, timeless tradition.

An Interview with Mary McDonald

Mark Cabaniss

Mark Cabaniss

Mary McDonald

Mary McDonald

Alfred Sacred’s Managing Director Mark Cabaniss sat down recently with Mary McDonald for a brief chat about her writing career and her upcoming new Christmas musical Darkness into Light, to be released this June. Keep watching Ledger Lines for more details!

Mark: Mary, it’s a pleasure to sit with you and thank you for sharing some time with our readers in the midst of your busy schedule!

Mary: Thank you, Mark. I’m happy to visit for a bit.

Mark: First, how did you get started writing music for the church?

Mary: My story is not typical in that I have not studied music all that many years. I entered college on a Home Economics scholarship but was self-taught in piano and organ. I have played “by ear” since the age of five and have been creating music before I was able to read it! Music professors encouraged me in music in college and I eventually switched majors to Church Music with an organ emphasis. Assuming my first job as a church organist post-graduation, I began improvising my service music and was encouraged to write down a few of these, which were picked up by Pedalpoint magazine in the late 70s. From there, I progressed into choral writing and have been doing it ever since.

Mark: How many publications have you had released over the years?

Mary: Including keyboard, cantatas, and choral anthems, somewhere between 700 and 800 publications.

Mark: Wow! That’s quite an accomplishment. Congratulations! Tell us about your newest musical, Darkness into Light.

Mary: It’s a new 40-minute musical that blends new anthems with classic carols, all woven together with narration. The idea is that just as Mary and Joseph traveled from darkness into light, and Jesus brought the world from darkness into light, we too can choose a path of moving from darkness into the Light of Christ.

Mark: What did you enjoy most about the writing process for this musical?

Mary: Perhaps the most enjoyable part was all the various styles that emerged in a concerted effort to make the music both interesting and inspiring. Each song seems to have a fresh approach and came to life even more with the orchestrations of Ed Hogan.

Mark: Thank you, Mary, for your time today. I’m excited about Darkness into Light and look forward to its release in June!

Mary: Thank you Mark!

We Need We! Healthy Staff Relationships

Mark CabanissA 7-Step “Program” to Healthier Staff (and/or choir) Relationships
By Mark Cabaniss
Managing Director, Alfred Sacred

File this article under “things they never taught us while majoring in music.” I teach a class once a year in music business at Belmont University, and each year, I tell my students that no matter what we do in life we’re all ultimately in the same business: The People Business. And if we can’t get along effectively with each other, then life is going to be a lot tougher.

And church staffs are filled with co-workers and volunteers. Yes…people! Many bad situations are often rooted in poor staff relationships (which often begin with misunderstandings). Too many times, churches are weakened because of staff relationship problems. People leave, get fired, burned out, etc., so here are seven steps to healthier staff relationships.

Many of these things you already know; some you don’t; all are great reminders of what it takes to keep a healthy staff.

Brethren, We Have Met to…Work Together!

  •  Have a mission statement. Everyone work together to forge it. Everyone owns it. Frame it. Everyone should have a copy of it. It’s the forest…not the trees.
  • Cultivate a team spirit: Socials (baseball game, birthday treats, team goals/contests).

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

  • In general, too much is assumed! One of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  • Email is a great tool for effective communication (there’s an electronic paper trail) but be careful not to assume everyone reads everything you write. Important issues: Call or visit in person in addition to an email.
  • Inform your pastor and co-workers constantly. Write a weekly report. Consider a weekly or monthly newsletter.
  • Weekly staff meetings. Important. Keep them structured.
  • Be honest about your feelings. Address unpleasant issues soon before they fester. Choose the right time to express such issues (for the person to whom they need to be expressed and for yourself as well). Don’t dump on someone when you’ve reached your boiling point.

Support your Local Pastor and Co-Workers

  • The Pastor is the Boss. Dissension in the ranks can be contagious and detrimental.
  • Support those events/activities of the pastor/co-workers…great and small.
  • Diplomatic compromise is healthy. When there’s a roadblock, agree to disagree.
  • When large issues are at stake where compromise isn’t possible, one needs to examine and pray if they should stay in that situation. You should feel “called to the church AND the pastor.”

Thou Shalt Be Open to Change

  •  “The only thing permanent in this world is change.” (Helen Cole Krause)
  • Sometimes change is difficult. Be open; be positive.
  • Serenity Prayer: “Change those things you can, accept what you can’t, and give me the wisdom and grace to know the difference between the two.”

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

  • Creeping apathy/negativity…permeates a lot of organizations (big and small!)
  • Apathy/negativity is sometimes inevitable…be on guard against it!
  • Weekly meetings: Inject positive thoughts, scripture, etc. Celebrate triumphs! Talk about challenges and how to handle them. Confront it all! (Even the air conditioning…heating…etc.)

We Need We!

  • Independence: I don’t need you. Dependence: I need you. Healthy interdependence: We need each other. Cultivate this mindset.
  • The sum is greater than the parts. Encourage free exchange of ideas.
  • Have a yearly staff retreat. Get away. Be creative. Have fun. Socialize.

Take Time to be Wholly (Complete, That Is)

  • Balance your life. The personal is interminably linked to the professional. (Just as the spiritual is linked to the physical).
  • Encourage counseling when needed. “We’ve all got baggage, it’s either checked or unchecked.”
  • Engage in keeping the whole life balanced: spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually.
  • Encourage staff-wide (or choir-wide) book readings/devotionals. Share your thoughts in staff meeting (or choir rehearsal) once a month.
  • By doing these things that aren’t urgent (but very important) you’re “depositing” into the emotional/professional bank account and can draw upon those things in the crunch times.

I hope some or all of these ideas will stimulate your thinking to keep your relationships with staff…and your choir…healthy and satisfying.

Lead with Passion

Mark Cabanissby Mark Cabaniss
Managing Director, Alfred Sacred

God has placed in each of us certain gifts that, when used, awake in a passion within.  Are you leading with passion or does your fire need fanning?

I’ll never forget a moment I shared with some music students at a university recently.  As I droned on and on about the music business and what might have seemed like useless details to them, it wasn’t until I spoke of one particular subject which had nothing to do directly with the music business that you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.  The subject:  Passion in one’s chosen profession.  In that moment, we discussed how God has placed in each of us certain gifts that when used awake in a passion within.

As I challenged them to discover those gifts, the interested and uninterested alike were suddenly transfixed.  All 100+ students were silent and still.  It was one of those moments when you know you’ve struck a nerve.

So we know that true passion exists.  We’ve all experienced those occasions when we were completely absorbed in something we lost all track of time.  But once we’ve found that passion, how do we nurture and keep it thriving?  From what I keep hearing these days, burnout among ministers of music is almost as rampant as downsizing.  We must not only discover but foster that God-given passion. Then, I believe leading others, achieving goals, and affecting lives positively from a Christian perspective at deeper levels is possible.  How do we know if we’re honestly leading with passion or if our fire needs fanning? Here are a few ideas to consider:

1.  Feel and express genuine enthusiasm.
Are we joyful about our lives?  Not only in our work but in all areas?  Sharing enthusiasm with those around us is important.  It will help others catch the vision and pursue common goals.

2. Generate creative new ideas.
If we’re leading with passion, our creative thinking is at a high level as if running on creative adrenaline.  We’re able to think laterally, considering all sorts of new options we’ve never considered before.

3. Show optimism toward the future.
If we are committed to achieving the goals we feel God has called us to accomplish for the future why shouldn’t we be optimistic?  If those goals don’t motivate us to be excited about tomorrow we should re-examine ourselves and or our motivation.

4. Take care physically.
Our emotional and physical lives are interminably linked.  If we’re passionate about our lives and leadership, we’ll be motivated to take care of our bodies in a balanced, healthy way.

5. Take care spiritually.
Of course, this is a vital, daily process.  Our spiritual lives fuel all that flows out of who we are, what we do, and how we do it.  If our relationship with God is healthy, all the other facets of life will flow together and the fire of passion will follow.

Let’s lead with direction!  Let’s lead with purpose!  Let’s lead with passion!

Creating a Handbells Used Chart with Finale 2014: Now More Flexible and Easier to Use

Justin PhillipsBy Justin Phillips

With a service each week, you need the ability to produce music quickly, often with a changing group of instrumentalists and singers. Scan a song or hymn and orchestrate with ease! With a few clicks of the mouse, you can change the key, transform your instrumentation, and create that perfect final stanza.

While Finale 2014 includes a pre-made handbell template, some customization is often required to adapt the template to your specific ensemble, such as the range of your bells. If this is the case you may prefer to use a plug-in, included with Finale, to automatically create your list of bells used.

To do so, enter the notes of your handbell piece first. Now select the Selection Tool and go to Edit menu > Select All. Next, navigate to Plug-ins menu > TG Tools > Create Handbells Used Chart.

Handbell ChartSelect or adjust any options needed, then press Go. The plug-in will automatically create a handbells used chart at the top of the score, parenthesize any accidentals, resize the staff and notes, and reset the measure numbering.

As a worship leader you impact lives positively and eternally through God’s gift of the transforming power of music. Let Finale enhance your impact! Finale is now easier than ever to use, but if you ever have a questions, help is close at hand. Only Finale offers interactive tutorials, videos, searchable solution to commonly asked question, and FREE on-line support. Visit for more information.

Put the “WOW” Factor In Your Choir

Mark CabanissBy Mark Cabaniss
Managing Director, Alfred Sacred/Jubilate Music

I’ve sometimes heard from directors over the years that choir programs are “just too much work.”  Well, a lot of things in life that are really worthwhile are hard work.  From putting a man on the moon to utilizing the transforming power of music with a bunch of volunteers singing together, it’s not going to be easy.  But, oh, how sweet it is!  The most successful choir programs have something I call the “Wow Factor.”

That “wow” factor is intangible in some ways, but I can pinpoint several common (and basic) denominators these choirs have:

1.  Organization and discipline.  Start and end things on time; have a rehearsal plan and goals…etc.  Show your choir you personally are organized.  Don’t plan your rehearsal in front of the choir five minutes before rehearsal begins.

2.  Musicianship.  As the old hymn says, “Give of your best to the Master.”  God is our audience in worship and He deserves our best efforts.  And if we build strong, musically excellent choirs they will attract people who want to be a part of something that is excellent.

3.  Variety.  Use a variety of musical styles (that are in keeping with your church’s overall worship style).  However, don’t be afraid to occasionally stretch those boundaries.  This will help keep things interesting and inviting to a wide age spectrum…and continually attract those 20 and 30 somethings.

4.  Fun.  Always build in fun experiences for your choir.  Before, during or after each rehearsal.

5.  Spirituality.  You would think this goes without saying, but I’ve seen some church choirs where no devotional ideas or prayer were ever offered.  Of course, the music itself can be devotional, but I don’t think that’s good enough when you’re hammering notes and rhythms.  Make sure you budget some time during rehearsal for an authentic spiritual connection with your group.

6.  Plan strategically.  We know that the fall is a busy time for choirs…everyone gets back in the swing of things and you’re rehearsing Christmas music heavily.  Sometimes when we plan our fall anthem schedule, it’s been like “shopping on an empty stomach.”  In June or July, the idea of doing various anthems plus a Christmas cantata seemed great at the time.  But then the crunch happens…suddenly it’s late October and you’ve got too much music that’s too difficult and there are all the Christmas services coming up soon.  Help!

In this email, we’ve provided some great “last-minute Christmas ideas.”  The anthems featured are easy to prepare and present during the busy fall season, and will help you sleep better at night in late October and beyond…especially if you’re a “last-minute shopper” and still haven’t finalized your anthems for fall and the Christmas season.

Finally, you must continually renew yourself with fresh ideas.  Go to conferences; read great new books on leadership, creativity, etc.; reach out to fellow worship leaders for unique ideas, etc.!  If you are burned out, your choir will be, too.  Current and vibrant choirs help build churches and God’s Kingdom.  And that’s the biggest “wow.”

Encouraging the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Larry ShackleyBy Larry Shackley, Alfred Composer

Whether we like it or not, church musicians live in the spotlight. If you play, sing, or conduct every week, everyone in the congregation knows who you are, and you help set the standard for their opinion of church music and musicians. Young people who have any interest in using their talents for the Lord will look up to us as role models for their life and career.

Some of this modeling happens passively. For instance, if you set a high musical standard, they will learn to respect church musicians, because they will notice that you are just as serious about the Lord’s music as other types of musicians are about their music. On the negative side, you never know whose ears might hear you making comments like, “Close enough for church work,” or criticizing a soloist or member of the choir.

Are you aware of young people in your church who have musical gifts? Do you look for talented young singers or instrumentalists to take part in special musical events? If we get young people plugged in to musical ministry, they will come to think of church music as a viable option in the many musical choices they have before them. The important thing is for you, as a musical “authority figure” in the church, to show young musicians that you value them, and then model Christ-like service in your leadership and performance.

All God’s Children

Dear Alfred friends,

Last April, I had the honor of conducting a special multi-generational, ecumenical choral festival in Mystic, CT. We premiered a new composition of mine entitled “All God’s Children” for SATB with  children’s choir and narrator.
> Read more.

At the time, certainly none of us could have imagined the grievous event that recently occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in nearby Newtown, CT. I recently received this email message from my festival host, Michael Noonan.

Well, as I ponder this tragic event that happened in our state at Sandy Hook Elem. in Newtown, CT (about 1 and 1/2 hours from here), I could not help but think of your new anthem you wrote for our festival—All God’s Children. How poignant those words are, and the tune just keeps ringing in my head.

I just wanted you to know that those words and music have given me comfort as I mourn all those who lost their lives [that] Friday. I hope Alfred Publishing promotes that anthem as a source of comfort. As I listened to President Obama speak, he used those words of scripture you selected for that anthem in the narration, “Let the little children come to me.”

It is said that music touches us like nothing else, and can help us heal. It moves me greatly that this piece might bring some comfort to those who are in need.

I have chosen to donate my royalties from this piece to the United Way of Western Connecticut’s Sandy Hook School Support Fund (see below). And I’m proud that Alfred Music Publishing has chosen to match my donation. Perhaps your choir may also choose to perform this choral as part of a special tribute or event in the future, honoring those who were lost or celebrating the children in your congregation. Or perhaps your church will take up a special offering in memory of those who are gone or who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main Street, Newtown CT 06470

United Way of Western Connecticut [(203) 792-5330] is committed to providing support and resources where and when they become identified and needed. As people from our area and beyond respond to this heartbreaking tragedy, they are turning to United Way looking for ways to help. In response, United Way of Western Connecticut in partnership with Newtown Savings Bank has created the ‘Sandy Hook School Support Fund’ that will be able to provide support services to the families and community that has been affected.

For more information or to make online donations, visit:

In peace,
Sally K. Albrecht

All God's Children