composed including “The Fire of Commitment” and “Answering the Call of Love”, is offering his first public choral workshop in Canada later this month. Hosted by Edmonton’s Westwood Unitarian Congregation, “The Song in Our Hearts” will offer choristers a weekend’s worth of, in Shelton’s words, “celebrating our faith through singing”.
Celebrating Unitarian Universalism through song has long been Shelton’s objective for his music. An associate minister and music director at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee for 19 years, he left this post in 2017, putting the word out he was interested in offering choral workshops to Unitarian congregations. Responses to his offer flooded in, with Westwood’s Rev. Anne Barker being among the first to contact him.
“The Song in Our Hearts” will differ somewhat from Shelton’s typical workshops in that he’s offering participants a whole weekend rather than a single day, a change motivated by the fact many will have travelled long distances to reach Edmonton. But he’ll also come to it with some of the same goals he always has.
“That’s what I like to do, wherever I go, is really lift up this idea they will know us by our songs”, he says, “and we can sing everything we claim to be as Unitarian Universalists, and in fact we have to, this is the imperative of our time”.
Although some of his music can be seen as timeless, responding to current events is also a feature of Shelton’s work. His recent composition “Love Break Our Hearts” was written in response to the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017. He’s also shown a willingness to adjust to changes in language, altering one of his best-known songs, “Standing on the Side of Love”, to “Answering the Call of Love” in response to the former’s perceived ableism.
But these aren’t the only changes Shelton’s music has undergone in recent years. Known for composing hymns that can be complex and challenging, he’s lately tried to write music that’s easy to perform without being simplistic.
“I’m working on a collection of new anthems specifically written for small church choirs, the seven-person church choir that isn’t sure a tenor’s going to show up on Sunday. That’s a pretty common story in our congregations and most of our composers don’t really think about writing for that situation”, he says. “And I’m trying to think about how to write music that is designed for the small church choir, the small congregation, but in a way that’s accessible for the resources they have”.
Whether they come from choirs big or small, participants in Shelton’s workshop will return home with lots of new music, including copies of a few world premieres. But Shelton also hopes they’ll come away with the more intangible realization that Unitarians can sing music that reflects the identity they claim.
“I want to hear things that are deeply Unitarian Universalist”, he says “and let’s explore what that means and what it might look like, what it might sound like. I feel like my calling as a composer, as a UU music minister/composer is to help people give voice to their faith through music”.
Information about “The Song in Our Hearts” workshop is here.