If it weren’t for music, Jeremy Avery and his family might not be members of The Salvation Army today.
“My father is a first-generation Salvationist,” Avery, a tenor, shares, “who came to the Army through hearing an Army band playing at Christmas.”
Avery’s father connected with the leader of that band, who invited him to come to a practice. The rest is history. “He really loved the music and that’s what brought him in,” says Avery, who attends Meadowlands Corps in Hamilton, Ont.
Music is an integral part of Salvation Army ministry around the world, and the Canada and Bermuda Territory is no exception. While our banding remains as strong as ever, the territory’s vocal ministry received a boost this fall with the formation of the Canadian Staff Songsters (CSS), under the leadership of Major Len Ballantine. This group of 36 choristers, which includes Avery, will lead the territory by example in worship, evangelism and integrated mission through music.
“If you went to the training college and asked for a show of hands of how many people played in young people’s bands, sang in a singing company or went to music camp, you would see the influence that our music culture has,” says Major Ballantine. “That’s true for all of us, whether we are involved in full-time ministry or not—we are enriched by the common experience of music-making.”
The Salvation Army in Canada had a staff songster brigade in its early days, but such a group has not existed for about 100 years. The current group has been several years in the making, with plans beginning to take shape after Craig Lewis joined territorial headquarters as secretary for music and gospel arts in 2015. The formation of the CSS was announced during commissioning weekend last June and rehearsals began in September.
“For all of us who have been involved in the formation of the CSS it is a tremendous honour and privilege,” says Major Ballantine. “Our people come from all walks of life. Some have had musical training beyond what they learned at the corps or music camp, but the vast majority are just good musicians who can read music and sing. Our rehearsals are amazing times of ‘joy in discovery’ as we learn what we can do together.”
As an accomplished musician, composer and leader of many vocal groups, including the Army’s International Staff Songsters for six years, Major Ballantine brings a wealth of experience to his role.
“Major Len is a gift to The Salvation Army,” says tenor Major David Ivany. “He’s a creative genius who takes raw potential and evokes it in a beautiful way. He has a way of seeing what the music should be, and he brings you there.”
“He’s one of the greatest choral leaders the Army has, but beyond his musical ability, his spirit comes through,” adds alto Nancy Turley. “You can see how the message touches him and he conveys that to us as he leads.”
While technical proficiency is important to the group’s success, Major Ballantine’s vision is much greater than getting his singers to hit the right notes.
“I view singing as a personal communion with God and a reflexive act that feeds us as we praise him,” he says. “I view the choir as a community, an expression of Christ’s body, and the CSS as a training ground for leaders and choristers who will influence others as they worship and participate in Salvation Army service.”
Major Ballantine hopes that as the CSS travels the territory, performing and leading workshops, the group will inspire Salvationists to develop singers as the Army does brass band musicians.
“I think there’s a difference between the way we view banding and vocalizing,” he says. “Vocalizing is considered something that everybody does—anybody can sing and we sing congregationally to the best of our ability. With brass music, you usually start children at an early age, and as they grow up and build their skills, they become invested in music-making and in their role of enabling worship within the corps.
“That doesn’t happen with vocalizing,” he continues. “We have groups here and there, but there’s not the same practice of raising up singers, so for me, the first goal is to light fires under our own songster brigades.”
That includes empowering members of the CSS to go back to their corps and have a positive influence on the choral ministry there. The songsters represent a broad range of corps, including South Windsor, Simcoe, Bracebridge, Brantford, Ont., and Toronto’s Bloor Central, among others.
Many of the CSS, which includes a mixture of officers and soldiers, have been contributing to Salvation Army music ministry for years already. Bass Glenn Court has played and sung with Army groups throughout his life, including 10 years with the Canadian Staff Band. For him, being part of the CSS means imparting a love of music to the next generation of Salvationists.
“I want to pass on the passion we have to other people, especially younger people,” he says, “whether it’s a songster brigade, choral group or worship team, to get them excited about singing as part of the ministry at their corps.”
Along with performing and leading worship, a key component of the staff songsters’ mandate is supporting the growth and development of vocal ensembles.
“Everywhere that we go, we’re going to hold an open rehearsal with the local singers and learn a few songs together,” notes Major Ballantine. “By travelling, we hope to raise the profile of singing and encourage people to become involved.”
The CSS has its first corps engagement this week, visiting South Windsor Corps, Ont., on March 4 and 5, and will visit other corps this year, as well as the Territorial Music School in August.
“One of the things that I enjoyed most when I was a member of the Canadian Staff Band was when we would travel or go to a corps for a weekend,” says Avery, “because there was always ample opportunity to fellowship with people. When you’re connecting with people and making friendships, it can really impact people on a personal level.”
Since its formation, the CSS has given two performances, the first of which was a dedication service held at Jackson’s Point Conference Centre in November. At the service, Commissioner Susan McMillan, territorial commander, invited each staff songster to kneel at the mercy seat and sign their covenant, dedicating themselves to this ministry.
“It was such a sacred moment,” reflects Turley. “Our team had been together for a few months, but the moment of signing our covenants, and acknowledging and committing to our purpose, made it all real, and it became
a touchstone for what we’re about going forward.”
A few weeks later, the CSS made its public debut, performing at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall as part of the annual Christmas With The Salvation Army concert.
Singing in a hall that seats 2,000 people could have been intimidating for the choir, which practises at Toronto’s Yorkminster Citadel, a much smaller venue. But the CSS rose to the occasion, even with a late change to the program.
“At the last minute, we threw away the books—for all the music that we sang, except for one piece that was very long and involved,” shares Major Ballantine. “And that took them from being 82 percent to 98 percent. Everybody was focused, everybody was free of the page—they let go and sang beautifully, even better than we could have imagined.”
For Major Ballantine and the CSS, the Christmas concert wasn’t just a performance, but an act of worship.
“These are people who take seriously their Christian walk, and they see their act of singing as an offering,” he says. “In that moment, free of the music, with just their voices lifted up as an offering to God—that’s what we prayed about before we went onto the platform, and I believe that was honoured by the Spirit of God.”
Power of Song
Whether they’re singing for 2,000 or just 20, the songsters understand how impactful music can be on those who hear it.
“Music is like a universal language,” says alto Janine van der Horden. “It speaks to people in a way that the spoken word cannot. It touches somewhere deep within, so it can minister to people in ways we can never imagine.”
As the dedication service emphasized, the staff songsters will be more than performers; they will be ministers of the gospel.
“You can belong to a choir that’s not a spiritual group—there are all sorts of choirs out there that do wonderful things,” says soprano Louise Downey. “But singing in a choir with other believers, singing the gospel—that’s what it’s all about.”
“In The Salvation Army, we can’t do music for music’s sake,” adds Turley. “All that we do, all that we are, needs to be an expression of our worship and praise to the Lord.”
Through its ministry, the CSS aims to enrich the faith of Salvationists across the territory and beyond, to solidify the mission of the Army in the hearts and minds of those who hear them sing, and move the Army forward in faith.
“Forming the Canadian Staff Songsters is about bringing back to our movement the power of song,” says Major Ballantine. “Vocalizing is deeply connected to our faith. Our beliefs have been woven into our songs, so when we sing them, we come into contact with our theology. That’s why singing is so important.”