A day in the life of… Alan Smith

Before I retired in April 2011, the first 14 years of my career were spent teaching music. These were followed by two deputy headships, then 16 years as a local authority advisory teacher specialising in music technology and 7 years as county music adviser. When I retired, I supposed that my work in schools was over, but it was not to be: I was soon invited to become a governor at our outstanding parish primary school.

It is true what they say about retirement: you are as busy as ever, and today—like all Mondays—will be no exception. I have been a Catholic church organist and choir leader for over 40 years—ever since university—and I am now in my fifteenth year at my current parish, Holy Redeemer, Pershore, in Worcestershire. The church has a reasonable pipe organ, a good electric piano, and an appreciative congregation that enjoys singing. Until recently, the choir was tiny and we relied on solo cantors to lead the singing. This year, however, I have encouraged the staff and older pupils of the primary school to join the choir and they have responded enthusiastically. It doesn’t hurt that the headteacher sings with us, along with her own children! At the weekly rehearsal, I prepare them for the next Sunday, but at the same time I aim to improve their singing, their musicality, and their understanding of the liturgy. I very much hope that the parish will shortly affiliate to the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), with all the benefits that will bring.

I have a choir practice at school this afternoon, so my first task will be to produce next Sunday’s service sheet. The hymns and the service music were selected several weeks ago at one of our seasonal planning sessions, but now, as I do every week of the year, I need to create a Sunday Mass sheet that will encourage everyone to actively participate in the liturgy. Two sides of A4 must accommodate everything: hymns and songs that reflect and respond to the scripture readings of the day, and service music that expresses the liturgical season. If the melodies are unfamiliar or new, then I will include the music notation. (I once conducted a straw poll, asking members of the congregation to raise a hand if they found the music notation useful. About two-thirds of them raised their hands.) I never type a hymn or song text more than once: after its first outing, the Word document is carefully filed away, ready for next time. The same goes for the music notation files. (I have been typesetting music professionally since 1992, starting with Finale. When Sibelius arrived, I added it to my software toolkit, as I have done more recently with Dorico.) Today, I use InDesign to create the service sheet from the various constituent parts. I always strive for the highest standards of typography and design because I believe people will sing and pray better if the sheet is easy to use and to read. Also, as a published composer and a member of PRS, I am meticulous about copyright: the parish subscribes to the Calamus copyright scheme and any text or melody that is not in the public domain is acknowledged in the notice at the end of the sheet.

Next Sunday’s psalm is an unfamiliar one and I cannot find a published setting, so I spend the next hour or so composing one. I have already told the choir how we occasionally need to compose something to plug a gap and I intend to give them the opportunity to compose for the liturgy too. I am ambitious for these young musicians! They first experienced the thrilling sound of a cappella singing over Easter when I stopped playing the organ during a Taizé chant and everyone carried on in four-part harmony. We will build on this, with more homophony, rounds and simple polyphony.

Today’s choir practice at the school goes well. As usual, some eagle-eyed youngster spots a typo in the service sheet, giving me the opportunity to fix it before going to print. After this, it’s a 30-minute drive home and time for a short rest and an early evening meal before heading off for the day’s final musical event: chamber choir. It was only in retirement that I finally had enough spare time to sing in a choir. As a good sight-reader and a passable bass, I am more at home in smaller, more adventurous, ensembles. I was a founder member of Malvern’s Severn Voices chamber choir, and that is where I can usually be found on Monday evenings. We sing in some wonderful buildings and I sometimes enjoy using my music technology skills to digitally record and edit our concerts.

When I was a full-time music teacher, my musical watchwords were Listen, Compose, and Perform. I am pleased that they are still—both for the young people with whom I am privileged to work these days and in my own musical life.

Alan Smith
[email protected]

More about me…

Alan Smith has been actively involved in Roman Catholic church music for over 40 years, as director of parish music, cantor, psalmist, organist and composer. He is currently a member of the music team at Holy Redeemer Church, Pershore. Alan is on the Music Committee of the Archdiocese of Birmingham’s Liturgy Commission, and is a member of Universa Laus. He was assistant conductor – conducting the 500-strong children’s choir – at the Papal Mass to beatify Cardinal Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham, in September 2010.

His publications include:

Psalm Songs, volumes 1-3 (with David Ogden, Cassell, 1998)
Keyboards in Context (in Music Technology in Action, BECTa 1998)
Baptised With Fire (with Paul Wellicome, SSG, 2000)
ICT Activities for Music (with Andy Murray, Heineman, 2002)
Glory to God – New Music for the Mass (with Peter Jones, Decani Music, 2011)
Pershore Mass (Decani Music, 2011)
Mass of St Kenelm (Decani Music, 2011)

He has been anthologized in:

Music for the Mass 2 (Geoffrey Chapman, 1993)
Laudate (Decani Music, 2012)
Celebration Hymnal for Everyone (McCrimmons, 2012)

Alan is a former Chair of the Society of St Gregory and is currently Production Manager and an editor of its journal, Music and Liturgy. He also convenes the SSG Composers’ Forum.

Born in 1952, Alan was educated at Dover Grammar School for Boys and at York University, where he studied with John Paynter and Wilfrid Mellers. He taught music in Kent, Birmingham, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, before becoming Music Adviser for Worcestershire. He retired in 2011 and now devotes his time to writing and typesetting (words and music), recording, church music, and being chair of governors at Holy Redeemer Catholic Primary School, Pershore.