One Music Maker’s Musings: Truth-Telling at the AAUUM

from Director of Music Vivian Montgomery

More on the Surprising Truth-Telling at the AAUUM in Denver

The Association of UU Music Ministries (which used to be UU Musicians Network) held its conference in Denver in late July. In my last entry, I talked about the twisting and turning process of proposing, justifying, and presenting a workshop on Baroque choral music there. Now, however, I want to talk about how its larger ideals really took hold of me: the conference was impressive in how rigorously and creatively it grappled (and forced participants to grapple) with issues of appropriation, exclusion, white supremacy, and other divisive elements. When I attend conferences, especially in beautiful and unfamiliar places, I tend to be of mixed minds about how much I want to invest myself in everything the program promises

But, despite my usual sense of overload (and a little misanthropy that comes of wishing I was out climbing those ever-visible Colorado mountains instead of excavating human flaws in session after session), I sang deeply and movingly with the rest of them, and was profoundly affected by incisive “truth-telling” that permeated the 5 days.

Sunday worship at the AUUMM conference

Here’s a taste of what was offered at this conference that was, in the words of its organizers, designed to “get us outside our heads; to release our inner creative energy; color outside the lines and bring a fresh approach to the sacred work we do, how we do it and why.”

  1. All choral music used for services and reading sessions was repertoire by Composers of Color.
  2. Composer Mark Miller

    Composer Mark Miller served as Clinician, working with a choral ensemble and instrumentalists to prepare for a performance at Sunday morning’s worship service. He also led a workshop for composers during the conference. After years of resisting the very appealing and seductively facile style in which he composes (he himself refers to his music as “Sacred Disney”), I find that I now simply adore this person and his work. Mark believes passionately that music can change the world. He also believes in Cornell West’s quote that ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’ His dream is that the music he composes, performs, teaches and leads will inspire and empower people to create the beloved community. Mark serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music at Drew Theological School and is a Lecturer in the Practice of Sacred Music at Yale University. He also is the Minister of Music of Christ Church in Summit, New Jersey.

    J. Mase III
  3. J. Mase III, poet and educator, gave a profound discomfiting keynote performance addressing the question “Are you enabling social injustice without knowing it?” J. Mase III ( discusses steps to effect real change for social justice—steps that can save lives. They are a Black/trans/queer performer and activist based in Seattle by way of Philly. As an educator, Mase has worked with community members in the US, UK, and Canada on the needs of LGBTQIA folks in spaces such as K-12 schools, universities, faith communities and restricted care facilities.
  4. Travis Branam, youth choir leader and founder of Denver’s impressive VOcal COalition, presented on a challenging issue, that music should bring us together, but more often, it divides.
  5. “A Conversation on Language, Inclusion, and Changing Lyrics” was an inspiring (sometimes painful) panel with Cecelia Hayes, Rev. Ranwa Hammamy, and Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, facilitated by Rev. Sofia Betancourt.
    A panel with Cecelia Hayes, Rev. Ranwa Hammamy, and Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, & Rev. Sofia Betancourt

  6. The Songleader’s Convergence: A gathering for songleaders of all kinds to share skills, best practices, wisdom, and of course, songs. Parallel to the conference, the convergence was week of learning and networking, to nurture a deeper culture of community singing in congregations and wider community. It was attended by ministers and seminarians, religious educators, choir members and singers ‘only-in-the-shower’, musicians both professional and amateur – anyone leading or wanting to lead songs in worship, around the dinner table, at the board meeting, or in the streets. The convergence culminated in a large group of us going to sing songs of justice, resistance, and compassion at the ICE Detention Center in Aurora. Sessions explored:

-Confident & invitational songleading.

-Songleading for worship and in the streets.

-Deepening cultural context, story, worship, and preaching through songleading.

-Harmony singing, vocal technique, circle songs, threshold choirs, and more

The Aurora ICE Detention Center

  1. Vocal Pedagogue and Clinician Philip J. Rogers offered “Context of the Black Music Aesthetic,” stating “…Knowledge of the Black Christian hegemony [domination, control, supremacy, dominion] is critical to relating to much of the music of the black culture, how that culture and the people evolved in America, and how that music impacted social movements and has been impacted and framed from the mid- twentieth century to the present day. We will use illustrations throughout using those in attendance as practical exemplars….If the intent of Unitarian Universalism is to be inclusive, then it is imperative that cultural understanding be honest and beyond the surface. The music of black people cannot and must not be filtered through the prism of the Eurocentric perspective. It deserves and must be viewed through the basis of its own dynamic cultural ideologies and identity.”
  2. There was a Professional Development Day focused on how congregational structure matters. Exploring “…the myriad ways that covenanted faith communities organize themselves, make decisions, and influence lives. Worship, music, education, justice, and governance weave together into the fabric of our collective. As weavers of this fabric, religious professionals must know the tools available to ensure a fabric for the ages. Power dynamics, change theory, mission/vision, collaborative leadership, conflict management, and stewardship skills can all be tools in your toolbox…”
  3. Workshops like “Circle Songs,” about community sung improvisation, led by Ecuadoran songleader Francisco Ruiz Pattee; and “Songleading and Preaching,” exploring the intersections of community singing and preaching, how preaching and community singing lift each other up, taught by Rev. Sofia Betancourt and Sarah Dan Jones.

And here’s why we should be looking at the AUUMM as a model for genuine action: the organization is shaping itself into a true leader in the hard work of being welcoming, inclusive, truthful, examining, and humble. The music isn’t always what I’d want it to be, but the mission is powerful, and they’re focused on action, proximity, responsibility, and the long view. I find myself looking forward to next year’s conference, which will be in Ann Arbor, led by the intense and brilliant Glenn Thomas Rideout. Will you join me? It’s July 29-August 2. Go there instead of GA, sing in the choir, take it in, it’ll be a good place to be, and I’d love to share it with you.