Lyle Stutzman is an Anabaptist choral composer and arranger based in Elnora, Indiana. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with him on numerous occasions and had the privilege of developing his website, Blue Sky Music, where he sells his compositions. His work ranges from music for middle school choir to full-fledged, award winning choral pieces. For Unto Us a Child is Born is perhaps my favorite from the Pilgrim Choral Series. Performing his music has always been fulfilling, and he has yet to write a piece I don’t like.
Recently, a number of his friends and supporters got together to record songs from the Pilgrim Choral Series to be used as demo tracks for the website. The group was headed by Jeff Swanson, who teaches music at Shalom Mennonite and Terre Hill High Schools in Terre Hill, Pennsylvania. Called “The 17,” the group consisted mostly of singers with connections to Oasis Chorale. They gathered for a weekend to rehearse and record, then gave a program at Calvary Mennonite Fellowship on December 4, 2017.
Here is a clip of Angels We Have Heard on High, the highlight of the concert:
The group did a fine job with the music, and I enjoyed what seems like a rare opportunity to just sit and listen, although I did sing along inwardly! Throughout the program, Lyle told the stories that inspired the songs he arranged or composed.
“I want children to be excited about joining a choir!” Lyle Stutzman
The congregation was invited to participate on several songs, which are written with congregational parts. Especially touching was Peace, Perfect Peace, dedicated to his brother-in-law who passed away in a canoeing accident.
Something Lyle mentioned which resonated most with me was the fact that when writing music with multiple parts for younger singers, it’s best when each part has a somewhat independent musical line.
He first came across this concept while student teaching. His supervising teacher asked how he was planning to teach a certain piece of music to his young choir. Lyle pointed to the part of the piece that was structured rhythmically similar to a hymn, with all the parts singing the same words and rhythms at the same time. Having grown up singing hymns, Lyle thought he was starting with the easiest part. But his teacher told him that at that age level, that style of part-writing is, in fact, more difficult for young musicians to sing.
Lyle tucked that knowledge away and was reminded of it in a subsequent teaching job. When he wrote his first arrangement for middle school choir, My God is So Big, he wrote it with independent entrances for each part. The students were far more successful singing this arrangement than they were singing hymns, and Lyle was convinced the technique worked.
This is the same technique that rounds and canons are based on, which makes them the ideal starting point for learning to sing in parts. A good resource that I have found and use is the book, 150 Rounds and Canons.
I close with another favorite composed by Lyle for the 10th anniversary of Shenandoah Christian Music Camp: