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Our Singing Tower at Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka came of age this¬ year. It was 21 years ago when Mount Hope opened its new Fairlawn Addition of garden sections that the Singing Tower was built as one of the new attractions. Evening concerts of recorded music during the summer months proved quite popular but after a dozen years or so, the novelty wore off.
When I joined Mount Hope four years ago the cemetery was using just a Sunday afternoon recorded program. In searching for a new angle we came up with the idea of having programs direct from the cemetery property. This worked fine until one Sunday just before the scheduled time of the concert the heavens open and how it rained! It completely washed out the program and since in this type of thing a double-header is not too advantageous, it meant a complete revision of our summer’s schedule with subsequent inconveniences to the choirs.
However, like other problems, it gave birth to an idea new to us of working out a radio program in which we would screen the choirs to insure top quality, and would contact all necessary persons instead of the radio station. This included approval of the minister for his choir to participate, and then the cooperation of the choir directors, organist and members. We also wrote the radio scripts so that the station announcer merely had to read them.
We went to our first radio station three years ago. In our best selling technique we asked the manager whether he wanted to be the first in the city to have a series such as we proposed or if he wanted one of the other three stations to pave first opportunity. Needless to say, he thanked us for coming to him first.
In the past three years we have made a number of changes as far as the mechanics of the programs are concerned. At first we made arrangements for the choirs to go directly to the radio station on the night of their regular choir practice. The early programs were recorded on the large 15-minute transcriptions. The station would then play the transcriptions the following Sunday usually shortly after noon. After the half-hour radio broadcast we would pick up the transcriptions and play the entire program at the Singing Tower later that afternoon or early evening. In many instances the choir had worked up a 45 minute or hour program, in which case we transcribed the entire program at the station. Then at the conclusion of the radio broadcast the announcer would invite all listeners to drive out to Mount Hope and hear the complete program from the Singing Tower.
Such a change in the method of handling our concerts not only widened the scope of our listening field but also permitted the members of, the choir themselves to hear their program twice.
Last year we changed from the large platter transcriptions to tape recordings. We investigated all of the leading wire and tape recorders on the market before making our selection and finally chose tape principally because of its better reproduction of music. We also permit our salesmen to take the recorder home to improve their sales presentations.
The one big thing that the use of the tape recorder did for us was that it made it possible to go into the churches themselves and record the program there amid surrounding that were familiar to the choir. We found immediately that the choirs were more relaxed and sang better than they did in a strange radio studio. It also assured us a tailor made program. Previously 25 minutes of fine music on transcription could be ruined by a poor solo part in a single number when some young soloist became nervous and didn't sing up to par. With tape, whenever a selection is bad or not done according to the director's standard of quality, the number is merely erased and done over. On the final program the re-sung selection cannot be detected.
At the present time we start our Singing Tower broadcasts at Easter time with an oratorio by the combined choirs of the Council of Churches, usually either the Messiah or the Elijah. We follow with school groups as long as the schools are in session and then for the remainder of the summer use church choirs and other vocal groups of Topeka. We use the directors or the ministers to give the announcements, for we have found the listeners like the added local touch of having a member of the group do the announcing.
When we started using school groups we thought it was necessary to use high school age students to insure better quality. Now we feel differently. We now use both junior high and grade school groups with this principal change¬ we divide the half-hour radio program so that the time is shared with at least one and sometimes two other schools. This permits 10 or 15 minutes by the younger groups, which they can do very well, whereas a full half-hour would be asking too much. At the same time we have found that the children in the grade school age will get their parents out to the cemetery to hear the program more successfully than do the high school students.
Originally we also felt we had to use only the choirs from the larger churches. Now we have discovered that congregations of some of the smaller churches follow their choirs better than do the larger ones. Moreover, for a radio program it is not necessary to have a big group of 50-60 voices. Many of our better con¬certs have been by smaller choirs of 12-15 voices.
Some of our largest Sunday crowds have come out to hear spirituals sung by our Negro choirs. One of them gave us an anxious moment this year when they handed us the list of selections and the first one was "Dig a Little Deeper." I thought, "Brother, this is going to be something for a cemetery!" It turned out the full title was "Dig a Little Deeper in God's Storehouse."
We usually tell the music director to use his own judgment as far as the selections he feels his group will do best. The only selection we have ever turned down was once a high school quartet wanted to sing a special arrangement of "Dry Bones." Personally we enjoyed it very much but thought some of the listeners might not appreciate it!
We have found the programs have been a most satisfactory way to keep Mount Hope in the news both through the papers and the radio. The choirs and other groups are very appreciative of the honor of being invited to participate. I am sure many of you can duplicate and improve such a series in your own properties. Thank you very much for your kind attention at such an early hour.
From the publication:
“1950-1951 Cemetery Yearbook”
NCA 21st Annual Meeting
Hotel Schroeder, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 18, 19, 20 and 21, 1950