How can we improve congregational singing? Part VII

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

Are you looking for alternatives to standard hymns?  Here is a list of some resources you may want to try:

Alice Parker

Good Singing in Church
Creative Hymn Singing
Alice Parker’s Melodious Accord Hymnal
Alice Parker’s website
 newsletters, workshop information

American Guild of Organists

Mini-course on Creative Hymn Playing
AGO website workshops, resources pertaining to service playing, recordings

Recommendation from a cathedral organist

Hymn Playing:  A Modern Colloquium by Stuart Forster

Joe Kenney

My friend Joe Kenney likes songs by Michael W. Smith and Rich Mullins.  They can be found on YouTube.  Joe makes his own adaptations for solo voice and guitar, sometimes adding a percussion instrument.  I find them quite effective.  The lights and orchestra in the videos are not required to have a positive experience.

Andrew Remillard

Mr. Remillard is in the process of making piano recordings of the entire Presbyterian hymnal.  He says he is about halfway there, and has posted his work on YouTube. Listen to the way he approaches tempo, moving forward when the words demand it.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but I hope it is helpful.  My recommendations include visiting a variety of church services, adapting hymns and worship songs to fit your congregation’s abilities, and thinking outside the box.  By making only a few simple changes, people’s interest and participation can be sparked and congregational singing improved.

Comments and suggestions welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

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While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part VI

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

The following conversation, in response to Part V of this series, took place on Facebook:

  • Contributor Hi Gretchen, what’s your suggestion making sure the congregation doesn’t get thrown off when using alternative arrangements to accompany congregational singing (as opposed to using them when the choir is singing a hymn as an anthem)?
  • Gretchen Saathoff  Hmm… I’ll think about it! At Riverside, it’s not a problem. Have the choir sing the melody, disperse the choir throughout the congregation, try the Hymn of the Month approach, Try practicing the alternative arrangement for 2 minutes with the congregation, then use it in the hymn. Use the traditional harmonization for all verses except the last. That way, the congregation has been singing the tune for several verses already.
  • Gretchen Saathoff  And try not to go too far afield with the alternate harmonization. The green Lutheran hymnal that replaced the red one had so many funky arrangements, they made very little sense. So why would anyone want to sing them.
  • Contributor  Thanks, Gretchen. Good advice here. There is a new red Lutheran hymnal, the ELW, that kept some of the old arrangements from the green LBW, and has lots of new hymns without harmonization, just melodies. So that helps. (But they left off the time  signatures, which leads to confusion.) But if the hymn is new, even if only the melody is printed, the alternative arrangement still challenges the ear. And about the funky arrangements, people who can sing parts, oftentimes can sing even the funky ones, and some need to do that, because the melody is too high for them. I like the idea of practicing the alternative arrangement with the congregation – hadn’t thought of it as a possibility before!
  • Gretchen Saathoff  No time sigs? Not especially helpful, I’d think.
    Also, there is no need to use only the arrangements in the book. Change it so it works. Keep some parts and not others. Write a new one. If the melody is too high, something needs to change, such  as trasposing down or maybe singing the melody an octave lower. The congregation needs the choir to sing the melody in unison on alternate harmonizations. When they can hear it, they sing better.
  • Contributor  Great advice!
  • Gretchen Saathoff  There are lots of alternative harmonizations out there: volumes of hymns for organ, choral anthems, hymnals from other denominations, AGO website, etc. Plenty of hymn improvisations can be heard on YouTube.
  • Gretchen Saathoff  Free association, you understand… and now it’s time for dinner! Back later.

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And a followup Facebook Message from yours truly:

During services in various denominations, I sometimes would play an alternative harmonization from a funky organ collection (The Sunday Morning Organist, I think). Just leave out the whiz bang awful parts when they don’t work.

Similarly, there are plenty of anthems that work, for the most part, but also have spots that don’t.  One example is asking the choir to hold the last note for 8 bars.  Does this make the ending better?  Does singing a high note improve the message?  That all depends on the choir, what else is going on (i.e. the keyboard part might be just fine on its own).  Sometimes a “festive” ending will be tacked on that isn’t really needed.  When the rest of the piece works well, I omit the parts that don’t work.

There may be one stanza of an anthem that splits into 8 parts, for example.  When you have 6 people in your choir that Sunday, you have to think on your feet and find something that works.  What do you have to keep?  The melody and the bass line?  Is the alto part more interesting than the tenor, or vice versa? 

If one stanza is too elaborate for your circumstances, then sing the rest of the anthem and omit that one.

If the printed introduction is too long or too short, or is confusing to your choir/congregation, then by all means change it!

Thanks so much to my contributor, who prefers to remain anonymous.

Which approaches have the most success in your church?Comments and suggestions welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

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While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part V

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Femme_accordant_son_luth; Gerard van Honthorst (Gerrit van Honthorst) (1592–1656); Source:  Wikimedia

Femme accordant son luth; Gerard van Honthorst (Gerrit van Honthorst) (1592–1656); Source: Wikimedia

How can we introduce new hymns and worship songs to our congregations?

People attend church for many reasons.  Among them are:

  • to seek comfort and stability
    • through ritual (liturgy, order of worship)
    • through familiarity
  • to hear compelling sermons
  • to listen to the music
  • to participate in making music
    • by singing hymns
    • by singing in the choir
    • by playing in the bell choir

We need to respect the desire for comfort and stability when introducing new hymns. Important factors include:

  • Accessibility of the music
  • Clear, inviting introductions
  • Familiar hymns must be used in any service that includes a new hymn
  • Remember that congregations in most churches are comprised primarily of non-musicians

Congregational Seating

If congregants are seated with large spaces between them, such as empty rows, encourage them to move forward and sit closer together.  This builds community and encourages people to sing.  They will hear each other much better and feel supported.

Hymn of the Month

This is an excellent way to give the congregation time to become more familiar with something new.

Including a different new hymn in every service is a good way to discourage participation. People feel overwhelmed and stop participating.  One new hymn or less per month is plenty, in my experience.

Rehearse with the Choir

  • Yes, rehearse new hymns with the choir (and familiar ones, too.)  It makes a huge difference when the choir understands the words, sings with an emotional connection, and shows enthusiasm.
  • During the service when a new hymn is being introduced, disperse the choir within the congregation.  Ask them to sing the melody until the congregation becomes more familiar with the music.  Part-singing can be added after a week or two.
  • Avoid singing at the congregation or singing instead.  There can be a perceived gap between congregation and choir regarding ability which results in a reluctance on the part of congregants to try singing.
  • In my organist/choir director positions, I have enjoyed using something familiar as an anthem from time to time.  One way to do this is to use an alternative harmonization for one verse.  A descant could be added, or the parts could be sung in different combinations (S and B, S and A, asking the tenors to sing the melody in T B, or making the alto or tenor part into a descant).  We invited the congregation to join us on the refrain of each verse.  The idea was to encourage participation, sparking interest and confidence and fostering inclusion.
  • When a hymn is printed with two tunes to the same text, they can both be sung, alternating verses.

Teach New Hymns to the Children

  • This can be done with your children’s choirs or religious education classes
  • Children are quick to pick up new tunes
  • Children will encourage their families to sing
  • As the children become older, you will find the hymn repertoire expanding in the congregation.  So keep on keeping on.

Introduce New Hymns With Children Present

  • Children often leave the sanctuary partway through the service to attend classes. Why not include them in introducing new hymns?  They love to sing!
  • Children sing in other places as well.  When they go home, they will be singing the same music.  Their families, then, will learn it faster.

Hymn Leader

  • Be prepared.  This cannot be overemphasized.  When the leader is unprepared, people stop participating.  Know what pitch to start on, know the tune and the words.  If you are unsure, enlist the help of the church musician(s) or someone in the choir.  If you are playing an instrument, learn the part ahead of time!  When you stop to correct missed notes, people can’t tell where you are, and they stop singing. Enthusiasm is not enough.  You need a plan and the preparation to carry it out.
  • Welcoming.  Leave the guilt trip at home.
  • Inviting.  Enjoy this with me!  Not, I’m going to show you how this goes.
  • Non-operatic.  People hear an operatic sound, feel that they can’t do that, and drop out.
  • Be non-judgmental.  Don’t criticize people for not singing!  Look at the situation instead. Why are they not singing?  It may be due to a lack of clarity, not shyness.
    • Since I am a trained musician, it helps me to think of myself in other situations, for example going into a hardware store.  I know nothing, and always ask for the manager.  Congregants who are not musically trained are also at sea.  It doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.
  • Consider using banjo, guitar, autoharp, or piano, not always organ
  • When organ is used, register the melody louder than the other parts and avoid mixtures.
  • People need to hear an entire verse before singing something new.  If the leader is the only person in the room who knows the song, patience, clarity, and repetition are crucial.  Expecting a group to learn something after hearing it once is not realistic. You might think the song is easy, but in reality you have probably been singing it for years.

I recently participated in a sing-along that used material from Pete Seeger’s wonderful book.  A banjo player who attended would have been an excellent song leader.  The banjo has a timbre that can be easily heard.  His voice had a distinctive quality that would be heard over a group.  He had good rhythm and a great sense of style.  

What he lacked was a method of introducing songs.  He would begin playing, and people had to jump in somewhere if they wanted to sing.  Inexperienced singers have no idea how to do that.

My thought was that, given an appropriate situation with music he was comfortable playing, I would practice with him to find an introduction that worked.  After a few minutes of collaboration, he would have rocked the house!

Hymn-playing on the Piano

Leading hymns from the piano requires a specific way of playing.

  • More percussive than a solo piece (i.e. Schumann), in order to be heard during the singing.
  • Voiced so the melody stands out.
  • Prominent bass line for support.
  • Every note must be heard.  This may seem unmusical to the player, but when a focused sound cannot be heard, the result is a lack of clarity and easily-perceived rhythm.
  • Using less pedal is very effective in maintaining the tempo.  Congregants may not know how to count rhythm, or be unsure about when to sing next. Sometimes people will wait for someone else to sing first.  When that happens with enough people in a group, the entire group slows down. Acoustics influence the way people hear the tempo as well.

Using Percussion Effectively

Drums and other rhythm instruments, when used to enhance the singing, can be wonderful. But a word to the wise:  don’t drown out the singers!  Your job is to impel the rhythm, not obliterate the sound.  It’s not a percussion solo, you are part of a group.

If you hand out hand instruments to untrained congregants, you could suggest a rhythm for each person to play.  It only takes two seconds, and the results tend to be more successful than random efforts.

Special Events

  • Church dinners, presentations, and gatherings other than services can include singing a new hymn along with several familiar ones.
  • Perhaps one service per month could begin 1/2 hour early for the purpose of singing a new hymn.  Introduce the hymn at the stated time and allow time for coffee.
  • Some churches have a Music Sunday once or twice per year.  A new hymn could be introduced at that time and repeated on subsequent Sundays.

Are you hearing progress?  Are you able to tell?  Ask for feedback!

  • Ask people how they feel
  • Distribute a questionnaire
  • Record the event.  You will always hear so much more on a recording than you can when participating.

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

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While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part IV

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Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

A friend posted the following on Facebook in response to this series about congregational singing.  Shared with permission.

To be honest, I see a generation that is crying out for the sustenance that traditional worship can bring. For boundaries, for beauty, for connection to something bigger than themselves.”

“As an educator, I think Lady Bird Johnson’s observation that children are “apt to live up to what you believe of them” still rings true. One of the lies of contemporary worship is that modern entertainment is the only way to engage the fleeting attention span of our youngest worshipers. The point of corporate worship isn’t to hook them with trappings of supposed cultural relevance, but to dedicate their lives to the glory of God, and be transformed by the sacred storytelling of Word and Sacrament.

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part III

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This post is by way of Larry Fried via Twitter.  He responded to my previous post with this intriguing idea:

@GretchensPianos U might be interested in a very good hymn written by a rock band of all things. Cud U adapt it?

@Larry_Fried Super song! Tks for sending! May be better as a solo w/congregation added @ “I’m waiting to be called.” 

@GretchensPianos Really glad u liked it ;-) Was Hoping
u cud use something a little less traditional.The original has harmony on the verse

I’m thinking that a church choir could handle harmony as a backup to a soloist.  Having the congregation join in on the refrain would encourage participation and a sense of belonging, rather than the choir being the only people singing.  (Sometimes people in a congregation can feel removed from the music, and begin to feel like they are not welcome to sing in their own church.  We are interested in fostering the exact opposite!)

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

Thanks so much, Larry.

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part II

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Hymn example SCORE Hymn example TEXT

What are some important considerations in choosing hymns/worship songs for congregational singing?

My work as an organist/choir director/director of music in three churches over a period of several years has put me in the position of interested observer on several occasions. The churches happened to be different denominations.

There have been many efforts over time  to introduce new hymns/songs as well as to increase congregational participation.  One denomination published a reharmonization of many hymns in its traditional hymnal.  Several new hymnals have also been published. Ministers as well as congregational members attempt to lead the singing fairly often.

But how effective are these efforts?  Is congregational singing, in fact, improving?

The reharmonizations mentioned above were not a success.  People knew the first version well, even singing parts without the music in some cases.  The new harmonizations added nothing.  People disliked hearing them.  The denomination has since kept the best of the new songs and published an improved hymnal, including many original versions.  From what I’ve heard, congregations are much happier with the change.

A majority of recently composed songs are unsingable by untrained singers. They contain skips between notes that are too wide to navigate, and are so syncopated that no one can:  (a) read the music; or (b) remember how it goes after hearing it once or twice.  In two such hymnals I encountered recently, I was unable to sight-read much of the music because it was so difficult rhythmically.

Here are a few examples.  I challenge you to try singing them yourself.

I.

Complicated rhythm

II.

CR 2

III.

CR 3a

CR 3b

 

IV.

CR 4

How did it go?

Ministers and lay people who attempt to teach songs to the congregation are often well-intentioned but need to think about how to reach their goal, getting people to SING! These leaders often do not know the music themselves, or will start singing on some random pitch.  If the song is too low or too high, people stop participating.

Sometimes a leader will expect enthusiastic participation in the singing of a favorite song… of the leader’s!  I have been in services where that was the modus operandi.  The predictable result:  the leader was the only person singing.  Followup:  the leader scolded everyone for their lack of enthusiasm!

So… OK, I’ll sing louder… how would it be if I sing Middle C the whole time?  I don’t know what to sing!

One leader, encouraging children to sing a catchy song, started on such a low pitch that the children could not even phonate!  So, no singing. Too bad.  They would have enjoyed it.

The examples above are failed attempts.  Here, on the other hand, are a few suggestions about choosing hymns. More detail about introducing songs to the congregation will be the focus of a future post in this series.

To reiterate a point from my previous post:

InWhy Isn’t Your Congregation Singing?, an article in Ministry Today, Don Chapman says:

Bottom line:  Choosing worship songs that are singable by normal mortals will create a more unified, participatory worship experience for your church.

Range

You need to sing the song first.  Do you feel comfortable by the second try?  If your voice is straining, others will have the same problem.

One example of vocal range presenting a problem can be found in Happy Birthday.  The octave leap at “Hap-py birth-day, dear [name]” is often sung incorrectly.  I’m sure you’ve heard the song change key at that point.  The reason is that an octave is difficult for many people to sing.

Rhythm

Can you read the rhythm from the page?  Or, alternatively, can you remember it easily upon hearing it once or twice?

Text

Songs are composed to a wide variety of texts, in many languages.  Expecting people to sight-read in an unfamiliar language makes them feel uncomfortable.  If the language is repetitive, however, they will respond well after someone reads the words/sings the song a few times.

And remember, a certain amount of repetition (melody, text, harmony, rhythm) is not a bad thing.  Repetition makes songs easier to remember.

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Many thanks to C.I., Louise Hirschman, Carolina Flores, Sara O’Bryan, Brian Malone, Joe Kenney, and Paul Kenyon for their ideas regarding this blog series.

How can we improve congregational singing? Part I

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Marble Collegiate Church, New York.  Photo source:  Pixabay

Marble Collegiate Church, New York. Photo source: Pixabay

Congregational singing, along with church attendance, has declined.  With this post, I am beginning a new series that looks at various aspects of the problem and suggests some steps we can take to improve on the current trend.

A Facebook friend, Joe Kenney, posts wonderful photographs on Iowa Through the Lens. He also writes songs for his church and plays them on guitar, as I recently discovered. When messaging each other about this, he very kindly shared two songs with me.  The songs mentioned here are both written by Michael W. Smith.  Joe has promised to send me some of his own compositions as well.

“It’s a little repetitive cause it’s meant to be a simple group anthem,” he said about the first song.

Upon listening to the audio, I felt that it was just repetitive enough for congregational use.  I responded, “Great rhythm, and nice variety with the guitar and then no guitar, and then it comes in again.”

Although large churches in major cities are well-attended, that is not the case in smaller towns.  Marble Collegiate Church (pictured above), The Riverside Church, and All Souls’ Unitarian Church, all located in New York City, have many congregants who are professional musicians, even opera singers.  Everyone should experience the singing of such congregations at least once!

Smaller congregations may not be so fortunate.  When their congregations are asked to sing, people in attendance are often reluctant to make an attempt.  In order to encourage participation, it is helpful to choose hymns/worship songs that are either familiar or easy to learn and remember by exactly that group of people.  Many, if not most, do not read music.  The range of most untrained voices is limited.  Highly syncopated rhythms are just too complicated to master quickly.

So, once again, repetition is helpful.  Having the melody, rhythm, harmony, and even the words repeat (think of the refrain, especially) results in greater comprehension and, thus, participation.

Joe’s second example featured a repetitive ending.  Again, perfect for a congregation.  I responded, “People could walk away singing the ending.  It’s a winning strategy.”

In “Why Isn’t Your Congregation Singing?“, an article in Ministry Today, Don Chapman says:

Bottom line:  Choosing worship songs that are singable by normal mortals will create a more unified, participatory worship experience for your church.

Do you agree?

Take a look at a master, Alice Parker, teaching a hymn to workshop participants.  Alice is the first to say she doesn’t have a great voice.  Notice, though, her modeling of the style, rhythm, and text emphasis.  She teaches songs without using the piano, even though she plays very well.  In fact, her teaching in this video, from a hymnal she compiled, is unusual in that she and the singers are using the music.

Please let me know what you think, either in the comments or via the contact form in the left sidebar.  And be sure to check back for the next installment, and upcoming guest posts!  We will continue to explore ways to encourage participation in congregational singing. There is a lot more to say!

Also, while you’re here, be sure to look at my ebook, “Goal-oriented Practice.”  It will save you practice time!  You will know the music securely and still have a chance to go outside and work on that snowman!  50% off!

Goal-oriented Practice now 50% off!

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E-book Cover SALES PAGE

My e-book, Goal-oriented Practice, is now available at 50% off!

Please email me with any questions at gsbook121 [at] gmail.com

Bulk rates also available.

For purchasing information, click on the link below:

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Free download! “Practice Hacks for Piano” by Catherine Shefski

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 FREE DOWNLOAD through Saturday, 1/24/15

http://amzn.to/1zwWXn1

Author’s description:

Practice Hacks is a (very) short e-book full of piano practice tips which I’ve gathered from teachers and friends over the years. From finding the proper hand position, playing octave passages, and creating a full range of dynamics, to interpreting and memorizing music — you’ll find a nugget of advice on every page.

The book will be available at the regular download price of $2.99 starting Sunday.

Thanks so much, Catherine!

A listening recommendation

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Bill McLaughlin, radio host of the syndicated "Exploring Music" on the WFMT radio network.    Source:  www.exploringmusic.org Author:  WFMT

Bill McGlaughlin, radio host of the syndicated “Exploring Music” on the WFMT radio network. Source: http://www.exploringmusic.org
Author: WFMT

As a follow up to my previous post, “Why listen?,” I want to let everyone know about a radio program I discovered only about 2 weeks ago.  It’s called Exploring Music.  The host, Bill McGlaughlin, has the unique ability to draw us in, resulting in our hearing even the most familiar works in new ways.

Last week, dedicated to the music of Tchaikovsky, the host talked briefly about first piano concerto, saying at its conclusion, “I’m amazed that Martha Argerich was able to stand and take a bow after that, rather than collapsing [paraphrase].”  I, for one, am very familiar with the piece and had never thought of it that way before.  I found it delightful.

Here is Argerich performing the piece:

In another of his programs, McGlaughlin chose a bassoon concerto, playing the recomposed version for viola and orchestra.  I have played the piano reduction with bassoonists, but was unaware that there was another version.  Due to the range difference and the change in timbre, I heard the piece in an entirely new, and most enjoyable, way.  The host took the time to find an excellent recording.

Exploring Music is available free on various radio stations and on the Internet.  There are also subscriptions available.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Happy listening!