Tony Cummings spoke to Stephen Fischbacher about the long established children's ministry FISCHY MUSIC
One of the most popular ministries targeted at children and all family worship is Scotland's Fischy Music. Their regular appearances at the Greenbelt Festival and their tireless touring, not to mention a stream of albums on their own Fischy Music label, have ensured that the aggregation, led by Stephen Fischbacher, have impacted countless kids. Cross Rhythms caught up with Stephen to get the Fischy Music story.
Stephen was born in 1960 and brought up in Glasgow. It was there that he spent the first 20 years of his life. He explained, "My parents were from the Brethren tradition of the Church and from an early age twice a week attendance at church, Crusaders (Bible class) on Sunday afternoons and daily family prayers were regular activities for me and my sister and brother. I remember on Saturday nights I used to regularly develop various mysterious ailments which might (hopefully I thought!) excuse me from the next day's treadmill of church activities. I was well into my teenage years, inspired by some young Christian guys that I thought were quite cool, when I decided that faith in Jesus was what I wanted for myself and not because I had been forced into it by outside pressures."
Sport and music were always a large part of the young Fischbacher's life. He recalled, "Everyone in my family played an instrument of some kind or another. I played the guitar from the age of 10, mostly self taught, and I would spend many hours in my bedroom on my Les Paul copy guitar and practise amp bashing out Status Quo riffs. I played the euphonium in the school concert band and can still play 'Oh When The Saints' if I want to impress, sorry, annoy my friends."
In 1980 Stephen went to study theology at a College in Canada. "I was there for three years. I got into playing acoustic guitar in a wee group and when I returned to Scotland in 1983 I got together a band that would lead worship and do concerts at various events around Scotland, mostly in connection with my role as a Scripture Union schools worker. I played in a folk band in the early '90s and enjoyed the earthy sound of fiddles and acoustics."
Stephen and his wife had two children, Beth and Brodie. Stephen was working at St Paul's and St George's Episcopal Church as a youth and children's worker. Remembered the fledgling composer, "Just for fun I started to write a few wee tunes and songs for my children. They seemed to quite like the songs so I had a go at writing a few more for some family services at the church. Eventually, in 1995, funded by the church, I recorded 'It's A Noisy World!' mainly for the church. We released it as by Stephen Fischbacher & The P&G Kids (P&G from St Paul's and St George's). Just as we were about to launch the album, one of the ministers at the church said to me, 'Who knows where this will lead you?' I shrugged off the comment but ultimately it led me into working full-time with children and music. I don't really believe in adult and children's music being completely separate from each other. I like to think that in Fischy Music, we produce music that is accessible to both children and adults. Like a good episode of the Simpsons or Shrek, a good piece of music or a story is attractive to both young and old."
In 1997 Stephen Fischbacher &The P&G Kids released another album, 'Just Imagine'. It was a difficult time for Stephen. He recalled, "It was made just after my wife Lynda died after a long illness. I found both the writing and recording of this album a lifeline in trying to manage the many extreme emotions I was going through at the time. I got many letters from people who had been through similar things as me saying that the songs on this album had helped them go through tough times and had resonated with them."
With the release of 'Just Imagine' Stephen's reputation began to spread outside of Glasgow. He explained, "I was doing a few local gigs with a band and children from St P's and St G's where I was still working but I was starting to get invites from further afield as well. When I got an invite to go and do a gig in London, I really thought that my place in history alongside Lennon and McCartney was assured! I didn't realise that London also has wee churches with 20 people and a dog but the music was certainly getting a wider audience than before."
Over the next couple of years Stephen's ministry continued to grow until in 2000 a fully fledged charity, Fischy Music, was launched. The first album through the charity was 'Something Fischy'. Like all Fischy Music's recordings, the songsmith remembers the sessions with considerable affection. "We have always had lots of laughter when we record, every album has been a blast to record and so they should be, time to give up when it stops being fun. I never knew that all the silly wee voices and stupid jokes that I had been building up over the years would actually get a chance to be recorded. I did have to improve my musicianship though, recording ruthlessly exposes bad timing and out of tune singing!"
Stephen Fischbacher's next album was 2002's 'Build Up'. "This was the first album we had done that did not include worship songs and was focussed on bullying and self-esteem. We thought long and hard before we went ahead with this collection of songs but as a charity, we felt strongly that God was interested in the health and well-being of children and since bullying was one of the big issues in schools we produced this album in 2002. This has been our best selling album so far and the songs are used in thousands of schools across the country. We even heard of a church in Italy that used the title track as their church theme song."
The 2004 album 'These Are Our Emotions' was the first credited to Fischy Music rather than Stephen Fischbacher. The singer/songwriter explained the change. "As a charity we decided that 'supporting the emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing of children and families' was what we were about and what God had led us to and in order for this to be a long term and sustainable thing/movement rather than just while I was around that we should move to Fischy Music rather than the Stephen Fischbacher title. I know this obviously comes from my name and ideally we would be called something else but the name has just stuck and it stirs up people's curiosity. We started producing music books with ideas of how to use the songs in schools and churches from the Something Fischy collection onwards but we have now moved to CDRoms and DVDs."
The project 'I Wonder. . .Why' was released in 2008. Like its predecessors it reflected an extremely eclectic approach to music. Said Stephen, "We have always used a wide variety of styles, maybe because I can't work out what one style I like but also because there are so many brilliant diverse and rich forms of music out there. My good friend Stewart Henderson wrote lyrics to three of the songs on this album. He is such a great wordsmith and his poems and lyrics are so poignant, funny and deeply thoughtful."
In 2009 Fischy Music released 'Down To Earth' and two years later 'We're On This Road'. Stephen spoke about the latter. "We decided that after several years of focussing the music on schools that we wanted to produce a collection of songs that would specifically resource church and Christian worship settings. Style-wise, we went for a more earthy, folky feel."
Over the years Stephen has become one of the UK Church's pioneers in all age worship. He observed, "We are trying to write good music and lyrics that will be accessible to both children and adults. Both children and adults like good music and they also like good lyrics. We have tried hard over the years to have top quality production in our recordings which I think is both honouring to children, adults and ultimately God. It is so profound and rich when people of all ages are able to sing and worship with dignity, joy and fun."
So who precisely performs Fischy Music songs when the aggregation hit the road? Stephen explained, "We have a team of highly committed session musicians who deliver around 120 events in schools and churches each year. We always work in pairs and usually with a male and female leading. Some of these musicians play on the recording and we also have a pool of other musicians that we call on depending on what is required for each recording."
This seasoned children's communicator has some strong views about children's ministry. "I think that children's work has often been seen as a thing you do either on the way to the 'real' ministry with youth and adults or because you can't do anything else (or if you're a girl). That was the attitude I had until we had our own children and I realised that even a two year old can understand and appreciate so much more than I had ever imagined. Also that by the time they reached teenage years, a lot of the foundation work in the emotions, spirit and relating to others had already happened."
Cross Rhythms finished its chat with this seasoned musicianary by asking Stephen whether in view of his renowned ability to bring in a lot of contemporary influences Fischy Music's next album was going to move into dubstep? Stephen appreciated the quip. "I reckon there is a place for a 51 year old Scottish dubstepper, isn't there?! I'm sure my children would agree with that!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.