by Billy Baker
Music has been an integral aspect of the worship service for centuries. Whether it involves traditional chant, hymnody or contemporary arrangements of favorite spirituals, the role of music in the church remains vital in “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). I have always felt a personal calling to participate in music ministry and have enjoyed serving in a variety of positions ranging from volunteer/staff singer to guest soloist to music director. Although I was baptized as an Episcopalian and confirmed in the United Methodist denomination, my ecumenical musical background experiences include serving in the Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.
Graduate studies in music education and teaching experiences in public schools provided me with the privilege to serve in a variety of music ministries in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey and New York. Several common characteristics have emerged from these positions in developing, nurturing and sustaining a vibrant music program. Despite the perceived lack of resources or negative relational politics that may exist in various worship environments, it is possible for music to enhance or even transform the spiritual life of the church. Establishing a vision, practicing patience and maintaining a sense of empathy seem to be a few of the skills needed in collaborating with pastors, recruiting musicians and encouraging congregants to sing.
Upon accepting my current position as music director in a small suburban church approximately 20 miles north of New York City, I was thrilled with the possibility of reviving a music ministry that had declined to an organist, a youth choir of approximately five singers and no adult choir in place. One of the most intriguing aspects of the interview was that it took place in the sanctuary. Previous interviews usually occurred in windowless meeting rooms or within the book filled built-in walls of the pastor’s study. However, this one provided me with an acoustical, visual and spiritual context to establish a “vision” of how music might edify believers and enrich the worship service. I must confess my attention drifted during the conversation as I imagined how the space might be utilized to praise God through instrument and song.
Four years later, the “vision” of developing a liturgically relevant, inspirational and eclectic – yet unified – music program continues to be realized through research, creativity and flexibility. Twice a year and armed with several cups of coffee, the Presbyterian planning calendar, a personal Bible, hymnal, piano and single copies of each octavo from the choral library, I embrace the opportunity to plan music for the liturgical seasons. I also cherish occasional informal meetings with my pastor in a local diner to discuss how our ministry is progressing and developing. Several challenges of my journey in leading a smaller congregation music ministry have included financial constraints, maintaining a consistent core of singers for each service and tempering my musical expectations to the realities of working with an all volunteer ensemble and an organist with limited formal training.
Fewer voices. Many larger churches have a budget to support section leaders within the choir and a professional accompanist with impressive credentials. Directors of smaller congregations must be creative and flexible in their selection of repertoire, distribution of voices within the ensemble and a willingness to accept that unison or two-part singing may be just as spiritually satisfying, musically challenging and aesthetically sophisticated as a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” or Haydn’s “The Creation.” One only needs to listen to a beautiful monophonic chant or the blended timbre of a well-trained children’s choir to hear the elegance of unison singing with appropriate diction, well supported tone and sensitive phrasing. Maintaining a realistic perspective of the musical talents one has to work with is paramount to the success of the music ministry.
Financial constraints. During these economic times, it may be impossible for a smaller church to employ support staff including section leaders or additional instrumentalists. Moreover, as the cost of sheet music and other supplies increases, a limited music budget might risk being stretched beyond solvency. A successful approach to purchasing music could be to invite congregants to purchase choral anthems in memoriam of loved ones. This dedication would be likened to the way altar flowers are given in honor of someone and printed in the service bulletin. It may also be possible to borrow scores from colleagues or download and print free public domain music from websites such as cpdl.org. Free trial versions of music notation software programs (e.g. Sibelius, Finale Notepad, MuseScore, Noteflight) also provide directors with opportunities to arrange and compose their own work for choirs and instrumental ensembles as an alternative to purchasing the works of others.
Flexible planning. Consistent rehearsal and worship service attendance is critical in a smaller choir in which volunteer singers need the support of additional voices. However, past experiences have proven to be challenging in recruiting and retaining every singer for every Sunday. Creative planning includes select Sundays for contemporary youth anthems, solos or smaller groups and “plan B” unison anthems or hymns with male and female voices alternating specific verses or passages. Again, there is no shame in beautiful unison singing to glorify God. I have also occasionally added an instrumental obbligato for a choir member who enjoys playing the flute. Flexibility in planning not only prevents burnout within the adult choir, but it also provides an abundance of opportunities to showcase the gifts and talents of others.
Since my acceptance of this position four years ago, the music ministry has expanded to include a staff organist, pianist, a youth choir and director, a core adult choir of approximately 15 singers and an abundance of volunteer instrumentalists within the congregation. Financial resources continue to increase as we expand our musical offerings and remain focused on advancing the mission of Christ through song. A variety of opinions seem to exist on what type of music should be used in the church and sadly, many churches have divided their services (and congregations) to cater to the “traditional” vs. “contemporary” desires of their congregants. I occasionally remind choir members to “sing softer and listen louder” as an attempt to have them blend and balance as an ensemble. The church at large may also “blend and balance” as a unified attempt to collaborate and facilitate an eclectic, vibrant, and welcoming music ministry.
BILLY BAKER is coordinator and assistant professor of music education at New Jersey City University and serves as music director at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, New York.