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22 Practical Music Ministry Tips

I firmly believe that learning from others is a blessing. Among other reasons for this, for me it has meant that I’ve made fewer mistakes in my personal and professional life. One of the people who was always willing to answer questions from me was Fred Bock. Fred was always writing notes (see #10 below), and at some point or other I came into possession of a list he compiled shortly before he died. The list has handwritten notations…including the comment: There is a God – you are not Him, which I think is something we musicians need to keep straight.

So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, which just passed, and Christmas gift giving, which is directly ahead of us, I’m passing Fred’s list on to you. I’ve edited it a bit (the original list was 31 items, for instance), mostly because some things (like internet references and the opinion of the work of a composer or two) have changed since 1997.

1. Get organized! Make a file folder for anything you can think of: Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve, Patriotic, hymn accompaniments, brass music. Then, any time you hear a good idea, write it down and put it into that file. You’ll be surprised next time you go to the Father’s Day file. Things that work for others will often work for you … or give you an even better idea! Plan your music for the entire year. This is easy if you follow a liturgical calendar. But even Baptists have a liturgical calendar: there is always going to be Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, Lottie Moon Missions Emphasis, Bible Sunday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc … you get the point. It’s always easier to change something than to have a blank piece of paper staring back at you as you plan each week’s music.

2 When filing a fist full of octavos in a box or drawer, put a small red mark or dot around the fold of your own music: This way you can find your Director’s Copy without having to thumb through 58 copies of The Majesty and Glory of Your Name to locate it!

3. In personal relationships, keep short accounts.

4. A well-kept secret on maintaining a strong relationship with the Senior Pastor is to spend time together away from the job: bowling, raking leaves, out to dinner…be imaginative.

5. Don’t be a bad money manager. Musicians have a reputation for overspending their budgets, filing check requests at the last minute, and wanting everyone to stop what they’re doing to write them a check. Get organized. Plan budgets as far in advance as you can…13 months is a good idea, because then you can plan and compare with the current month and project higher or lower based on an actual month’s activity. Set short term goals as well as long term goals. Replacing a piano each year, or every other year, is a good long-term goal. In planning budgets one little trick I’ve learned is to ask for more than you want or expect to get. This lessens your disappointment level! If you have no goal, you’ll will probably achieve it.

6. In this day and age, music directors needs to have a musical vocabulary that is virtually all encompassing. Therefore, hear everything, see as much as you can, and go to see how others do things…even things done badly or poorly can be a learning experience as to what not to do.

7. Debrief sessions. After every church service, review what worked, what didn’t work, what we should look for next time (or next year if reviewing an Easter or Christmas Eve service) Time every element of the service. Are some things too long (like announcements?) Are there elements missing … a personal witness or sharing from a non-pastor? Involve children/youth? Seniors? What about singing hymns? dreary? do we need to do all the stanzas? Pick the ones that work, eliminate the others. Organ accompaniment? Piano? Organ and Piano? Praise Band play along with stately hymns? Organ play on Praise Band pieces? Maybe just an organ pad, not ffff organ. Does everything tie together? If not, why not? More advance preparation necessary? Does everyone know what their role is for each service? People cannot have too much information!

8. What goes around comes around. Hang on to those anthems and children’s musicals. While some were wanting to abolish choirs ten years ago, now these very same people have just ordered new robes.

9. Ask for help. The internet can answer most any question you ask. If you can’t find it at Creator’s website and a google search doesn’t work, put a question out there and within minutes you’ll probably have multiple answers. The trick, of course, is to figure out whether the answers are useful! Churches put their sermons and activities on their Web site.Ask colleagues around the country to send you their weekly church bulletin so you can see what others are doing.

10. Always send a thank-you note to anyone and everyone possible…for any reason. A handwritten thank-you note means more to most people—simply because no one writes thank you notes any more!

11. Outside of the senior pastor, make sure you are always on excellent terms with the pastor’s secretary and the custodians.

12. Choir membership is not so much about recruiting good singers: it’s more about finding people who are willing to make a commitment to be there week after week after week. A choir director is on a life-long journey and search for new choir members. Getting men interested in choir is can be an especially difficult assignment. One way I’ve found that works is the Father’s Day chorus.

13. At the end of every day, make a list of things to do tomorrow, and then do at least one of them. That way, when you start the next day, one of the things to do is already done!

14. If you make any mistake at all — admit it right away. This is especially true when directing a music ensemble. If the group does something incorrectly because you did something incorrectly, or poorly — admit it, and move on. Don’t try to blame the choir or the drummer, or anyone but yourself. And if, by some chance, it actually was the accompanist’s fault, never chide or reprimand or even point out problems and errors in front of the rest of the choir. This kind of behavior does not make you look omniscient and omnipotent, but rather insecure, foolish, and a bit of a bully.

15. Answer email on the day you get it. That puts the burden of reply on the other person, and people will be amazed at how quickly they heard back from you!

16. Musicians are a funny lot: most of us like best what we know best, and many of us do not particularly like those who don’t like what we like. Today, with the growing emphasis on a wide variety of repertoire, there’s not much call for someone to specialize in singing Palestrina and Buxtehude choral works. Everyone needs to be well versed in as many styles as possible. A musical group is really only as good as their director, and their director can be effective teaching correct performance practice differences for presenting the music of Audio Adrenaline, Bill Gaither, or Bach (whether that be J.S. or Fred) …. only if the director knows the difference! We all need to listen more, and listen more closely, too!

17. Prepare your rehearsal in advance. Know what you want to accomplish with each piece. Set limits. Is it really necessary to begin each piece a the beginning? Just rehearse the parts that need rehearsing. Several weeks prior to the presentation, use the last pages as a Call to worship, or a prayer response. Prepare an order of rehearsal so choir members can assemble their music in correct order. Don’t do the music for this Sunday first…do it second or third so everyone is actually there by the time you go over Sunday’s selections. Put announcements in the order of rehearsal…this will save time for singing.

18. A wise minister counselled me: tithe 10%, and invest 10%. Learn to live on 80% of your income. Put the tithe and the investment into separate accounts so one does not interfere with the other. The separate tithe account will make you open to needs of others you can help from your tithe account rather than to say “Can we afford to give this away?”

19. Know in advance that there are some “low attendance” Sundays: the week after a major event, week after Christmas, week after Easter, 4th of July weekend, Labor Day, Memorial Day. Find out when schools are out for 3-day weekends. Do yourself a favor and do not schedule the Bach Mass in B minor for the Sunday of a 3-day weekend! There some very effective 2-part anthems published these days.

20. A strong word to accompanists: when accompanying, never, never, never play the melody!

21. The sound you want your choir to achieve must be clear in your own head. The challenge is getting the choir to hear the same sounds you hear. If, in your mind, the music of Brahms, Mozart, and Keith Getty all have the same vocal production, then that’s exactly what the choir will give you.

22. Make your prayer: less of a performance…more an act of love. For when the studying is completed, and the rehearsing is done, and everyone has done the best they can do (including the director), then the Holy Spirit takes charge and uses our efforts to bring honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ…which is the bottom line reason why, as ministers of music, we do what we do. God bless you as you bring people to Him through music.

Got a practical tip that you’ve learned that’s not on this list? Please feel free to add to our corporate knowledge base by leaving a comment below. It just may help all of us do our ministry better.

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