Planning the Overall Church Music Ministry
In this article I wrote about the need to not only plan, but plan to plan. This article is a bit deeper in the world of good intention and follows the old saw, “A plan is only a good intention until it digresses into hard work.” This time I intend to look at a kind of planning that falls into the longest of terms, the overall mission of providing a music structure to the church.
For the past 16 years I have been director of music for a church in the heart of urban Los Angeles, where I am preparing to resign at the end of December because we have sold our home and are relocating 35 miles east, and it is time for a change. Prior to this current position I have been more-or-less (mainly more) steadily employed in church music since 1970, and for numerous congregations and in multiple denominations: 3 Unitarian-Universalist; 2 Methodist; 2 Catholic (I am raised Catholic); 2 Christian; 1 Disciples of Christ; 1 American Baptist; 1 Lutheran; and 1 Presbyterian.
While a choral-studies student, and subsequently as a choral teacher, my view has been that that choirs clearly function in three main contexts: education, church music, and community not-for-profit organizations. I have chosen to be professionally involved in all three in order to differentiate between the required work of each sector, and to learn to be effective in the leadership of each.
In church music, and lo for all these many years I have spent many a Sunday morning in church, arriving early for choir preparation and leaving late after coffee time. We all know that as a church musician there is not a “day of rest” in the seven days to the week, only days 6A and 6B. But, I intend to continue this schedule after the move, wherever I may land.
Announcing my pending resignation to the choir prompted me to rethink, as well as share with them, what it is that we have practiced together. Our situation is not totally unique, however it did require some focused planning.
First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles is located in what was formerly the most affluent church area in the city. With urban flight all of these huge churches have experienced serious decline in membership, but the campuses have not gotten smaller. Therefore, we are a little group in a very large building, one that is distinguished by both its history and its architecture. With the help of multiple-denomination rentals as well as long-term real estate deals the church survives and will likely continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
The 3 Choir Music Ministry
With a small choir, one that functions more like a vocal arts ensemble than a traditional “I point, you sing” choir, we have created a rather special place for choral music and singing in the church. We have placed an emphasis on Thursday rehearsals, creating a special bond in weekly rehearsal that we then convert to public leadership in Sunday service.
Rehearsal is our time, while service is OUR time. Rehearsal is a nuclear-family dinner, while Sunday service is our family reunion. The two setting are differentiated, and necessarily so. At rehearsal we work in a unique way, to learn and polish, to prepare to lead by example. We share a very common mission and learn to appreciate each other on individual terms.
On Sunday we assume our role as one of three “choirs” in the church at-large. As the rehearsed choir we prepare and lead hymn singing, frequently adding musical content to the hymns for congregational interest. We sing choral responses to enhance pre-determined rituals in the service. And we offer our special choral selections that are more complex than group singing, and more fully rehearsed.
Chalice Choir knows that we fit into a larger musical scheme that includes a “community choir” and the congregation itself. Every six weeks we invite any member of the congregation to join for that Sunday. We begin our choir preparation 30-minutes earlier and rehearse an anthem which is easily accessible, frequently drawing from folk literature or quickly recognized songs. I arrange to have invited instrumentalist join us, and we create a kind of improvisation that makes the music sound very good as well as insuring the experience to be rewarding. Without any further commitment than this one pre-service rehearsal the “community choir” has become a welcomed event for many.
And our third “choir” is the congregation, and we call it that, the “congregational choir.” We pursue an ongoing process to educate and to encourage the congregation to sing. For example, we regularly draw attention to the spectacular information that is printed in the hymn book: the title of the tune; the poetic syllable count for re-texting; the composer of the original tune; the original poet or any other poet who may have rewritten the hymn text. This is interesting information and draws the congregation closer to the hymn. We encourage what the well-known song leader, Nick Page, calls “no-fault” harmony. In his words, “Pick a harmony note, and if you don’t like it pick another note.”
The world of planning, and preparing to plan, needs at regular times to be assessed for its results. And at a time of major change, like a resignation, there is not better time. I am satisfied with the past 16 years and look forward to the next challenge, the next opportunity to plan.
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