The Church Musicians
THE CHOIR MEMBER
COMMITMENT OF THE SINGER
Some of the nicest people in the world are the ones who sit in choir lofts at eleven o’clock each Sunday. Very often they are not only choir members but church school teachers, deacons, church board members, members of worship committees or missions groups, or they may have any number of other church responsibilities. Outside of church obligations they are often professional people, executives, homemakers, or those active in community affairs. They are usually busy people with talents dedicated to serving the Lord. What a privilege musicians have in working with such servants! Often multiple-talented, they are evidence that talent invested in the Lord’s work grows and flourishes.
It is essential that the minister of music recognize the importance of each individual in the choir. To be sure, some have better voices than others, but faithfulness to the tasks of the choir is the most important ingredient for an effective ministry. In recruiting members, the director should communicate that requisite and avoid members who cannot be faithful. Faithfulness to a church choir’s ministry is impossible unless there is first a spiritual commitment to the Lord and His work. Commitment to the church is not enough. Although the members themselves may reflect differing levels of spiritual understanding and maturity, they should all qualify for the choir by their desire to use their voices to glorify God. The pleasures derived from singing great choral music or simply the joy of singing should be viewed as secondary reasons for involvement in a church choir. Community choruses exist for those whose commitments focus more readily on such purposes.
COMMITMENT OF THE DIRECTOR
Choir members have the right to expect total preparation from their director at all rehearsals. Directors who complain that their members are unfaithful in rehearsal attendance would do well to analyze their own techniques and effectiveness. Assuming concurrence as to primary objectives and requirements for choir membership, the director who produces at a high level with a well-paced rehearsal will have little trouble with rehearsal attendance. When problems occur it is an indication of either a lack of dedication on the part of the singer or ineffective leadership by the director. Some directors use rehearsal time to tell stories, jokes, or simply to talk. Humor is an excellent pacing device, but people generally resent their time being wasted by a talker or a stand-up comedian. Talking about how to perform the music, aside from some text explanations, reflects a weak conducting technique. Every precious minute should be used in constructive and productive rehearsal with enough spiritual and musical gratification in evidence to make the singers look forward to rehearsals. Boring rehearsals and performances result in attendance problems.
THE REHEARSAL SCHEDULE
Although the director must use the rehearsal time wisely, it is imperative that the choir rehearsals be scheduled with adequate time to insure that the choir can be effective and successful in its task. Some churches guarantee failure from the start by placing a low priority on the rehearsal schedule. Scheduling rehearsals after midweek prayer services or Bible studies guarantees late starts and tired singers. Singers cannot be expected to place high priority on their attendance and contribution when it is obvious that they get the leftovers in the schedule. To ask a choir to step into the pulpit unprepared each Sunday to lead a congregation in worship is a travesty. Churches will not tolerate a pastor to so prepare each week yet may frequently allow schedule restrictions that guarantee marginal success at best from the choir. Singers themselves become frustrated because they may be committed to a give-God-your-best philosophy but cannot possibly realize such a goal from the church choir. I prefer a separate night for choir rehearsal because those who participate in midweek services usually do so anyway even though the choir is on a separate night. Sometimes choices have to be made that eliminate individuals from one or the other, but it is essential that the choir rehearsal time be a protected time and long enough to guarantee effective preparation.
A good solution to the midweek service-choir rehearsal dilemma is to have a devotional in the choir rehearsal. Such moments are helpful for the choir’s spiritual involvement, and the moments of study and/ or prayer are moments that produce rich dividends in the lives of the members and director. Spiritual food from the Word as well as frequent communication with God is necessary in the church choir situation to cement a group together and focus their minds and hearts on their primary objective.
SUGGESTED GUIDELINES FOR CHOIR MEMBERSHIP
Regardless of the size of the church or choir, rules for membership serve as unifying factors to reinforce the stated objectives of the group. From the time I first directed my church choir at age nineteen I have had precise and clearly defined guidelines for membership. They include the following:
- Attendance at rehearsals and at services at which the choir sings is required. The choir rehearses a minimum of three weeks on each anthem sung, and a member must have been in attendance two of the three weeks in order to sing the given anthem. Nothing is worse for morale or choral effectiveness than to have singers miss rehearsals and then come in and “botch things up” in the service. No one is so good that he can be allowed to transgress this ruling.
- More than three unexcused absences suggests a priority problem for the singer, and he is counseled to reconsider his commitment or withdraw from the choir.
- Excused absences include illness, death in the family, business trips, and vacations. If business requirements result in more than ten total absences from rehearsals and services, the singer is asked to reconsider his commitment. Thus an occasional business trip is acceptable; frequent ones are not.
- Tardiness (except for reasonable excuses) is not acceptable. The director must begin and end rehearsals on time as a commitment to the singers. In addition, tardiness is disruptive to the rehearsal. There are often a few who are undisciplined in punctuality, and they must be encouraged to resolve that problem so as to not disrupt the rehearsal with late entrances. Stressing the importance of each individual to the whole helps people realize that they are all needed to start a rehearsal. In tardiness as in absences the director must be open and accepting in reasonable situations but firm and unaccepting of undisciplined punctuality or erratic attendance.
- Singers who know of a future absence such as travel are expected to notify the director in advance. Otherwise, all absences are to be phoned into the church office with a reason for the absence left for the director prior to the rehearsal or service. It is important for the director to know about absences so as to make ensemble adjustments in the anthem. When the singers recognize that they cannot slide between the cracks (regardless of the size of the choir), but that they are indeed important to the choir’s total ministry, they then will hopefully assume the full obligation of effective membership.
In my choirs if problems persist, I try to win the individual over through the year. Anyone who has not proven himself to be faithful by the end of the year is not invited to return the next year. I am convinced it is far better to have a small choir of faithful members than a large one that includes unfaithful ones.
QUALIFICATIONS OF SOLOISTS
Those who are blessed with unusual gifts should be used in the church as soloists (or in ensembles) when appropriate occasions arise. It is necessary that the soloist not only be properly motivated, having the sincere desire to use his voice to lead the congregation and glorify God, but also have a special vocal gift. Occasionally there are those in churches whose own perspective of their vocal ability differs from that of the music leader. It may be that in earlier years an individual had a beautiful solo voice, but perhaps with age the voice has changed. Or it may be that an individual does not have an accurate impression of his own vocal ability. It is unfortunate that individuals are asked to sing when in fact they do not have the vocal ability to lead the congregation in genuine worship. In years past I recall hearing soloists with such vibratos or intonation problems that by the time they were through my hands would be wringing wet from the anxiety that was created. My response was not that of a fussy musician but common to many in the congregation. Often one would hear the comment that the soloist’s “heart was right” as if a right heart were all that was necessary to lead a congregation. Certainly a right heart is necessary, but the vocal dimension is also important. Soloists are sometimes chosen for political reasons—the individual may be influential in the church, or a favorite son or daughter, or maybe the pastor’s wife. Again such short-sighted and insincere motivation for solo singing is out of place.
It is also not uncommon in some churches for individuals to be used who have a great talent but whose lives and/or motives do not reinforce the message that they sing. Although they may be professional musically, the element of Spirit-guided communication can be lost. Professionalism without a ministry orientation in church music may produce recital-type (aesthetic) responses that are inappropriate to the objectives of the worship service. In the former situation there is sincere motivation with an absence of excellence, and in the latter there is excellence with an absence of proper motivation. In both instances solo singing will be found lacking.
Of course the ideal to strive for is the involvement of talented musicians who are dedicated to the spiritual values of the music ministry. For effective communication to take place, one has to be sufficiently gifted so as to get out of the way of the message. Bad tonal production or poor intonation interferes with the message. The Spirit can and often does bless in spite of the singer, but responsible church musicians must endeavor to select those who can best lead in spiritual experiences.
MINISTRY AND THE SOLOIST
One of the responsibilities of the minister of music is to help train and educate soloists both in talent development and literature selection. All literature sung should be appropriate to service themes and be consistent in both textual and musical meanings. Because so many of today’s singers (particularly young musicians) model themselves both vocally and in their performance mannerisms after pop artists, the minister of music needs to assist in steering them in more appropriate directions (not all of what they have learned is inappropriate). A sense of confidence and visual (not overdone) expressions supportive of the text are appropriate positive performance aspects. However, anything done that promotes or points to the singer is out of place. Because the pop music business is essentially an entertainment business, techniques are used to reflect the greatness of the artist. In order to sell records the public has to be impressed with the individual as much as with the individual’s song. There is constant concern with the performers image. Staging, choreography, and all sorts of visual gimmicks are used to sell the singer.
In church music the focus needs to be away from the musician and on the message. Performance techniques are only appropriate when they enhance the message rather than the singer, and the singer is really the insignificant one who has simply delivered the message. No ego trips are appropriate. Sincerity is easily evaluated in short order because self-promoters are obvious. Not all singers who use “show biz techniques” realize the inappropriateness of their performance styles. The mass media generation often knows nothing more than such approaches and sincerely uses them, thinking they are doing their best for God. The church musician does well to tactfully encourage and steer so as to not hurt such an individual. But when and where such singers are used requires strength of conviction and wisdom so as to not sell the worship experience short. Individuals are important, but God’s work must have a higher priority. It must be remembered that people ideally do not go to church to be entertained or see a live television show. Soloists or musicians who want to be entertainers should be encouraged to entertain in an appropriate environment and circumstance.
There is nothing wrong with clean entertainment. Good pop music is enjoyable and not at odds with the Spirit-filled life. What is at odds is the inability of some to discriminate as to appropriateness of time, place, and usage. Some churches have created their own problems by trying to rule out all forms of entertainment as sinful. Because some folksongs have double entendres or texts that are suggestive, they frown on listening to all pop music. Such church leaders think they do away with the whole problem by singing “sacred texts” to the same music styles. They in fact entertain themselves with entertainment music styles but have purified the textual content. They can have spiritual texts and yet get their “kicks” at the same time. How much better it is to teach discriminatory entertainment using the entertainment styles as intended and using different styles when involved in the communication of spiritual truth. The house of God must be reserved for the unique experiences that are not reminiscent of the nightclub act or variety stage show. Where church leaders err in this regard, they are probably not fully aware of the incongruities created or are not spiritually tuned in to the biblical focus of spiritual experience.
To use biblical texts as entertainment is in itself a dead giveaway as to the view held of Scripture. To those who see Scripture as good literature it is not a distant step to make light of its content by having fun with it (entertainment orientation). To those who view Scripture as the Word of God with the only revelation to man of God’s forgiveness and saving grace, there is little room for it to be couched in a cheap commercial or entertaining language. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, selling Jesus Christ like sex or toothpaste is more than slightly incongruous. Christian radio stations who unwittingly help create the entertainment syndrome are partly at fault. But the penetration of that approach into church solo and choral literature is the fault of ministers of music who make the decision to use such singers and literature.
Although the church music leadership and the church have the responsibility to encourage the growth and maturation of the budding musician in the church, the worship service is not necessarily the place to break them in. Youth services, camp services, banquets, services of evangelism, nursing home services, and informal gatherings provide opportunities for the young and/or developing talent to be used. The worship service should be reserved for the use of talent that is seasoned and effective so as to have the best potential for leading the congregation in spiritual experience. There will be pressures to use “Suzie” or “Johnnie,” but a place should be found for them to serve in appropriate services.
The apprenticeship concept is a good one to employ in the development and encouragement of talent. The church that has no opportunities to use young and developing talents will lose such individuals from the church to other performance avenues. Some churches with a strong vision as to their responsibility in those areas have music schools offering private lessons to their membership. That trend will undoubtedly grow as budgets are cut in public schools and music opportunities decrease. The more opportunities the church can create for the talented young, the better the chances for a strong future music program as well as for the young people realizing their full musical potential. Where spiritual values can be taught along with the music lesson, proper patterns can be established early in life and God-given talents nourished in Christ-centered directions.
A WORD ABOUT THE USE OF NEW CHRISTIANS
There has been a trend in recent years for some churches to use big name entertainers who have come to Christ. Needless to say, there is rejoicing here and in heaven when anyone accepts God’s gift of salvation, and the church must find ways to encourage and involve such new believers. The basic problem however, is that when a known pop artist is used, the individual becomes an overnight hero in the Christian community and is catapulted into a place of spiritual leadership far before spiritual maturity is in evidence.
It is a strange phenomenon—entertainment-hungry Christians flocking to hear this rock group or that pop singer who is now “one of them.” Christian record companies cater to such Christians and market the pop singers through the Christian radio stations and recordings. The influence that that well-orchestrated commercial venture has produced in church music is enormous. The young people in particular often want the top forty tunes of the Christian charts to be used in their churches. In some ways the influence of that stage show mentality has been greater in certain church music circles than probably any other single factor. It is not the result of chance but is the work of a number of profiteers with a clearly delineated strategy in the “sacred” pop music business. The coalition between some music publishers and recording companies has effectively produced the dilemma.
The problem is twofold: singers whose best abilities are entrenched in show business become “spiritual leaders” through their music, and music becomes more entertainment-oriented than spiritually-oriented. The texts are often acceptable (although usually highly personalized or subjective), but the vocal style, arrangements, music styles, and often the life-styles of the singers themselves are all the same as in their pre-Christian days. Young people choose those stars as models and carefully imitate them. Seldom does one hear a young person sing a gospel or sacred song in a style other than the entertaining (sometimes even seductive) styles. It is a short step for the church to move from centers of profound spiritual experience to entertainment centers with quasi-religious overtones as the church of tomorrow is led by such individuals. Voice teachers in serious Christian institutions are in a quandary because young singers no longer wish to seriously develop their vocal talents. There is little reason for them to do so when they discover they can sing like the stars, with no formal study at all. The church has been burned in other areas by thrusting new converts into the forefront of leadership before it was time. Leaders in church music would do well to encourage young talent but also to gently steer it in directions more suitable to church music objectives.
PURPOSES IN INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC
Instrumental music in the church can add much to the music program if its purpose is understood and the instrumentalists have guidance. Very often an instrumentalist is asked to play a special number or offertory, but little is said in steering the performer in directions appropriate for the service.
I recall as a Bible school student being asked to play for church services as a member of a trumpet trio. We played fancy arrangements, triple tonguing wherever possible, and in general wailing away with every insincere motivation. Friends in school thought we were great (although some of the music faculty must have had other ideas). Churches invited us back, and we were sent around to perform at youth rallies. With maturity, I realized we had been nothing short of entertainers. Rather than the stage or night club circuit, ours was the church circuit. Sadly, no one ever explained to us what the purpose of our playing should have been. We learned by imitating the then current pop artists. If someone had tried to help us, we might not have listened. But the seed of truth might have been planted, and I might have got turned around sooner than I did. Yes, we prayed before each service; we knew and used all the buzz words. We were probably sincere in wanting God to receive honor from our efforts, but we still did “our thing” when we played. Our youthful immaturity was probably normal. But it is important to note that no one stepped forward to challenge our approach. Even today, there are few who challenge the obvious insincerity encountered in church music circles.
Unless the situation is a concert, the purpose of instrumental music in the church is (as with all other music) to lead the congregation in a spiritual experience. That can be done using techniques that evoke either corporate or non-corporate responses, but those techniques must also reflect appropriate stylistic understandings.
CORPORATE INVOLVEMENT-PLAYING THE TEXT
The only way an instrumentalist can play a piece that leads the congregation in a singular direction is to play a selection the text of which is familiar or available to the congregation. A familiar hymn or gospel song can bring about spiritual insight as the text is followed. The instrumentalist must in such cases think the text as he plays, so as to interpret it appropriately. “Playing a text” is foreign to many instrumentalists because their training does not include that skill. Bands and orchestras do not play texts unless accompanying a choir and then they seldom are aware of the text, and solo literature is textless. Thus the average church instrumentalist performs a piece thinking only of the musical nuances and therefore possibly using a tonal style or tonguing/phrasing technique totally out of keeping with the message of the piece. The selection simply becomes another tune, neither sacred nor secular (notes in themselves are neither), that is played for the enjoyment (aesthetic ends) of the congregation. It is possible for an instrumentalist to play a familiar hymn so meaningfully that hearts can be moved as effectively as if the words were sung. In my opinion, the latter approach is the only one valid in a worship service where corporate experiences are desired.
As in organ music (see pp. 62-63), the instrumentalist may be called upon to provide an experience not tied to concrete ideas (text) in order that the members of the congregation can freely and creatively worship in their own individual directions. A prelude, offertory, or postlude normally functions that way, and the instrumentalist selects a piece that creates more abstract feelings and meanings, while being no less important and verifiable than textual meanings that are concrete. Such selections create the atmosphere within which the worshiper functions. In a sense that is what happens in instrumental concerts, but in service music the more abstract moods and feelings should tie in with a specific functional objective of the service. A quiet pastoral flute or oboe solo as part of a prelude can effectively focus on meditative, introspective, or serene moods and meanings as people are involved in preparation for worship. A joyful allegro from a Baroque sonata can function in a postlude as a joyous, dynamic experience creating a sense of direction and purpose as the worshiper leaves the sanctuary.
Whether for corporate or non-corporate involvement, it should be clear that:
- The instrumentalist must be guided in the selection chosen so that nothing is left to chance.
- The instrumentalist needs to play the selection in an appropriate performance style that reinforces the text or the appropriate abstract meanings; personal displays of virtuosity are out of place.
- Only selections that can function within the utilitarian context are acceptable; the instrumentalist is not playing concert music, but service music as a means to an end—to lead people in spiritual experience.
APPROPRIATE WRITTEN AND PERFORMANCE STYLES
So much of what is heard in church-related instrumental music today is approached only within the aesthetic context. Orchestral arrangements of hymns, whether symphonic or pop in nature, tend to divert the mind of the listener from the purpose of the piece (spiritual communication) to the pleasure motif (aesthetic gratification).• Such elaborately recorded arrangements have obviously been conceived apart from the text and cater to the church public who often will not buy non-church orchestral literature but will buy “church tunes.” Hearing a song Monday through Saturday misused as a pleasure-centered experience on Christian radio and then trying to sing or listen to the same tune on Sunday as a vehicle for worship may be confusing at best and, more likely, non-functional. Certainly reinforcement of basic textual ideas can take place in good orchestral settings, and not all recordings and Christian radio programs err in that regard. But often the average listener has difficulty making appropriate discriminatory judgments. Once again the vast amounts of music that are played primarily within an entertainment context on radio (although most stations desire to use their records in spiritual ministry) tend to lull the listener into thinking that whenever he hears church music its purpose is primarily aesthetic in nature. The questionable recordings are probably here to stay because the average Christian disc jockey is usually uninformed in such matters, but what is done in the church service can have such unmistakable focas that the worshiper will sense that it is different from listening to a radio station or recordings.
Whenever possible, it is advisable, especially in churches where instrumental music is misunderstood, to introduce the selection to be played verbally, focusing on the ideas to be conveyed. That may also be done in a short paragraph in the bulletin in place of a verbal statement. When the instrumental selection is used in non-corporate experience and when the congregation is aware of how to be effectively involved in such experience, nothing need be said. However, if that is not the case, the same educating responsibility exists here as in those moments when the organ functions as a vehicle for spiritual experience. Appropriate written and performance styles must be encouraged for service playing. Thus triple tonguing, “tearing all over” the piano, creating tonal approaches that are in themselves sensuous or more in keeping with the blues or other extra-spiritual experience, or any other instrumental technique that points more to the performer than the message is out of place. When any church musician by performance approach says, “Look at how good I am,” one can be certain that such insincerity is inappropriate. What is needed is total congruity between the tonal approach, visual performance techniques, performance style, and the written style of the music.
The above article, “The Church Musicians” was written by Robert Berglund. The article was excerpted from chapter 6 in Berglund’s book, A Philosophy of Church Music.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”