The Musician’s Hat

The Musician’s Hat
BY: Cheri Walters

Dear Musician Friend,

You sounded pretty down on yourself in your last letter. You seem pretty sure that, because you’re not a highly trained musician, you’re going to be a failure as a music minister.

Not necessarily.

Sure, musical training is important! You’ve definitely got your work cut out for you. But remember, the musician’s hat is only one of many that you’ll be wearing. You feel God has called you to this ministry; you love the people and the pastor; I know you’re patient and a hard worker-next to all those things, sharpening your musical skills is easy!

I’m no Ph.D. on the subject but maybe I can give you a few basics to get you started.

Be Prepared

First, when it comes to rehearsals, there is no substitute for preparation. Prepare, prepare, prepare! And if you’re feeling insecure, prepare some more! Toscanini once said, “The rehearsal is the conductor’s performance.” If you’ve attempted even one rehearsal, I’m sure you’ve discovered the truth of that statement.

Plan everything in detail: which music you’ll rehearse, what order you’ll do it in, how much time you’ll spend on each piece, where you want the singers to sit, and even when you want them to stand during rehearsal.

Learn How to Conduct

After you’ve planned all that, practice conducting each piece. By the way, do you know the basic conducting patterns? Here’s a basic starter kit:

2 beats per measure: (1, 1, fast j)
3 beats per measure: (*, fast 1)
4 beats per measure: (4, V)
6 beats per measure: (slow f)

Of course, there are other combinations of 2 and 3, like f, but I don’t consider those basic. There are even variations on the ones I’ve listed, but I’ve found these to be the simplest and clearest, with definite downbeats and unequivocal upbeats that come from the outside in.

Practice tracing these patterns in the air. If you’re lefthanded, you will still have to beat time with your right hand-out’s too confusing for accompanists and singers if you don’t!
In fact, until you get comfortable with these patterns, just forget about your left hand. (Or if it keeps wanting to cut in, tie out behind your back.)

“It is not the job of the left hand to mimic the right.”
-Stephen W. Plate, Music Professor

Now out’s time for some serious reflection. Put on a tape and practice conducting to the mirror. Forget all those cartoons you’ve seen with the conductor thrashing wildly about, slicing and dicing a six-foot section of air. Keep the beat centered in front of your upper body with a precise point for each beat (called the “ITC’s”) and a very slight rebound, or bounce, after each ictus.

Once you’ve got these basic patterns down, you’ve learned to walk. But you’ll want to run, float, march, dance, stomp, tiptoe, and skip, too. Keep going back to that mirror to experiment and refine the many moods you can convey through the same patterns.

Learn Cues and Body Language

Okay, now you can untie that left hand. Your left hand’s job is to cue entrances and cutoffs for instrumental or vocal sections,
rehearsal time it will require) against the finished product (the effect you hope to achieve) and decide if it’s worth the expenditure of time and effort.

It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: You want to strive for variety and balance in selecting music. But it’s tough to do. For one thing, I know what I like, and it’s hard to pick something I don’t like. I also know what my choir and congregation like (usually) and I don’t want to buck them. (Have you ever tried to teach an adult choir a song they don’t like? They’re worse than kids!)

The only remedy I know of is exposure. Expose yourself to all kinds of musical styles-not just your favorites (and not just church music, either). Ask musical friends what they’re listening to these days. Go to music conferences and concerts with an attitude of learning and growing. Expose your choir and congregation to different groups and artists, perhaps through a concert series, again challenging them to learn and grow.

Last and most important, select music based on the message. Are the lyrics biblically sound? Do they express something important? Is there a balance between those songs that are testimonies (“I”- and “me”-related) and worship songs (focused on God or addressing Him directly)? Does the music express the lyrics in a compatible way?

Several years back a song came out with the lyrics, “I am so happy, so very happy.” However, the slow, melancholy music was saying something else entirely! Another case of words and music unequally yoked together is the song “We’re Marching to Zion.” The 3 signature has prompted more than one musician to suggest that it should be titled “We’re Waltzing to Zion.” Sometimes a good message can overcome a less than ideal musical setting; nevertheless, bear it in mind when making your choices.

Teach Vocal Techniques Creatively

One of your most difficult tasks is that of teaching abstracts like vocal techniques. In the limited amount of time available in rehearsals, the only way to teach vocal techniques is to give your singers a mental image, a “handle” they can grasp.

For example, how do you explain the concept of tone place
ment? If you begin with complicated explanations of “soft palates” and “nasopharynxes,” you’ll have glazed eyes staring back at you. Draw a picture for your singers: “You’ve just bitten off a mouthful of hot pizza. What do you do?” They’ll automatically raise the back of the soft palate, letting air rush in to cool the blistered roof of their mouth. “Okay, that’s how much space you want inside your mouth when you sing.” Step one to correct tone placement: an open throat.

Other methods include the “semiyawn” approach, where you instruct the singers to try the beginning of a yawn. Again, they should feel the air rush in to the “cool spot” as they lift the soft palate. Make sure they find the difference between the open throat and relaxed tongue of a semiyawn and the stretched throat and pulled-back tongue of a full yawn. My only problem with this approach to teaching an open, relaxed tone is that it makes everyone yawn. I’ll bet you’re yawning right now! Then, have the singers take a breath, raising the soft palate until they feel the “cool spot,” and sing an “ah” vowel without changing the position of their mouth and throat.

To further lift the placement of the tone, have the singers produce the most nasal “ah” they can muster. Then, without changing the nasality, ask them to add the open throat using either the “semiyawn” or “hot pizza” approach.

Imitation and contrast are helpful techniques when you’re trying to get across abstract concepts in a limited time. However, I think they should be used very sparingly in private voice lessons, where an overzealous student might damage something trying to emulate his teacher’s sound without understanding the fundamentals of voice production.

Merlin Mitchell, minister of music at Central Assembly of God, Springfield, Missouri, recommends imitation and contrast when trying to blend vibratos within a choral section. He may ask the whole soprano section to produce “the wildest. wobbliest tremolo possible,” and then a straight tone, and finally, he will ask them to just let a natural, flowing vibrato “be there.” He adds, “I never single out an individual and embarrass him/her in front of the group. On a couple of occasions, the singers with faulty vibrato have come to me on their own for further help. It would be a shame to ask a person to leave a choir just because we didn’t know how to deal with his/her faulty production.”
C. Harry Causey, well-known for his writing and speaking in the field of worship and music, also recommends contrast as a device to teach open, uniform vowel sounds to the choir. Getting singers to produce an “ooh” vowel that isn’t tight and pinched is difficult. He says, “Put an’oh’ inside the mouth, purse the lips, then sing, ‘moo.’ To really get this concept, have the singers do it wrong. Place an ‘ee’ inside the mouth, purse the lips, and sing the ridiculous sounding ‘eeeooo’ that results. Now go back to having an ‘oh’ inside. Sometimes the best teaching is by contrast.”

Causey also offers his choir some interesting mental images for “coloring” an “as” vowel, making it less bright. After instructing them to put more “oo” in the “as,” he might describe it as putting some “blue” in the vowel. Or he might ask the choir to turn up the bass and down the treble. You might come up with some images of your own-the point is to give your singers a concrete handle on an abstract concept.
Breath support is probably the most important vocal concept you want to communicate and, I think, one of the most difficult. By the time singers get into the adult choir, they’ve heard all kinds of things in junior high glee club. One of them, “Use your diaphragm,” they’ve no doubt heard dozens of times, each time probably wondering, What in the world is its Where is my diaphragm anyway? And how do I use it when I’m not sure I can feel it working?

Rather than discuss the diaphragm, I prefer to focus on the abdominal muscles and rib cage. People who have no idea what or where the diaphragm is know how to suck in their stomach muscles and can feel their rib cages expand. Granted, you and I know the diaphragm is involved in the process, but I don’t think it’s the mechanism they need to worry about.

Rebecca Smelser calls her “‘Horizontal Balloon Method’ the ‘picture book’ path to an often-discussed but rarely understood concept known to singers as ‘diaphragmatic breathing.'” She suggests having choir members stand with their hands on either side of their rib cages so they can feel the ribs expand as though a balloon is filling horizontally. (A “vertical” breath is one in which the shoulders and chest move up.) It’s easier for the singers to focus on horizontally breathing when they inhale slowly and quietly. Then have them hiss on an “sssss” and empty the lungs slowly and evenly, tucking in body panels from all directions to provide support for the tone. (I would add that the singers should keep the rib cage expanded throughout this exercise.)

She then suggests the following procedure:

– Breathe evenly and slowly on the conductor’s preparatory
– Then hold and release on the conductor’s cue.
-Repeat this exercise many times at different tempos using
the collecting breath on the preparatory breath as an indica
tion of the tempo forthcoming.

The “Horizontal Balloon” is one mental picture. Another is a bellows, which also conjures up the image of something that inflates from side to side but is not as common a picture as a balloon. Put that creative gift of yours to work and come up with effective mental pictures that work for your groups. Perhaps your singers themselves will come up with images or exercises that help communicate abstract vocal concepts. You never know till you try! Remember, you learn by doing.

Develop Skills in Instrumental Arranging

Yet another musical skill that I am learning by doing is arranging for instruments. I was a voice major in college, and now I’m wishing I’d listened more closely in those Orchestration and Form and Analysis classes!

I’m in no position to tell you how to write instrumental arrangements. But I’ll tell you how I’m learning (besides digging out all my old college notes). I listen critically to all the praise tapes, accompaniment tapes, and other orchestral and instrumental recordings I can. If I really like something, I try to analyze how the sound was achieved: what instruments are playing, what combination is used. I talk to friends who are far more accomplished at arranging than I am and ask for hints. I attend instrumental seminars at music conferences, even though some are way over my head. I look for articles in church music magazines. I ask my instrumentalists about the ranges and capabilities of their instruments, admitting I am no expert. They’re happy to tell me what makes their instruments sound best. And since they’re specialists on their instruments, they are sometimes more helpful than the professional arrangers who know a great deal about orchestration as a whole, but may be less familiar with specific instruments.

Be Good to the Church Instruments

Besides arranging for instruments, you’ll have to learn something about maintenance, at least for those instruments owned by the church. Once again, the best way to learn is to consult the experts, the people who teach, sell, or play the instrument.

If the church piano service contract has long since expired, who will you get to tune it?

I faced this problem at one church, where it seemed the senior pastor and I could not find a piano tuner who satisfied either of us. One guy would get the piano in tune, but it wouldn’t last more than a few weeks; another would leave it little better than he found it; still another would miss appointment after appointment. (Fortunately, my pastor knew quite a bit about piano tuning, and we were in total agreement about the situation.)

I called all the people we could think of who would know about piano maintenance-piano teachers and salespeople, music ministers at other churches in town, music faculty at the local college, even the symphony orchestra-to ask for recommendations. Eventually we found a tuner who showed up on time, tuned the instrument well, and whose work lasted at least six months. Believe me, we put his name and number on every Rolodex card file in the church office!

When you have someone tune the piano, service the organ, or do anything to any of the church’s instruments, ask lots of questions. Learn all you can about what they’re doing and why-not so that you can check up on them, but so you’ll know that much more about taking good care of the instrument.

Is the piano going out of tune every couple of months? Ask the tuner if the room temperature is getting too cold at night, or if the piano needs a dehumidifier, or if it was moved improperly for that children’s choir production. Our platform is quite small, making it necessary to move the piano every time we have a special production. At the advice of a piano tuner we trust, we’ve decided to invest in a piano dolly to ease some of the stress on the legs.

Ask questions like: “What can we do to protect this instrument?” “How should it be stored (or covered)?” “Are there temperature requirements we should be aware of”

In case of repairs: “Is this a normal repair considering the age of this instrument?” “If not, what caused it to need repair?” “What can we do to preserve it or to prevent it from happening again?”

If you’re told an instrument needs extensive repair or even replacement, always get more than one opinion. Dealing with all those piano tuners, I learned that every one of them had his own little idiosyncrasies. One would say, “You need to replace these hammers,” and another would say, “They’re fine.” Just like with any major purchase or repair, it pays to shop around.

So learn all you can, and consider everything you learn preventive medicine that can save repair or replacement costs later.

“Shall I tell you the secret of a true scholar? It is this :Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that Learn from him.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

In fact, let me encourage you: The most important thing you can do to excel in your role as a musician, or in any of your roles, is to keep learning. Learn through college classes or private tutoring, if you can. Learn from those around youmusicians in your choir or congregation, colleagues in music ministry, workshop speakers at music conferences. Learn from exposing yourself to music, plus read books and articles on music. Learn by trial and error, by taking some calculated risks. I’m learning that it’s okay to admit that I don’t know everything about every hat on my music ministry hat rack; I’m also finding that other music ministers are eager to share with me what they’ve learned, if I’ll only ask.

And finally, I come back to your call. If you know God has called you to music ministry, you can trust that He’ll equip you for the job (with your cooperation, of course). Don’t base your worthiness, or lack thereof, on a wall full of degrees or on “musical genes,” as wonderful as those things are. You are worthy because of who you are in Christ, and because He has called you to His ministry.

So grab your hats, confirm your call, and hang on! As the Steven Curtis Chapman song says, “This is the great adventure!”

Your friend and fellow student,

Cheri Walters