The Producer’s Role In Music Ministry
By Cheri Walters
Pulling off a major musical in the church is not unlike producing one of those biblical epics for the wide screen. Or at least it feels that way to the music minister with a thousand pesky details gnawing at her.
* What kind of scenery do we need? More to the point, who’ll make it?
* Did anyone rent the spotlight yet? Who’s going to pick it up?
* Do we need a fire permit to carry those candles in the processional? Who will apply for the permit? And who’ll clean up the wax drippings?
This is the stuff nightmares are made of.
My preproduction nightmares usually start several weeks before Christmas. Although the specifics change, the general plot always goes like this:
The scene opens at the church with the protagonist me showing up for the big event. The plot conflict is that I am (a) late, (b) unclothed, or (c) unaware that this is the evening of the musical; hence I have (a) forgotten my music, (b) forgotten my clothes, or (c) all of the above.
My husband has learned to cope with these side effects of my chosen profession. He calmly wakes me up with the semi-reassuring words, “It’s okay, it was just a dream. You have several weeks till the program.”
These are not words to go back to sleep on.
Get Help From Others
Lying there in the dark after those nightmares I’ve learned some things about planning and organizing. The first, most important lesson is to get help. Even Cecil B. De Mille didn’t do it alone. You can do anything if you don’t mind who gets the credit. If you just said, “Ouch!” you’re like many of us in ministry who are working ourselves silly because we don’t think anyone else can do it as well as we can, or because we don’t want to share the glory.
My biggest headaches in producing a musical are the physical details: scenery, props, and costumes. I’ve learned that, almost with-out fail, when I have asked others to handle those aspects of a production, they have done far better than I could have done.
And I’ve frequently been surprised at who will help. Darlene, a children’s choir director, hesitated to ask Lee, a grandmother of one of the singers, for help with the scenery. Lee was quite artistic but in recent years suffered from painful arthritis Darlene approached her hesitantly about assisting with ideas for the scenery; to her surprise, Lee not only offered to design and paint it, she volunteered her husband, Stan, to build it! The two of them created an elaborate rainbow set with a myriad of detailed props like butterflies and flowers, and both Stan and Lee insisted that the painting had been good physical therapy for Lee’s arthritis.
Once you’ve asked for help, it’s important to give both freedom and guidance at the same time. Balancing these seemingly conflicting needs is sort of like spinning plates on sticks you may break a few plates before you get the hang of it.
If you’re working with someone who has helped you before, you probably have a good idea of how much freedom you can allow. But if you’re not sure, I believe it’s better to err on the side of too much, rather than too little, freedom.
Major corporations have done studies on how the individual autonomy and creative freedom of their employees affect a company’s success. They’ve found that giving the employees authority to create new ideas and see them through to completion has dramatically increased the company’s ability to keep up with and even anticipate their consumers’ needs. In the church realm, creative freedom is not only a means to an end a “successful” production but an end in itself, allowing each member of the Body to find his place and function in it.
“Today we are replacing the manager as order giver with the manager as teacher, facilitator, and coach. The order giver has all the answers and tells everyone what to do; the facilitator knows how to draw the answers out of those who know them best the people doing the job.”
John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, Authors
A word of caution, however: If the person is an unknown quantity to you, it’s best to establish deadlines, money limits, and other guidelines up front, preferably in writing.
Let’s say you’ve asked Joan to take care of the table setting for the Living Last Supper pageant. If you don’t care what she spends or how it looks, turn her loose. But if you don’t want red stemware or a bill for $74.50, give Joan some limits in advance. Write down what her spending limit is and explain that anything beyond it will have to be approved in advance, unless she wants to donate it. That usually inhibits even the most carefree shopper. Provide her with a list of suggested foods and tableware, or better yet, ask her to give you one to approve. And give her a date by which to have it done.
Who To Ask For Help
Where to start when asking for help is always a problem. Consider these sources:
Start with (1) those in the music department who are not already overwhelmed with responsibilities in other departments of the church. Then branch out to (2) parents, spouses, relatives, and friends of those in musical groups.
Look around for those (3) “fringe people” who attend the church but are not actively involved in a ministry. Sometimes all it takes is the camaraderie that comes from participating in a special event to make them feel a part of the church family.
And don’t overlook (4) any age-group. One minister of music asked the seniors group to make costumes for a biblical pageant and got far better workmanship than he could have bought and all at the cost of materials only. Consider youth members for spotlight operators and stagehands. Kids can help publicize their own productions with poster contests and hand-colored program covers.
Finally, prayerfully consider asking for help from (5) unchurched spouses, friends, and coworkers of the folks in your choir. Over and over we’ve seen men whose construction or technical skills, put to use on a Living Christmas Tree or other production, gave them a sense of accomplishment and belonging that drew them through those church doors.
Another way to reduce the frequency and intensity of those late-night dreams of horror before major productions is to get started early.
As incongruous as it seems to listen to Christmas music while the kids are cavorting in the backyard pool, that’s when to start. And the directors I know who piece together or write scripts for their own Christmas Tree or Carol Sing pro-grams begin even earlier (like right after New Year’s Day).
In my experience, starting early for Christmas hasn’t been the biggest challenge. Easter now there’s the tricky date, always changing, sneaking up on you in March when you least expect it! And it’s difficult enough to juggle Christmas rehearsals with family celebrations, gift buying, and the round of parties and banquets, let alone find time to listen to Easter music.
One way to combat Early Easter Stress Syndrome is simple look at your calendar, preferably before February. Find out when Easter is, then work backward to find out how many weeks of preparation time there will be between New Year’s Day and Easter. Chances are you’ll have to select and order music while eating Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. That way you can begin rehearsals shortly after the Christmas tree is set out on the curb.
Another stress-saver is to make plans for the following year immediately after finishing an Easter musical. If you do an annual Living Last Supper, Living Cross, or Holy Week pageant, make notes afterward, while it’s still fresh in your mind, about changes you think would improve it, or music you would like to include, and start a file. If you see or hear a wonderful Easter musical at another church or at a music convention, order a sample copy for yourself and add it to your file. You’ll congratulate yourself later, as Christmas bells ring in your ears, that you had the foresight to begin your Easter preparations early.
Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate! You’re going to need to start early if you plan to memorize the musical.
Living Last Supper Checklist
1 Set the date(s) the program will be presented.
2 Select a script or adapt your own from the biblical accounts.
3 Select and order music that underscores the biblical narrative of the Last Supper and Easter season.
4 Prepare a copy of the script for each participant.
5 Immediately after New Year’s, select thirteen men to be involved. Determine who will grow their own beards and who will need synthetic beards.
6 Set rehearsal dates; give a schedule to each disciple, narrator, musician, and sound and lighting technician.
7 Select coordinators for props (table and benches), costumes, makeup, scenery, and food (including tableware).
8 Lay out or have a publicity coordinator lay out all posters, flyers, newspaper ads, and news releases for the program. Arrange for a news photographer to take black-and-white photos at least a week before the performance during a rehearsal with full scenery, costumes, and makeup.
9 Meet with the ushers and discuss the offering, Communion (if it will be served), and how to handle latecomers with the least amount of disturbance once the program is underway.
10 Recruit a work crew to help remove and replace the platform furniture or have the props coordinator recruit them.
Have The Choir Memorize The Music
“My choir could never memorize a whole musical!”
“There’s barely enough time to learn the music, let alone memorize it!”
“My choir members would quit if I told them they had to perform the whole cantata without books!”
These are just a few of the excuses we make for not requiring our choirs to memorize. I know. I’ve used them myself.
But Bob showed me differently. When my husband and I arrived on the staff of a large church, Bob, a talented layman who kept the choir going between music ministers, had already paved the way for me.
“I made them memorize the Christmas musical,” he told me. “They grumbled, but they did it.” He encouraged me not to let them slip back into their previous habit of performing with musical scores.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity in a small church to build an adult choir from the ground up. They were aghast at the thought of singing their first musical without books. “What’ll we hide behind?” could be read in their panic-stricken eyes.
But they did it and did it well. Were they ever proud!
The advantages of memorizing a musical far outweigh any difficulties in learning or preparation. And I’m not convinced that using written music during the performance guarantees more musical accuracy. For one thing, singers without books are much more alert and more responsive to the conductor. They actually look up! They follow more closely because they have to depend on the conductor instead of their books.
Because they look up, they’re also more expressive. Without pages in the way of eye contact, the singers are more intent on expressing the words they sing. They just sparkle more! It’s not long before they realize they are really ministering.
You can implement some strategies to help your choir memorize their music.
Start with a memorization schedule. I tried this first as an experiment. After finding that the choir members who had had the most trouble memorizing were the ones who came to rely most on the schedule, I adopted the experiment as an effective method of memorization.
To build a memorization schedule I sit down with a calendar and the musical score. I list every rehearsal until the performance, including portions of regular choir rehearsals designated for the musical and extra rehearsals devoted strictly to the musical. I count how many songs the choir has to learn, not counting solos or duets without choral parts. I usually assign two or three songs to each rehearsal by writing the titles next to the rehearsal date.
Two or three rehearsals later (depending on the difficulty of the song and the amount of time I have), I write “Memorized” next to one of the titles. This lets the choir members know the latest date they can use music on this song. On the next rehearsal date, I replace the memorized song with one we haven’t rehearsed yet, and so on, until all have been marked “Memorized.” Each choir member gets his or her own copy of the schedule at the beginning of the rehearsal season.
Deciding how much time to allot for each song is a combination of studying the music and plain old guesswork. I try to begin with a song that I think will be easy to memorize it’s a good psychological boost for the choir members to check one off early in the rehearsal season.
If I’m short on rehearsals and long on music, I often schedule two “half songs” (where a large portion of the song will be per-formed by a soloist, but there are also choral parts) to be memorized during the same rehearsal. I also leave rehearsal time close to the performance date in case I’ve guesstimated wrongly. We can always use that extra time for polishing and review.
An added benefit of this memorization schedule is that it forces you as the director to plan ahead in detail and gives you a list of specific checkpoints to measure your progress.
More and more Christian music companies are making professionally-recorded rehearsal tapes available. Some are purchased individually; others sell one tape for each part (SATB: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) and give the church permission to make the number of copies they need. When the choir members get their Christmas book in the fall, they get a cassette with their part recorded on it.
If rehearsal tapes are not available commercially, make your own. I’ve used singers from my choir for tenor, bass, and some-times first soprano parts and recorded alto and second soprano myself. I write to the publisher explaining what I would like to do and ask for permission. Some ask for a small fee per tape; others charge nothing but ask that the tapes be destroyed after the performance date. I have yet to have a publisher turn me down.
If your church has a nonexistent music budget, consider asking the choir members to purchase their own rehearsal tapes. There’s a lot to be said for having them make an investment in the musical.
If professionally recorded rehearsal tapes aren’t available and you don’t have the singers or the equipment to record your own, a portable tape recorder and a piano playing the voice part is still better than nothing. Most people need to listen to their parts over and over in order to memorize them tapes let them do that without eating into precious rehearsal time. The tapes also serve to reinforce and review what has already been memorized.
These tools the memorization schedule and the rehearsal tape—should not be the only ones you own. But think of them as a starter kit and add what works for you and your choir.
Take Care Of Those Nagging Details
All right, you’ve asked for and received help. You’ve started early. You’ve planned and memorized. What do you do if you still can’t get a good night’s sleep? Write down what it is that’s nagging at you. Is it a little detail you keep putting off? Or just a vague anxiety?
The former is easily dealt with: Write it down and the next day take care of it. Don’t procrastinate if it means losing sleep.
Anxiety is a little tougher to deal with, but we have the greatest of resources at our disposal prayer. Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Pray about what is bothering you, detailing it for God, and in the process, for yourself. Anxiety is a general feeling of unease that shrinks when we get specific about it with God. So make Him Executive Producer and have a great musical.
Oh, and sweet dreams.
This article ‘The Producer’s Hat In Music Ministry’ written by Cheri Walters is excerpted from Advice To The Minister Of Music: Get A Giant Hat Rack! written by Cheri Walters.
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.’