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When There Is No Musician in the Church

Music is one of the most important parts of a congregation's life. Through music, a congregation worships together, teaches its children, expresses its common joys and sorrows, and celebrates and proclaims its history and tradition. In light of the important role music plays in the church, many congregations identify or hire a person with musical gifts, training, and experience to lead them in their musical endeavors. But what is a congregation to do when there is no musician to lead them? This article will help congregations who may be in such a situation by first identifying the main tasks a staff musician performs, then suggesting some possibilities for finding a music leader, and finally examining ways to continue participation in music even without a leader.

What Does the Church Music Leader Do?

The work of the church musician is often taken for granted because it happens behind the scenes; so if all is done well, the congregation worships on Sunday morning without even thinking about those efforts. Among the many tasks performed by the musician, three of the most important include planning, playing, and directing. In some churches these tasks are performed by one person and in others by several.

  1. Planning: The musician works with the pastor and worship leaders to plan the worship services and select appropriate music. This may involve preselecting themes and seasons, special days, and lectionary readings, and gathering a variety of resources (Bible, hymnal, The United Methodist Book of Worship, supplemental music resources, and so forth). The musician may select music for worship — hymns, choir music, solos, instrumental music, service music, communion hymns and settings, and music for preludes, offertories, and postludes — often planning weeks and months ahead to allow for adequate preparation. Additional areas of planning include special services, seasonal events, Christmas or Easter music, music for youth and children, and vacation Bible school.
  2. Playing: Whether it be by organ, piano, keyboard, guitar, or other instrument, an important task of the musician is accompanying congregational singing — of hymns, choruses, prayer responses, acts of worship, the Psalter, and other service music. Other opportunities for the church musician to play may include the offering of music for prelude, postlude, offertory, communion, or quiet meditation. Musicians may also be called upon to accompany non-congregational music, such as solos, choirs, and instrumentalists.
  3. Directing: The tasks of the music leader sometimes include physically directing congregational singing, as well as directing non-congregational choirs, praise teams and bands, and instrumentalists. Most directors also assume the primary responsibility for recruiting singers and instrumentalists.

How to Find a Music Leader

When a congregation's musician resigns, goes to college, dies, becomes burned out and quits, joins another church, or otherwise moves away, where does a church look to find a new music leader? How does a congregation find a new musician? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Seek a volunteer within the congregation. Someone may have once had musical training or piano lessons, have sung in a choir, or may simply enjoy music and the challenge of leading. This person need not have lots of training and experience. Congregations and choir members will be gracious and grateful and affirm anyone who steps in to lead. Offer to send that person to a summer workshop or festival for training, experience, and inspiration, or offer to pay for a short period of private instruction from a church musician in your area. Much could be learned and much confidence gained in six one-hour sessions with an organist or choir director in a local church.
  2. Find a young person to groom for musical leadership, perhaps a piano student or member of a school band or choir. Offer to pay for instruction with a local organist or choir director, and then give that person opportunities to lead within your congregation, all in preparation for future responsibilities.
  3. Ask a musician from a neighboring church for whatever assistance you need, whether it be playing the organ or handbells, directing the choir, or planning worship. Be sure to offer some compensation for taking your church on as added responsibility.
  4. Ask qualified people — church choir directors, school music teachers, area pastors, private music teachers — in your community if they know of anyone who could step in. Ask some of these same people if they themselves would be available and willing to lead your congregation temporarily, or longer.
  5. If your community has a nearby college, even one more than a few miles away, there may be a music student or choir member there you can recruit. Contact the school's music office; put an ad in the student newspaper; or place a one-page ad describing your need on the school's public bulletin boards where they advertise rooms to rent, books for sale, and so forth.
  6. Advertise — let the community know you are looking for a musician. Place ads in the newspaper and weekly shopper, on supermarket notice boards, in other church newsletters, and in your district or annual conference newsletters and e-mail distribution systems. Send a special mailing to any school or private music teachers in your area, and include the local ministerial alliance. Don't hesitate to use word-of-mouth.

What to Do While Searching

What can a church do while looking for a music leader, or when there simply is not one available? What can be done to continue music's important place in the life of a congregation? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Gather a small group of people especially interested in music, though not necessarily trained or experienced, to work with the pastor as a music support group. Let this group take over as many of the music responsibilities as possible, and continue to secure leadership.
  2. Sing a cappella — sing without accompaniment, just as the church has done for hundreds of years, and as some churches continue to do every Sunday. Have one person, perhaps the pastor, perhaps a choir member, pitch and begin the singing, and invite others to join. Soloists, duets, and ensembles can also be effective without accompaniment.
  3. Invite choirs and instrumentalists from public school groups to come and participate in your services, and encourage them to prepare a number of hymns that they might lead the congregation in singing. Suggest titles, or provide hymnals or copies of hymns. Invite them to rehearse in your sanctuary, and perhaps present a community concert there. Develop a relationship.
  4. Use records, tapes, and CDs of appropriate music for gathering, preludes, postludes, offertories, or quiet meditation.

    Cokesbury (1-800-672-1789; http://www.cokesbury.com) sells accompaniment CDs for both The United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing designed specifically for accompanying congregational singing.

    Many companies sell pre-recorded accompaniment tapes and CDs for choral and solo music. Often these are produced so they can be played back with or without voices singing. This makes them an invaluable tool for rehearsing choirs and soloists.
  5. Use hymns in non-musical ways. Read them aloud as prayer, as poetry, in litanies and acts of worship, and read them silently as meditation. Encourage Sunday school teachers to use the hymnal as study material.
  6. Assign Sunday school classes, women's and men's groups, youth, and others to work with the pastor to plan worship on different Sundays, and to take responsibility for serving as worship leaders AND choir that morning.

Finally, whether you are without a musician for a short or extended time, or if you are looking for a musician, remember to keep the need before the congregation. Encourage their understanding, patience, gracious support, and cooperation. Ask for boldness and confidence rather than timidity. We can worship through song in spirit and truth, even without a musical leader.

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