Advice to Church Musicians

To be a church musician means that we have had good training, that we continue to sharpen our skills and gain new ones, and that we can’t imagine a time when we’ll be completely satisfied that we have learned and experienced all we need. Take advantage of all that you can. Take courses, pursue degrees, attend conferences and day-long events, read books and journals, join organizations, go to concerts, listen to recordings of music which you know and like and that which you don’t. Be a musical pluralist who is acquainted with popular and art music, folk and ethnic music, secular and sacred music. Learn to integrate all your musical knowledge, skill, and discernment. Then, take it with you into your church work in a spiritual manner.




To be a church musician means that we have a special use, purpose, and focus for our musicianship. The distinction between performers and listeners is not as clear in the worship space as it is in the concert hall. Congregational song, in spite of all its musical “imperfections,” is of primary importance. Everyone in the room – and in the world outside – is royalty. We choose our repertoire not to highlight virtuosity or for good programming but to fulfill roles in the liturgy, to communicate, to minister. We want to be involved enough in other, non-musical aspects of congregation, parish and diocese life so that it is not “their church” but “our church.”

Putting “church” in front of “musician” does not dilute it, weaken it, or negate it. But it does water it down – it baptizes it for a special purpose and places upon it a divine blessing. Keep pondering, studying, and experiencing both halves, and the powerful combination, of the title Church Musician.

To become a successful (or better) church musician, thorough knowledge of your field (organ, voice, sacred music literature) is of course a given. In addition, I think a personal faith is virtually essential to help one over the tough times and keep one centered and grounded. Some knowledge of psychology is also helpful, as church musicians are always dealing with people. My advice is to strive to fulfill both halves of the title “church musician”.

1. Becoming Five Different People
If you would be a successful church musician you must be five different people: First, you must be an athlete, take care of your health and your body. A good nap before Thursday or Friday day/night rehearsal is a must, and regular exercise and proper eating each day. If you are an organist, it means regular practicing to keep fingers, feet, and mind functioning well. Second, you must be an actor, you must know your “lines and material,” and know how to present them effectively so that the choir and congregation will respond. Third, you must be a psychologist, know how to work with the minister, the staff, the congregation, and all of the choirs of all ages. You must be a “people person.” Fourth, be a musician and student. Never be satisfied to stay where you are, keep moving, learning, and growing. Fifth, above all, be a minister and pastor to the individuals in your choirs, and to the congregation, teach and admonishing them in love.

2. Work with What You Have
One of the most important ways for church musicians to make their work rewarding is to learn to work with what they have instead of wishing they could work with different (usually larger and better-funded) forces. If you don't have tenors in your choir, do SAB or no Bass, do SAT; if you can’t manage that, try two-part; and when all else fails, there’s unison. If you don't have sopranos who can handle a descant reliably, use an instrument instead. If you don't have a children's choir, ask for time to teach the Sunday school children a hymn that they can teach to the adults. In short, celebrate and develop what you have instead of pining for what you don’t have. Along the way, don’t overlook the congregation as a significant feature of your musical resources and a means of exercising real musical leadership. Enlarging the hymnic (and service music) repertoire of a congregation can be both challenging and gratifying, especially if it involves adding new ways of singing—rounds and canons, A Capella, or in parts. Above all, keep in mind that your work as a church musician will gain energy and purpose if you can free yourself from a performance mentality and understand what you do as an offering to God.

3.Plan and Listen
My first advice to all of choir directors would be these two related suggestions:

(i) Make better use of your singers’ rehearsal time. Volunteers deserve this from you. Talk less, sing more. Don’t waste time telling them verbally what you can train them to grasp from your conducting. It is simply amazing how much can be accomplished in one rehearsal—and how much fun it can be—if the director is well prepared, knows the music inside out and keeps the rehearsal moving.

(ii) Keep training your ear! Getting to that wrong tenor note immediately, without singing through the piece many times wondering what is wrong, can save so much time. I have observed otherwise fine directors who simply don’t hear mistakes in the inner voice and don’t correct them. Team up with a colleague. Let each of you play a hymn with just one wrong note in an inner or lower voice part for the other to catch. (To be really tricky, it may sound perfectly o.k.) Practice listening to the inner voices in recordings of choral music while following a score. Try following more than one voice at a time. Learn each voice part of all the music being rehearsed by your choir(s) and get the total sound into your ears. Then at rehearsals, be sure to listen, listen, LISTEN!

4. Care for People, Accept Each Other and Say Thank You
Care for people. Listen to not only members of the choir, but to the clergy, program and maintenance staff, and congregation. Make relationships your highest priority. Be open to all styles of church music, even as you perfect your own. Realize that the ministry of the Word and the ministry of music are equal partners in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.
Also, it helps most when you remember that those folks you are dealing with, in choir and congregation, are for the most part not professional musicians, and are giving their time and talent (such as it is) out of the goodness of their hearts. So the more we can all, professional and amateur alike, accept each other as we are, the more we shall achieve together, and the more fun we’ll have together. I think it’s important to show your choirs your sense of humor: You can reserve precious time in a choir practice for passing on choice examples of humor (intentional or otherwise) received as emails or text message.

Stressing the positive and praising people for their giving of their time and talent to their church and to God is the reward that keeps volunteers coming back. The old fashioned art of writing thank you notes (preferably hand written, but also acceptable typed) adds that personal touch, and is an invaluable tool in building a group of happy, satisfied, dedicated volunteers.

People like and need to feel that when they expend extra time and energy on a project (whether it is learning a flute descant to a choir anthem, or coming to choir rehearsal regularly throughout an entire season, or being coached to try their first solo stint being cantor for a responsorial Psalm), it is truly noticed and appreciated. A warm and sincere note of thanks from their director can mean more to them than any amount of money. It can make the experience so rewarding to them that they will want to try even harder and volunteer even more time the next time they are asked to do something similar or something even more challenging. The personalized Thank You note is one of your most efficient and effective tools among your array of techniques to succeed as a church musician.

5. A Potpourri of Advice
Be organized. Be supportive of your clergy; both to him/her and to others. Don’t neglect your health or your family. Learn as much repertoires as you can while you’re young; it gets harder and harder to find preparation time when grown. Learn to improvise. Practice a little each day; make it a lifelong habit. 

Be organized. Worship with other congregation whenever possible to learn what and how they do better than your congregation. Participate in parish/diocese events, but don’t let them run your life. Always attend good food and drink well; your work is fresh on everyone’s mind, and they’ll tell you how you’re doing. Study arranging techniques; you will use that knowledge many times.

Be organized. Send notes of appreciation to your choir members occasionally. Study voice and vocal technique. Your choir librarian is indispensable; treat him or her accordingly. Consider calling your choir librarian the “choir administrator.” That’s what they usually are.

Be organized. Teach your choir to read music if you can, it’s the best for you. Why pound notes for the rest of your life? Give your choir good music, otherwise the best choral singers will just sit in the pews on Sunday. Plan ahead; schedule the choir repertoire a year in advance. Manage the congregational singing repertoire; that which is not used will be lost in one decade. Teach your congregation 3-4 new hymns every year.

Be organized. Keep your membership in the Church Musician Associations current, and support your local churches. Be a member of at least one other professional organization, such as the Hymn Society or Music Society in your state and country, or the Chorister’s Guild. Learn to love congregational singing. Learn how to foster and develop congregational singing. Put as much effort into leading congregational song as you do your solo repertoire.


Be organized. Reach out to the community; perhaps an annual hymn festival or a concert series? Never forget that the beautiful music of every age before you is passed on through you. Bloom where you’re planted. Plant yourself somewhere else if you find yourself in rocky soil. Thank God every day for the opportunity to serve as a church musician. Be organized.

In all, let's do our utmost best with total dedication, physically and spiritually. God is our strength. You can come back to any of these contributions at any time: review one a day, one a week, or whenever you sit down to do your planning. We need reminders such as this to keep going in the right direction. 

May your work as a leader of church music become more rewarding and help your congregation understand God’s grace even more clearly.
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