I’ve spent a lot of time in meetings, and in discussions through my years as a church musician, where the importance of music and art was debated. I have observed three types of people in these conversations. The first is the very enthusiastic artist who will passionately speak about the arts in worship in an emotional way but doesn’t always offer any real rationale for the creative arts in worship, except that it makes people feel good. There are others who intuitively know it’s a good idea to include creative arts in worship, or at least appear to say so because that seems like the right choice. If asked to articulate more specifically why the arts are important, they typically struggle for an answer. Then there is the stoic who doesn’t say much because they don’t understand it, but they cannot articulate their point of view beyond the argument that they are not sure it is worth the expense.
I’ve left these kinds of discussions frustrated with my personal inability to clearly articulate in a more compelling and meaningful way my own existence as a creative person serving God. It wasn’t until I began to think about creativity in the context of the work of redemption and God’s creative example found in Genesis 1 that I began to understand my own viewpoint.
I now see that just as the power of creativity needs no explanation when an artist stands in front of a blank canvas, or sits poised with pen in hand over blank manuscript paper, that it is at that moment that he or she knows they can rewrite their story; they can begin anew. They know that mistakes and circumstances of their past do not have to be their story anymore. To have the ability to fill that blank canvas of tomorrow with a new song is a powerful tool that is indeed a gift from God; and it is what creative people reveal with their art.
The ability to bring light out of darkness is something that God demonstrated to us in the creation story. I believe that is why Christians cling to and protect this story so passionately. In whatever way you understand the details of the creation story, we all comprehend that if God can create light from
darkness, something from nothing, then we know that our tomorrow can be different from our yesterday. The story of creation becomes part of the foundation of our hope in God.
There is an organization in Southwest Florida called Creative Storytellers. One of their missions is to bring the arts to the lost and hopeless. One of the activities they engage in is to give modeling clay to people who are in a rehab facility. These are people desperate to change their lives and start anew. They are asked to create something with the clay that has meaning to them. To watch people’s eyes open as they create something with meaning from nothing and understand that God can do the same thing in their lives is deeply emotional for me. It is this kind of inspired revelation that I hope God does with my life as I serve Him.
We respond emotionally and are inspired by art when it causes us to view things in a new way. When a worshipper hears a familiar text set in a new way that reveals something about the truth of God they did not understand before, that is a moment of creation in that person. When the beauty of a stained-glass window, a banner, a dance, a choral piece, a work of art reveals more of who God is to us, it is then that we experience the power of creativity.
Creative artists provide tangible examples of the life changing power of God’s redeeming grace. Without the ability to escape the past, we would be a people without hope. God has shown us through the redeeming sacrifice of his Son that we are no longer enslaved in sin. Christ’s death and resurrection created a Way that did not exist before. The benefit of God’s constant work of creation is available to each of us whether we are professional artists or not. Those of us who serve as artists serve God as a way of thanking Him for changing our lives. Artists believe that through the Spirit, the creative work we do will open hearts and minds to God even more and will offer hope to the hopeless.
May we sing a NEW song to the Lord every day!
Grace and Peace,
As the new year begins, I always think about how I can improve on what I am doing so that I can serve my singers, ringers, congregation and God better through worship and art. Here are four quick ideas that can make you more productive and efficient in your rehearsals. I hope you find them useful! Feel free to share some ideas of your own in the comments.
1. Establish a beginning of rehearsal routine.
On Sunday mornings, it used to take me several minutes to get my choir’s attention, and have them on task for warm ups. They are a large group, often over 100 singers, in a very large space with lots of distractions, including congregation members who have arrived early assembling in the sanctuary. After struggling with the amount of time that was wasted each Sunday, I established a series of visual cues that would get us started. I motion for them to stand followed by a shoulder roll exercise that I do, and they mimic. At this point they are all standing, all quiet and ready to rehearse, and I have not said a single word! The first few weeks, I talked them through the exercises, and then each week said less and less until I could prompt them with nothing more than visual cues. This is so much better then my first greeting to them be me asking them to please be quiet. I have found the use of visual cues to be very powerful in managing a large group of singers. I spend less time chiding, and more time encouraging – which we all appreciate!
2. Find our place in the music quickly
I learned this from John Bertalot who was the Director of Music at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton New Jersey. It’s an invaluable little trick that saves time and keeps my choir focused in rehearsal. Rather than say “We will begin in the middle of page three, the second line, at the third measure,” I simply say “We will begin at 3,2,3.” The first number is the page number, the second what line on the page, and the third, what measure on that line. I no longer wrestle with the questions of “where are we?” or “Oh, I thought it was page two, third line” and so on. In fact, now many of my singers will ask a question and identify the measure in question using the same number system. It is easy to explain, new singers catch on quickly, and it keeps the focus on rehearsing rather than wondering where we are. While I credit John Bertalot for this gem, he says he got it from Gerre Hancock who was at St. Thomas Episcopal in New York.
3. Use a Newsletter rather than make announcements.
As my choir arrives, they pick up a four-page newsletter that is filled with information they need to know, and I do not have to talk about. It contains the rehearsal order for the evening, the schedule of rehearsals and warm ups for Sunday, what music should be in their folders and a calendar of upcoming events. We also share prayer requests, birthdays, funny cartoons and much more. The singers are in the habit of checking their folders to make sure they have the music we are going to be working on ready to go. With a choir of 140 singers, I almost never here “I don’t have that piece” during rehearsal! We do spend a few minutes each week highlighting some of the important things in the newsletter, but I do not have to verbally give them every detail and hope they are writing it down correctly. PDF copies are available online as well so that people who are absent, and snow birds can get caught up on what they need to know. It does take a little time to prepare each week, but it is worth it! If you want to take a look at the ones I create look here: www.tinyurl.com/FPCSCORE
4. Record your rehearsal
This is my least favorite thing to do because it is too instructive! I have done audio and video recordings. Often, I hear things on the recordings that somehow I miss in rehearsal. The most useful thing is what I observe about my rehearsal technique and pace. If there was a problem moment in rehearsal, many times the recording will make me aware of what I did do create the problem, or of how I communicated poorly. It’s a very humbling thing to do, but it has helped me get rid of lots of bad habits and taught me how to communicate more effectively. Recording can be as simple as setting your smart phone on a music stand and using the phone’s recording app.
What about you? Are there little tricks you have learned as a director or singer that would be useful for people to know? Share your thoughts or ideas in the comments. A fellowship like ours requires lots of two-way conversations if we are to grow in our service through worship.
Director of Sacred Arts
First Presbyterian Church
Bonita Springs, FL
Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers
Fort Myers, FL
FUMMWA Florida Chapter
New International Version (NIV)
The Birth of Jesus
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn,
a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger,
because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you:
You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel,
praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,
which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
The idea of a mission statement sounds so corporate. I know what I'm supposed to do with my choir. Do I really need a mission statement to keep me on track? Isn't our mission obvious?
If you were thinking these kinds of thoughts when you read the title, I hope you stick with me on this. A mission statement can be a very powerful tool for any leader. I hope you'll consider strengthening your leadership with the power of a mission statement.
Simply put a missions statement focuses you, your choir and anyone who interacts with your choir on exactly what your task is. To begin let's look at the mission statements of a few familiar companies.
Charles Schwab: Helping investors help themselves.
Disney: To make people happy.
GOOGLE: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
These mission statements are short, easy to read, easy to remember and very focused. A mission statement is really this simple: This is who we are. If it is so simple, then why is it so important? Because life gets complicated. In my experience, the common problem of burnout among church workers is because they say yes to everything, and everything becomes their job. Having a mission statement to go back to will give you the opportunity to be focused in your work.
Look at the Goggle example. To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. If someone at Google decides to consider a subscriber plan for users to access Google search, the idea would clearly be rejected. It goes against their mission statement to make the world's information "universally accessible" It's a no brainer. They are not going to waste time and energy on pursuing the idea because it is not who their mission statement says they are. Too many organizations who are not so focused will chase after a good idea, and often to their detriment.
In the same way a church choir can get off track. When a church choir is successful with their Sunday morning worship activities, there are people in church leadership who want to give the choir all kinds of tasks in the church. When I receive requests for the church choir to help with parking at the Lenten Fish Fry, or to sing the national anthem at the local AA baseball game I stack these requests up against our mission statement. The First Presbyterian Church Choir will honor God and inspire our congregation with the best music we can offer in worship.
I am often asked about our church choir singing concerts. We don't sing concerts. Its not a part of our mission. Its not what we do. Our mission is worship. Further, the time taken to prepare for a Christmas Concert will take our attention away from the task of preparing for worship. If worship becomes a secondary activity, my choir will have lost its focus and we will lose our effectiveness and will honor God less.
Do you feel like your choir has lost focus? Are you saying 'yes' to every opportunity that comes to you and your choir? I've said 'no' to many great ideas, and I think my choir has benefited from that. There are times when I have to make an exception, but I will make sure the work of our mission statement is prioritized above all else. There are also times where I haven't held on to the laser focus of my mission, and I've often been sorry in the end.
Take a few moments to write a some ideas down. Talk to your pastor or other leaders about what it is your choir (or any other group you work with) does. Pray about it. A mission statement can keep you focused on the work you were called to do, and that will truly honor God.