Joyful Noise with Limited Musical Resources

“When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mark 14:26). Throughout the Christian tradition, from the Psalms to the angelic choruses of Revelation, lifting voices and instruments in praise of God has been a key part of our faith. What does it mean theologically, then, when churches face musical shortages (that is, when a music director has left or only a few people provide musical leadership)?

In times of musical shortage, we sometimes forget the most important theological reason for singing in worship: to praise God. But the theological importance of praising God through song is easy to forget when we find ourselves short on musicians. The purpose of singing is to praise God, even when we have no virtuoso instrumentalist, impressive choir or rocking praise band to wow us. We too often put more energy into finding a new music director or signing up new choir members than we do into making music with what we have.

This is why I love the verse (quoted above) about Jesus and the disciples singing together after the last supper. They didn’t order the finest musical ensemble in Jerusalem to play for them. No, they lifted their own voices—a few fishermen, a tax collector, a carpenter and others. This was a ragtag choir, to be sure, and yet God was surely praised. As many of the tips in this article show, there is something unique, something beautiful, about voices and talents rising from within a congregation to provide musical leadership.

Most churches face musical shortages at one point or another, particularly small congregations and congregations transitioning between music directors. So what can congregations do to provide meaningful music for worship, even without a music director or full-time organist/pianist? This article provides some practical tips to guide you, in case you and your congregation are facing the loss of an accompanist, a leaderless choir, or other musical woes.

And what do I know about it? From October 2005 through January 2006, I served as the interim music director for Grace Episcopal Church in Millbrook, New York, where my spouse the Reverend Jennifer Creswell serves as Associate Priest. I had very few qualifications for this role. Though I can plink around on the piano, I have never had lessons. And while my singing voice will get by, my conducting gives the impression that I have just walked into a spider web. Nevertheless, we made it through four months of temporary pianists and my conducting—months that included a busy Advent and Christmas season. During my time at Grace Church, I learned a lot about getting by musically in a relatively small congregation with a relatively small amount of volunteers and musical interest. The most important thing I took from my time there is that anybody with a little bit of musical knowledge and ability can figure out how to make church music happen in the absence of permanent, professional musicians.

So here are nine tips, based on my experience, for the musically ailing or lacking congregation. Tips 1-6 deal with the issue of congregational music during worship (especially hymns), and tips 7-9 address the choir.

1. Inventory the talents of the congregation. There’s no need to go quiet because you don’t have professionals on hand. Make a plea at announcement time—does anyone remember a few notes of their piano lessons twenty years ago? Does anyone in the congregation have a favorite niece who just played a lovely piano recital? Maybe Mabel, who faithfully sits in the second pew every Sunday, knows how to play only her three favorite hymns: “How Great Thou Art,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” That’s great—we’ll take it! You will quickly learn that beggars can’t be choosers in this regard, but when you take the time to ask what is out there, you might just be surprised.

2. Don’t be afraid to think outside the organ/piano box. Guitars, electric keyboards, a single trumpet played well, or any other instrument can be a great accompaniment. Einar the Elder has a bassoon he used to play? Bring him on. In many cases, all congregations need to get their singing juices flowing is something, anything, playing along with confidence. And churches opposed to guitars in general might open up when they're the only instrument available. Incidentally, for my own taste, a CD accompanying the congregation should only be a last resort. It seems to create confusion and often distracts from rather than enhances worship.

3. Avoid thinking too rigidly about what constitutes a hymn or an appropriate church song. God is praised just as much when we sing “Jesus Loves Me” with sincere hearts and joyful voices as when we sing “Lift High the Cross.” In one of my first weeks coordinating music at Grace Church, a man from the congregation who usually plays rock music performed an instrumental version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as a communion meditation. This maybe pushed the envelope a bit, as the (unsung) lyrics “and no religion too” went through our heads while we prepared to partake of the body and blood of Jesus. But the congregation seemed to accept it as a quirky if unconventional choice. The point is that there is a world of music beyond our hymnals, and we increase the chances of finding volunteers when we widen the range of acceptable musical options.

4. If you can afford to pay a bit, contact local music teachers and college professors. During my interim ministry, I knew I wanted to find a "permanent temporary" organist or pianist for the congregation, rather than try week after week to find a new person to fill in. So I contacted the music faculty at local colleges by e-mail, and a professor of piano wrote back recommending I contact the woman who eventually became our interim weekly pianist. (Moreover, we ended up hiring our temporary pianist’s husband as the new Music Director, which only goes to show that making these connections can be very helpful indeed.) There are two things to keep in mind here: first, music teachers are infinitely more familiar with the local musical options than pastors or other church types; second, many music teachers are happy to make a bit of extra money playing for a church on Sunday mornings. The only caveat is that a musician from outside the church will need more direction in terms of when they play during the service, how long, and so on.

5. If your problem is a lack of instruments, visit eBay or Craigslist. It sounds crazy, perhaps, finding a church piano (or even a small organ) on eBay, but you might be surprised at the availability of deals. As I write, a search for a piano within 50 miles of Wichita, Kansas found two uprights being auctioned off, the first at a starting bid of $0.01 and the second at a starting bid of $5.00. No, those are not typos, those are the actual starting bids. Of course, you should e-mail the owner to find out if the piano works at all, how much repair (if any) it needs, and so on. But many pianos sold online are perfectly fine instruments. Why are they so cheap? Because no one wants to move a huge piano out of their home, and if they can kill two birds with one stone—that is, make a little money and get someone else to take the piano away—all the better. And luckily for you, you have a congregation full of people willing to help you pick up the piano, load it onto a member’s pickup truck, and haul it to the church. Everybody wins, especially your music program.

6. If all else fails, musically speaking, don’t despair; just do it a capella. This is also good advice for people just looking for a fun and exciting way to sing in church. Whole denominations go without instrumental music and thrive, and your church can do it too. The only asset this idea requires is a person with love for singing and a strong voice, who can lead the congregation through a hymn. (Note that in this case, a confident voice is far more important than a beautiful one.) Not everyone liked it, not everyone sang, but there was still an enthusiastic sound of praise to be heard in the church. You may be surprised at how exciting, how accessible, and how fun a cappella singing can be. This tip applies equally well to choirs who lack accompaniment.

7. The minimum requirement for a choir director is often good enough: someone who can start and stop the choir, and can lead rehearsals. And the most likely place to find such a person is from within the choir itself. A widely unknown fact is that many choir members can plink out parts well enough to lead rehearsal, because many choir members take their music home and learn it that way. They have the skill and ability to lead rehearsals: the trick is helping them realize it. In other words, this may be a very good time to begin sentences in this way: “June, you sing so nicely and I know you can play the piano just a bit. I have something to ask you about…”

8. A small choir is still a choir. We were lucky enough at Grace Church to have at least one person on all four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), but even if your choir is understaffed, there are great resources available. Plenty of anthem books contain dozens of anthems for one, two or three parts. (You might start with: O For a Dozen Tongues to Sing/Special Days, O For a Dozen Tongues to Sing/Christmas, 10 1/2 Anthems For About 10 Singers Choral Book, or Sacred Singable Solutions.) Often these anthems are a bit less challenging because they assume a smaller choir, but “less challenging” does not in any way mean less beautiful. (And there is no shame at all in unison anthems, where the whole choir sings a single part.) If you find your choir a few people short, just match the anthems you sing to the resources you have.

9. The choir can be the congregation’s best leader, and the congregation can sometimes be the choir’s best accompaniment. This is particularly true for congregations making do without instrumental accompaniment. The choir is a built-in group of musicians who are usually loyal and devoted church members. (There’s a reason why the expression “preaching to the choir” is synonymous with “preaching to the faithful”—this is also a good reason never to take your choir for granted.) Make use of them as music leaders for the church. The choir can sing the first verse or first line of a hymn and then lead the congregation in the rest of the hymn. Try “planting” choir members throughout the congregation—there is nothing to help you sing with more confidence like a great singer sitting nearby.

Conversely, the congregation can help the choir. Many anthems are built on a call-and-response structure or require the sense of “one” and “many.” In those cases, the congregation can be the “response” or the “many.” To give a concrete example, the hymn “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” can become a combined choir and congregation anthem when the choir sings the verses and invites the congregation to join them on the Alleluias. Similarly, almost any song with a repeated refrain can be split into a choir and congregation response. An excellent example is the hymn “Hail Thee Festival Day”; the six verses are a bit confusing to follow along with (because they alternate back and forth between two tunes), but the chorus is recognizable and simple. Some verses could even be split among choir members as solos or duets for variation.

Whatever you do, and however, you do it, remember that church is still church without a music director or a full choir. Had God ordained that every church must have an accomplished organist, seminaries would be replaced by music institutes and pipes and stops would be the new bread and wine. Instead, we are merely exhorted to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 100:1). There are musicians in your midst who are able and willing to help, it just takes a little time, a little patience and a little creativity to find them. Good luck!

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