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Feeding the Five Thousand

By Jerry F. Davidson

When I was a very young man I made a conscious decision to be a church musician. I loved playing the organ, singing, and making music any way I could. I liked the men and women around me who were leaders in church music and found real joy in my studies at New York’s Union Theological Seminary in the late 1960s. After nearly 60 years of active service in music ministry I have seen drastic changes in how laity and clergy perceive what I do. I have directed the music in 11 different churches, mostly Episcopal but also Presbyterian and Methodist, with some deputizing in Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. Whenever I served for more than a year we saw substantial growth in choir membership and more participation in congregational singing.

I now serve a parish with a long history of extraordinarily fine church music led by high-powered and talented directors. I was hired four years ago because the parish could no longer afford to pay a full-time musician or provide funds for a semiprofessional choir. We are making the transition gracefully to a parish-based music program, but it’s been a major challenge.

Given all this, I am constantly asking: What is the role of the professional church musician in the second decade of the 21st century? What I deal with today, and what I see around me and am told by colleagues, is simply not the church music for which I trained. The changes come extremely quickly, not unlike the field of communications, which seems to change weekly, with no remaining reference point.

Frequently I use the metaphor of a professional chef who serves a large family. Food, like music, has both a practical and aesthetic facet: a certain quantity of food is absolutely necessary, but it may be good or bad food, and we may not all agree in our evaluations. A chef serving a large family has to contend with providing edible food three times a day for a group with varied tastes and needs. The infant can tolerate little more than milk, water, and pabulum. The senior adults will sometimes react very well to foie gras, cognac, and fine wines. No single meal served to all can possibly be expected to satisfy every family member completely. The chef must also consider nutrition because without it the family will suffer. In addition to balancing protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and roughage the successful family chef will have to consider what one wag called the “four teenage food groups”: sugar, salt, fats, and food coloring. Balance can be critical.

In music, as well as food, a steady diet of the same thing will produce malnutrition. I make no apologies for our music being eclectic. We try to draw from the best materials available from a very wide range of possibilities. For example, in one autumn season we offered chant (both Gregorian and Anglican), Handel (“Their bodies are buried in peace”), English Cathedral repertory (Gore-Ouseley’s “From the rising of the sun”), arch-Romantic (Bruckner’s Locus iste), American 20th-century (Gordon Young’s “From all that dwell below the skies”), and even a Cameroon marching song from Africa, all selected to illuminate the readings for the day. It’s a healthy mix, and a repertory that our small volunteer choir can both enjoy and get their teeth into.

There will always be complaints. Why don’t we ever sing any hymns I know? is a question every church musician will have heard. The answer is often simple: too few people know very many hymns. Sometimes this is because the speaker does not attend very often or attends at only certain times of the year and is almost always someone who really does not enjoy singing or feels incompetent to sing. I have heard this very complaint most often in parishes where I have followed either a musician or a clergy person who had tried to subsist on a very restricted diet of hymns.

Sometimes the complainer is a crank and no discussions will make any difference. Mostly, however, it is a genuine problem and I try to engage the person in a discussion about why we sing hymns and the way in which we choose hymns. The first thing I always do when I go to a new parish, if possible, is make a history of all the hymns sung for the preceding three to five years using the service leaflets or, if I’m really lucky, use a list that had been left for me by my predecessor. This way it’s possible to show that some beloved hymns appear regularly.

Another complaint heard among parishes I have served is that the music is “too highbrow” or “too lowbrow.” In one instance the parishioner turned out to be an avowed country and western fan who found everything else incomprehensible. In another instance a parishioner wanted us to sing nothing but the cathedral repertory anthems — no mean feat for the small, completely amateur choirs that I have usually led. The helpful aspect of such a complaint is that it opens the way for discussions, and the analogy of the chef usually forms my answers.

I am fond of telling anyone who will listen that if they have heard nothing that morning that directly spoke to them I am indeed sorry, but if they have attended for a month and not been fed then I need to know immediately. I will never fully satisfy a Willie Nelson fan, a praise-chorus devotee, or the person who seems to think that our choir is just on leave from Westminster Abbey. But if I’m doing my job correctly, I will feed and nourish the multitude regularly.

Planning is the most important step I take to ensure congregational nutrition. With long-range planning it is possible to balance the hymnodic, choral, and instrumental music to cover the needs of the congregation. I usually work a year in advance, starting with hymn selection. If you do not have plans you cannot make changes, and it is in the changes sometimes that the most creativity flourishes. While hymn selection has been left entirely in my hands in every parish in which I have served, I am always ready to make changes and adjustments to accommodate parish needs and a rector’s desires. I select hymns (using several excellent hymn lists) to amplify and illuminate the readings for the day and season. The late Eric Routley used to say, “When you select hymns, ask yourself, What does the congregation want to say at this point? Then try to find the hymn that will let them say it.”

Jesus had only a few fish and loaves of bread to feed the multitude. The church musician has a different problem: nearly infinite possibilities but the necessity of doing it more than 50 times a year. Be like a good chef: plan carefully so that the musical meals you serve are tasty, nutritious, and offer variety to ensure a healthy, happy congregational family.

Before retiring in 2010, Jerry Davidson served as music director for parishes in five states. He now serves as parish musician for Trinity Church in Torrington, Connecticut, and is in training to become a consultant for parishes in transition in the Diocese of Connecticut.

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