St. George’s Music Program has experienced steady growth in the past five years. (Check yesterday’s post for a short description.) Here are some thoughts.
Like many people in my profession, I’m a member of the American Guild of Organists, or AGO. I tried the Northern Virginia Chapter when I relocated here, but couldn’t make any of the events due to the long commute and my full schedule, so I switched to the Richmond Chapter, which made for an easier commute to not attend their events due to my schedule conflicts. I miss the collegiality of the organization, whose mission is to promote the pipe organ. Since most of us have church jobs, there’s plenty to discuss: how many choirs, how many services, rehearsals, favorite repertoire, condition and size of the pipe organ, “problem children” and of course, what does the future look like for you? For me, two things usually emerge from these discussions:
1. When I describe our program, most people respond with wonder: “I’m so jealous that you have all those great people to work with!” or disbelief: “They let you play Jazz in church? How did you manage that?”
2. Fear. Organists working in the age of Praise and Worship music and the growth of mega churches at the expense of mainline denominations are concerned that their way of life and the music they love will be pushed out by the contemporary, the great new musical things, which exist in copious quantity in our fast moving information age.
At St. George’s, we have embraced two different musical genres that don’t use pipe organ, Jazz and Celtic. For some, that would mean that the pipe organ is slipping in importance in our community and will eventually fade away. This is not the case. In fact, a brand new 3-manual tracker organ will arrive at St. George’s in a few months. What’s our secret? How did we accomplish all this?
Step 1: We recognized that a church music program is a reflection of the faith community that it serves. We began with our people, and organized our music program around them. How many people do we have, what’s their level of ability, and what repertoire can we perform that will make them sound great?
Step 2: We kept the door open for people to share their gifts as often as they liked. Our Handbell choir director met with me when I first arrived and asked how often the bell choir could perform. I replied, “As often as you want.” This floored her, as in previous years, the ensemble, 12 volunteers who rehearsed regularly, had to beg for a chance to perform. They now perform weekly at alternate services. One of my young singers asked. “Can I play my sax sometime?” Six months later we had a Jazz ensemble playing Miles Davis and Coltrane at the prelude and postlude and morphing into a church orchestra for the hymns and service music.
Step 3: We value our volunteer musicians, expect them to behave like pros, and offer multiple education opportunities for them so that they can grow spiritually, personally and musically. We have no paid musicians apart from staff.
Step 4: We never say no to an opportunity. We acquired conga drums, so we added Latin Jazz to our repertoire and trained one of our cellists to play them.
Is managing all of this complicated and sometimes difficult? Yes. Is it worth it? Definitely. I once asked my undergraduate organ professor if she thought I had a future in this business. She replied that I certainly did as a teacher or performer, so what would I like to do? I said, “A full time church gig is speaking to me.” She replied, “That’s admirable. Just remember that a full time church job is an 80 hour week.” She was being conservative, but it’s all worth it.