Behind the Scenes of Church Music

Grace Reformed Church, where the URC plant meets

Grace Reformed Church, where the URC plant meets

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a number of friends and family in the Maryland/Virginia area.  All of the visits were greatly enjoyable, and a few were very musical as well!  On Sunday we worshiped with Dr. Brian Lee’s congregation at Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC.  Dr. Lee was gracious enough to extend the offer for me to play the organ during their service.  This was an incredible treat, as well as a great learning experience in organ performance.  Here’s a short video of my practice time before the service, to give you an idea of the beautiful sound of this 1931 Möller.

The logistics involved in coordinating accompaniment for worship, especially when visiting an unfamiliar church, can be pretty complicated.  That got me thinking: What is the best way to coordinate music in a Reformed church both efficiently and effectively?  To help answer this question, here are a few of the general steps involved in providing the music at my home congregation, West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.  It’s a look behind the scenes, if you will, at the logistics of church music.

Keep in mind that I’ve included every possible step in the outline below.  While this is the way I would like an ideal week of preparation to roll out, oftentimes my plan is just that—an unrealistic ideal.  With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the steps.

  1. As soon as possible, I find out what our pastor’s sermon topic is, read through the Scripture texts, and begin looking at possible choices for service music (using mainly the topical index in the front of the hymnbook).  Since my preludes and offertories are usually built on simple medleys of Psalter Hymnal tunes, I try to find selections that blend well with each other.  If I am coordinating my playing with another musician, we share ideas and form tentative plans for our choices.
  2. Pastor picks the congregational songs, usually on Friday.  I run through his selections on the piano or organ at home, and let him know if anything seems like an unwise choice for our congregation.  Often the correction can be as simple as an alternate psalm setting or a tune change.
  3. After the congregational songs are picked, I finalize the service music.  Then I create a bulletin insert with the lyrics to the music (more on this beneficial practice in a future post).  I send this to the church secretary before the bulletin deadline, hopefully by Friday night.
  4. I practice the congregational hymns at home, and if possible, at church.  I evaluate the tunes as to tempo, phrasing, difficult spots, and so on.  I also comb through the lyrics to find any phrases that might need some special emphasis in the accompaniment.
  5. I also practice my service music and, if it’s my own improvisation, I work on the arrangement.  If I get a chance to practice on the church organ, I work out which registrations I’ll be using.
  6. On Sunday morning, I try to get to church a bit earlier than usual and set up the organ—preparing my sheet music, finalizing the registrations, and so on.  Having estimated the length of the prelude at home, I work backwards to figure out when I should start it during the service.  Usually I berate myself for forgetting to bring a watch, but in a pinch, my cell phone will do (provided the ringer is off).
  7. I play for the service.  During each song I try to keep one ear on the congregational singing to decide whether I need to play faster or slower, be louder or softer, &c.  This constant attention to the sound of the congregation is more important than it might seem!
  8. Our sound technician generously records the music from the service for me, so I take the CDs home and copy the music from them.  I add these recordings to a growing collection at home.  Why?  Well, it’s not because they’re always particularly pleasant for listening, but because I want a record of the arrangements and registrations I used, the nuances of the congregational singing, and so on.  All of these factors will play into what I’ll choose for the next service.

Is this list obsessive?  Maybe it’s more than an average musician can fit into an already busy week.  But like I mentioned above, this is an ideal scenario—one we can always aim for, even if we usually miss.  That said, this system is still weak in a few areas:

  • I happen to live a fairly significant distance from the church, so the travel time is prohibitive when it comes to practicing on the organ during the week.  Although I’m incredibly blessed to have an organ here at home, there’s no replacement for the stops and sounds of the actual church instrument.
  • In order for this schedule to work, the pastor has to pick the hymns unusually early, and the secretary has to print the bulletin unusually late.  I regret having to impose on the schedules of the church staff in this way.
  • Any of these carefully-laid plans could change at a moment’s notice.  Whether it’s a sudden change in worship order, a copier malfunction, or an organ breakdown, anything can happen at any time during the week.  My humorous but often-true rule of thumb is that at least three unexpected things will happen on any given Sunday morning.  Thus, while the planning stages are important, I try not to devote an excessive amount of time to meticulous details.

Now, fellow church musicians: What are your preferred methods for planning and coordinating the music in a worship service?  Do you use something like the system described above, or have you found a better method?  Do you have any comments or suggestions for improvement?  I look forward to hearing from you.

To God be the glory,

–MRK

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