I have been a church musician for nearly 50 years. How it all started is a story I may tell in due course, but for the moment, my focus is a bit different. As the years have passed, I’ve seen many young musicians begin a career in church music on fire with the inspiration of their art, but then become increasingly bitter and exhausted until at last, they’re wheeled out of their church on a gurney.
It may not look like it or sound like it, but being a church musician is tough work. We try to make music under, let’s just say, less than ideal circumstances. Here’s just one example: I’m sitting there at the organ, and the presiding minister forgets where they are and skips a few lines, or jumps all over the place — and I have to be ready to skip and jump with them, and try to make it sound smooth and intentional.
I sometimes envy concert musicians. Yes, I know it’s a demanding and grueling job, but come on: You show up, and you play your program. You don’t have to worry about someone changing your program ten minutes before curtain, and you don’t have to be constantly ready to skip and jump with a presiding minister’s whims or lapses.
Doing church music is more like music theater. People are late for entrances, forget their lines, start the wrong song — and you have to be ready, anticipating what they might do next. And you just make it work.
Musicians who can do that, and make it look smooth or even effortless — those people are real artists. And they deserve more recognition than they get.
Let me say right now that recognition is not my motivation. It’s not about me.
Well, alright — it is about me. But not playing for sympathy or more recognition. No, it’s about me in the sense that I’ve seen a lot in 50 years, and after all that time, I think I’m entitled to share some of my experience and wisdom about why church musicians are so grumpy.
Granny’s Chicken Pot Pie
One of the delights of being a church musician is getting to hear how much better the music is in some other church. If I had a nickel for every time someone started a sentence with “In my old church . . .” I would buy the organ I play every Sunday from the church and install it in a new chateau in the eastern part of France. You know, right where the French and German borders meet and cafés serve baguettes and butter with Schnitzel and beer. Outside Strasbourg, for instance.
In fairness, I get that you may have a bit of nostalgia for your old church home. I understand that there are experiences you remember fondly, experiences that you have the urge to relive again and again. But maybe you want to consider reliving those experiences in private, instead of sharing them with musicians who are trying their best to create the kind of experiences that people like you will someday remember fondly, memories they will no doubt inflict on future musicians in their next church homes.
And the Cycle of Life continues.
Think of musical experiences as meals: What would happen if we ate Granny’s chicken pot pie as a steady, daily diet? I would be dead and therefore unable to share with you, which wouldn’t matter because you’d probably be dead too.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that your granny’s chicken pot pie wasn’t a heavenly experience. What I’m saying is that church musicians are not your granny, and church music is not the chicken pot pie channel.
Now, I know that some of you are perfectly content to eat exactly the same thing for dinner every single day, and I’m actually fine with that. It pains me to have to tell you this, but the church musician’s job isn’t to pick someone loud and cook just for them. Rather, the church musician’s job is to include as many people at the table as possible — even if it’s not all at the same time eating the same dishes.
I realize, for instance, that some of the music I serve up on some particular Sunday isn’t going to delight every single person in hearing range. But that’s not really the point: The point is to give people, of all kinds of tastes, opportunities to find something engaging and meaningful, and to do that, we serve a variety of dishes at this table. I know you might not like this or that particular dish or cuisine — trust me, I know. If I played only music I like, then you’d be getting a steady diet of 18th century German baroque music, which I would manage quite happily about 335 days out of every year. But I don’t do that, because, first of all, my job isn’t to make myself happy but to serve a community, and second, even I, with my capacity, get tired of 18th century German baroque music once in a while. That’s when I listen to Fine Young Cannibals or Steely Dan. Or Pink Floyd.
I’m not looking for confessions here, so please keep it to yourself, but if you are one of those people inclined to tell everyone in the kitchen how much better the food is somewhere else, let me suggest that you buck up and sample the dishes on offer where you are. You might find something you like, and something you’ll remember.
Uncle Harry Carves the Turkey
I’m not sure why, but a lot of people seem to have the misapprehension that all musical skills are actually various instances of exactly the same single activity. Consider keyboard skills, for instance. There are people who sight-read very well, and there are people who play by ear and may not read music at all. Now, just think for a moment about these two skills. One involves sitting down and reading the music in front of you while simultaneously playing it. The other involves remembering what a piece of music sounds like and reproducing an approximation of that memory in real time. The only thing these two skills have in common is that they both involve moving your fingers in the direction of a keyboard.
“Playing music” is that biblical house of many mansions: One deceptively simple term that covers a host of very different skills. And there’s no guarantee that a single musician has all those skills. Or even two or three at a time.
Here’s an easy way to get your head around this: Because you’ve seen Uncle Harry carve a turkey for Thanksgiving should never justify letting uncle Harry do your appendectomy. Yes, cutting is involved in both — but those are different skills. See?
Closely related to this confusion about skills is the mistaken belief that musical instruments that look similar are basically the same thing. In other words, someone who is pretty good at playing the piano is automatically good at playing the organ or vice versa. I realize that they may look alike — the layout of the keys, for instance, which we think of as the business end of these instruments — but piano and organ are excellent examples of how things that look sort of alike aren’t.
You may be surprised to learn that the way you play these instruments — meaning the way you touch the keys, the way your fingers (and feet) move and find their way around — is actually very different. You may be more surprised to learn that having good technical skills on one of them does not mean you can play the other one very well at all. And you may be even more surprised to learn that I actually hate playing the piano, and I do everything I can, within reason, to avoid having to touch one.
When you combine these two confusions — the one about musical skills and the other about musical instruments all being basically the same — you get a weird distorted world in which people think that because their nephew can play chopsticks on a toy piano they found in the attic, he could sit down right now at a glorious three-manual organ and rip off an enchanting prelude.
That’s like thinking you should be able to play a keyboard if you know how to operate cutlery. After all, using a knife and fork involves your two hands doing different things simultaneously, so that must be a sign of musical skill, right?
The Music Spigot
While I admit that there are some among us who find the use of cutlery a life-long challenge, most of us have conquered the simultaneous use of the knife and fork and perform this skill without much attention or effort. And that’s a problem for musicians: A knife-and-fork attitude about playing music leads people to believe that playing an instrument is like turning on a spigot. Music is always there, ready to spew on demand: Just turn the knob and out flows some music.
Unless you’re a parent or grandparent, of course. When it’s your own kid who manages to grind out a mostly-recognizable rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb, you’re tempted to pronounce them a musical prodigy. But the story of why music teachers are grumpy is a different conversation, so let me get back to the main theme.
The reason the Music Spigot Theory makes musicians grumpy is because it leads many nonmusicians to think that it’s no big deal when they change the music for worship at the last minute without thinking of notifying the musicians because musicians just show up and turn on the Spigot anyway.
I know it’s challenging when you’ve got the Music Spigot Theory running in your head, but go with me here:
Imagine you’re a musician, like me. It’s the week before the service. We’ve gotten our sheet music together, we’ve practiced what needed practicing, polished what needs polishing, and we show up on Sunday morning to find that the work we put into preparing our music was for nothing, because somebody had a brilliant idea in the middle of the week and didn’t bother to notify the us because, you know, we’re just going to show up and turn on the Spigot and spontaneously spew music anyway.
Now, just to make this a bit more vivid, let me point out that, yes, there are people – and I’m happy to say that I’m one of them – who can just show up and roll with whatever brilliant idea some nonmusician had midweek. But not every musician can do that with fluency and some degree of dignity, so if you want to cultivate music in your church community, you have to nurture and grow music-makers — and that includes young musicians who are still struggling to master the intricacies of their instruments and the complex fabric of music itself. What do those musicians need? They need time to practice. Giving them time to practice is incompatible with the Music Spigot approach on Sunday morning, 3 minutes before the service.
Remember this too: You can be a young musician at just about any age. It only takes a willingness to pick up an instrument and learn.
This is really a secret of the guild, as it were, but I’m going to break the code of silence with outsiders and share with you, today, the advice I give young church musicians. “When you practice a piece of music to make it polished and beautiful,” I tell them, “do it for yourself. Do it for your craft. Do it out of a love of the music you can make, by your own effort, with your own mouth and hands and feet. If you’re practicing because you think it’s going to be heard and appreciated by people on Sunday, you may very well show up and discover that someone had a brilliant idea in the middle of the week and didn’t tell you.”
You probably think I mean Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is actually a serious health condition that requires the care and attention of a trained professional. That’s not what I mean.
What I’m referring to is Post-Theological Seminary Disorder, which is the unfortunate condition, well-known among church musicians, of believing you’re an expert because you read about music in a liturgics class when you were in seminary.
You may think I’m kidding, but I’ve spent most of my life working closely with religious professionals. How many of you have actually been to a conference for pastors or preachers? Pastors lecture each other like they were in seventh grade, so you can imagine what it’s like when a pastor is across the table from somebody whose only qualification is that they’ve spent 15 years perfecting their art form. Musicians have no chance at all.
Pastors with Post-Theological Seminary Disorder are one of the causes of burnout among church musicians, primarily because of the debilitating symptoms of their condition. For a start, there’s the complete inability even to conceive that musicians might know more about music than they do. And then there’s a closely related symptom, the irresistible urge to inform musicians how to practice their art.
Over the years, I’ve seen a number of virulent cases of Post-Theological Seminary Disorder, so I’ve had a chance to engage in a little research on the epidemiology of this unfortunate condition. My findings are quite interesting. For instance, actual musical training on an actual instrument that involves actually reading music often acts as a sort of vaccine against PTSD: The more a preacher has tried to master musical skills, the greater their appreciation for those who have succeeded. In rare cases, this has even led to genuine respect.
In the spirit of scientific integrity, I have to state that these cases haven’t been studied extensively because, frankly, there aren’t that many of them, but as an observer, let me say informally that some exposure to actual music can also exacerbate the condition, particularly when the pastor in question doesn’t realize that, music-wise, they aren’t very good. I actually had a minister tell me how to play the organ because, he explained, he knew about music since he regularly sang in a choir in seminary.
Once I was visiting a church that had recently dedicated a beautiful new organ. The pastor of the church was obviously proud of it, so he was giving me a tour. He ceremoniously turned the organ on, and invited me to play. I sat down and pressed a few keys to get the feel of the instrument’s touch and character. The pastor knowingly informed me, “You have to turn on some stops for the organ to sound.”
Sometimes, a pastor’s length of experience has a preventive effect against the worst symptoms of Post-Theological Seminary Disorder. I’ve personally known cases of pastors with three or four decades of experience that come to see the value of letting actual musicians make musical decisions — but again, we don’t have a lot of data because it’s so uncommon.
Mentoring young church musicians around Post-Theological Seminary Disorder is particularly tricky. In fairness, I recognize that religious leaders bear a heavy burden: responsibility for the spiritual well-being of their congregations. Part of that responsibility is ensuring opportunities for vibrant, engaging, meaningful worship experiences — which of course, almost always means music as well. But one of the more subtle symptoms of Post-Theological Seminary Disorder is mistaking responsibility for expertise. How often does it happen that a pastor, genuinely trying to create meaningful experiences, doesn’t think to partner with the musician as a fellow expert?
I have a dream that, one day, in some church somewhere, a musician will be sitting across the table from a pastor in a worship planning meeting, and the pastor will say, “This is what I’d like to accomplish with the worship experience. Can you help create and enhance that experience through music?”
Let me know if you ever see that happen, ok?
I won’t take anymore of your time with this list – which is by no means complete. But as I mentioned, I will mark my 50th anniversary this year, 2022. On the first Sunday of September in 1972, I became the regular, paid organist at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Killeen, Texas, thus entering the ranks of professional church musicians. Over the years, I’ve served many different communities — Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, and more. Lutheran, too: I have served Christ Lutheran Church for 36 years and counting. After so long, I’ve become something more like a piece of furniture than a person.
I’ve played more weddings than I could begin to count, and it’s been years since I started playing weddings for people whose parents’ weddings I played. Sadly, I’ve also played too many funerals and memorials to recall — including most of my own relatives. I clearly remember the music I played at my two grandmothers’ funerals, and when I play those pieces, the music takes me to their kitchens and anise cookies and freshly-baked bread and home-made dill pickles. And chicken pot pie.
I’ve played organs of all kinds, all over the continent and several in Europe, too — including a pump organ at a presbyterian church that held me, the organ, the minister, and about 20 worshippers, with standing room only and no discernible air conditioning. I’ve played for worship at Hindu temples and synagogues and chapels and funeral homes, and even people’s living rooms and garages. I’ve played pianos perched in the back of a pickup truck and keyboards in the middle of a graveyard; sunrise services and morning revivals and midnight masses. I even played mallets once for a pot-smoking full-gospel drum circle worship service, complete with Holy Communion and a homily by a thoroughly stoned priest.
I could tell you stories that are hilarious and stories that are tragic, and everything in between. Stories of brides who walked out of their own weddings, some cursing at the top of their lungs into a live microphone. Having arrived at the altar on her father’s arm, one memorable bride paused and then slapped her ex-groom and two of the best men for good measure, as she stormed out of the church.
I could share stories of grooms who turned up “under the weather,” unable to repeat words they’d just heard from the officiating minister or stand up without support for that matter. I’ve seen a bridal party, frozen like mannequins in a store window, watching a bride set her own veil on fire with a unity candle.
I could tell you about two estranged brothers who lunged at each other from opposite sides of a casket, knocking their dead mother off the stand in the front of the church — shortly before being solemnly ushered out by sheriff’s deputies. Not many people leave a funeral in handcuffs.
I’ve seen feuds and fights play out in churches, and more than once, I was a bystander to congregations that fired their spiritual leaders while they were away on vacation or at a conference, blissfully unaware. I’ve had to deal with sound-system petty tyrants, one of whom, in a territory-defending pique, simply turned off the sound system, leaving the congregation singing an unexpected a cappella liturgy. It took the minister, an usher, and two parishioners to dislodge the tyrant from his post in the sound room so worship could proceed with the keyboard and mics back on.
I’ve watched from the organ bench as a pastor fainted and fell sprawling on the altar, scattering tiny wine cups and wafers everywhere. I’ve played the liturgy without flinching while wasps landed on my hands and arms in a particularly ill-kept sanctuary. I wasn’t stung, but a young church musician who was turning pages for me was — right on the cheek. I’ve been asked to play “travel music” while the EMS wheeled a heart-attack patient out of church after what must have been a particularly strenuous confession.
In all this tragedy and comedy, you might think nothing would stand out, but you’d be wrong. On one very memorable occasion, when I was 16, I played the organ at the funeral of one of my aunt’s many husbands. (She collected husbands like a stamp-collector, neatly arranging them in scrapbooks after cancellation.)
It was a small, rural Baptist church, proud of their new, duly Called and freshly-ordained preacher. This young preacher was presiding over his very religious ceremony in the parish that day, a funeral. Apparently, he realized in the middle of his first funeral that the Call he thought had been for him was actually intended for someone else.
As I played the final hymn — ironically, it was “Rock of Ages” — the would-be preacher came over and whispered into my ear, “I can’t do this. I’m leaving,” abruptly abdicating his post and running away. Literally. As in, out the side door, just behind the organ.
After the hymn, the funeral director was waiting for me in a panic. “What do we do?” he asked me.
In an instant, I perceived what this all meant. I was the only person in the room who actually knew what to do. I looked around the sanctuary at those people, already saddened at the loss of a friend, a relative, a fellow member — and I saw faces anguished by their new preacher’s sudden departure on his first day of service. I felt an irresistible wave of compassion, and I looked the funeral director right in the eyes and told him to load the casket: I would perform the grave-side ceremony myself.
Now, the amazing thing about this story is that the funeral director — an adult and a professional in his own right — looked back at me, a 16-year old, and just said, “Ok.”
As my father drove my family to the cemetery, I consulted the little book of liturgical rites that I always kept in my music briefcase, until then, so I could follow along. By the time I was grave-side, I was ready to do what was required. After the commendation, after I dismissed the assembly and comforted those in grief as best I could, my father and I walked solemnly back toward the car. He is not a man prone to displays of emotion. “I don’t know how you did that,” was all he said. I may have mistaken it for pride.
My mother stayed in the car.
At the risk of a little hyperbole, in five decades, I have seen it all.
I’ve seen many, many musicians come into this odd form of community service. And I’ve seen them go. I’ve done what I could to nurture and mentor them. I’ve watched them grow, watched musical skills blossoming. I’ve seen how they were treated — and I’ve never believed it was intentional. But nevertheless, I’ve seen what happened to so many of them as a result.
So I thought it would be interesting and perhaps informative to share with you some of the major reasons why church musicians become exhausted and bitter — not to complain, nor even to ask anyone to change, which, pragmatist that I am, I see as extremely unlikely.
No, I’d like you to think of this as a sort of documentary or a scientific report; a natural history, if you will, of why church musicians are so grumpy.