Developing an Orchestra in the Intergenerational Church—from 7-30+ players in five years.

When I arrived at my current church 5 1/2 years ago, I was tasked with developing an orchestra for our church. At the time, there were about 7-8 players (all but two were not adults) and they had met a few times of the fall prior to my arrival with the goal of playing for the Christmas season of 2012. Prior to that, the church used piano, organ, and a drummer to accompany congregational song. Needless to say, I had to come up with a plan to utilize these willing players so they felt confident and ready to lead in worship. This task was already tricky since we were utilizing not only varying generations, but varying skill levels as well. After some trial and error and now several years reflecting on how we got to almost 35 players in our orchestra in about 5 years, I’ve come up with some points that helped us along the way. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful if you’re starting an orchestra:

  1. Pray, Pray, Pray. I literally cried out to God to send us players with servant hearts, musical skill, and commitment to be in rehearsals and services. From the beginning there were some critical instruments/people we needed to move forward and I know God’s hand of provision is why we are where we are today. I’m still crying out to God today even though we literally are out of space AND we’ve already extended our platform once!
  2. Use your current players as scouts for new players. Those first players were so excited to be playing in our church and regularly looked and listened for others in our fellowship who had played before to invite to our team. Within the first six months of my time here, we had added at least 4-5 players. In fact that’s about how many have been added each year since I’ve arrived. MANY of these players come because someone in the orchestra found out they played and invited them to check us out.
  3. Rehearse them to confidence and fluency. After I arrived, the orchestra played every week. We had long rehearsals where I was very detailed in my instructions of  the “road map” of the song. We played things multiple times so the fluency was there. It was tedious but necessary. Basically, we spent 75 minutes a week on 4 tunes for the congregation. Aiming to forgo distractions in the worship service was my number one musical goall. We started with easy congregational songs (even familiar hymns) to build confidence. That confidence resulted in better playing. Better playing resulted in higher quality offerings to God in worship. As soon as our quality started getting better, we needed fewer “scouts” because people just started inquiring about playing. Excellence breeds excellence!
  4. Challenge them but don’t overwhelm them. We use a variety of charts from various publishers with a varying degree of difficulty. In the beginning I aimed to balance out more complicated with simple orchestrations. Likewise, we didn’t even attempt to accompany the choir until about 18 months after I arrived because I wanted to make sure they had learned/rehearsed/played/led the roughly 125 tunes in our congregational song corpus. Even that first anthem we played for, the Word publication of the tune By Our Love, was chosen specifically because the orchestration is relatively simple. Today, we can handle most anything the church music publishers write. It’s fun to think back at the evolution.
  5. Feature them. After we started playing regularly for the congregation AND choir, we started playing stand-alone orchestra preludes/features, etc. It’s giving them a place to “shine” and greater ownership of the orchestra ministry.
  6. Use all your generations. At this moment, four generations in our church play in our orchestra. Ten of those players are under the age of 20; all my string players (7) are students. The students who play for us are excellent players and the sight-reading they get to do for me helps them in their school bands and orchestra. Without using all our generations, we wouldn’t be an orchestra…we’d be a band…we’d be smaller, less effective, and have less color/timbre. Teach them to serve for life. Invest in your students.
  7. Love your orchestra family. Make sure you love on these players as much as you would your choir members. They have at least as much to learn as the choir each week and are just as important to the music ministry team. Be involved in their lives. If you use care group leaders, as I do for all my groups, make sure you USE them to help you do care ministry for these players.

In my next blog I want to talk about some of the actual literature we used (congregational song mostly) as we moved forward. Our church has ALWAYS been intergenerational so they’ve never been through a musical style split. They embraced changes in music even before I got there. However, when the “sound” of the songs, arrangements, number of players, etc. began changing, some finesse was necessary. Even with our varied musical styles, there has always been the push to be more traditional or more contemporary from some. So, I will talk about how we embraced our intergenerational context to be who WE ARE, not any other church. I’m still a student of who we are…partly because who we are is constantly evolving; we are double the size we were when I arrived. Stay tuned!

Shared Leadership

If any church claims to be truly intergenerational, her leadership must reflect the generational diversity of the church. To be clear, there is little need for an 8 year old with limited perspective to make unilateral, major decisions requiring a broader perspective of someone older. However, there are definitely ways that folks of all ages can be integral in shaping the vision and practices of many church ministries. The concept of “shared leadership” simply means that folks from all backgrounds (and ages) have the opportunity to lead (both in planning and execution of various ministry areas). Music ministry is a great way to implement the use of shared leadership. Here are are a couple of considerations when implementing this strategy:

  1. Implement worship leadership planning team(s) with members from all generations.  In this process those seasoned leaders invest in the younger, while the younger gives fresh ideas. This is potentially tricky, but allow those younger members opportunities to look at events, programs, and times of worship with fresh perspective. As a seasoned leader, ask questions of those younger members about their understanding of the worship experience and what might resonate with them to help them connect to God. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.

    My 10 year old son LOVES to doodle and draw during a sermon. Having plenty of room for notes (not always text notes—but pictures) allows him to stay focused and engaged. If your church doesn’t have room on your worship guide for this, consider having a separate worship guide for those creative types. In fact if the theme/scripture/application for the day may be added to this guide, that would help engage those (adults too) that are primarily visual and kinestetic learners.

  2. Develop musical leadership from all generations in your church. We value all our generations in worship so much, we regularly schedule time for our children and youth to share their gifts and talents in worship leadership. It’s a very intentional process. We don’t just teach them music performance, but also the importance of modeling worship behavior for participation. For our students that show great musical potential and feel the call of God to vocational ministry, we work hard to invest in them specifically. We do this by using the “Gradual Release Model,” developed by Pearson and Gallagher in 1983. This model (seen below) does exactly what the term suggests, it allows the “student” to assume responsibility as they get more opportunities to serve. Ultimately, it is our prayer is that the Lord will call some from our church to vocational music ministry and because they’ve been leading throughout their lives, they will already be equipped to lead elsewhere.

Obviously, the role of the “teacher” changes as the students are developed. This “passing the torch” approach is not without its difficulties. Obviously, the budding leadership still needs guidance along the way. Sometimes, for instance, the developing leader gets very excited about trying something new, but hasn’t considered the theological content or the context of the situation when giving leadership to planning and executing worship experiences.

Next week, I will discuss some of the tensions and struggles that may arise from developing nextgen leaders and how we as seasoned leaders can encourage without stifling the energy, creativity, and passion of these budding leaders.

 

The Wonderful Grace of Jesus

“Indeed, we have all received grace after grace from His fullness…” John 1:16

I loved going to church as a child and youth. At the time, I didn’t realize this “holy habit” of regular church attendance would serve me well since God placed a call on my life to vocational music ministry. Naturally, I was drawn to the music, but I’ll be the first to admit I loved learning about God’s word through the teaching and preaching of some very Godly men also. But the Word of God that was hidden in heart (other than the scripture I memorized) came through the content of the songs we sang. Now I enjoyed the music on Sunday mornings with the choir leading (of course), but I LOVED Sunday night musical worship. Maybe it was because it was more informal, or that we used a second hymnal that had songs that were more fun to sing, but regardless, much of the hymnody that has become a part of my personal musical DNA was wrought on Sunday evenings.

One of my all-time favorites to sing on Sunday nights was “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” Perhaps it was the bouncy, catchiness of the tune or the fact that the men and the ladies got to do separate parts…nevertheless, I thought it was a lot of fun to sing. And I LOVED stretching my voice at the end of each chorus to sing the high G on “praise His name!”  While the song was fun to sing, it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I fully understood why we were singing about how wonderful GRACE was. I didn’t realize that the text of that song, which is now firmly implanted in my heart and mind, would be my theme of God’s redemptive work in my life. We all need grace. In Ephesians 1:7, Paul reminds us that “in Him we have redemption through His blood, according to the RICHES of His grace.” This means it COSTS something and I soon realized God’s grace is not only rich in abundance, but it was BOUGHT on Calvary. The first line says it all, “wonderful grace of Jesus, GREATER than ALL my sin.” His grace is greater than our need, our failures, and our sin.

So today, as we journey in our various places, may the riches of grace  overwhelm us and remind us that we have the victory through Jesus Christ! Sing with me…

 

  1. Wonderful grace of Jesus,
    Greater than all my sin;
    How shall my tongue describe it,
    Where shall its praise begin?
    Taking away my burden,
    Setting my spirit free;
    For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

Refrain:
Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain,
All-sufficient grace for even me!
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,
Greater far than all my sin and shame;
Oh, magnify the precious Name of Jesus,
Praise His Name!

  1. Wonderful grace of Jesus,
    Reaching to all the lost,
    By it I have been pardoned,
    Saved to the uttermost;
    Chains have been torn asunder,
    Giving me liberty;
    For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.
  2. Wonderful grace of Jesus,
    Reaching the most defiled,
    By its transforming power,
    Making him God’s dear child,
    Purchasing peace and heaven
    For all eternity—
    And the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

Reflections from Baptist Church Music Conference 2018

 

 

 

Deanna and I spent the last several days in San Antonio for the annual meeting of the Baptist Church Music Conference. We went early because I was on the Executive Council as Local Church Representative from the East for the past few years. Being able to go early allowed us some time to enjoy some of the rich history (and fun) of San Antonio. We had a blast…and the conference was great too!

More than anything the conference sessions and concerts do to inspire and train me as a leader, I leave full from the conversations of colleagues at the conference. This year in particular was a special time of relationship building time; I am forever grateful for these friends in my life. I would also say that our morning corporate worship times, led by Kirk Kirkland and Ray Jones, were incredibly powerful and refreshing. I am thankful to God for reminding me of the importance of the ministry to which He has called me.

The sessions I led on intergenerational worship in the local church went very well and were well attended. People are definitely interested in this topic. My first thought after I finished my sessions was, “well, it’s easy to teach people content they already believe.” I knew the general concepts wouldn’t be far off from their own philosophy of worship. However, it wasn’t until Tuesday did I realize the profound impact that intergenerational philosophy is having on many churches/leadership (at least at our conference).  As the folks from the local church division met together, we started the conversation with celebrating GOOD things happening in our churches. I was truly overwhelmed with thankfulness as I heard several of my colleagues share of their church’s journey from separate types of services to a unified worship expression. Thankfully, the leadership of these churches realize that music alone cannot grow a church and separating services with the primary intention to grow based on music choices is not achieving the desired result. In fact not a single one there could testify that having/having had separate types of services with this primary goal in mind is working to grow their church. May I just say it thrilled my heart to hear this. And the best part? Most who’ve been through this journey of unification are seeing more unification and increased attendance. I think the key is, and will be, teaching and inspiring the leadership to move towards unification, and if music is a key component…realize that diversity of musical styles doesn’t guarantee success if the diversity of music is not inline with the church culture and context. The better answer is in finding ways to interrelate the generations together in worship. In worship leadership my belief is that having worship teams that involve more is an important key component. 

Oh, there is much more to be said. I’d like to hear from more of my colleagues who have had “success” moving from a multi-service model back to a single model (mirrored in content and style). I think there might be some similarities worth noting. I’m certain there will be many differences, because every church is different, but some things worth noting could rise to the top. If you are reading this and you’ve been through this scenario, I’d love to hear from you.

The Noise is Deafening and It’s Not My Fault!

This past weekend, some of our music and worship team from Ivy Creek led the music for the large group corporate worship times at the Georgia Baptist Women’s Ministry Spring Event at Stone Mountain. We had a blast meeting new folks and getting to connect with women of ALL ages from all over the state. The women were very encouraging about the musical offerings we presented and the variety of congregational songs we chose to lead, but do you know what the number one comment of encouragement was? “Thank you for not having the music SO loud that we didn’t get a headache.” OR “we could hear each other sing and yet the music was still energetic and supportive.” Don’t think that it was just older women either…no, it was folks from all ages.

Now, I’d heard these volume comments before (some good and some not so good), but they made a deeper impression this weekend because I’m constantly looking for ways to alleviate distractions in worship so the Father is highlighted and not what I am doing. Decibel levels matter, my friends. Prolonged, heavy vibrations in the ear drums can cause hearing damage. So, today I submit that not only are our musical choices important to connect generations together in worship, but the volume of that music is important too.  

Any concert or church that hands out ear plugs (and there are MANY) before the music starts says to me, “I’m not concerned with your aural health enough to lower the volume to a healthy decibel level. Accept this small token to alleviate the painful noise because I seemingly care about you. But, those younger folks here, perhaps your sons and daughters that came in with you, they can tolerate the higher decibel levels (even if it damages their hearing long term).” Really??? But I digress. I do believe understanding some possible reasons WHY decibel levels have gotten out of control may help us understand why it’s important to be cognizant when considering volume levels in the intergenerational church.

SOME REASONS VOLUME HAS GOTTEN LOUDER 

  1. The advent of rock music (and specifically its live performance) is predicated on the feeling (vibration) the music brings to the listener/enjoyer (music coursing through your veins—literally)
  2.  With the advent of car radios (especially as stereo and bass technology has risen) one can be literally “enveloped” with sound
  3. Churches have tried to mimic the feeling of a rock concert to increase the emotional and physical experience

A FEW ARGUMENTS FOR LOUD VOLUME

  1.  The enveloping of sound is a perfect way for non-singers to feel “safe” to sing uninhibited
  2.  We can feel and hear the energy of the music
  3.  Non-Christians are more comfortable hearing/and seeing music like what they experience at concerts/radio, etc.
  4. Not having music that engulfs us makes the music sound anemic

In these arguments, and there are plenty of others, there’s not one that I can tell that could not be achieved with a reasonable decibel level. Perhaps not at the same degree though. Certainly it is more challenging to “feel” the bass when it’s not thumping.

SOME REASONS TO FIND A REASONABLE DECIBEL LEVEL IN WORSHIP SERVICES

  1. Music that is so loud and piercing limits creativity to some degree. Dynamics, vocal harmonies and the like, are harder to distinguish and achieve. I’ve heard “softs” that still had high decibel levels
  2. If you are going to have multiple generations in your services, multiple studies have shown that something physiological happens the older we get…the ear inside our ears gets stiffer as one ages causing our tolerance to certain decibel levels to decrease
  3. We need to hear each other as we sing together because of the biblical command to admonish and teach one another through singing songs of worship (Ephesians 5:19). Pretty hard to do that if you can barely hear the person next to you. Where’s the community in that?
  4. Loud decibel levels can distort text or make articulation incomprehensible. Pretty sure text is what sets worship apart from any other musical experience.
  5. Oversinging may cause vocal damage
  6. Loud decibel levels over extended time may cause hearing loss

To be clear, I’m not targeting modern worship music or bands that play a certain type of music. I love all types of music! I am specifically targeting the decibel level of ANY type of worship service. I’ve heard organs that have literally moved me physically with the vibrations and caused me to hold my ears.

I submit you: Extremes in volume (decibel level) may be polarizing relationally in the intergenerational church. Finding the balance is key in your own situation. Sometimes sitting in certain places in a worship center can yield a different sound. I know there are places in our worship center that are louder than others. I encourage folks who mention they can hear too much sound/cannot hear well to move around until they find what works for them.

Even as we consider this issue, there will be people in our sphere of influence that will never be pleased with volume levels because their preferences are so extreme. That’s okay; we in intergenerational churches are used to having to remind our folks that we are guided by the philosophy that we are better together, guided by the Word and the Holy Spirit, and always looking to find practical ways (volume included) to achieve the best balance for our church culture and context.

Changing Things Up Can=Baloney!

One of the things that surprises me time and time again is the “one size fits all” approach held by churches, educational systems, and other such types of organizations. What works for some doesn’t always work for others. However, often trying to emulate the successes of others seems to be the norm. Recently, I had a conversation with someone whose church is trying to reach younger families in their community. This is a noble goal. However, this church leadership(from the description given to me by the person with whom I was talking) decided that adding a “modern” service would do the trick. Familiar story, right? OR, another familiar theme is “let’s change things up because I think things are getting stale.” Again, not a bad idea if there is purpose behind it, rather than simply changing things up so people don’t get bored. This mentality is rampant in the entertainment industry…push the envelope, tweak this and that so people aren’t bored and you (as ministry leadership) look like you are “doing” something productive for the Kingdom. Baloney!

Pragmatism is the nuts and bolts, but Philosophy should be the wrench. Rather than trying to make a bunch of changes in one’s church based on the successes of others, it is infinitely more important to capitalize on the strengths and weaknesses of YOUR church. Use all generations in your church. Don’t be afraid to use varied types of music. Be authentic; be real. But let the philosophy of “we’re better together…we value ALL in our faith family” resound! Remember intergenerational ministry/worship is not something you DO, it’s something you ARE. It’s a guiding principle…

I’m in the process of getting ready to teach two similar seminars in the next couple of weeks on intergenerational worship. The first is this weekend for the annual Georgia Baptist Women’s Event at Stone Mountain. Some of our music team and I will be leading in musical worship and I will teaching a class on music in the intergenerational church. The following weekend, I’m heading to the Baptist Church Music Conference in San Antonio where I’m also teaching on intergenerational worship.  Last night I was talking with one of my 14 year old sons about what I was doing the next few weeks. He pointed out that my audiences will be vastly different. He laughed that I’ll be teaching a bunch of women this weekend and mostly men the following weekend. It is a fair assessment. We also talked about how important the women’s conference is (mostly laypeople-perhaps choir members in churches throughout the state) because these women are leaders in their church—they are the participants. The next weekend, I will be speaking to colleagues—to leaders in music ministry. I HOPE that the conversations from this coming weekend will help continue shape what I bring to our leaders. Granted, most of the leaders I will speak with next weekend believe in the intergenerational philosophy, so I hope to bring some ideas of how those leaders can strengthen their approach (philosophy) to reaching our next generations, as well as keeping all generations active and present in ministry. Both great opportunities, but I must alter my approach based on the culture of the situation. We church leaders should do the same with our churches…consider the context.

How different would our churches be that would truly embrace the multi-generational atmosphere of their churches by finding ways to capitalize on the strengths of all? How different would our churches be that didn’t constantly look to music as the MAIN tool for reaching the de-churched and un-churched? Because seriously, how much as contemporary worship music evolved in the last 30 years? Musically? not much. Textually? There have been some great strides in this area. But, in all? Not so much. Those churches who’ve found their niche (think cowboy church or mariachi church in certain locales) are the ones embracing who they are. We’d be much better off to focus on building intergenerational relationships, discipleship ministries, and having all generations involved in worship and other service ministries (not just music).

Pray for our team this weekend as we sing, share, and inspire.

Lots of Music Readers in Your Choir Doesn’t Translate to Learning More New Music.

Assumptions are often not all they appear to be. It seemed logical to me that if I had lots of music readers, I would be able to conquer more new music than the church down the street that learns everything by rote. However, that’s not entirely the case. Here is some interesting related data I collected on choirs that I think are interesting:

  1. Number of music readers does not affect number of new anthems learned in a year.
  2. The largest choirs in my study learned the most anthems; the smallest learned the fewest. While one could assume this was due to the music readers more commonly found in larger choirs, I think this data is more likely a financial decision. Larger choirs more often have more money to spend on new anthems and smaller choirs in smaller churches.
  3. Choirs that used printed scores only learned far fewer new anthems than those who just use projected media in worship services. This seems almost hard to believe since it seems that having the printed score means the song could be learned quickly. However, these churches using printed scores only in worship are usually smaller—thus, the financial piece in number 3.
  4. There is no correlation between age of leader or dominant generational cohort that affects the number of anthems learned in a year. So the reasoning is not philosophical, but pragmatic.

With this information in mind, here are some other factors that can influence the number learned:

  1. The church has a limited music budget. This factor overwhelmingly drives how much music in learned in a year. Unfortunately, the reality is many churches are limited on budgets and new music is reserved for Easter or Christmas, with maybe a new collection here and there.
  2. Rehearsal time. A 1.5-2 hour rehearsal definitely gives any choir more opportunities to learn music over an hour rehearsal.
  3. Fail to have music readers in every vocal section. There are plenty of choirs who have one (or two) sections that cause the rehearsal to lag because so much time is devoted to bringing a non-reading section along.
  4. Leader does not desire to learn lots of music. I’ve spoken with several colleagues that are against picking up a song in a week or so of rehearsal and then singing it. They believe that much time is needed for the choir to internalize the text and the artistry of the song.
  5. The choir uses full orchestra and one part (choir or orchestra) may have a much harder part than the other. I’ve personally had this issue. Some songs are very difficult for either the choir or the orchestra and so more time is required for one or the other parts.
  6. The choir takes breaks in the year. While most choirs take some time off in the summer or after Christmas, there are some choirs that only sing 2-3 times a month, thus limiting how many new songs may be learned in a year.

I’m sure the list could go on and on. My best guess is the financial piece and the rehearsal time drives most of the decisions on how many anthems are learned in a year. What else would you add to this list?

Who (or What) Accompanies the Choir in the Intergenerational Church?

Psalm 150 (ESV) Let Everything Praise the Lord
Praise the LordPraise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp !Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LordPraise the Lord!

It’s probably no surprise to you that churches use a variety of accompaniments when singing choral music. I remember, in the not too distant past, when most churches either used tracks or piano and/or organ every Sunday to accompany the choir. Yes, there were always the large churches in metropolitan areas that used orchestras every week due to their proximity of available and capable players, but certainly not common. Other churches of some size and proximity to metro areas would often hire orchestras for their seasonal works. The variety has continued, and even expanded, according to a recent data I collected from full-time ministers of music in Georgia. Here’s are the reported methods of accompaniment used on CHORAL pieces for every Sunday use:

Accompaniments

You’ll notice that over 60 percent of those I interviewed used some form of combination each week (note that the numbers and percentages don’t necessarily match because some leaders could fit into more than one of the sub-categories). I broke down further underneath that heading those combinations using an accompaniment choice at or more than 50 percent of the time. Moving down the chart, you’ll see that less than 20 percent use orchestra every week. Less than 10 percent use some sort of “keyboard only” scenario, band, or tracks only. It is truly a cornucopia of possibilities and I didn’t even include any combinations that might have included less than 50 percent. The list is LONG!

What I discovered in this process through data comparison with church size was that the size of the church (and choir) directly related to the accompaniments used. Surprised? I wasn’t. Here are some interesting facts:

  1. Half of the largest church choirs (average attendance of 76+ each week) use orchestra at least 80 percent of the Sundays.
  2. None of the choirs with 25 or fewer in average attendance used orchestra at all.
  3. 53 percent of the church choirs with 25 or fewer used accompaniment tracks at least 50 percent of the time
  4. 40 percent  of choirs averaging 26-50 in attendance used tracks.
  5. 11.3 percent of choirs averaging 76+ in average attendance used tracks
  6. Overall combinations for varying instruments/tracks were more likely in smaller church choirs

This data supports the idea that more “live” accompaniments were found as the church body was larger (with its greater possibilities of having resources and talent to play). Conversely, more pre-recorded music and combinations of accompaniments were found in smaller churches (choirs averaging fewer than 50).  No significant data supported the idea that education of the leader, age of leader or choir members, or even music sung (literature or type) had any bearing on what types of accompaniment were used. Basically, those who CAN play live, do. Those who CAN’T every week (for a myriad of reasons), don’t. I doubt there are many music ministers who wouldn’t want a full orchestra every week if they could!

If your goal is, like mine, to utilize as many people that have talents and calling of the Lord in worship and music ministry, then hopefully you will consider doing all you can to find ways to use live music for choir literature no matter the size of your church or choir. Even if it’s in a combination with another accompaniment type, having the freedom and flexibility to do things live makes a huge difference. There is something odd to me about having band driven congregational song and then blasting a pre-recorded choir track that screams artificial to me, but a LARGE number of churches do just that. Please hear me, I’m NOT condemning or shaming those you who use tracks…I certainly have had to over the course of my ministry, but I always felt the goal was to push towards more live accompaniments for the choir songs just as I was using a band/instruments for congregational singing.

So, if you’ve got a rhythm section that can handle congregational song, then use them for the choir anthem whenever possible. If you have some horn players, add them to that mix. Yes, it means more rehearsal time, but I think it will strengthen the overall impact of the choir ministry in the life of the church.

Who’s Steering the Ship? How Dominant Music Types in Church Choir Literature are Influenced by the Publishers.

Nehemiah 9:6- You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.

God has created everything! He has created everything unique and diverse. He is Giver of Life. He is worthy of our praise! God has made creation unique—including you and me. Because we are differently made, we have different opinions and experiences. This means that we must learn to be humble in our understanding that our neighbor might have a different opinion or experience than we do. We bring these biases into all parts of our lives. I’ve found that most who lead choirs are brand loyal to some degree or another. I bet you know folks who are adamant that certain car makes are superior to others. Others are sure that certain cell phones and other technology are far greater than the other “competition.” We leaders of choirs are no different when it comes to being loyal to the publishers of choral music we buy for our choirs. Often, it’s even a composer or arranger that we like, so we stick with what “works.” There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself. My concern is that we limit ourselves by not branching out and seeing what’s available from other publishers because we think we are taking an unnecessary risk.

When I studied the choral literature of leaders of intergenerational choirs, I noticed a couple of general trends as I asked the leaders which publishers they buy their music from. These observations  highlight some interesting points to ponder:

  1. Church music publishers may be “loosely” identified in two camps: traditional/liturgical and evangelical
  2. Most leaders I spoke with purchase music from publishers in only one camp
  3. There are far more publishers out there that are traditional/liturgical
  4. While the evangelical publishers are fewer in number, they sell the lion’s share of music for the choir in the intergenerational church.
  5. Roughly 2/3 of the leaders (n=62) I studied buy almost all their music from the evangelical publishers. See chart below from my study:

primary publishers

If you are like me, you’re probably wondering why these publishing houses are so popular. There really can only be a few reasons why:

  1. Trustworthy. Most of us know what to expect from these publishers and the arrangers they employ. We subscribe to their choral plans and eagerly await the quarterly boxes (that fill up my office!), workshops, reading sessions as conferences, to see what’s newly published.
  2. Marketing. I don’t want to get into specifics here, but these publishers above spend an awful lot on marketing. They package things so they look “cool” and offer great discounts for choral plan members. These things make a difference for churches with limited budgets!
  3. Compatible Music Types offered. Similar to point one, we buy from publishers that will supply us with choir music that fits our choir/church, our preferred music type, and ability level.

I think the third point is really the most important. Are we really getting variety if we only buy from a few publishers? This is the question that drives me to ask—well, so what are the other publishers producing? I think it bears taking a deeper look into what music types these publishers are actually publishing. If contemporary and Southern gospel are the two most common music types found in choirs in intergenerational churches ( see Variety of Music is a great thing in the Intergenerational Choir), does this jibe with what the publishers are producing?

Publishers and Music Types

In my quest to figure out what were the dominant types of music published by these publishers, I decided I needed to speak to someone who was not affiliated directly with these publishers—I went to our local music distributor, PineLake Music. I spoke with both sister owners, Cynthia Revo and Beth Carter, as well as the late John Koger for a more objective opinion. Each provided me with great insight as to the dominant music types each of many of our church music publishers. Here’s the data:

What I did first is create a numbered list of each of the music types most likely found in church choral music. It is certainly not exhaustive…

  1. Black gospel  (1* will indicated what a called a whitened version of gospel music – 1 will indicated what I referred to as authentic gospel music including Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir arrangements at Word Music) Also, in my experience, only a small percentage of authentic gospel is ever written down for the purpose of publishing. You’re more likely to find this in non-evangelical publishers
  2. Southern gospel
  3. Contemporary
  4. Hymn arrangements
  5. Traditional Church Choral Anthems (I’ve typically described this term to my respondents as arrangers and writers such as Pepper Choplin, Joseph Martin, Mary McDonald, Heather Sorenson (some), Ruthie Schram)
  6. Spirituals
  7. Classical (Like Beethoven, Haydn, Bach-Masterworks)
  8. Modern Worship Anthems (A VERY newly composed Hillsong tune and the like)

After creating this numbered list, I made a list of many of the most frequently named evangelical and traditional publishing houses and I asked for input from the team at PineLake to identify the most common music types they published (see the first numbers in black). Then, I asked them to identify the top 3 DOMINANT music types they publish in rank order (most dominant first, then second, and third) in red

Prism – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 1)

Word – 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 2)

Lillenas – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8(8 3 2)

Brentwood Benson – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (8 2 3)

Lifeway – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 2)

Hinshaw – 4, 5, 6, 7 (5 4 7)

Shawnee Press (includes GlorySound & Mark Foster) – 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

Alfred (includes Belwin, Lawson-Gould, HW Gray & many others) – 1-8 (5 4 3)

Hope – 1*, 3, 4, 5, 6 (4 5 3)

Hal Leonard (represents tons of publishers – largest music publisher in the world – ALL STYLES) 1-8 (5 6 3)

Beckenhorst – 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

Integrity – (No longer exists as a publisher, what is left is available at Hal Leonard) 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 (8 3 1)

Lorenz – (includes Heritage Music Press, SoundForth, Crystal Sea and Santa Barbara Music) 2, 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

PraiseGathering/Randy Vader – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (4 3 2)

Here are some insights:

Prism, Word, Lillenas, Brentwood-Benson, Lifeway, Integrity & PraiseGathering (the EVANGELICAL publishers) are almost identical in their style and these priorities have varied over the course of the years.  I believe PraiseGathering is probably the most unique because they tend to be more inclusive of traditional church music styles (i.e. Piano Plus Hymn Arrangements) than their evangelical brothers. Integrity probably represents the highest representation of black gospel music for their artist/writers like Israel Houghton, Ron Kenoly and Alvin Slaughter of the evangelical publishers. Word had the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir for years, but as of the last 5 years or so they have begun their own publishing/distribution arm.

While it’s true that Hal Leonard, Alfred and Hinshaw have masterworks kinds of materials, I have limited my comparisons to the church division side of these companies.  Shawnee Press, Hope, Beckenhorst and Lorenz (the TRADITIONAL/MAINLINE church publishers) are similar to their evangelical cousins in that their styles of music are similar.

Side note: Another trend that has developed over the last few years is that arrangers who were once closely tied to a particular publisher are now free to roam the publishing world and you will see their names with many different brands. More later…

Let me tie this post up by bringing it back to how this relates to the intergenerational choir setting, since this is the purpose of my blog. I want to make a few points from the hierarchical rankings and then suggest some trends:

  1. All the top five listed in the above graphic, have contemporary and Southern gospel as one of the dominant music types
  2. Of the top 5, only Prism offers quasi-black gospel literature
  3. Hymn arrangements are found in many of the publishers, but only PG produces a large number of arrangements for publication.

The dominant music types found in these publishers suggests that choirs (all, not just IG) are singing what the publishers are producing. The question remains out there: who’s driving the ship? Are the publishers driving or is the consumer? I’ve met many arrangers; I am friends with some of them too. They want to write things that the church will use and the leaders will buy. If the church leaders were dissatisfied, the writers and arrangers would simply write something else. But, I believe that most leaders are not dissatisfied with the publishers and arrangers they have deemed a fit for their choir and congregation. AND that’s my issue. We leaders are enslaved to what we think is out their for us to choose from. So, we choose to stick with what works (see TRUSTWORTHY), and thus have no pressing reason to explore other publishing houses.

I think we leaders of choirs need to look beyond the top 5 for more variance. Look at Hal Leonard, Shawnee, Alfred, and Hinshaw if you typically stick to the top 5 above. The converse is also true. Go to reading sessions that offer a variety of publishers (such as at GO Georgia). Don’t simply listen to the same choral club CDs you’ve always subscribed to as they come in…listen online to these other publishers. Don’t simply drive to the nearest Prism Workshop as your sole source of literature—branch out so there is variety of music type, and variety of writers and arrangements—you’ll be glad you did!

Additional notes:

Did you know PineLake has two choral clubs that are from their bestsellers for that quarter that feature many different publishers. I’ve enjoyed subscribing to their contemporary/blended club for the last few years. Prism is a excluded. Check it out!

Many music distributors, such as Kempke’s, JW Pepper, and PineLake, have bestseller lists that can be very helpful for seeing what other colleagues are buying.

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