Church Musicians: A rare find

Adapted from an article in The Missioner (Pentecost 2015) by Fr. Alexander Pryor

“Organists are scarce as hens’ teeth.”  Those were the very first words I heard from my first organ teacher.  Even where an organist can be found, it could still be said that a church musician – one who is trained in our rich musical tradition, who understands the shape of the liturgy, and can cooperate with the clergy to fashion and lead the worship of the local congregation – is an even rarer find.

There is much that can be said about the state of church music in our present age; from wonderful examples of thriving music programs where people are learning the Faith as they join “angels and archangels and all the host of heaven” in singing praise to Almighty God, to equally eye-opening stories of well-intentioned musicians who have unashamedly and unreflectively borrowed all that the secular music world has to offer, either because that is their only area of training and expertise, or because they have never considered exactly what it is that makes sacred music, ‘set apart’, sacred.

Since taking up my role as Teaching Fellow in Church Music at Nashotah House in August 2014, I have had countless encounters with both clergy and lay people who recall the “good ol’ days” when there was always someone willing and able to lead the hymns and even medium-sized country parishes could pull together a good choir, if only for Christmas and Easter.  What happened?  Where have they gone?

The better questions to ask are ‘where did this previous generation of church musicians come from’ and ‘how were they made’?  The answer is simple.  In almost all cases, church musicians are formed by the Church.  Of course, like any craftsperson learning his or her trade, the one-on-one apprenticing of church musicians has been the standard practice from the Middle Ages through the present day, at least in places where organ and choral scholarships survive.

We all recognize the importance of solid, classical-yet-practical priestly formation, that which has been a strength of Nashotah House since our founding on the mission frontier.  Yet, when it comes to the important area of church music, the element of worship that is both capable of expressing that which is beyond words and which is deeply catechetical and formative by nature, it seems we inadvertently leave the formation of our future leaders to secular universities and music schools.

A thirteen year old’s first attempt at leading a hymn might not be pretty, but everyone has to start somewhere; and where better to learn to lead the Church’s praises than in the community of the faithful?  In September 2015, Nashotah House will launch a newly expanded children’s choir program, Lake Country Children’s Choir, which will experiment with new ways to effectively teach the Faith through the best of our Anglican choral tradition and musical instruction using the Royal School of Church Music’s Voice for Life training program.  Seminarians will have the opportunity to assist, observe, and teach lessons, so that they will enter the mission field with an understanding of the realities of working with today’s children, and armed with at least one vision for how the arts can be a catechetical tool.

We know that we can never expect the secular world to effectively form our clergy; they must be raised up and supported in a place dedicated to teaching them the knowledge and love of God. Likewise, every church musician starts somewhere.  Perhaps it was as a chorister.  Perhaps it was as a piano student who was invited to sit at the organ.  Perhaps it was a young adult, a total outsider, who was offered a choral scholarship and learned to love the service of our Lord and his bride the Church through the songs of the redeemed.

Church musicians are indeed scarce.  But we can certainly do something about it.  If your parish is blessed by a musician who has mastered the trade, encourage him or her to teach and train the next generation.  From June 13-17 2016, we invite you to consider the Church Musicians Workshop, where church musicians may continue in building their skills in residence at Nashotah House.  We must all do our part to form the next generation.  It’s an investment in the Church’s future.