During my very first Sunday service at my very first church job, I came ready with properly-ordered music in hand, program open, and ready to go. Yet within the first five minutes, I found myself flipping frantically through my materials; everyone else in the choir loft began reciting a text I had never heard and could not find.
That was last September.
I have been singing in choirs for years. And years. I have sung in every section, held various leadership positions, and performed in many settings, including churches. Not a single experience, however, was with a church choir. While both of my parents were raised Christian, my brother and I had no religious upbringing. We had friends of all different religions, and were encouraged to explore our own sense of spirituality and God. My paternal grandmother would have loved for us to become devout Christians, yet neither of us did.
So once I ended up in that choir loft last year, unable to recite the Penitential Act (I had to look up what it was called, by the way), I understood why most directors at most church jobs I had auditioned for asked if I was Christian. My musical skills have proven up-to-par for the position of church staff singer. My religious skills, however, sometimes fall short. While knowing the Penitential Act is not required of me, there are many psalms I do not know (all of them), many anthems I have never sung (almost all of them), and many, many parts of service that I have had to learn that others have known their whole lives. It does not help that I waited to seek out a church job until I finished my studies, not wanting to divide my vocal time between school and work. I do not regret that decision in the slightest. I do think from time to time, however, that I would be much further along if I had started earlier than I am now.
I have been blessed (if I may use that word unironically) in landing the particular position that I did. I already had a friend working there, there are various alumni from my graduate school, and there are numerous section leaders and volunteer singers that have been so incredibly helpful. I hope they know how grateful I am to them for their constant guidance, support, and patience, especially with my inane questions, ranging from, “What color do we wear today?” to “What does the host taste like?”
I write about all of this now for two reasons. First, as my fellow church musicians know, it is Holy Week. This is the week that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, bringing an end to Lent, and leading into Easter Sunday. For us musicians, it means numerous services requiring physical and vocal stamina (followed by one of the largest paychecks we’ll probably see, next to Christmas). Second, it is my first Holy Week, which causes me to reflect upon the things I have learned, the things I still need to learn, and the things I wish I could have known ahead of time as a non-religious church singer.
Truthfully, the other reason I waited so long to find a church job was because I feared all of these things: the things I did not know, the things I needed to know, and the things I wish I could know. I feared how behind I would be. Of course, the fear is usually worse than the reality, but to those other non-religious church singers and musicians out there who may find themselves with the same fears, here’s what I would say to you.
First, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the things you don’t understand, even if it does not relate to the music itself. At first, I wanted so much to seem like I knew what I was doing more often than not, and musically I usually felt alright. I find, however, I do my best when I admit my shortcomings rather than attempting to hide them.
Second, appreciate the skills that having a church job instills in you. I have had excellent musical training that has served me well in my position. Yet I also feel that I have learned more about sight-singing, ear training, and ensemble singing than I ever did or could have in this amount of time at school. There’s something about being in the real world and being the one staff singer in your group that has no prior knowledge of all of the repertoire that makes you rise to the challenge.
Third, if you were brought up in a household that was actively adverse to Christianity, religion, or even God, know that the Church can still be welcoming. I can’t speak for every church obviously, and I wouldn’t say that I truly believed church musicians would be elitist or off-putting. I do believe, however, that there are many out there who avoid churches because of the belief that religion is corrupt, segregating, and generally unwelcoming. Know, though, that just like any belief system, there will be extremists, and they tend to be outliers. I have encountered no one like this during my brief time as a church musician.
So to conclude this collection of thoughts, I’ll say this; if you are a non-religious singer such as myself, don’t be afraid to seek employment opportunities in the religious realm. If you are a religious singer, thank you for helping those of us who are new to the field. I, for one, am extremely grateful for my church job. I hope I have the opportunity to become a seasoned church musician myself (though perhaps I will reconsider that after Holy Week!).