A Page for the Part-Time Church Musician

By Yeager, James A. | The American Organist, November 2010 | Go to article overview

A Page for the Part-Time Church Musician


Yeager, James A., The American Organist


Time

Whether we see our work as church musicians as part- or full-time employment, time relentlessly presses on us all. The pressure and stress to meet deadlines, be prepared on time, spend enough time at the instrument, plan rehearsals, and work with colleagues, clergy, and students, plus the occasional wedding or funeral consultations, can blur any distinction we might have about the official designation our employers have applied to us. For those in the "part-time" category, the distinction may, in fact, only pertain to pay scale. For the "full-time" people, the word "full" takes on a new meaning that often extends the concept of the 40-hour week into hyper-overtime. A lot depends in both cases on the season. Advent and Christmas have people burning the midnight oil far beyond the "time" stated on their pay checks.

As a person who in other days of my life wore the full-time mantle, I can remember more than one occasion trying to explain how my work was more than what some church member reckoned when innocently suggesting that it must be nice to have a job that involves only a few hours on Sunday morning. "So what do you do the rest of the week?" he said quizzically, apparently unaware of four choirs, two bell choirs, staff meetings, and sundry soloist rehearsals that might fill a week. And never mind that bit of time on the organ bench learning new pieces for each week's preludes, offertories, postludes, and accompaniments!

Yet moving to the slightly different garb of the part-time church musician, I would note that certain times of the year feel strangely similar to my full-time days. I know many part-time organists who juggle other career demands or, possibly, full-time schooling with the church job. When the heavy seasons arrive, they are forced to stretch the available hours at church beyond those for which they are paid in order to meet the more involved requirements.

As you are probably realizing at this stage (December looms on the calendar), Christmas preparation should have started sooner. You might have a vague sense of anxiety, or full-fledged panic, because you are already behind. Or perhaps you haven't even begun to deal with Advent and Christmas yet. Don't slit your wrists.

Being a part-time musician (and possibly director) has unique challenges. You have less to do, but also far less time in which to accomplish it. And while your congregation is perfectly happy with the part-time contributions for the average Sunday morning, everyone's expectations increase exponentially (and unreasonably) for the high holidays - Christmas, Easter, and maybe other such occasions, depending upon the particular liturgical traditions of your parish.

Many full-time musicians and directors have the resources in the way of time, and even in some cases, choral personnel, to begin Christmas and Advent preparation later in the season, in October or November; parttimers don't usually have that luxury. Although there is a danger in generalizing, the part-time church position often goes with a smaller territory, i.e., congregation and the pool of volunteer talent. In order to achieve those special Christmas and Advent offerings that you and your congregation really enjoy, holiday rehearsals have to start frightfully early. And the more ambitious projects should start first.

If you are at all unsure of what it is you want to conquer for Christmas, the AGO is a great forum for inspiration and advice - again, in August or September. It can be interesting and helpful to learn of a wonderful anthem that another local parish is performing for Christmas, but more often this information is virtually useless to a part-time musician by early November. Many musicians (part- and full-time) who attend the Guild meetings are quite experienced - they know a myriad of options for liturgical holidays, because they've played them for years. And they are delighted to share ideas. Have these conversations in September. …

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