Bach or Rock: The Training of Church Musicians

By Music, David W. | The American Organist, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Bach or Rock: The Training of Church Musicians

Music, David W., The American Organist

IT is no secret that the music of the church has undergone a revolution in recent years. In many areas of the United States - and, indeed, around the world - the traditions and established "norms" in the field have given way to new styles and approaches.

Many of the changes have centered on the introduction of musical styles that originated in the secular popular culture, especially rock music. Some have decried this move as a pandering to the lowest common denominator or a selling out to the marketplace. Others have embraced the trend wholeheartedly, claiming outreach or "ministry to this generation" as their motivation. Regardless of which position one takes - and there are many others between the ones noted here - the fact that profound changes have taken place is inescapable.

Church music has changed before, and sometimes significantly. What is particularly distinctive about the present time is that rather than being a further and natural development of church music, the recent trends seem to represent a complete break with the past, a starting over, as it were.1 Among the results of the revolution in some places has been the abandonment of organs, choirs, and hymns (as well as the hymnals that contain them) in favor of praise bands, worship teams, choruses, and Contemporary Christian Music.

These changes and their widespread nature have obvious implications for the preparation of future church musicians. If this is the direction that churches are going, how does the academy that is responsible for supplying them with musical support respond? Should the curriculum for church music students continue in the tried-andtrue ways of traditional musical study, or is a major overhaul of curriculum and philosophy in order? Is there any point to students in the discipline studying music that may have little direct usefulness in many of today's churches? To put the question another way, should the future church musician study Bach or rock?

Before glibly answering "Yes," it should be pointed out that to give equal weight to both is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Trying to do so would result in programs that are either significantly watered down or expanded beyond reasonable lengths. For example, in current practice, church music students are generally required to achieve a certain level of proficiency on the piano; will they also be required to achieve a similar level on the guitar? Demanding the same level of proficiency on both instruments would probably double the number of courses to be taken in what is often a secondary performance area. Undergraduate music majors are already among the longest and most complex degree programs in institutions of higher learning; making them longer and even more complex hardly seems like a positive move. Graduate programs in church music are predicated upon the student having achieved certain levels in their undergraduate study, so lessening or leaving out requirements such as piano study does not seem to be a good idea either.

Attempts to give equal weight to both would also ignore the natural talents and inclinations of individual students. Few will be equally adept on the organ and drums or with operatic and pop vocal production.

There are also faculty limitations. To be a college or seminary music faculty member usually requires an earned doctorate. This implies a degree of specialization. Persons can receive doctorates in piano performance and in jazz, but there are few degree programs that combine such disparate areas of study. Apart from some exceptional examples, faculty members - like their students - generally have areas of musical expertise and specialization.

So what can and should be done? While readily admitting that many institutions that prepare church musicians can probably do a better job of giving students the tools they need to serve in today's churches, it is the thesis of this article that traditional musical study (and the study of "traditional" church music) should continue to form the principal basis for the training of future church musicians. …

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