Two AGOYO-Southeast members offer their advice and insight into the professional world after college. To protect anonymity, their comments are written under pseudonyms:
Minerva McGonagall (M.M.) and P.L. Travers (P.L.).
1. There is no Weekend. There is no Time-Off.
M.M.: So you work Sundays. Well, that means you can take off Friday and Saturday. Theoretically that sounds like a great plan, except that we’re musicians. What musician takes two days off from practicing before a performance? Certainly not me! Also, things like funerals and weddings tend to occur on weekends, and while you might get paid extra, you’re still “at work.” Sometimes it can be helpful to work shorter hours on the days you don’t have rehearsal, say 10am-4pm, in order to actually have a little more free time and a little less time at work.
P.L.: In college, especially grad school, your study becomes your life. This does not end after graduation, it just changes. Instead of spending hours in the library or a practice room, you will spend hours behind a desk, choreographing a weekly arm-flailing routine in front of elderly folk (conducting), and your favorite study corner will become a hot humid sanctuary that you retreat to when people try to interact with you. You will be up every Sunday by 6:00am, and you will spend your Saturday nights sleeping. And chances are if you get a day off each week, that will always be the day something terrible happens, forcing you to come in to work. If you make plans outside of work, make sure your boss/Pastor knows you will be unreachable.
2. You will definitely play for "free"
P.L.: Musicians put in a lot of time and effort to be the best artists we can be. When playing a gig, no matter how small, the contractor should be expected to compensate you. However in the church world, people often expect you to offer your talents “to the Glory of God” and play for any ole event without extra compensation. Whether it’s background music at Youth Bounce Twenty-Sixteen or organizing a touring choir to sing at Gertie’s Lunchtime Fiesta at the homes, you will be roped into playing and working extra for no added salary.
M.M.: Funerals don’t always pay. Many churches believe that a funeral is a service of the church, it is not optional, and therefore it is not fair to ask for payment. Often you are at the mercy of the family as to if you get paid. Funerals take preparation. Oftentimes people have planned funerals in advance with a previous organist/music director and you may get what you believe is an absurd list of music on very short notice
P.L.: I was once asked to pull together an entire clarinet concerto with one weeks notice for a 45-minute service. Learn to say “no” to some requests. The world will keep turning.
3. You don't always get Advance Notice
M.M.: When you’re organist, assistant organist, pretty much any position in church work, there is always someone above you. This means that sometimes things get dropped on you that you weren’t expecting. One Sunday it was unclear who was playing the anthem at our 11 a.m. service. Two of us thought we were conducting and no one thought they were playing. We discovered this at 10:15 a.m. for an 11 a.m. service. My first week on my job I learned about say… 10 minutes before service that I would have to conduct the extroit for both choirs. You don’t always get advanced notice.
P.L.: Even the most planning-heavy churches will ride the wave of the Holy Spirit from time to time. On Saturday night a Pastor may rework an entire sermon, calling for different hymns on Sunday morning. A planned choir anthem may need to be cut to make room for a stewardship speech. You may be asked to “vamp” lightly during said speech. The director of the choir you accompany may be tied up in something and you are forced to start rehearsal without knowing anything about the piece in front of you. Just go with the flow and see these inconveniences as opportunities to lead and step outside your comfort zone. “Flexible organist” does not have to be an oxymoron.
4. Everything you learned in Conducting Class is a Hoax
M.M.: A children’s choir is different from a youth choir, from an adult choir, from a handbell choir etc. Most of what I learned in choral conducting was how to have a beautiful accurate pattern with a baton and have beautiful releases. Very little of that matters. What matters is what works, and most of that type of learning is trial by fire. Choral conducting class with a lab choir of like minded peers can’t possibly teach you what it’s like to teach Latin to a 75 year old woman who can’t see, can barely hear, and has a Southern accent thicker than red Georgia clay.
P.L.: Like M.M. said, the instrumental conductor who taught you to use a baton, the choral conductor who told you to stop mouthing the words… it means nothing until you’re in front of a choir. Each group is different and requires different things from the conductor. Some require grandiose gestures to get from piano to forte, some need every cue and cutoff perfectly placed. Try doing all this while playing from the console hidden in a pit below the choir. My advice: do whatever you have to do, no matter how silly you look doing it.
5. The Copier is your Best Friend
P.L.: I used to pray for a secure job, a healthy relationship, financial stability… now I pray for a decent copier. Whether you’re copying to avoid ridiculous page turns or to give each choir member a copy of an anthem while your scores are in the mail, this machine will determine whether you’re having a good day or a bad day. Anticipate that half of your paper allotment will be wasted on bad copies. And always check if what you’re printing will come out one-sided or two-sided!
M.M.: P.L. is right. You best make friends with the Xerox, or, bless your heart, you’re going to be pretty miserable. You know all that music that just magically showed up in church? All the hymn sheets that just magically appeared? Well, someone made those, and that someone is now you (Congratulations!). Often you will also be in charge of the music library, so be prepared to have paper cuts galore. (On the upside you get to read the hysterical things people have written in their music over the years!)
6. Meetings. For. Days.
P.L.: Some denominations are built on the backs of committees. Each of these committees has to meet regularly to discuss their very specific piece of the 3,000+ piece puzzle that forms the church structure. These committees give power to regular churchgoers who often don’t have power anywhere else in their lives. Every person on every committee in every meeting will have a strong opinion that completely contrasts every other opinion in the room. This causes even the most simple of meetings to drag on for days. In staff meetings people will discuss ad-nauseum things that don’t relate to your job. Some meetings will be spent discussing the last meeting’s jokes and decisions while making absolutely no new jokes or decisions. You’ll be asked to sit in on meetings with people you don’t know about things that don’t concern you. My advice: Put on a happy face and sing a song in your head.
M.M.: You may be required to sit in on meetings that seem pointless to your exact ministry. How does a discussion of who serves communion and who lights advent candles really impact my choir or my organ playing? Wonderful question. But you still have to sit there.
7. Your personal life is now "Public Domain"
M.M.: Thought you were just going to make a quick trip to the grocery store in your running shorts and sweaty tank top? Nope. Welcome to seeing 15 church members who all want to have long personal conversations as you freeze in the frozen pizza aisle. Also, you will never be safe on a date or in a liquor store ever again.
P.L.: Working at a church is a bit like teaching at a school. As a teacher you want respect from your students and their parents. You can often run into students outside of the classroom: in the grocery store, at a movie while on a date, at the car shop while your oil is being changed. The people you serve are all around you, and you’re always “on-stage.” Make a conscious effort to represent your church at all times. If there is a chance of bumping into a churchgoer, consider how you will present yourself outside of the “office.” Consider what you share publicly on Facebook and the bumper stickers you put on your car. Be careful about who you talk politics with. I work at a big church in a small town. I know wherever I go in town I will likely see a church member. For that reason I often dine out or date people in other towns. Avoid the church gossip machine at all costs. Once it grabs a hold of you, there’s no escape. I’m not paranoid, just aware of the reality of church work. If your clergy wouldn’t do it, you probably shouldn’t either.
8. Adult Choirs are just choirs for Giant Children
... except they can't be bribed with candy.
P.L.: Everything you expect to happen in a childrens choir rehearsal will actually happen in your adult choir rehearsal. They will “lose” five copies of each anthem (they’re just upside down in the back), they will bring a beverage and spill it everywhere, they will complain about the notes, the rhythms, the text, the size of the print, your conducting gestures, and the person sitting next to them. They will make inappropriate jokes, they won’t remember the dates and times of performances, but somehow they’ll remember how they sang the anthem five years ago and will always say it was better the old way. The rehearsal room will always be too hot for Andy Anyone but too cold for Sally Someone. There’s not much you can do about these problems but to laugh inside your head, and attend to the most pertinent of them. Keep in mind, you are a minister, and these are your “followers.” Be kind to them.
M.M.: I’ve had more adults lose their music than children. I’ve even had adults take music that was numbered out of someone else’s folder, cross out that number, and write in their own. Be prepared for everything. You will send them a million emails, and then they will still show up late. That’s the beauty of “volunteer” singers
9. Volunteers are few and far between
M.M.: So you have 20 anthems to number and sort and stuff in folders? Good luck. You’re probably on your own. Volunteers are hard to come by and sometimes are harder to train than actually just doing it yourself. Often you will have a few “Super” volunteers that do absolutely everything, but when it comes to the smaller more menial tasks that get less glory, its difficult to find people to do those. Make sure you set clear expectations and rules with your volunteers. You want your volunteers to feel empowered but not entitled. Just because Grandma Sue has “always used a typewriter to make labels for the music library” doesn’t mean you can’t move to something like Excel with the right preparation.
P.L.: “If I can dream it, they can do it!” said every opinionated churchgoer, ever. A lot is asked of church musicians and if we’re good at what we do, people will think we can do anything. They will request a violinist to play Bach’s famous Violin Chaconne at a funeral at 9:00am on a Tuesday. They will ask you to provide each child in your choir with spare copies of music to bring home to practice. If you can rely on volunteers to help, use them as much as possible. For most of us, though, volunteers are hard to come by, and they sometimes don’t do a very good job. Get used to saying “no” to requests in a polite yet firm way.
10. Prepare for Tinder Disappointment
P.L.: No one truly understands what organists do except organists themselves. People can appreciate what we do and recognize the effort we put in, but there is so much that goes into our job that it’s impossible to summarize and explain our role to others. You will, however, be asked weekly what exactly it is that you do. Most of these inquiries will come in the form of rude questions: “What do you do all day?” is the most common. My favorite response, after explaining that I’m an organist, is “Oh that’s nice, but what’s your real job?” Sometimes it’s worth explaining, sometimes it’s not. Choose your battles.
M.M.: Working in a church isn’t super popular in our generation. I’ve often said that the quickest way to get someone to stop hitting on me in a bar is to tell them that I work for the church. You’ll get asked brilliant questions if you have photos of you at the organ like, “Do you actually play that?!?!” No… of course not… I just thought it made me look more attractive to pose at the organ in a choir robe? Also, everyone will ask you: ‘What do you actually do all day?” “Can you get a degree in that? I thought people just volunteered to do that stuff for churches.” You will constantly be explaining what you do, and that no we don’t just come in on Wednesdays and Sundays and sit around and eat coconut bon bons and watch soap operas for the rest of the week.