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Music, ministry and the most wonderful time of the year

One need not embrace everything that religious philosopher Martin Luther said and did to recognize the power and profundity in his statement, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”

There is indeed the air of a higher calling in the belief, as expressed in the mission statement of Buffalo’s Friendship Baptist Church, that “exalting Christ through music and the performing arts” should be a pivotal component of any meaningful religious ceremony.

At this time of year, all around our region, singers, musicians, choristers and musical directors from various denominations of faith will be offering their musical gifts in service of something above and beyond mere ego gratification or, to put it bluntly, money. As musicians from various churches prepared for their flurry of activity surrounding the holidays, they spoke about how they became involved with church music, the higher purpose of making this music and the joy it brings them.

Paul and Claire Weisenburger, music ministers, various churches

On a lifetime involvement with church music

My daughter Claire and I are both music ministers. We are not, and have never considered ourselves to be, hired hands. A mass is approached with care, in that the music chosen is meant to augment the message of the scriptures read at the mass. Also, if we are fortunate to have a celebrant that we know to be an exceptional homilist, we will approach them to ask what the message of their homily is. From there we may suggest music that’s outside of the regular repertoire of the church that may really make a visceral connection with the congregation.

I've been involved in church music since I was about 11 years old. I started out playing guitar and singing in a folk group at our local church and was just drawn to playing/singing in part of an enthusiastic ensemble. These days, I act as a music minister to many Christian churches, not all of them Catholic.

It's a family affair

Claire was brought up to sing alongside me. She was quite a singer by age 4. It just made sense to her to sing at church. Often we actually are singing and playing at different churches these days. But when the opportunity presents itself, we are extremely excited to play and sing together.

On the difference between spiritual and secular gigs

Secular gigs are far more diverse in nature. Often you are the backdrop to someone else's party. Over the years I've learned that I can't be personally offended that people are talking louder than I'm singing a Jeff Buckley song. It just makes me have to concentrate that much harder and put myself in the zone.

On performing during the most wonderful time of the year

This time of year, much like the Easter season, is special in that it musically highlights the most important and revered parts of the Christian mythology. It is also an opportunity to welcome those individuals and families who may only come to worship these two times a year and let them experience the healing and communal power of a well put-together mass. Love is the answer, my friends. The church was never meant to be exclusionary. That's what the Gospels tell me, anyway.

Harry Graser, music director, Crossroads Lutheran Church (Photo by Rich Hendricks)

Harry Graser, music director, Crossroads Lutheran Church, Amherst

On a basic expression of humanity

Church music, to me, is a way to express the teachings of Christianity in a format that encourages participation and unity. While music may take on varying levels of importance among churches, I believe it is one of the core components of worship. Singing is one of the most basic expressions of humanity, and it makes sense that song should be used to express the deepest convictions of Christians. There is no denying that the church has had far-reaching effects on music as a whole. One of the greatest composers, J.S. Bach, wrote many works for Lutheran churches. Old gospel songs helped to form the basis of popular music for centuries. To me, the unity that church music promotes is its greatest value.

On the church as a judgment-free zone

Playing a church service is different from a secular gig in some small ways. Playing piano or organ for a hymn is not really a performance - you are guiding the congregation, choir, and/or band. It is not necessarily a time to show off, although other parts of the service allow for this. Working at a Lutheran church, the service is generally less rowdy then a typical rock gig at bar. However, some churches encourage highly energetic praise. One is not better than the other -- it's what the congregation prefers, and sometimes, what tradition dictates. Often, there is less pressure on the musician(s); a church is ideally a judgment-free zone. People aren't seeking one-way entertainment, they are looking to join in, and use the music as a way to connect to their belief.

Good composition endures and resonates

Christmas, besides Easter, is the surely the busiest time for church musicians, and is special in that regard. Church Christmas music, like secular Christmas music, carries with it great sentimental value. Many of these songs are hundreds of years old, yet have managed to remain in the minds of many, Christian or not, because of how well they're composed, and how important their message is.

Toney Rhodes, director of Worship Arts, Friendship Baptist Church (Photo courtesy Toney Rhodes)

Toney Rhodes, director of Worship Arts, Friendship Baptist Church

An enduring family tradition

My involvement in church music started before I was born. I come from a family of musicians who all played in church. My mother and my four uncles were the beginning of my involvement. It is a way to serve the congregation and assist them in singing and enjoying music as praise to God. It also is the vehicle that gets us to open our minds and hearts so that we can receive the blessings that come from the teachings of the Bible.

 On the sacred and the secular

Playing music, for me, has only one purpose and that is to serve. Whether it’s serving in a church or serving at a banquet, on a small stage for 50 people or a large stage for 50,000, the point is always to serve the people that are listening.

A time of birth and re-birth

Most churches around the world make this time of year special with all types of special presentations, musicals and concerts. My birthday is also in December, so I’ve been celebrating all month, thanking God for the gift of life and also for the gift of his son to the world.

Garrett Martin, director of music, Westminster Presbyterian Church. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Presbyterian Church)

Garrett Martin, organist and director of music, Westminster Presbyterian Church

On the ethereal, otherworldly sound of sacred music

There was never a time of my life when I was not involved in the church’s song. My involvement began as a child singing in our graded choirs, before I even knew how to read. Growing up in rural Tennessee, I did not hear a pipe organ until I was 8, when my parents took me to a church service in Nashville. I was smitten by the sound I heard that day and am still hooked on it today. It’s the most ethereal, otherworldly sound.

On the difference between a calling and just another gig

I love making music for worship because it's not a performance. The music-making is for a purpose – the worship of the almighty. My duty is to create the environment in which worship can take place. To me, it is a calling, not just another gig. At Westminster, I am only the fifth organist and choirmaster in the last century. It is an honor and a privilege for me to carry on the musical legacy of this important congregation.

Shirley Webster, chorister, Friendship Baptist Church

A joy and a privilege

I began singing in the children's choir at Friendship when I was about 5 years old. My mother sang in the choir, so it was only natural that I would also do so. That was 73 years ago, and I have been singing ever since. I loved it then and I love it now. Spreading God’s word through song with a group of others who love the Lord is an edifying experience -  it is a joy and privilege.

Love in song

Over the years I have been blessed to meet, sing with and bond with some awesome people. They are an important part of my life and we have created a bond of love through singing God’s praises, and that will always unite us. Every day should be about love, giving and helping others, but it's extra special this time of year, when we're celebrating the birth of Jesus - the best gift that was ever given.

To whom much is given, much is required

So, what does that have to do with singing in the choir? Everything. Singing in the church choir isn't something to do, it's a Ministry. You must believe in what you're singing about, and your life should reflect that belief. When we sing our faith and love, we glorify God. And the congregation can't help but experience that feeling.


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