Music Minister, Benicia Community Congregational Church
Born: Sterling Colorado
Resides in: Benicia, California
Favorite Composer: J.S. Bach
How did you learn to play the piano? By playing the piano—literally! I played by ear and learned to improvise before I ever really learned to read music. I began playing for church when I was in the 6th grade. The skill of being able to improvise has taken me several places and opened up numerous opportunities for me.
What does a Music Minister do? Has a vision of how music might enrich the worship service and chooses and prepares music and gets the people who are going to do it. At Community Congregational Church, I accompany congregational singing on the organ and/or piano (not at the same time!), accompany the Sanctuary Choir, the Girls’ Choir, and the Women and Girls’ Chorus; lead our annual Christmas Orchestra; plan and direct our annual Christmas concert, get people to sing solos, duets, etc., and often accompany them, sing solos myself. We have a jazz combo in our church that plays many different kinds of music, and I am the keyboardist for this combo. I am always trying to think ahead about the calendar year and the major liturgical holidays, the time of year, and have music ready that fits the liturgical and seasonal calendars. I plan and prepare music for weddings and memorial services.
What is the role of music in a religious service? The role of music is to lift up and underscore the Scripture texts and sermons, celebrate major liturgical holidays, aid the ritual of the church. It is to help the congregation express their praise to God, their grief, their fears, their disappointments, their hopes and dreams. Music can penetrate our hearts and souls more deeply than words alone; most folks tend to learn the majority of their theology from the hymns, songs, and refrains that they sing in church. That’s why it’s so important to sing hymns or songs that have substantive texts and to have music that really fits the text it accompanies.
Where do you get your inspiration for composing your hymns? My concerns for justice, equality, and ecology really dominate my hymn writing. Right now I am writing a hymn about our Christian responsibility to take care of the Earth. Something I read may spark an idea. Or a musical pattern will start taking shape in my head, and I draw it out and see where it wants to go. Usually one writes words first and then crafts a melody to fit it, but that’s not always the case for me. Musical patterns or motifs may arise in my brain while I’m driving. I’ve learned the hard way to pull over and get them written down before they get away from me!
You’re known in your church for getting everyone to be a part of music in the service. It’s a bit of an inside joke, “Don’t tell Barbara you used to play clarinet in the 3rd grade because you’ll be digging it out of the closet.” Why do you feel it’s important for members of your congregation to participate in music at your church? The truth is the more people there up front doing music with me, the happier I am. I remember hearing a quote that the majority of people die with their music still inside them. Everybody can sing. Unfortunately, some people have been told they can’t. Making music is so important for me personally; it makes me feel alive. It expresses my deepest passion, and I am the happiest when I am making music. I reason that other people would be similarly happy, and I also reason that people have a responsibility to discover, develop, and use their God-given talents by serving the God from whom they received them. So I try to create as many opportunities as possible for that, by doing music for gathering times (15 minutes before the start of the worship service), special music, invitations or responses to prayer, etc., hymns of commitment.
You’ve been very innovative bringing in music to the church from gospel to Mozart, choir music to Taizé, and world beat percussion to the traditional pipe organ. How do you meet the needs of a congregation with tastes ranging from the traditional hymns to a more modern sound? It’s quite a balancing act—and nobody is going to be perfectly happy with the music 100% of the time. The important thing for people to realize is that the hymn or song they simply can’t stand may be the absolute favorite of somebody else in the congregation. No one kind of music can monopolize the service. Sometimes in the past if someone didn’t like the music, I’d tell them to come back the next Sunday, and there would be something that they liked. I don’t have to do that anymore. Now I just say, “Wait 15 minutes.” We all are obliged to exercise a little forbearance and to realize the music is NOT just about us. It’s larger than just US. It’s about the whole people of God bringing their whole selves to worship and knowing that sooner or later that hymn they love, that was Grandma’s favorite, is going to be sung again. But once I promise that to somebody, I must remember to actually make that happen. The older people tend to prefer a more traditional form of worship. Younger people prefer contemporary praise and worship music. And there are numerous kinds between the two. The trick is to temper one’s own ego to a great degree and use what will feed people, both musically and spiritually.