In Random Neural Firings

Before we go any further…

  • It is a fact I am no lover of what is commonly called Praise & Worship Music.
  • I acknowledge an enormous amount of new music is being written for worship, but contend that relatively little can be considered quality choral music.
  • I believe sacred choral music is both an important component of worship and a musical art form worthy of attention.

The past decade has witnessed the shriveling, even the demise, of several well-respected choral music publishers and distributors. Long-time music creators like myself have been pushed toward self-publishing. Others have left the craft to teach, or to minister in the local church. All of us creating church choral music do so with reduced resources and for a diminishing marketplace. So, it is worth considering: What does it take to release new choral music for the church?

Though I hate to think of the music I write as a “product,” it does have to be delivered to an end-user in a form that can be put into people’s hands and performed. In that regard, like any product, it takes a lot to get a new piece to those who would ultimately sing it.

It takes time.Sifting through all the possibilities to select the few titles takes time. Creating the written arrangement takes time. Editing, recording, printing, marketing… More time.

It takes skilled people.Songwriters, arrangers, orchestrators, editors, musicians, engineers, typesetters, graphic artists, marketers… Even for the self-publisher, who fills multiple roles, the jobs are distinct and must be done separately.

It takes passion.You really gotta want to create choral music these days to be willing to clear the myriad financial and legal hurdles that stand in your way of the finish line. Otherwise, it’s just not worth the effort.

It takes money. Money to print the music. Money to record the demos*. Money to market. Money to pay the composers and arrangers. Lots of money.

* Granted, technology has managed to contain the costs of recording somewhat. Still, a well-produced anthem demo sung by a medium-sized choral group with piano accompaniment costs $1,000-$1,200. (And you need to do at least three or four to fill a session.) If the accompaniment calls for a rhythm section, the price doubles. An orchestra? Triple it. In my own case, instrumental accompaniments are mostly programmed using high-quality orchestral sample libraries, but those libraries and the computers needed to run them are pricey.

To sum up, sales are down and costs remain high. I’m no business guru, but I know that’s not an ideal business model.  Barring a significant resurgence in choral music (A fellow can hope), can anything be done?  Who could step into the gap to ensure the survival of quality church choral music?

The Church.

In particular, local churches, Christian universities, and individual Believers with the resources and passion for Church Music can all play a part. Whether it is through commissioned works, artist-in-residence programs, or financial grants, the Church can take a more direct path to birthing new choral music.

For the last decade, my contributions to church music have been funded in no small part by individuals and local churches that commissioned work for their specific use. The result: several new anthems and orchestral hymn arrangements, as well as three dramatic musicals.  I am grateful to churches like First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Brightmoor Christian Church in Novi, Michigan; to Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, and First Baptist, Nashville; to the Soul Factor Gospel Choir in Adelaide, Australia, and the Jubal Choirs of Georgia; to Youth CUE in San Antonio, and to Howard Payne University. Each of these organizations commissioned music from me, at considerable expense, and with no expectation of financial return.Without these folks, and others like them, I would have almost certainly had to hang it up and find another line of work.

I think this is the future of church choral music. The business model that sustained church music from 1950-2010 is broken and can no longer be counted on as the sole source of new music. I am increasingly convinced that if choral music is to survive and grow in the church, then local churches, Christian universities, and individual Believers, need to be proactively involved in the creation of new church choral music.

But that’s just my opinion.

Showing 17 comments
  • David S. Gaines

    For those of us who aren’t ‘Robert Sterling’, this seems like a good path to pursue. But not many churcehes or universities, or colleges, or individuals are knocking at my door anymore. How could one approach any of the above in hopes of doing what you put forth in your article?

    In other words, writing, arranging, or composing a piece of music is not a Field Of Dreams scenario; you can’t think ‘if you build it, they will come’, because they won’t. So, how do you lead the proverbial horse to water? How do you approach one of the above organizations and convince them to partake in your endeavor?

    • Robert Sterling

      David – Don’t assume that loads of churches are knocking on my door, either. 🙂 And I don’t have any useful suggestions at the ready for how one can solicit commissioned works. (I’ve always told my wife, “I can’t make somebody want what I write.”) I think the impetus for more commissions will have to come first from churches that recognize that the ground rules of the church music world have changed. (It’s not 1995 any longer.) Maybe I should do some asking around and see if any of our fellow composers have secrets that are willing to share about getting commission work. (BTW – i hope you are doing well these days.)

  • John Parker

    Well-written! I agree on every point. Let good choral music emanate from the pens of local church musicians, artisans and teachers as they create for their local congregations. After all, form follows function, right?

    • Robert Sterling

      Being a song nerd, I always struggled with “form follows function” because I always think “form is everything” – from a songwriter’s POV. But yes – particularly in service music, form does follow the intended purpose (function) of the piece. And yes – I think we are seeing a return to music coming up from the ranks of local creators. (In truth, that’s exactly how i got my start.) I am saddened by the demise of the opportunities for full-time professional writers, as the publishing “industry” (there is that word again) has diminished. It may have all been inevitable. I consider myself fortunate to be among the last generation of those writers (for the time being, at least). But I hope that the professional’s dedication to craft, form, and quality will work its way to the up-and-coming creators emerging from the local church/school.

    • David Gaines

      Thank you Robert! That is sort of what I was thinking and why I asked. One aspect of self-publishing that I am exploring, with help from a friend, is how to better market online. A lot is involved with that as far as the technical aspect, but one of his basic approaches has been, find out what folks are searching for and then use keywords, tags, etc., in your product descriptions that include or match, those search criterion.

      That might be a worthy topic to explore at a future Composers Symposium!

    • Robert Sterling

      I never wanted to be a marketer. But we are all marketers now.

  • Todd Wilson

    Robert, while the demise of the local church choir has been exaggerated, as I talk with people (denominational leaders, sacred music industry leaders, ministers of music) I hear a resounding note that church choirs are making a come back. I am a choral guy who likes all kinds of musics (new and old) and the trending growth in choir-led worship is another component that will help strengthen the “industry.” Of course, the delivery of that music has come at a staggering cost to publishers who built their business model solely around publishing and delivering music as a printed product. I see self publishers, like you, as a growing chorus (sorry) of skilled musicians who are finding a new way. Be encouraged, my friend…and welcome back to Texas.

    • Robert Sterling

      I do sincerely hope you are right about choirs making a comeback. (Musical trends do tend to swing on a pendulum.) You are correct about the staggering cost of the initial creation of any given piece of music. (And we haven’t even broached the cost of creating a cantata or a full-blown musical theater work.) I believe there are creative ways to bridge the gap that has broken open. And i think that local churches, Christian universities, and individuals passionate about quality music will have to be involved. Thanks for your encouraging words. And we are feeling more and more like Texans again.

  • Randy

    A great observation. It would be an excellent idea for churches and schools to budget for one commissioned work a year, or even every other year.

  • Larry Collins

    The decline of choral music is a function of the decline of choirs. There are many reasons for that. Some of it is rooted in the fact that so many public schools have cut their choral programs at all levels – K-12. It’s fallen victim to “practical” course work. Art class is the same. We’ve decided as a society that the arts are non-essential. This filtered into the church where there have been fewer and fewer youth choirs. As a result we have fewer and fewer people who grew up singing or can read music. So the pool of singers is shrinking and aging. It’s also a sad commentary that so many pastors think the choir is a non-essential. They want pep-rally music that “warms up the crowd” before they preach. They want froth over deep emotion. They don’t understand worship and they don’t understand the ability of music to touch the heart in a way that even the preached word often cannot.

    Sad to say, but we’ve reached a point where a lot of choral music is too difficult for the average 2018 church choir. Learning rhythms takes more time that learning notes. Too much of the current music is solo driven. The pieces that requires a killer soloist are definitely out for a lot of choirs. It’s a balancing act between the simple, the challenging, and the impossible. I struggle all the time to find the right music for my small choir (15) that sounds good and can be learned in less that 6 rehearsals. More unison and SA/TB or ST/AB parts. No high C’s at the end. Singable melodies. When I find those pieces we are ALL happy.

    Your music is still among the best. It’s a sad commentary that you have to self-publish it, which makes it less widely accessible and less well known. Keep going, Robert!

    • Robert Sterling

      You are right on all these facts, Larry. Perhaps we have entered a time of “persecution” (sorry if that sounds flippant) – and church musicians and music lovers will have to demonstrate their true passions. It will be harder to make things work. (And even harder still to change pastors’ mindsets, I suspect.) As for self-publishing – I’ve had to accept that this is the way things are for now, at least. My goal is to build a small but durable catalogue of interesting music that reflects my faith and my own artistic sensibilities. And I will try to keep an eye towards keeping things sing-able! Thx for the comment.

  • michael cork

    Robert, Your article points out a micro-cosim of the ever changing church. Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with you re. the only way for choral music to survive is through benefactors (Not sure it is goin to happen, but I agree) I have been involved in local church choral music for the past 40 years and am winding down my career. I was blessed to serve several wonderful large churches with great choirs and full orchestras and until 10 years ago thought that the worship team concept would be absorbed into the current church model. But instead it came in and destroyed the place where hundreds can serve and replaced it with a very small group of replacement players.
    I had no idea that there would be a convergence of several factors. Music is just one of the areas that has changed. As young leaders with totally different “world views” are taking leadership….don’t look for a return to church the way it was any time soon. Here is the church from where I conduct…….
    1. As established churches added new contemporary services, it left the choir service to languish with no feeder system. Since the young families attended another service, there was no one coming up to fill the ranks. Thus, choirs aged to the point of having to change the type music that singers could even hit the notes on. We used to develop a music department with graded music systems and youth orchestras, but now the Children’s ministry leaders tell us that kids choirs are “not where we are going” SO the music Director has no influence on the upcoming generations and the families in the contemporary service have no idea that the church even has a choir. My choir and orchestra Christmas concert will be ignored by young families in the church and the audience will look like a show in Branson.
    2. “Agism” is alive and well in the church when it comes to staffing. Most of the music directors my age are selling real estate because the church made a conscious decision to go younger. In my denomination there are 2 of us that are over 60 still full time in the ministry area of music. “Agism” has now moved beyond the music area to the area of lead pastor. Though it’s not a hard and fast rule, contemporary music leaders are no longer seen as “attractive” after they are 35 and Senior Pastors need to be under 50 to be employable by a congregation seeking to be be hip enough to reach young families.
    3. Most local churches with any history have shrunk in size to the point that when they are hiring a new pastor, they don’t hire a pastor whose DNA matches theirs, they hire a pastor and ask him or her to re-make them in his/her own image. Churches are willing to give up everything that they have historically been, in order to try and reach a group of people that doesn’t really care what they do. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions with disastrous results. So, as younger pastors come in to make the wholesale changes, they give no thought to the congregation that calls that church home. The older congregants are there to write the checks so the pastor can try his grand experiment of re-inventing the local congregation. The congregation more often than not, continues to shrink at an even faster pace and the new, young pastor moves on to his next experiment.
    4. The ever changing music and worship is just a part of the ever changing church. Over the past 20 years we have given up the choir and orchestra, and we are now in the process of dis-manteling the Adult Bible Fellowship (Sunday School) model and it looks like the model of a local teaching pastor could be replaced by a central figure Super-Star preaching from a remote location via internet.
    We were very fortunate to have served in an era where there was unlimited variety of musical styles and a place for everyone to serve. While Movie scores, Disneyland and secular music continue to embrace diversity, the local church continues to buy into the “mono-chromatic” model of music and worship.
    One day in the future a young pastor will say to his congregation, “hey lets get a lot of people up here on the stage and have them sing a song that will remind us of the greatness of our Creator God, a group that can show us that the sum can be greater than the parts, I don’t know what we should call it, but lets give it a try”…. and someone will need to come up with an arrangement. It probably won’t be in our life-time but it could happen. My prediction is that choir vocalists will find a place in the community to sing and the ex-church music directors might be the ones to go outside of the organized church in order to find a place to help others sing the Mighty Power of God, but I don’t look for a resurgence inside the church anytime soon.
    I have been abundantly blessed to have been able to serve God and the church for 40 years in a way that did not feel like work because I loved it so much. I have also witnessed first hand the dismantling of church music as we know it. There are a lot of people my age that were regular church attenders that now go out for breakfast on Sunday mornings instead of attending a service because the church has become a place that they don’t recognize. I bless those that come behind me to reach their generation with the good news of the gospel. I hope they do a better job than my generation has done.
    But that’s just my opinion 🙂

    • Robert Sterling

      Michael – Wow… Great response. A lot of the issues you bring up can be laid squarely at the feet of the Church trying to be hip and relevant in order to better “market” itself. I have read a few articles and polls recently that indicate this trend is proving to be ineffective. So – maybe it will reverse itself? (Change happens slowly in the Church, so we 60+ guys may not see it happen.) Thanks for your response.

  • Kathleen Basel

    Robert, I enjoyed reading this so much!
    And Michael hit the nail on the head.

    Kathi Basel

  • Sandy Wilkinson

    The pastor’s vision for our church was to have 2 services… one traditional and one contemporary. I was the organist. Eventually I was told to sell the organ on Craigslist so there would be more room on the platform for the praise band. (I moved from the organ to the synthesizer, and after the pianist left I moved to the piano.) Eventually, the adult choir disbanded. The senior adult choir has stayed strong but they sing mostly Gaither tunes and old favorites (Beulah Land, etc.) in the first service. At one time adult choirs, youth choirs, and children’s choirs were huge. Now someone gets the children together when there will be a special service like for Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas. Sad.

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