Why I am a 'Pastoral Musician'

As we start out on a series exploring the different types of jobs church musicians do across Scotland, Stuart Muir of St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and Dundee City Organist, explains why he prefers a different title. (This article originally appeared in edition #7 of Different Voices magazine.)

The choice not to be ‘director of music’, ‘master of the choristers’, but to be ‘pastoral musician’ was quite deliberate. (That’s pastoral, not ‘pasteurised’, as some friends called a colleague of mine at first!) One advantage in the title is that it creates a lot of intrigue, and gets people talking about the music of the church, and that can’t be bad!

Stuart_MuirWe probably know what ‘pastoral’ means. In a Glasgow school I taught in, a colleague was preparing for an interview to become a Guidance Teacher. We teased her about having to learn how to do the ‘Guidance Neck’ – you know, the head titled to the side and that earnest look on the face (while a pupil was usually telling them a pack of lies as to why they’d smashed up Mr McClumphar’s classroom). Does this mean pastoral musicians are organists who play with their head tilted to the side? Not quite!

Pastoral is to do with the care of people – the looking after, the nurturing, the support that’s given in a time of sadness, and indeed in times of joy. We know about supporting folk when there has been a crisis, but actually folk need support through other turning points in life also. Musicians give of themselves in preparation and in performance of music; we encourage (or should be encouraging!) others to give of their best in performing music; we nurture folk at whatever level they are at, whether they be a member of our choir or an instrumentalist in our ensemble. So as pastoral musicians our work is done with the care and nurture of the church community we work with at the heart of it.

The term actually comes from the Roman Catholic Church in the USA. There, the pastoral musician in each parish is responsible for sorting out the music for each liturgy. (Are we all familiar with the term liturgy? It certainly wasn’t used in the Church of Scotland congregation I grew up in. When I first heard others mentioning it, I thought it was a sort of Greek cake… ‘oh that was a lovely bit of liturgy today’… ‘did you enjoy that liturgy?’… doesn’t Father So-and-So do a nice liturgy?) Liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia which is often translated ‘the work of the people’, but is more accurately a ‘public work’ or ‘a work done for the people’. It is the ordering of events (what some churches would call the ‘order of service’) in worship. Each denomination has is its own traditions. Episcopal and RC churches have clearly defined liturgies, which incorporate symbolic actions or rituals. Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist churches would have less ‘set down’ liturgy, but there is usually a format to each service.

Anyway, an American pastoral musician would have to co-ordinate what was being sung and played at which Mass; who was playing for each Mass; arrange the rehearsing of the relevant people and make sure the clergy know what the musical settings etc. are to be – not to mention other events like weddings and funerals.

I have a friend who is Pastoral Musician at a large RC church in Chicago. He has to co-ordinate the music for 5 Masses every weekend. There is music at every Mass. At what he calls the ‘quieter’ services there would be a couple of hundred worshippers. At the others there could be 400-500. Musicians include organists, cantors, two bands, a children’s string ensemble and the parish choir. So, just like Scotland, eh?!

So why pick the title? When I came to my present post, I found a small and highly committed community of people who saw the need for change and development. In cathedrals like this, people may come to listen to the choir and be drawn through music into the mystery we call God. Nothing wrong with that. But they may then simply go home without talking to anyone or sharing in the Christian community. The ‘pastoral’ part is recognising that people need care and nurture. Liturgy is ‘of or for the people’ as well as God. The musician is an integral part of that ministry.

What do folk remember from a service? Is it paragraph four of the minister’s sermon? Probably not. It was that hymn they sang! That one with these powerful words. Or that great tune.

(Which is why I think that hymn playing is a whole ministry in itself.) Anyway, here I was – I’d followed the star in the sky and it settled in the east over Dundee! In many ways this new job was a fabulous blank canvas! So, how did I go about things? Well, whilst I did jump in with certain ideas straight away – I also allowed a lot of time to get the feel of the place and sense of where people were at, and where they wanted to go.

Pastoral ministry is this fine line between walking alongside people, but also giving good leadership and inspiration. We know this at basic level at the organ console. Who sets the speed of the hymns? – we do! …we may have the odd moment of compromise, but we know what can happen if a good lead is not given! A pattern developed whereby I dealt with the Sunday to Sunday liturgies – i.e. the Sunday morning Eucharist and an evening service, picking the musical settings for the Eucharist and the hymns, liaising with the Provost each week. But we also looked for ways of involving the people in preparation. So we set up a liturgy group (not a ‘committee’!) to work on the bigger feasts or certain seasons of the church year – like Advent, Holy Week, Easter etc. – although we may talk about the ethos or pattern of our Sunday worship from time to time.

The liturgy group is made up of folk who either expressed an interest in being involved or folk who we noticed were creative types and so they were asked if they wanted to be involved. And that’s an important part of the musician’s job in the ministry team – recognising folk’s gifts.

There had been an all-male choir but they had gone. This meant I really was starting from scratch – a plus since I didn’t have to deal with any of the, ‘oh that’s Jimmy’s seat – he’s sat there for 104 years – you can’t move him!’ or, ‘we’ve always sung that anthem on the 47th Sunday after Pentecost’, or, ‘we only do Willcocks descants’!

There had been a year without an organist and there were a small group of singers who had started to meet to try and help lead the congregational singing. They sat in the front two pews. This was the nucleus of a new choir.

I gently encouraged them, introducing some new music – simple stuff that sounded effective with a small group and gradually their confidence grew.

And that is the crucial thing – always take care in the music you pick that it matches the resources you have.

That’s why we have so many cases of what I call ‘Monty Python worship’ throughout the land! Choir leaders who haven’t noticed that their choir is half the size it was twenty years ago and twice the age it was! They insist on singing the same big warhorse anthems, with less than pleasing results, and they wonder why the younger generation won’t join the choir! A few more singers appeared, and then there came a turning point when we changed from being singing group to choir. The singers moved from the pews into the choir-stalls. Now we have choir of 20. This means we can do more adventurous music. As well as the Sunday Eucharist we do Choral Evensong once a month. Because we are a cathedral church we also have a number of diocesan responsibilities, and this means organising the music and liturgy for things like ordinations, consecrations, and various civic services.

Obviously I spend a lot of time rehearsing the choir for each service. But equally important is to spend time with the congregation, teaching them any new music they need to know. Our Sunday morning service is one in which we encourage the congregation to take a very active part musically. So in order to do that, people need to be taught new tunes, and also nurtured and encouraged in their singing. Occasionally we’ll have ‘Big Sing’ events where we learn new songs, but most often I’ll simply teach a song before the service begins. That is the time for it to be done, never half way through a service!

The nurturing also happens in other ways. A community becomes what they sing! So it’s you and your minister’s job to make sure that the community does not go stale and just sing the same 20 hymns week in week out! Why do we sing in church?

We sing to praise this mysterious God.
We sing to invoke God’s presence among us.
We sing to celebrate life’s joyful moments.
We sing of our pain in our darkest moments.
We stand to sing in solidarity with those who are suffering.
We sing to welcome the stranger.
We sing of where we have been.
We sing of the type of community we are just now.
We sing of the type of community we want to be.
We sing of where we hope to go.

But you can see how in our hymnody we can transform the church from being a closed, inward-looking community to being one that looks beyond the four walls, that wants to share this journey with others as we journey onwards inspired by the gospel of Christ and as we try and make sense of that today. Isn’t that music’s greatest capacity – to move people – to transform people? You don’t always know you’ve been the part of that happening. You’ve got your back to congregation when you’re at the organ console. You don’t see that tear of joy, or the look of relief as a burden is released, or that great big smile when something falls into place, maybe just because of one line in a hymn.

This Ministry of Music is a great thing to be part of.