For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

– Matthew 6:21

This was originally going to be only one blog post, but as I began writing, I realized that the topic of paid section leaders is much more complex than originally envisioned.

Today we focus on part three, “Exploring different scenarios in successfully incorporating paid section leaders into a volunteer choir.” (Links to part one and two are at the bottom of this post.)

Let me preface this post by saying that this was, by far, the hardest part for me to write – not because of lack of material or ideas but because I personally find it difficult to fathom that any choir or church member or Pastor would have a problem with paid section leaders.

But many do!

One thing I have found throughout my years of experience – to pay or not to pay is an extremely polarizing topic.

Whenever I hear arguments against paid section leaders (and I am only referring to professionally trained musicians who went to school for music and performance and who are trying to make a living through their musical expertise) I think, what an incredibly narrow perspective of Christian Discipleship!

Professional singers, as well as music directors, organists, keyboardists, and other instrumentalists, dedicate hours and hours of their weekly lives to make the Worship of God an excellent experience – not an impediment in revealing God’s message to us.

In terms of choirs, two basic truisms, “people want to be part of something great” and “people are drawn to excellence.”

Let me go out on a limb and say, in my opinion, there is no all-volunteer choir that is consistently excellent. In fact, I would say that out of 52 Sundays in a year, probably 1 or 2 Sundays can be classified as “excellent” in terms of performance if that!

I can hear some of you bristling, and I am sure I will hear things like “its not about performance” or “people sing for the love of God, not for performance” and thousands upon thousands iterations of the same thought.

I don’t buy that.

In fact, I will go farther and say that poor performance due to lack of musical training/leadership is detrimental to evangelization, detrimental to attracting new members to both choir and church, and poor performance results in a mediocre worship experience that no one remembers once they hit the parking lot, munching on their coffee hour cookie.

So with that said, let’s say — given, you have found money from some arcane budget line or generous donor or an enlightened council or benevolent Pastor:

Where do you start and how do you use paid section leaders without ruffling feathers?

Please be aware, it is no one’s business (congregation, in your choir, etc.) whether you pay singers or not.

When it comes out (and it will) it is extremely important that you handle the fact with anyone who has a question, as matter-of-fact and non-emotionally as possible.

Your attitude must be, “yes, the sun comes up in the morning, no surprise there.” If you treat it as an issue, I assure you, it will become an issue!

One recent scenario I dealt with had a moderate choir, with good altos and tenors (when they showed up) but weak sopranos and basses. I hired a good soprano who was willing to sing alto if needed and a baritone who had a very pleasant voice, able to project when necessary.

I introduced the singers as friends of mine.

Immediately the sound of the choir improved – the three other basses, who had nice voices but no training, were able to latch on to the strong bass and hold their part.

As you know, when you have a strong bass line, the other three parts fall into place nicely, the other singers can hold their notes easier since tonality is secure.

The soprano managed to keep the volunteers in line, we were able to work on blend and intonation, not learning notes.

No one at the time knew these two section leaders were paid – but all of a sudden everyone was talking about how great the choir sounded!

Even though we don’t do this for applause, there were several Sundays when the assembly broke out into spontaneous applause.

Make no mistake – this type of positive reinforcement goes a long way in engendering excitement and a sense of accomplishment.

Attendance at rehearsals and on Sunday started to rise – people were reluctant to miss!

Personally, I received much acclamation from the people and the ministerial staff – “you’ve done wonders with the choir” and “wow, how did you get them to sing so well” etc. etc.

I assure you, dear reader, I did nothing as well as the previous director, nor did I have the musicality or the choir rehearsal technique of my predecessor.

BUT and this is a big but, what I had were people who could sing the parts and keep the choir on track.

We could work on making music, not just learning notes on Wednesday that were forgotten by Sunday.

Eventually, it became apparent that these friends of mine were paid. There was some surprise, but by this time, the choir was doing so well that the paid section leaders were not only accepted but the objects of great gratitude from the choir.

One volunteer bass announced in choir rehearsal that it was wonderful to have someone who kept them on their part. Other choir members reiterated the same!

The take-away from this is, “nothing succeeds like success.” I am sure if I initially introduced the new people as paid section leaders there would have been some resistance and we would have had a negative situation to quell.

Another scenario to gradually introduce a paid singer is to hire them as a cantor/leader of song. This is especially common in Roman Catholic churches.

However, make it clear to the professional singer that part of their job is to also sing with the choir and serve as section leader.

You can gradually work the Leader of Song into a much different role once their worth is proven and their payment a mere afterthought. And you could always look to hiring 2 or 3 leaders of song since there are so many Masses on Sunday!

For my Roman Catholic friends, let’s say there are 4 masses on any given Sunday. Your initial agreement with Cantor could be something like, “sing one mass and then also sing the choir mass.”

VIOLA! You have 3 paid section leaders for your choir mass – (hint, don’t hire all sopranos, LOL!).

You should also make use of those who are volunteering cantoring duties – by no means leave them behind. If they ever wonder why they are not paid, you should spend some time talking about professional training, ability to sight read, quality of voice, etc.

In all my years, that conversation has never come up. People know a professional when they hear them.

Focus your efforts on making sure a volunteer always feels cherished – not on explaining your policies.

Finally, for all reading this, you need to hire the right person for the job.

A professional singer who is personable, approachable and willing to talk and socialize with the choir will be much easier accepted than someone who is somewhat aloof or standoffish.

Once they become friends with the choir, they will be celebrated!

Also, psychologically, it is important to use other choir members in key solos throughout the year.

Sure, they might not sound as good as your paid professional, but they will feel appreciated and you will engender confidence in their gifts. We all suffer from being human my friends.

This sense of personal self-worth cannot be over-estimated. Everyone should feel needed! It makes for a more confident choir and a fuller sound! And they ARE needed!

Good luck and here’s to unified and excellent worship of GOD!

Enjoy part one and two of this three-part post! Click below.

Part OnePaid Section Leaders, Volunteer Choirs and the Church’s Relationship with Money.

Part Two Why Paid Section Leaders Can Make a Real Difference In Music Program Growth.

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