The Continued Relevance of a Musician's Handbook During a Pandemic

Jun 9, 2020 9:00:00 AM / by Chad Fothergill

Editor’s note: We asked Chad Fothergill, author of the recent Worship Matters handbook Sing with All the People of God, to write about how the book might still be useful given recent guidance surrounding group singing. This is what he wrote. This post also appears on the Prelude Music Planner Blog.

We’ve all been there, pastors and musicians alike. It’s late in the week, and everything is ready for Sunday’s liturgy. Prayers, songs, and preaching will engage the lectionary, the community’s life, and the world. Worship leaders are prepared. And then Saturday comes. You learn that a capable leader—the lector, psalm cantor, percussionist, two altos (the entire section), or assisting minister—cannot be at tomorrow morning’s service. There is breaking news about disaster, violence, or unrest that reframes the lectionary. The sermon draft and musical choices now feel insufficient, perhaps insensitive. Musical instruments and other equipment have malfunctioned. All of the careful planning and preparation has been upended. Was it all for naught?

Last year I was invited to write a volume for the Worship Matters series on the work of church musicians and their most important task: leading the song of the gathered assembly. I thought, sang, studied, wrote, and revised. I struggled. My gracious and gifted editor helped me find better words and examples, and patiently endured many delays. Finally, the manuscript was complete, the production schedule was finalized, and all was ready. And then . . .  

Perhaps you can fill in the ellipsis above: a tiny virus precipitated a global health crisis. In response, civic leaders issued directives that fundamentally challenged our ways of being, our notions of corporate worship. My spouse, a physician, called me home from an interim cantor assignment several states away. And shortly before the book was released, we learned that singing could be a “superspreading” phenomenon for the virus. Some advised abstention from communal singing—perhaps for a year, maybe more. I thought of the book, its careful planning and preparation. Was it all for naught?

I hope not. Although the book’s pages are sprinkled with practical advice about selecting and leading assembly song, its primary focus is about the relationships that cantors (the synonym for church musicians used in the book) establish and nurture within their communities. Those relationships are simultaneously musical, theological, and pastoral. Without trust, deep listening, love for their communities and voices, and sensitivity to context and culture, cantors are but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Even if we may not be able to gather and sing together for a time, we can still tend to these important facets of the cantor’s vocation—the foundations which anchor and support our choices about what to sing and how to sing in ways that honor the assembly’s role as the primary musical instrument in worship.

Once dire days have passed and assembly singing resumes, it may be tempting to revert to what once felt “normal” or comfortable. But for many communities, the normalcy for which we yearn continues to perpetuate injustices—medical, economic, physical, and more—that sprout from the deep, stubborn roots of systemic racism. The powerful winds and flames of the Holy Spirit that we sing of at Pentecost have exposed cracks in our foundations, yet also remind us that the church does not need physical buildings to sing of God’s justice and Christ’s love. Filling these cracks with “favorite” songs and hymns—or with styles that make a privileged few feel happy and comfortable—will not be sufficient.

Perhaps the book’s questions about context, culture, or “more than we can yet imagine or name” (as phrased in the book’s introduction) will provide pastors and musicians with materials that help us sing better songs, and hopefully in ways that resist any inclination to tokenize or colonize them. Singing is both prayer and proclamation, protest against what is and prayer for what can be. Our books—Bibles, hymnals, resources—are meant to be opened, their poetry and prose from diverse voices, places, and times inviting us to be witnesses of Christ’s death and resurrection in the world. Even in changing contexts and circumstances, my hope is that the pages of this book can invite pastors, musicians, and our assemblies into a more profound “alleluia” that we can sing—boldly, honestly, compassionately, justly, lovingly—with all the people of God.

Topics: Music Ministry, COVID-19, Coronavirus

Chad Fothergill

Written by Chad Fothergill

Chad Fothergill is a musicologist, organist, writer, and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama.

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