Matthew R. Perry

So Fewer are Enrolling as Music Majors at our Seminaries? I Know Why

In Church Life, Worship on May 11, 2007 at 10:32 am

Dr. Mohler of Southern Seminary recently noted that enrollment in our music schools at our seminaries are down significantly over the past few years.  As one who graduated from Southern’s School of Music (M.C.M., 1997:  Church Music Major, Emphasis in Piano), and now having been in ministry since 1992 both as a minister of music and as a pastor, I believe I can speak to why enrollment is down.

Most of our seminaries’ music schools are modeled after conservatory curriculum.  At seminary, you will study hymnology, church music literature, conducting and choral techniques.  As a pianist, I would spend hours learning a piece by Bach, Chopin, Brahms, and Debussy.  Vocalists would learn other classical pieces as well.  Electives would include areas such as composition, transcription, church music drama, arranging, etc. 

To Southern’s credit, they have begun some classes such as “Leadership in Contemporary Expressions of Corporate Worship.” 

When one looks at the state of contemporary worship in our churches, then looks at our seminaries’ curriculum, some work needs to be done.  When many of our worship services are led by guitars, drums, and other electrical instruments which are more in line with what one hears on the radio, they may question the necessity for coming to seminary to be a worship leader and learning how

  • to conduct a choir (many churches now simply have praise teams);
  • study hymnology (many churches work overtime to divorce themselves from the constraints of the past — which is what the ‘hymns’ represent);
  • learn to sing or play classical pieces (what ministry would most people see in having someone play a Bach Prelude and Fuge or a Brahms Intermezzo for a worship service?)

Many simply see the need to lead in a spiritual manner with passion — whereas learning music in an academic setting seems to diffuse the passion that music should help arouse!  For many, it just doesn’t seem to fit with being a worship leader.

Our seminary music schools will have to rethink some issues.  I am not necessarily advocating doing away with all things historical and classical (my next blog will show the cruciality of having these areas in place).  I am advising them to make a stronger case than they have been.

Fortunately, many of our seminary music professors are among the best trained musicians our country has to offer.  I’m thankful they are serving the Kingdom of God.  Yet, I believe the danger is that since they have been surrounded from an early time in that conservatory, academic mindset that they fail to take seriously the mindsets of those worship leaders in our churches who have their own mindsets of what worship should be.  The temptation is to look at the quality of music played and taught at seminary and then simply look at the quality of the music played in our average church and look no further — “Our quality is better, therefore this is the level of quality every serious minister of music should attain.”

Tomorrow, I will blog on what the average church member may think of classically-trained music ministers.  Do they encourage further training to help them keep their skills up, or do many passively discourage them in order to play music “of the people”?  I believe this is where the bridge must be crossed and a dialogue must occur in order to have greater understanding of why music schools in our seminaries are suffering.

What think ye?

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  1. Well Bro. Matt, I think a lot of what you say rings true. As a Music Ed Major looking into going into the Music Ministry, a lot of me asks, “Why should I get another music degree, this one in Church Music?” For me, I am not a pianist, and I am not a vocal major, so a large part of me wonders what seminary can offer me in music, seeing as my primary instrument is the trumpet. I love hymns AND contemporary stuff, but to me it seems like I don’t need another degree in order to arrange Hymns for guitar music. I don’t want seminaries to drop classics, but I would love to see them make room for other outlets of praise.

  2. Hey, Derek here (bass player for JMB… not that it’s any mark of fame, but I figured that’s probably the only way you know me). First off, I wanted to say thanks for these posts on music ministry. Right now I’m studying music ed at UK with an emphasis in voice with intentions of going on to Southern to study church music or perhaps the new worship track they offer. I originally went into music ed to gain choir experience and to learn how to conduct, since choirs are still a large part of church music, especially larger churches. As time goes on and the church moves towards the praise team and away from hymns, choir, and tradition, I worry that my education is in vain. I look forward to your future posts.

  3. Matt,
    Great topic – From what you wrote I can see the parallels between the overemphasis on the academic nature in preparing for music ministry and the overemphasis on the academic nature of preparing for the preaching ministry.

    From my experience it seems that churches are moving in several different directions at once. Some are fully embracing the ‘worship artist’ model of ministry. Others see the worship leader as a ‘minister of the Word.’ Still others would want to defend the classic styles of a Southern culture Christianity.

    Pastorally there needs to be a strong emphasis on the Regulative Principle and a theological vision of worship. If not then our membership may blindly follow the trends and fads of American Christianity.

    I’m looking forward to part 2.

  4. Matt: I think you are right on target. This is not my area at all, but this is exactly what my worship guy says in regards to the SBC programs. My worship leader doesn’t read music and I believe it would be required to learn some instrumentation in order to complete the degree. Also, we do not do any hymns unless they have been put to updated arrangements. We have nothing against the hymns of the past, but that is just not us. It will interesting to see if and how our SBC seminaries adjust to the down enrollment. Thanks for the post!

  5. Matt,

    I am also a graduate of SBTS School of Music seminary, but I see things differently from you. So much can be said in reply to your post, but I’ll limit it to a few quick thoughts:

    1. I think it is incredibly sad that worship leaders don’t have the ability to read music anymore. The comment from dbrowneph4, that is worship leader “doesn’t read music” and that they “don’t use hymns” tells you why the enrollment is down in seminaries–the church has left traditional music. Now, maybe you applaud that, but I deplore it. Classically trained musicians don’t have a place in the Southern Baptist Church anymore.

    2. When you went to SBTS, you went to a nationally accredited school of music, not just a place to prepare you for ministry. Perhaps you don’t value what that means, but I do. I am now teaching on the faculty of a NASM accredited state university here in Birmingham, Alabama. My degree from SBTS allowed me that opportunity. Studying music history, theory and the music of the great composers put me on equal footing with other doctoral granting institutions and gave me the education I needed to pursue what I wanted to do.

    3. Southern Baptist churches have sold their soul and their traditions to embrace emotionalism and contemporary worship styles. They’ve rejected all ties to the past in an effort to be more “real” to their congregations. Style is now everything, substance is gone. The great hymns of the faith don’t exist to the majority of southern baptists . . the history and theology tied to those hymns is lost, too.

  6. I can’t speak to the seminary situation, but I can relate from the perspective of an individual who earned a Sacred Music degree from Gardner-Webb College (now “university”) in 1988. I expected to be equipped to at least lead a moderate sized church.

    In my senior year, many of my professors began pushing me to go on to seminary. Instead, I took a year off and then went to a secular graduate school for a Master’s degree in Music Theory where a more practical approach to prepping for the real world was included, even though there was no major focus on church music.

    In the 1980s, Gardner-Webb advised students planning to be church music leaders to take their Sacred Music program. Here’s how I found that program to be:

    1. I never heard the names of the choral music companies I now use on a weekly basis…Lillenas, Word Music, and Brentwood-Benson. We did have one music reading session with music from Shawnee Press, as I recall.

    2. My “real world” training consisted of one semester of church music field work. I had several assignments over the course of one semester to discuss issues with an off campus minister of music, “help” him in his adult choir rehearsal (once), youth choir rehearsal (once), children’s choir rehearsal (once) and handbell rehearsal (once).

    3. I had at least a dozen classes required for my major that had absolutely nothing to do with religion OR music…French, geology, etc.

    4. I was required, as a music major, to attend a number of concerts on campus every semester. The Music Department spent money (that we presumably paid for tuition) to bring in a pianist to play Beethoven, or an opera singer, or whatever. When the student body entertainment committee brought in popular Christian artists of the day like David Meece or the Imperials to campus, those particular concerts didn’t count towards the minimum number of concerts we were required to attend each year.

    I could continue, but I’ll try to summarize instead. The traditional “liberal arts” approach to education is simply designed to bloat the education process and in the end, may carry so much extra baggage that the very job you signed up to learn about is neglected. I lead music in a church now that has a traditional congregation who sing with piano and organ and an adult choir that sings with pre-recorded CD tracks. Ditto for youth and children’s choirs…which I wasn’t prepped for at ALL at Gardner-Webb.

    To Gardner-Webb’s credit, they did teach me to play piano fairly well, but they didn’t teach me anything about improvising. I learned that at graduate school while majoring in Music Theory…mostly on my own. They did teach me to sing better, choral directing, how to give piano lessons, voice lessons, familiarized me with a variety of instruments and taught me the basics of how to create sound on each one.

    I did learn a lot, but there was so much more that a “Sacred Music” degree should have included.

    Having learned from reading your article that seminaries have this same issue, I’m glad I chose the more practical approach to graduate school, even if it wasn’t in the particular area that I ended up doing.

  7. I grew up Southern Baptist and sang in SBC churches for 34 years. I have also sung on a “praise team” during college. For 3 years now, I have been the paid bass soloist at First Presbyterian Church, Dallas. I now sing in The Dallas Opera. I consider myself very qualified to speak on the issue of the state of SBC music.

    The trend of churches to move to a pop music program is not often being handled very well outside of the “Megachurches”. (The megachurches are the exceptions to my observations.)

    When I go to services that involve pop music, I often don’t see a lot of corporate participation across either generations or gender or voice type.

    I have noticed that often the middle-aged and older generations are totally at a loss as to how to sing from lyrics on a projected screen without notes. Often, the praise team does a good job singing, but the congregation is sometimes just standing around shuffling the feet and mumbling until the music ends.

    But I don’t want to really focus on the generation gap. Instead, I want to address the voice type of the typical music minister, because I think it is a topic that is sorely overlooked. The pop music so common in the SBC convention excludes 1/4 of the singers–the lower male voice. Our voices are big and are often not suited for the pop sound.

    How many basses or bass-baritones are on American Idol? None. Why? Because modern pop music has no use for the lower male voice type. (Country music excluded.)

    Also, the praise music is often written too high for the untrained bass or alto voice. The passaggio for many basses occurs at around A-natural to B-natural (below middle C). Unfortunately for baritones and basses, the melody (often the chorus) lingers at this breaking point and above, the untrained voice cracks and the singing stops.

    Many untrained voices do not know how to harmonize. And trained basses often don’t want to sing the melody because their voices will stick out when singing in their high range; and the trained voices would really prefer to read harmonies on a songsheet that lets them sing in a natural range.

    Anyone who thinks that the Bass/Baritone demographic is ONLY a 1/2 of the male population should consider that we actually have many, many more Bass/Baritone voices than Tenor voices. Whether this is cultural or genetics is up for debate. I do know that we are getting bigger kids in each generation (mine included) and that Dallas area voice teachers are noticing this for both women and men.

    Most choir director find themselves short of Tenor voices. Tenors are harder to find. Good tenors? Even harder. (The fact that Carol Cymbala of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir writes such high male vocal parts shows, in my opinion, that she knows very little about the male voice or the average make-up of a choir.)

    Further adding to the problem, it seems that most churches are wanting a pop song leader–i.e., a tenor. They want him to wear a microphone and be the lead soloist for their congregation.

    So pity the poor bass, brilliant as he may be, who goes to seminary and then is expected to sing pop music for the congregation.

    Also, a lot of the lyrics in praise music explores “feelings”–usually about “guilt” and “love”. This is, quite honestly, a put-off to a lot of men, because it comes across as needy. While “love” and “forgiveness” are great topics, it becomes a caricature of Christianity to constantly sing about these aspects. Many men perceive the endless mantra of “love” and “forgiveness” to be a feminine attitude. This perception of feminine lyrics adds to the problem of getting men (basses, included) to sing in church.

    Basses have never been the center of attention where singing is concerned. That’s true in opera, but it’s even more true in pop music.

    The current pop music situation makes the inclusion of basses into corporate worship worse than ever.

    I fear that the historical trend in the SBC to exclude women from being song leaders has now extended to exclude the non-pop voice (i.e., the bass or bass-baritone voice) from leading the worship, as well.

    Kyle Hancock
    Lewisville, Texas

  8. Many contemporary churches do not support musical literacy anymore. They can’t afford professional musicians so a good keyboardist is forced to sit through hours of rehearsal (most of the time unpaid) with instrumentalists and singers that do not read music, having only some lyrics and guitar chords in front of them. The arrangements for songs are verbal instructions made up on the spot with trial and error. The problem is this is for congregational singing and there is no notation to follow including for the READING musicians. To me, hand me the music, or at least a lead sheet with notation on it and I can play it immediately. Give me lyrics and guitar chords and I need to spend quite a bit of time listening to the cd, asking or figuring out how long a note should be held, are we going to sing the same verse 7 or eleven times, etc. I play for another church, they give me the hymn numbers and I’m good to go. Contemporary churches are into change for change’s sake. I’ve got no problem with playing different styles of music and it doesn’t take a musical genius to play the stuff, but are we high maintenance or complaining if we want to see some actual written music? If you were to hand several chefs only a portion of a recipe and tell them I like you to make this dish, but it needs to be exactly like the other chef’s here – that’s the kind of time consuming confusion and communication problems it causes. So in keeping with the original post – where does a competent musician/keyboardist fit into the contemporary church setting?

  9. Someone recently told me, “If there’s not an organ, I can’t worship.”

    To that I very wisely responded, “Hmmmmm.”

  10. Music in our parishes and congregations should be a musical sacrifice that is the very best we have to offer, not the convenient or the trendy. I think that the same should be said of the preaching, which has also fallen horribly subpar in most congregations. Excellence in preaching and music requires educated leaders (whom I expect take their responsibilities seriously!) that are able to educate the congregation as well. The failing of this in the late 70’s and early 80’s led to a trendy megachurch movement that features disposable music, liturgy, preaching, and pastoral care.

    Historically, the church has been a slow-moving behemoth, ill equipped to deal with the ebb and flow of cultural popularity. When the church decides to play into this worldly rubric it will not succeed, and in recent years many churches have thrown their lot in with such hopes. When one considers the now near instantaneous ability to communicate ideas and concepts, and the subsequent acceleration of the change in the trendy, one can easily understand why most churches are providing services that are only palatable to a very small fraction of their potential population. The result: Bad 80’s music that satisfies baby boomers approaching geezerhood.

    Although traditional liturgical congregations such as the Mo Synod Lutherans, ELCA (Evangelical Lutherans), and ECUSA (Episcopal Church USA) have experienced a significant decrease in the size of their flocks, their constituent congregations are made up of virtually every congregation demographic except Boomers. It makes one wonder if the other generations as a whole support this Boomer led innovation.

    The trendy nature of the so called Contemporary Worship style has already begun to be eclipsed by the younger generations acting in violent revolt against the shallow worship practices of their progenitors. As a result they are seeking out denominations and educational institutions who offer something that feels more timeless and less like what everyone else is offering. Unfortunately institutions that have adaped to trendiness are going to be ill equipped to train future church leaders in some denominations. I strongly believe that this will result in a substantial subsidence in what is offered by these congregations.

    Just as Shopping Malls built in the 70’s and 80’s in suburban areas have begun to suffer from the same implosion, so too will we see it in our churches. My prayer is that the long term damage done to the infrastructure of our churches and communities can be rebuilt from the ground up. Undoubtedly the landscape has changed significantly. Once large affluent early leaders in the contemporary worship movement are now left decimated by their inability to keep up. I recently attended a church that I had attended 10 years ago when it was the ‘popular’ place to be. The Sancturary, then packed to capacity at 1200 during my visit a decade ago, now held almost 100 people.

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