School Program Fills Churches With Music

A gap in musicians and fewer volunteers empty organ benches across the country

DOUG O'NEAL approaches the organ bench, pulls off his left shoe. Then with one plum-colored-stocking foot working the wooden pedals, he plays a melodic piece that seems to enthrall his small audience.

``Imagine yourselves singing hymns as he's playing,'' says Boston University organ instructor Larry Kamp, and several students hum softly to themselves. After Mr. O'Neal steps down and three others have taken turns playing the instrument, Mr. Kamp outlines what he wants to achieve during the semester. ``I'd like you all ready to play a hymn each week. I want to make sure you folks are getting plenty of bench time,'' he says, adding, ``We don't have a book list, but bring stuff in and share it with the bunch.''

In this cramped room four stories above a steady whir of Boston traffic, these students are refining their organ-playing skills in order to become better church musicians. They are part of Boston University's two-year-old Church Music Training Program, which was established in response to the cathedral-sized need for professional church musicians throughout the country.

``There is a crisis in church music,'' says Linda Clark, director of the Master of Sacred Music Program at BU's School of Theology. Ms. Clark teaches a seminar in music ministry for the church program. ``There are lots of people in churches who have very little training and are being pressed into service because there aren't that many trained church musicians.''

A number of people are qualified for the very top musician or choir-directing jobs, often in large, well-known churches, Clark adds. ``Then there's this great gap, and people are always calling me up at the School of Theology and saying, `Do you have a student who can come out and play for us?' or, `We just lost our organist, and we can't find anyone to do this,' '' she says.

So she, other music professors, and deans here discussed developing a program. Clark headed to the Midwest to talk to people at the University of Iowa and the Methodist School of Theology in Delaware, Ohio, who are also training local church musicians. Though Boston University is one of only a handful of colleges in the United States that offers a program for church musicians, Clark says individual churches also are taking it upon themselves to fill the gap.

``It's a much broader need that's being acknowledged across the country,'' Clark says.

Clark and Kamp attribute the lack of musicians, especially in smaller churches, to several factors: low pay for such positions, a decline in formal music education in schools, and the changing sociology of churches. ``So much of church work in the past has been carried out by volunteers, and now those volunteers are working themselves. Therefore, this whole body of workers churches used to be able to count on is no longer there,'' Clark says.

The Church Music Training Program offers three courses: an organ class, classes in choral conducting, and Clark's seminar in music ministry. No actual degree is granted, but students may elect to get a certificate in church music, which is awarded after they take three courses and pass an evaluation process.

``We're trying to appeal to the true amateurs who are doing it because they love it,'' Kamp says.

``We're attracting piano players who are being asked by their local congregations to play the organ; people who have been conducting choirs who have had no conducting whatsoever,'' Clark says. ``We talk about what it means to play music in a congregation, what are hymns, what is the history of hymnody, why there is music in the church, and what are the various traditions.''

The five students who appeared for the first day of the three-month organ class vary in age, religion, and background. Three are Protestants; two are Roman Catholic. One is in his early 20s; another is past retirement. Most drive more than an hour to get here.

Paula Crocker, an organ substitute at Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, Mass., says, ``This class is good because there are people here at all different levels. It's helpful to play for each other.''

Willard Dame, who plays the organ at First Parish Church in Manchester, Mass., is enamored of the instrument. ``I practice one and a half hours a day - that's how much it means to me.'' His goal? ``To become sufficiently proficient. I want to be able to substitute in other churches.''

``I wanted to improve my skills,'' says Stanley Francis, a Caribbean native who plays the organ for the Greenwood Memorial United Methodist Church in Boston's Dorchester section. This is Mr. Francis's second semester. ``It's done wonders,'' he says.

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