Graduate degree in choral conducting or organ thoughts?
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    What are your thoughts on pursuing additional degrees in sacred music & choral conducting vs organ? Have you found one to be more sought after than the other for full-time positions, or is it really dependent on the parish?

    Some of the job listings can be hard to read, as it seems leadership frequently expects expertise in both choir and organ. For example, a basilica nearby with an opening stresses both though much of the job seems choir-oriented, as do two other local churches (Presbyterian and Episcopal).

    For background: I have two degrees in piano performance and currently serve a small-ish congregation where I play piano and organ, and direct the choirs and bells.
  • Wade,

    As Tomjaw can testify, degrees in music are useful but not absolutely required to lead choirs. Piano performance degrees may be a hindrance if landing a job where beautiful sacred music is required, not because pianos are evil but because the kind of parish which is looking for a performance degree may want you to produce kitch. Parish which wish to produce beautiful and sacred music may look askance at a performance degree.
  • doneill
    Posts: 188
    Graduate degrees in organ and church music may or may not be practical. Honestly, sometimes it is a hindrance, given a climate of anti-intellectualism and content with mediocrity. But it's still worth doing, for the challenge, and for one's improvement. You didn't specifically ask about programs, but look at the University of Kansas, which has graduate degrees in Church Music, and where you would receive excellent training in organ, choral conducting, and theology of aesthetics.
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    Chris, thanks for the input! The part about leading choirs without a degree makes sense to me, as I've met several full-time church music directors who had organ degrees but no choir degrees. Regarding performance degrees: It's hard for me to imagine Bach and the like as kitsch, but I think I see what you mean. It's unfortunate more schools near me don't offer sacred music with organ graduate degrees.

    Doneill, I'd agree it's worth it for myself, even if not for the churches -- assuming, of course, it doesn't come with too much debt! I'll definitely check program out, thank you. The nearest school to me with sacred music graduate programs is the Catholic University of America. Ideally, I'd like to pursue something roughly in my area unless it doesn't require residency since I'm married and don't think my wife would be thrilled with relocating.
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,115
    Private instruction might be time/ money better spent, if it is rigorous enough. Especially since you have music degrees already.
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    Thanks Kathy, I agree. Honestly, that's what I wished I'd done instead - or at least before - my MM piano degree. Part of the struggle for me is that people naturally question my ability at the organ since I have no paper to show for it unlike for piano. While I might still be able to get a foot in the door to play organ for someone, I wonder if having a sacred music organ degree would both open more doors and legitimately significantly improve my ability for music ministry.
    Thanked by 1Kathy
  • Degrees in organ mean not only that you can play well, but that you know the organ's literature, know the vast differences between playing the organ vs piano, have concomitantly learned choral conducting, sacred music literature, and choral directing skills - for the simple reason that an organist needs to know and has been taught and prepared for these things and a pianist hasn't. plus, you will always be glad that you have acquired the knowledge and skills that advanced music degrees signify. To be sure, there are gifted individuals here and there who have become exemplary church musicians though they have no degrees, most are and will remain amateurs who will always be walking on eggshells with an amateur's limitations and outlook.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,111
    I have a few comments:

    1) If you've already got an MM in piano, don't take on any more debt toward studies in sacred music unless it's strictly for your own personal desire for more education. You aren't going to get paid more over the course of your career with another MM or the like.

    2) If you feel like listing "piano" on your resume has closed doors for you, don't be that specific. Just list "BM 2010, MM 2012" or something like that. If they want further information about the focus of your studies, be honest.

    3) If you're a competent organist, provide audio/video recordings of yourself. Those should allay any initial fears.

    4) If you're a competent organist who is searching for another credential but don't want to go to school, look into certificates from the AGO. A Service Playing Certificate or Colleague Certificate would show that you are a pretty decent organist, and that's not nearly as costly (time-wise or money-wise) as another degree.

    5) The AGO also offers a Choirmaster Certificate, which would attest to your abilities in that area.

    6) Another credential which might be beneficial is a certificate in liturgy from Notre Dame, which can be completed online: https://mcgrath.nd.edu/online-courses/step/certificates/liturgy/
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    Jackson, undoubtedly. What I learned in my two degrees for piano is a big part of why I'm giving an additional degree for sacred music and organ or choral directing such serious consideration.

    Irishtenor, that sounds like solid advice to me! I've been considering the AGO organ and choir master certifications for a while now. The requirements are pretty manageable for me up through the Associateship level, at least in terms of repertoire. I have no idea how the certifications are perceived at parishes. I'd assume if they have a reasonably experienced committee they would be familiar.

    Thank you for the link for the ND course, I had no idea it existed and will definitely give it a closer look!
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 236
    “Sacred Music” without applied instruction in conducting or organ isn’t worth very much, save to mark you as a disciple of a liturgical/theoretical school.

    In the UK, where music education among the general public is far more advanced than here, especially if you have singers who have already been through the choral system as children or students, sure, anyone can lead a choir. But here in the States, if you want to do real music and get good, healthy singing out of a group of people other than hired pros, you’re going to need to know how to train, teach, and lead effectively. There’s no way to achieve that (outside of years of apprenticeship with a master) without a conducting degree which includes armwaving technique, vocal pedagogy, and lots of singing for and with good people.

    In my student years, I had the distinct displeasure of playing for several programs in cathedrals and large parishes, led by folks with graduate degrees in piano performance and vocal performance. Their rehearsals were poorly structured and tedious; they were unable to fix even the simplest issues with intonation or blend; the directions they did give were often the opposite of what the singers needed and would have resulted in injury if actually followed. The singers left feeling emotionally defeated and vocally tired, and the performances were always slipshod. They had no working knowledge of the repertory, and struggled to find appropriate music for the season and for the capabilities of the choirs. They had gotten the jobs through buttkissing or whatever, but they surely didn’t have the skill set to actually do them, and their singers and those who heard them suffered.

    My sister is a registered nurse and a very good one. Many times, she can correctly predict what the doctor will advise when we complain to her about one symptom or another. Probably she could do an appendectomy or C-section if she had to. She could maybe even falsify papers and set up shop in Burundi as a doctor. But eventually, her lack of training would catch up with her and she’d end up doing grave harm to someone she should be nurturing and protecting.

    So yeah, you can get a cathedral gig without a suitable degree, but only if you want to make life miserable for your charges and are all right with taking a job from someone qualified, so that you can half-arse a program that should be a model for the entire Diocese.

    Check out the University of Houston. Great things are happening there under Daryl Robinson and Robert Simpson, and it’s set up now that all church music/organ students get to pay in-state tuition, and then get further scholarships to cover even that little bit.
  • Bach wasn't what I meant by kitsch.

    I was once replaced by a spectacular showman. He might have played Bach, but that's not why he was hired.
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    Gamba, that's a big part of my concern and desire for a sacred music degree in either organ or choral directing. I've been taking voice lessons since I first got this position to try to learn as much as I could about vocal technique so I don't harm the choir members. I'd want to ensure that, in the future, if I were entrusted with a bigger program it'd be, as you said, a model for the Diocese.

    I'm particularly sensitive from a teaching experience I had. I was fresh out of my MM degree and started teaching an independent piano teacher who had 40 students. I quickly found out she was unable to play 8th notes evenly, let alone handle more advanced techniques. I don't want to be the same for a choir. I still don't know if the best route for me personally is choral directing or organ, though. I'll definitely look into the program. Thank you for the recommendation.

    Chris, ahh OK, I totally get what you mean now. Confusing the parish for the concert hall, or something like that, unfortunately.
  • Real world experience will be the most invaluable teacher, no matter what. I encourage you to keep that up. Earning a Master's in organ/sacred music will help to strengthen your overall competence at the organ, expand your knowledge of organ literature, etc. Likewise, if you do a sacred music degree, you'll get coursework on liturgy and hands-on learning in conducting; if you join a choral ensemble, it will enable you to take (or even reject) ideas for choir direction from the conductor.

    Notre Dame has a free MSM which comes with a stipend. Another good sacred music program is at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (not Catholic, obviously, but an outstanding program from what I gathered firsthand). Catholic University of America and Baylor University (Baptist) also have these degrees (and, as Gamba pointed out, University of Houston).

    Prayers and best luck as you discern the next step!
  • JesJes
    Posts: 522
    I have post grad choral-conducting... more jobs in Aus are looking for choral directors with organ skills than organist with choral skills...
    Look at your local advertisements. Look at what the cathedrals want. That will help you to discern.
    Thanked by 1Gustavo Zayas
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    Little_Durufle, I agree about experience. I learned a lot even just volunteering in music ministries before I started working for the church. I'd really like to have more formal education in all three of those fields. Thank you for the information about Notre Dame. I might have a conversation with my wife to really see how she feels about relocating for a couple years. It's hard to beat getting paid to complete a degree, if you can get in.

    Jes, thank you for your advice. I'd like to do more organ studies, but as you said I think it might be wiser for me to get a choral conducting degree given the priorities of local cathedrals and other churches. I spoke with an advisor at the Catholic University of America who said it's easier to get organ experience as a choral conducting major than it is the other way around because time on the podium is so limited. That might be a good next step.
  • jcr
    Posts: 67
    The alternative to another degree is to pursue conducting and/or organ study privately. It is also a good practice to arrange to observe the most excellent conductors at work. Much is learned, not only about conducting, but about leadership styles and podium decorum, etc. It is an especially good idea to spend some time observing the baton technique of excellent orchestral conductors. Unfortunately, there is an inconsistency in choral conducting that can be firmed up a bit by a more disciplined approach to the work. If there is an excellent choral person in your neighborhood, it may be possible to get some private instruction from such a person. I was fortunate enough to study conducting in several stages that had an increasing intensity. At some point in your growth you will find that more lessons are less the issue than podium time and developing rehearsal procedures and a leadership approach that is compatible with your personality and musical/artistic goals. There is a place where another conductor's prescriptive solutions to conducting puzzles are more enslaving than liberating. I'm working on a manual dealing with some of this . If I ever get to the meat of it I will make it available to forum folks before I consider whether is is worth publishing.
    Thanked by 1Gustavo Zayas
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    jcr, thank you for your input! I've found it easy to study organ & voice privately, but more difficult to study choral conducting privately. My only direct conducting instruction was instrumental conducting at my undergrad university, which culminated in me conducting the school orchestra in the overture to Der Freischütz - not exactly choral! Since then, I've sung in about a dozen choirs, substituted for a couple directors, and have been leading my current choir for 4 years. It might be that I just haven't done enough legwork, as I've really only contacted one person about private choral conducting study and they were confused by my request.

    This is part of why I'm drawn to a MSM in choral conducting, to get that hands-on instruction and podium time with feedback with a choir at the graduate study level. I still have a lot to consider and think about, though everyone's replies have been very helpful to me with their insight.
  • jcr
    Posts: 67
    I'm thinking of the relative value of a second Masters degree. A DMA might have more value as a job seeking credential, but the investment of time and money is greater. Thee are a lot of things to think about. I know that I made several foolish decisions or, at least what some of my "advisers" may have thought to be foolish. There were a few of them that I wish I had made differently. Among them were a couple of choices in teachers.

    It does look as though you have had some serious observation experiences and you may be at that point where an in depth immersion in the work may be just the right thing to do.

    I wish you well in your deliberations. It's not easy to pack up everybody and go off on a new adventure, but it can reward you in many ways that can surprise you. We'll pray for you and your decisions regarding this matter.
    Thanked by 1Wade
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    jcr, I see what you mean. I'm more than willing to get a second Masters degree if I don't have to pay for it! But if it's going to cost me something, a DMA is probably the best choice.

    Part of my thought process on this is that I'd like to have something to deepen my education & communicate competency in choral conducting, but I'd like to do the same for organ. I don't know if it's at all reasonable, but something like another Masters in sacred music & choral conducting, followed by a performance diploma (or maybe DMA) in organ - possibly sacred music & organ, depending on the school.

    Thank you for your prayers. I've been engaging in a lot of reading, thinking, and praying myself.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,197
    I picked up a 2nd Master's in music along with my other MS. I tell kids to stay out of teaching and church music if they hope to make money. I couldn't have fooled with church music if I had not had a more technical job with the federal government. Always have another skill or degree to fall back on.
  • Wade
    Posts: 10
    Charles, I think that's generally a good idea! For me, the back-up plan is secular music haha I've been full-time in music for 12 years but have only been working half-time as a church musician for the past 4 and I would like to see if serving the church can be my full-time thing. I don't know if it ever will, but I sure hope so.
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • jcr
    Posts: 67
    Clearly, the one truly practical matter one must consider is the question of how one will earn a living wage/income doing what he may want to do. This is something that many of us in music never gave as much thought to as we should have. I worked for churches and church related institutions my entire career which made preparing for retirement a greater challenge that it should have been. Add in the vagaries of life-broken marriage, caring for aged relative for several years (full time obligation for both of us), and some of the other unplanned for stuff that comes our way, and plans just don't shake out the way we expected. Now, this is not a lamentation, but just a "heads Up" for anyone thinking of a career in music of any kind, but church music especially. I don't regret choosing it but I would have liked to have had some better career planning advice in my younger days. You can plan what you do, but others can leave you no choice than to do things you would not have wanted. When it comes to financial planning, put away more than you think will be necessary. If this is a calling by Our Lord, He"ll take care of you, but He wasn't kidding when He said "Take up your cross...". Let's pray for each other and especially for young men and women who are considering lay service to the Church.

  • I have an MM in organ performance and I’m glad I have it... but I wish that I had had (pursued deliberately at least) more training in conducting and more importantly: sacred music. I’m having to learn a lot on the fly. Fortunately I have a great priest who is guiding me. But I wish I came to the table with more knowledge of traditional liturgy. I find that I learn a lot by accident. For instance, I didn’t know it was traditional to sing the Veni Creator on New Year’s Day until my pastor asked if we were singing it. I can’t shake the feeling that if I had done a sacred music program I would know more of these things.
  • Wade, when you say sacred music and choral conducting vs organ, it seems a bit non-specific. Do you mean a Masters in sacred music with an emphasis in either choral conducting or organ? Or do you mean a Masters in either choral conducting or organ with some sacred music sprinkled on either?

    I'd like to reply to your first question that I think furthering one's education is always desirable. After that, I second Irishtenor. But I also need to point out what Jes said. If you are an organist who can make a volunteer choir sound semi-professional on a regular basis, it will be a real accomplishment. If you are a choral director who plays the most impressive organ preludes and postludes, a few people might be really impressed. But which is the "meat & potatoes"?

    As for your second question, in my experience job requirements vary by parish. I have not seen one standardized job description for music directors. Each parish posts their job description (when they do post them) and you apply to the one where you think you have the best chances to succeed.

    Job listings are difficult to read because they are often put together by committee and can be unrealistic. You have to try to read between the lines. Call the parish and try to set up a meeting with the pastor to get a sense of what he means by each line in the listing. Example: "required to assist in the preparation of school choir(s) for singing at school Mass as well as liturgies and events integral to the life of the parish and school" = you will totally be in charge of and responsible for the Advent musical play, the Christmas concert(s), sung Stations of the Cross, a Passion play during Holy Week, the Spring concert(s), "parish outreach" concerts, sung outdoor processions (walking or on the back of a pickup truck), children's Masses, youth Masses, alumni Masses, graduation Masses, a May Crowning ceremony, invitational music festivals, and the annual talent show - all dealing with the "school choirs". That's a lot. Then there are the adults. It does not seem to me that most pastors pay much attention to your degree as long as you can get the work done.

    Good luck in whatever you decide to do.