Church Musician


Minnesota Fiddlers

One option in gaining experience playing fiddle, is to play in your local church.

Liturgical music is not intended for "Performance", instead it is intended to support a religious service.  In fact, you might not be considered a musician anymore, you might be referred to as a "Music Minister".

There is usually one person who is hired (and typically poorly paid) to select the music and ensure that it sounds appropriate for the service.

The music director should have total control of the music during the duration of the church service.
Church music mostly favors choirs and the human voice - this is because there are no lyrics to instrumentals.

Therefore, if you are a liturgical accompanist, your job is to assist the vocalists in assisting the priest with the religious service at the direction of the music director.

The rules of engagement are much different than playing in a jam session, fiddle contest or on-stage performance.  We will note a few here:

1. Follow the director.  Play only what and when directed.
2. When you are playing, keep your eyes on the music director.
3. When you are not playing, keep your eyes on the religious service.
4. You will be required to read music.
5. You will be counting a lot of rests.
6. You will need to play in the upper register, and more than likely in third position.
7. You will be playing in many different key signatures.
8. Be prepared. Have your music sorted and ready to go, have extra material available in case the service takes longer than expected and the director needs to add extra instrumental verses to fill time.

That having been said, playing music in a church can be a great experience.  Practicing in an empty worship space is awesome! The acoustics are much different when there is a whole congregation sitting in the pews to absorb the sound.

Because church music is predominantly vocal music, your job as a "fiddler", is to support those vocals as sweeteners or to give emphasis to certain passages. If you are good you might get to play intros.

Because the human voice is the most important instrument in this venue, and because different voices have different ranges, you will really need to deal with a wide range of key signatures.

You might also be playing with Bb instruments such as clarinets and saxophones which raises another issue which is well known to orchestra players and marching band members. The sheet music for Bb instruments are written in a different base frequency than the music for C instruments such as flutes and violins. This means that if a clarinet is playing sheet music written in the key of C, in order for you to play with them, you must play in the key of Bb.

The choirs are divided into the four sections: S A T B (Soprano - Alto - Tenor - Bass) These sections make up a four-part harmony and they each have their frequency ranges. The violin is a soprano instrument in a stringed orchestra (Violin/Soprano - Viola/Alto - Cello/Tenor - Bass/Bass) - So if you are playing with choir, your job will mostly be to play up in the higher registers - the Soprano range.

However, if the choir is lacking tenors, you might get to play a bit more in first position by taking the tenor parts and transcribe them up an octave (out of the base clef and into the treble clef). You end up with some interesting harmonies that are both fun and easy to play and the choir director is probably happy to have someone fill that frequency range.

It also helps that of all the instruments the violin can most accurately mimic the human voice.

If you are going to be doing some transcribing we should remind you that the notes of the lines of the base clef: "G" "B" "D" "F" "A" - can be remembered by saying "Great Big Dogs Fight Animals" and the spaces in the base clef: "A" "C" "E" "G" can be remembered by saying "All Cows Eat Grass".

Church music is typically Refrain and Verse (A part and B part).  There is no emphasis on playing fast, there are no slides or double-stops. On-the-beat and on-pitch is the way you need to play.

It’s worth noting that there is some really good music in Church Hymnals that have been composed by Minnesotans right here in Minnesota.

After Vatican II in the 1960s the old Latin chants went by the wayside and the Catholic Church had to figure out what to do for music. It was literally by papal decree that it was dictated that "Thou shalt play something other than Kumbaya".  In the 1980s there was a major effort to compose new music for the church, and one hotbed for this new liturgical music was the St. Paul and Minneapolis area. Marty Haugen, Michael Joncas and David Haas lead the way writing a lot of gorgeous music which was published in the "Gather" hymnals.  However, some of those pieces have leaked into some of the Protestant Hymnals too.

Now, because of copyrights and, you know, ASCAP, we can’t print this music.  But it is highly recommended to go search out pieces such as:

“On Eagles Wings” – by Michael Joncas (with great tenor descant)
“I Have Loved You” – by Michael Joncas
"Gather Us In" – by Marty Haugen
"Canticle of the Sun"– by Marty Haugen (a fun up-beat piece to end the service)
"Shepherd Me, O God" – by Marty Haugen
"We Have Been Told" – David Haas

You never know when you might be asked to play for a funeral, baptism or wedding, and these are well known and much appreciated pieces.