Mentoring of Church Musicians: Some Success Stories

Convened and Edited by Victor Hill, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2008 Victor Hill. Used by permission. Published in The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians, November 2008, Vol. 17, No. 8. We offer sincere gratitude to Victor Hill and The Journal for this article and for the permission to share it.

Victor Hill:  The AAM Mentoring Project, under the dedicated direction of Dr. Marilyn Keiser, has completed two successful pilot projects and is now fully in operation.  At this point, some thoughts from our colleagues who have had very positive experiences as mentees themselves may be of interest.  Our participants will begin by stating briefly who their mentors were and where the work took place.

Brian Harlow:  I can hardly overstate the influence of my experience working with Gerre and Judith Hancock at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, from 2002 to 2004.  Before my time at St. Thomas, I had some experience accompanying for Craig Smith at Groton School, Ralph Alwood at Eton College, and Marilyn Keiser at Trinity Church, Bloomington, Indiana—but for this discussion my mentors were the Hancocks.

Eric Plutz:  During my senior year at Westminster Choir College, 1988-89, I was Assistant Organist at Trinity Church, Princeton, while John Bertalot was the Director of Music.  While I did have some organ-playing experience and some church service playing experience when I was previously the organist at a Presbyterian Church for two years, I had never worked in an environment like Trinity before.  This was the first Episcopal Church in which I worked, and in many ways my work there with JB (as we all call him) forms the foundation of my musicianship today.

Harold Pysher:  I was also at Trinity Church, Princeton.  For six years during my time as a student at Westminster Choir College, I was fortunate to work with James Litton as his Assistant/Associate during his tenure at Trinity.  What I learned from him as my mentor formed the basis of whatever I am as a church musician today.

Jonathan Dimmock:  In 1979, I decided to take a year off between college and graduate studies to go to Europe for organ and choral study.  During that time, I spent a week at Christ Church, Oxford, observing Simon Preston’s work.  Two years later, after Simon’s appointment to Westminster Abbey, I met up with him for lunch in Larry King’s office in New York City.  I told him of my interest in returning to England as an apprentice and asked if he had any suggestions of people to whom I might write.  Much to my surprise, he invited me to become his Organ Scholar at the Abbey 18 months hence, after I had finished my graduate degrees.  In September 1983, I began a year-long position as Organ Scholar of Westminster Abbey.

Andrew Krystopolski:  I spent six months at St. Stephen’s Church in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, with Mark Laubach, and then six months with Jack Burnam at Immanuel Church Highlands in Wilmington, Delaware.  In both instances I was the church music intern as a part of my degree requirements at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Kyle Ritter:  I served as Marilyn Keiser’s assistant at Trinity Church in Bloomington when I was doing my graduate work at Indiana University.  The official title of the position was Church Music Intern, and I had the very great privilege of holding this position for three years.  I had already served as a chorister in the Trinity Choir as an undergraduate, so I was able to observe Marilyn’s work with other interns as well.

Sarah Read Gehrenbeck:  I also worked Dr. Marilyn Keiser at Trinity Church, Bloomington.  I first met her as a prospective M.M. student at Indiana University, and even before I accepted the offer of a place at I.U., she made me feel welcome, as if I absolutely belonged there.  As a mentor, Dr. Keiser helped form me, and she taught me the most important things about being a good church musician.

Brian Driscoll:  I spent six years at All Saints’ Church in Beverly Hills, California, as an apprentice in the music program, studying with Thomas Foster and observing Craig Phillips.  In addition to that work, singing with the choirs on a regular basis was the most important aspect of my experience in terms of my development as a musician.

Nature of the Mentoring Experience

Hill:   Although the position of Organ Scholar has been long established in the Church of England, both in cathedrals and in colleges, this concept of mentoring is relatively new in The Episcopal Church, at least in the formal sense, and the AAM Mentoring Project seems to be a significant step in expanding the experience for American organists.

Dimmock:  The English see the craft of organ playing and accompanying as a learned trade and have only within the past 30 years started to blur the line between the heady academic pursuits of musicology and the practical trade of the cathedral or parish organist.

Hill:  For my generation, and I suspect for most departments of music and conservatories in subsequent decades, the split has also been between musicology and performance.  And most of the applied work I had in organ was strictly recital repertory; only Vernon de Tar really included practical church music in his teaching.  Vernon always said, “There are very few concert careers to be made; organists need to have the skills that most of them will need to use in church work.”

Dimmock:  Only within the past 200 years or so has the role of organist/choirmaster been considered professional or artistic.  Prior to that, all musicians were little more than indentured servants, performing at the discretion of their masters, whether Lords or Bishops.  Music was not on the same level as philosophy, science, or religion; all musicians were trained by serving as apprentices to other musicians.  It was not until the end of the Enlightenment, with common recognition of the genius of Beethoven—and all of the idol worship of great artists that started with him—that music was taken seriously as an art form to be studied.

Hill:  The irony there is that music did have a more exalted academic place in earlier times.  The Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—that formed the second part of the basic Seven Liberal Arts in the Medieval Period, actually goes back at least to Archytas (418–365 B.C.); for centuries, music was treated along with science and, including the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), as an integral part of a liberal education.  On the other hand, it was only in the 19th century that mathematics and science became a profession rather than the domain of otherwise-employed amateurs and a few isolated geniuses dependent upon aristocratic patronage, so the emancipation of musicians went along with that of many others.

Dimmock:  But as we all know, the Church moves a little slower than society at large, and the notion of studying church music as a serious profession didn’t really surface until the end of the 19th century.  Thus, for several centuries, the apprentice-style program was the only way of becoming a church (or cathedral) organist/choirmaster.  Even today, as we look at the very nature of the profession, we see that it has less to do with the technical and philosophical prowess that we learn in the Academy—as you noted with regard to the heavy concentration on preparation for recital work—and more to do with learning how to communicate, how to work with people, how to engage singers, how to support without overpowering, how to accompany deftly and cleverly—virtually none of which can really be taught in the academic world.

Krystopolski:  I agree.  My work with Mark and Jack was the best part of my college church music experience because it helped to prepare me for what I would be doing in the “real world” as a church musician.  I could never have learned in a classroom what I learned from Mark and Jack.  It’s called practical application.  While at St. Stephen’s, I was basically Mark’s shadow.  We attended diocesan and parish committee meetings together.  Although I had the opportunity to conduct the choir, to compose descants, and to accompany the choir, there were also administrative aspects of the ministry that they don’t teach in the classroom.  I learned how to plan a rehearsal that was time effective.  And Anglican Chant—I learned (and am still learning) that art, but Mark taught me to do it with taste.  I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and became an Episcopalian while I was working with Mark.  I moved into The Hymnal 1982 and the Companion, learning where to find certain resources.  And Jack is incredibly well versed in church and liturgical history.  Where Mark helped me to discover the hymnal, Jack helped me to explore The Book of Common Prayer.  I also remember Mark’s telling me, “There are three people you need to be friendly with in any church: the secretary, the sexton, and the little old church ladies!”

Gehrenbeck:  Dr. Keiser told me how she valued my abilities to work effectively with others and to come to peaceful resolution of differences—in addition to all of the musical abilities she was fostering in me.  She always had time for me—or made it.  I also had the benefit at Trinity of a wonderfully supportive choir, clergy, and staff to help me.

Ritter:  I think that the most valuable aspect of my mentoring experience was observing Marilyn’s great love for working with people.  Marilyn is a true musical pastor, and I think that the strength of the choral and congregational singing at Trinity is due in great part to her very open and loving spirit.  Marilyn’s primary concern in her work is for the people she serves.

Harlow:  Similarly, at St. Thomas, Gerre made a personal connection to everyone: parishioner, choirboy, or even a distant visitor whom he had met perhaps ten years ago.  This was especially true in his manner with the boys in rehearsal.  Each boy had a nickname and a song associated with him.  Gerre would use these theme songs to fill in gaps in the rehearsal or to get the attention of a particular boy.  Rehearsals were fun, so that the boys scarcely realized that they were working as hard as they were.  (Of course, the theme songs were not used in the pre-service rehearsals in the church!)

Driscoll:  I appreciated the benefits of being immersed in an established and healthy music program—to observe successful teaching and rehearsal techniques in action, to observe (both behind the scenes and from the pews) the ethos of beautiful and effective artistic worship, to experience the flow and rhythm of the church year and its seasonal shifts, to observe a variety of staff relationships and modes of communication.

Pysher:  Jim routinely demonstrated many rehearsal skills to which I still aspire.  He had great patience and rarely raised his voice in rehearsal, no matter what the aggravation.  He constantly encouraged his singers and helped them to produce a beautiful, lyrical, relaxed, and artistically-shaped line.  He offered praise to musicians at all levels of experience.  He took as much care in making a beautiful musical offering out of the simplest chant, hymn, or piece of service music as he did of the most complicated anthem or concert piece.

Plutz:  I would say that nothing can approach the depth of education one can receive from watching an experienced professional church musician running a program.  I was able to see JB’s responses to the usual concerns, issues, and conflicts common to many situations.  I remember his quick but calm demeanor when a chorister fainted during a service.  I also remember he was intently focused on the signal from the processional party at the beginning of the service.  The assistant or organ scholar often played the opening voluntary, and if we had mistimed or were late for some reason, when the signal came, we were to “cadence and quit.”  At the time (being only 20), I was resistant to this very non-musical approach to providing music for worship, but now I can see that many other issues were probably involved.  I learned much about how to work with people through JB.

Hill:  Each of you worked with a highly professional organist.  What were some of the particular ways in which your mentor helped you to develop your playing skills?

Gehrenbeck:  I’ll begin because my background seems rather different from that of the others here.  I commenced my study of the organ after college, in the hope of becoming a more accomplished church musician and future music director.  After completing a B.Mus. in Piano Performance at Boston University, I took organ, voice, and conducting lessons privately to round out my education.  I had studied organ for less than two years when my teacher encouraged me to audition for several M.M. programs.  In my first year of graduate study, when I struggled to learn new techniques and repertory, Dr. Keiser reminded me that I was in a competition with myself, not with others.  She gave me constant encouragement in trying times, as I struggled to fit in with the high level of accomplishment at I.U., and compared myself to kids younger than I was with many more years of experience at the organ than I had.  As a pianist-turned-organist, I had much to learn.  Dr. Keiser demonstrated through her openness that no matter how accomplished we are, we all have much to learn—and that the cessation of learning is a death toll for anyone’s musical soul.  This was a great consolation as I tried to assimilate so many new skills.

Pysher:  Almost reversing your experience, with Jim I learned not to play the piano (in rehearsal) like an organist—and not like a concert pianist, either!  There was much to learn from hearing Jim conduct rehearsals from the piano.  A rolled-chord here and there would encourage the choir to sing a phrase in an entirely different manner than a firmly-played “solid” one.  Detached chords would communicate something very different about rhythm and/or attack than legato chords.  Different stress points and rubato could easily be conveyed with a sensitive person at the piano.  It was not critical to play every note on the page—it was much more important to illustrate what was happening musically.  Week after week, all those things were being communicated to the choir with barely a word spoken; with rehearsal time always too short, those saved words made time for perfecting vowel sounds, intonation, ensemble, and music-making in general.

Ritter:  Marilyn and I would have extra lessons at the church, when we would work on anthem accompanying on such pieces as John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man, movements from the Duruflé Requiem, or orchestral reductions from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  I remember her stressing strong and clear anthem accompanying and the importance of good registration, always remembering that “Swell to Pedal is your best friend!”  I also believe that I became a much stronger hymn player both from listening to her accompany hymns and from hearing about her approach to hymn playing.

Driscoll:  Tom hammered into me the idea that organ music needs to be thought of and experienced as vocal/choral (i.e., living and breathing) music; that the three most important things in music are “rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm” (this principle came from Tom’s own mentor Arthur Poister, at Syracuse).  Hymn playing is probably the most important area for an organist that I took away from the experience.  Tom emphasized hymn singing in terms of its importance in worship.  Hymn accompanying was carefully considered in lessons, both in terms of mechanics and of aesthetics.

Dimmock:  Simon’s standards were without parallel in the United States or Great Britain at the time.  Nothing short of total note-perfection was acceptable, from singers or from players.  And while that may sound harsh and strict, the fact is that the musical standard at Westminster Abbey, during his tenure there, in my opinion, was undoubtedly the highest in the English-speaking world.  Watching Simon’s exactitude in playing has served me every day of my professional life.  The clarity of rhythm in his hymn-playing always made the act of singing to be completely organic and natural.  The subtlety of his accompanying (and also of Sub-Organist Christopher Herrick and Assistant Organist Geoffrey Morgan) was like the most intricate of Elgar orchestrations at work.  The clarity and passion in his conducting brought forth the same from the choir.  And his trust in my work, as an organist and as a conductor, did wonders to help me to establish my own professional standards.

Krystopolski:  Earlier, I mentioned learning to accompany Anglican Chant with Mark.  The possibilities of this accompanying work are almost endless, and it was important that, as I said, Mark taught me to do it with taste.

Harlow:  The occasions when Gerre and I did go over anthem interpretation or registration were special.  I remember him showing me how to coax orchestral effects out of the organ on the Lord, Thou Has Been Our Refuge of Bairstow.  Gerre led me to an adventurous spirit in music-making.  Sometimes he would stretch the music in one direction or another, almost to the breaking point, and create the most magical moments.  As he said to me about the accompaniment of Great Is the Lord by Elgar, “You have to be a real musician to play this!”  Music-making was always done (1) for the glory of God, (2) with an adventurous spirit and sense of fun, and (3) with a willingness “to go for it.”  I also expanded my knowledge of organ and choral repertory immensely.  Sometimes Gerre would ask me, with only a few minutes’ warning, to improvise an introduction to an a capella piece, and I would be quite nervous, but I would be so pleased if he complimented me on my embellishments to a hymn or on another aspect of my playing.  Judith and I had wonderful conversations about organ repertory as we planned our voluntaries and recitals, and she passed on to me her insatiable enthusiasm for all the far corners of the repertory.

Pysher:  I spoke earlier about my experiences with conducting and accompanying, but I have a bit more to say.  In my first couple of years at Trinity, Jim would want to meet me at the church most Saturday afternoons to “go over registrations” for the next day’s choral accompaniments and, frankly, that began to annoy me.  During my time at Trinity, there was no significant instrument.  In the early years we had an Æolian-Skinner that was, by all accounts, not very good to start with, and that had been tampered with by a well-known nearby company.  In my time, it had a divided Swell division, each possessing one unusable mixture: an Acuta on one, a Zimbel on the other—you get the idea!  After that instrument had been removed in preparation for a new one, we worked for a number of years with a one-manual, four-stop instrument with pull-down pedal.  Those Saturday afternoon sessions meant a 20-minute walk in each direction, and the end result was often something as basic as “let’s pull on the 4-foot flute here and take it off there.”  In my youthful arrogance, I really considered those Saturdays a waste of time for both of us.  So what was there to learn from those “useless” sessions?  As it turned out, they encouraged lots of imagination, particularly with the four-stop organ.  How about playing down the octave on a 4-foot stop or to the octave on an 8-foot stop, or perhaps choosing a 4-foot stop and playing the left-hand “accompanimental” part down the octave with the “solo” part at pitch?  I was learning to listen and to hear colors, both chorally and instrumentally.  I was challenged musically as well, especially without the luxury of a large, flexible instrument.  How do I shape this phrase?  What is the choir doing at this point where I am making a registration change?  How do I help to change the color of this phrase or section?  How do I make this piece come alive?

Plutz:  From JB, I learned some very helpful musical rules for accompanying a choir.  Make sure the pedal is in time—try as you might to the contrary, the choir will always follow the pedal of the organ.  Never add or subtract a stop from the Swell without first closing the box.  When soloing out a line in the accompaniment, don’t obscure the choral line.  Many American organs can be “bright,” so a good way in which to accompany in a full manner is to have the left hand on the Great and the right hand on the Swell.  (This may seem basic, but I haven’t seen it written into musical scores anywhere.)  I remind myself of these and other rules even now on a daily basis.  In addition, I have been honored to give a talk at Westminster Choir College focused on accompaniment at the organ, and I have been able to share some of the rules that JB shared with me.

And on Choral Work

Hill:  You have already offered some wonderful insights from what you learned about choral accompanying, linked as it is, of course, with hymn accompaniment.  What other observations seem particularly pertinent from your efforts as a mentee?

Krystopolski:  Jack taught me to be a choir director.  He is brilliant, and I was so lucky to get to work with one of the best.  The best moments were our one-on-one coaching sessions.  He helped me to analyze my every gesture.  Then after Thursday night choir rehearsals, once I had a chance to practice with the choir, we would have a debriefing of what I did well and what I could have done better.  One of the best things I learned from Jack was how to work with a boy and girl choir.  What an important skill this is!  Jack taught me that it is possible to turn singing children into musicians for life.  I watched Patrick, a new chorister, come through the ranks.  I learned, through observation, how to challenge children in a fun way that made them want to learn more.  Perhaps the comment that has most stuck with me from Jack is the advice that every choir director should remember: “Sing more, talk less.”  You can get so much more accomplished in that way.

Harlow:  And I mentioned Gerre’s work with the boys earlier.  Because of the Hancocks’ active recital careers, there were many times when I had the opportunity to conduct the choirs, and occasionally I had to run the whole show by myself when both of them were away.  To do so required an interesting mixture of confidence and humility.  The men of the choir and most of the boys generally knew the music better than I did in my first year, yet I had to project enough confidence to make the music work.  I owe many of my choral skills to this trial by fire.  Amazingly, Gerre trusted me with the choir when he was away, and we rarely discussed how a piece was to be performed.

Plutz:  Due to the schedule of services and the amount of music sung, it was rare that I had any time conducting the choir.  JB may have asked at the beginning of my time there if I had any desire to work with the choir, and since I had little experience, I may have said that I preferred to play the organ.  In hindsight, I wish it had been more of a requirement.  Even if the mentee is not gifted in choral conducting, where else will one gain experience?

Driscoll:  All of the hands-on experiences—leading rehearsals, accompanying choirs, and playing services—were very important growth experiences, especially because of the coaching and feedback from Tom and Craig.

Ritter:  For anthems, Marilyn was very willing to trade off the conducting and accompanying responsibilities, as she was happy to share the bench for voluntaries, hymns, and service music.  Choir rehearsals were conducted in the same manner.  When it was time to rehearse a piece that I would be conducting, she took a seat in the alto section and turned the rehearsal over to me.  I believe that I learned a lot by doing that and by having to be prepared, and she was always available for questions and advice.

Hill:  Could one of you expand on the building and directing of children’s choirs?  I never had any actual training in working with children’s choirs—I only began to feel comfortable directing my parish Junior Choir once I had children of my own, and even then it was largely a “boot-strap operation.”  Moreover, since my own kids were generally quite well behaved, I was not prepared to deal with a disruptive brat—and for about a year I had to recruit a “choir mother” whose sole responsibility was to “ride herd upon” the rector’s son during rehearsals!  I never felt really secure working with a youth choir and would like to hear a success story.

Gehrenbeck:  When Dr. Keiser suggested that I start a children’s choir at Trinity, my first thought was, “I couldn’t do that; I’m not trained for that!”  But the more she talked to me about it and told me how good I was going to be as a children’s choir director, the more possible it seemed.  I founded the group from practically nothing—we didn’t have robes or a large music library of children’s repertory or even much of a budget.  We did have the excitement and enthusiasm of the parents, kids, and of course, Dr. Keiser.  We relied on the treasure chest of The Hymnal 1982 as our primary musical resource.  I can’t be sure how many conversations Dr. Keiser may have had with parents on the side, but I am confident that she was telling them that it was going to be a great program.  And it was!  It turned out that I was good with children, and the choir grew and grew.  We had two very successful years together before my husband became Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, and we moved.  I still dearly miss my Trinity family in Bloomington.

Questions of Timing

Hill:  As our AAM Mentoring Program enters full operation, it might be useful to know whether any of you think it might have been helpful to have had your mentoring experience either earlier or later in your careers.

Plutz:  While I believe that this mentoring experience came at just the right time in my career, I now can see that any educational experience as we grow older is helpful.  Now I am more aware of times in my life (after leaving college) when I have learned through experience.  I still call colleagues to come and hear a particular piece I’m working on to see if I’m playing it the way I think I am; it’s never too late to learn from someone else.

Driscoll:  My experience at All Saints’ could only have benefited me more if I had studied organ and church music prior to being there—it wasn’t until several years at All Saints’ that I began studying organ at a graduate level, and I had little formal organ or choral training prior to my mentoring.  I could have contributed more to the program and experienced the program at a more advanced level and with greater sophistication if I had not been learning basic organ skills at the same time.

Harlow:  My St. Thomas tenure was the perfect time in my career for the experience; had I been older, I might not have been able to devote myself so completely to the job, or I might have been less malleable; had I been younger, I wouldn’t have had the stamina or maturity to take all the curve balls in stride!

Final Remarks

Hill:  Thanks to all of you for your informed and thoughtful contributions.  Would you like to make any concluding remarks?

Harlow:  I am fortunate to have an undergraduate as my assistant in my current position.  I try to teach my assistants through both instruction and example, as my mentors have taught me.  I believe that many things are more easily taught by example: how you approach your work, how you interact with others, how you shape a liturgy through music.  I would have loved to have had some specific training on the boys’ voices, private improvisation lessons, or lessons on how to deal with church politics, but I learned so much from the experience even without specific and direct lessons on these matters.  It was inspiring to work with people who have given their whole lives over to church music; I continue to have high standards in all aspects of my job thanks to the Hancocks.  I highly commend the concept of mentoring, especially in a situation in which two people can work together on a week-to-week basis.

Pysher:  I am forever grateful for those six years with Jim Litton; as years have gone by, I’ve realized more and more what a truly priceless part of my education that was.  I only hope that I’ve been able to pass along some of the multitude of things I learned with him as my mentor.

Dimmock:  The list of ways in which my year at the Abbey have influenced the rest of my life could go on and on.  The respect and friendship I developed with Simon Preston have been a constant inspiration to me personally and professionally.  I feel enormous gratitude for being an American accepted into a very English institution (perhaps the most English of institutions), respected and encouraged by my musical cohorts, loved by staff and friends, and blessed by the building, the ethos, and the Holy Spirit’s work in all that I encountered during that year.  I can honestly say that I would not be who I am today without it.

Krystopolski:  I never left either of my internships knowing how to do it all, but, when I took my first job, I had some essential tools to help me be successful.  While I can’t say that there was one “most valuable aspect” of my internships with Mark and Jack, there is one that was never taught to me directly.  I really believe that some of the best lessons I learned from these two mentors were taught through the example they set.  Humility is a gift that both men live out in their daily life, and it has made them the pastoral musicians they are today.  As a church musician, one works with people first, then music.  I recall the relationships my mentors had with their congregations as being one of mutual respect.  They made themselves accessible and personable to their congregations.  Their work was never about them; it was clearly Soli Deo Gloria.  They showed me that the church musician needs clearly to be humble.

Gehrenbeck:  I have learned so much from Dr. Keiser about how to weave together the various strands of a church musician’s duties: leading congregational song through fluid hymn playing; how to recruit (and keep!) choir members by making the learning process fun and enlightening and by genuinely caring about what is happening in the rest of their lives; how to involve children in worship and to foster the next generation’s growth; how to be an invaluable member of the parish staff; and how to minister to the people through word, deed, and music.  Dr. Keiser continues to be an inspiration to me, and I am so glad to have had her as a teacher and mentor.  I know that if I ever need advice or help in my current or future church jobs, she will listen to me and give thoughtful advice.  If, in the future, anyone can see the mark of her influence on me, I will consider that the highest compliment, as I aspire to be the kind of church musician she is, with God’s help.

Ritter:  Marilyn’s teacher was Alec Wyton, who spoke of the church musician’s role as being a pastor first, a teacher second, and a performer third.  Marilyn stressed the importance of this model in her work, and I have sought to do the same in my own work and with the church musicians I have mentored.  I also think of my work with Marilyn when I am preparing hymns, recalling her saying on many occasions that the most important pieces that organists play in a service are the hymns.  I count those years with Marilyn as being some of the most important in my career.  I have taken those many experiences with me as I have done my work, and I think about them often.