by Haley Zaremba
Working in sacred music offers a spiritually-fulfilling path for musicians in churches, synagogues, mosques and more. Available jobs span a huge range of talents and skills, from piano and organ accompaniment, to choral direction and composition, to contemporary rock performance. Working in sacred music can be as diverse as religion itself.
Music and choir direction
Some of the most sought-after areas of expertise by those looking to hire are in music and choir direction.
The director of music at a house of worship can be responsible for overseeing the entire music program. They can also be charged with choral conducting; co-planning and selecting the music for worship services; planning for community outreach and engagement; and overseeing all other members of the music program, including children’s and youth choir directors, accompanists, organists, and section leaders.
These positions often involve a broad and dynamic range of tasks, as worship centers’ budgets may require staff members to cover many bases. “In general, there is a shortage of skilled and experienced church musicians and worship leaders,” says Thomas Carsecka, Director of Music Enrollment and Community Programs at Duquesne University’s Mary Pappert School of Music in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The demand for these skills prompted Duquesne to develop a Bachelor of Music in Music Ministry, which prepares students for directing music programs and all of the various responsibilities that come along with them.
For those interested in working with young people, there are many opportunities for directing children and youth choirs and classes. These positions often have a large teaching emphasis and are perfect for those who want to enrich children’s hearts as well as their minds. Children’s and youth choir directors often work directly with religious educators to develop curricula to reinforce age-appropriate spiritual and religious learnings for various stages of development. While working with children is not a must for every position in sacred music and music ministry, enthusiasm and skills for working with all ages can be a major plus for job seekers.
Playing music during worship services is often the focus of accompanists’ work. Performance skills are also needed for special services throughout the year, including weddings and funerals. For those interested in vocal performance, both churches and synagogues have a need for cantors to sing liturgical music. At synagogues, they may also lead prayer.
Prerequisites needed for working in sacred music
For part-time positions, particularly in small congregations, candidates may not need formal education in sacred music or a more general music degree. Depending on the context, experience and passion may be enough to make you the right fit for a congregation’s needs. In larger congregations with established music programs, however, an undergraduate or graduate degree in music and/or theology or divinity may be required or preferred, and a degree in sacred music may be a huge advantage. A specialized degree can also help prospective sacred music program directors negotiate a competitive salary.
Knowledge of music technology and general digital literacy provide a competitive edge to prospective candidates looking for director positions. Victoria Vazquez, a cantor and a Westminster Choir College at Rider University alumnus with a BM in Sacred Music, says that piano skills are essential. “You need to accompany, teach parts, run warmups, etc,” she says. “Piano skills are an absolute must; I am glad my professors insisted on this.” She also stresses that organ skills are hugely in demand in her field, and skilled organists are presently in short supply.
In addition to educational and formal training, volunteering and being an active community member can be important ways to get a foot in the door of the institution you want to work for. “Volunteer work, singing in choir, accompanying, leading kids’ summer music programs, or any volunteerism in the music library is good,” says Alyssa Huber, Marketing Specialist for the Arts at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music in Illinois. “Another great way to gain experience is to serve worship in senior centers or even jails; many times this will be a volunteer ministry, but more established para-church ministries may have paid positions or honorariums for your service.”
In the world of sacred music and music ministry, knowledge of and comfort with various religious denominations is important, and experience and affiliation with a specific denomination may be necessary. Dedication to a particular denomination or community can show loyalty and “theological resonance,” according to Huber.
If you are considering a career in sacred music, it may help if you first engage with a specific religious community you want to work for. Having a connection to a certain church, synagogue, etc. may give you a leg up when openings in directing and/or performance become available. However, be prepared for open positions to show up in congregations where you’re not currently a member.
“Once you are offered the job and become a part of the church community, being an active member is an important aspect,” says Tom Shelton, Associate Professor of Sacred Music at Westminster Choir College. “Being a part of the ‘community of worship’ is essential to the effectiveness of leadership and program building within the community.”
Generally, religious communities are looking for more than a solid résumé and educational background. They want to see well-rounded, passionate and responsible applicants. “Work on social skills and time management,” suggests B.E. Boykin, another Westminster Choir College alumnus and Assistant Professor of Music at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Church communities want to feel like you are approachable and organized, in addition to knowing that you are musically talented.”
Life as a part-time accompanist or director
Positions in sacred music are often part-time. Many professional accompanists and music directors supplement their income with other work based on their skills and specializations. Common pairings include conducting community choirs outside of the congregation, opening private teaching studios, teaching part-time (especially in religious schools), offering private lessons at music schools, and hosting after-school programs.
Victoria Vazquez describes her career balancing her part-time cantorial work with other musical pursuits as difficult but extremely rewarding. “On average, I sing 4-7 masses per week,” she says. “I also sing at weddings, funerals, and other sacred services. I occasionally play the piano for mass as well. This (her cantorial work) is a part-time position which picks up considerably during the summer months.”
During the school year, Vazquez also teaches music and English to middle schoolers at a private Christian academy. She is also a part-time campus staff minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Balancing her passions with the realities of time management has been a struggle. “I LOVE my ministry work,” Vazquez says, “but will not continue next academic year, as three jobs have been incredibly difficult to juggle this year (although incredibly rewarding to share the gospel with so many students!).”
Finding the right fit
There is no shortage of jobs available in religious music – it’s just a matter of finding one that speaks to your talents, passions and faith. While striking a balance between making a living and following your dream can be difficult, careers in sacred music can offer both full-time and mix-and-match approaches to building a life rich in both music and community.
According to current job site postings, job openings in sacred music range from hourly part-time work ($25 – $75/hour for accompanists) to full-salaried directorial positions ($45,000-$75,000/year with considerable job security).
Working in sacred music “is a vocation or calling – rather than a ‘job’,” says Shelton. “All of the experiences you acquire during your lifetime will direct you to this calling. Reflect on your passion within sacred music, and look for positions that align with this passion.”
Haley Zaremba is a writer and researcher with an MFA in Food Studies from American University of Rome and a BA in Media Studies from University of San Francisco. Her writing ranges from music and culture to energy and the environment.
Photo Credit: Pete Borg for Westminster Choir College at Rider University