Pencils ready? Here’s an odd little topic to either make your life easier or make you crazy. This may not seem to take real skill, but it’s a technique that can not only make your life easier, it can make you look really, really good. (Huzzah for that!)
All the pieces
Every singer who has ever worked a church service knows that there are many, many elements in a liturgy. There are times to sing, and times to speak, and times to kneel, and times to stand, and times to walk, and times to walk AND sing (which I’ve never been great at)…
As a section leader, you are expected to be quite on top of all of that. For those of us who work in the multiple denominations and faith traditions, that can be even more confusing. I remember a few times in my career where I had to ask myself, “where am I today?” Staying organized for every service makes a big difference.
So many years ago, when I was subbing at various churches, etc. 40+ Sundays a year and still learning some of the services that eventually became my bread and butter, I devised a system for myself that really helped. I’ve used it ever since, and have taught it to others. A friend recently urged me to publish it here, as more churches are not only re-opening, but re-evaluating their staffing needs. Being indispensable will be absolutely essential in a very competitive church job market.
The next time you head to church, whether it’s your job or somebody else’s, try this. It looks like a lot of steps, but it’s based on a lot of common sense, so once you get your head around it, it’ll become habit in no time at all.
First rule: Be early ⏰
Show up at least 15 or 20 minutes before the call time. You probably won’t need all of that time, but give it to yourself anyway. That is in addition to considerations for parking, robing, etc. Bring a book if you have to. Just be earlier than you think is absolutely necessary, at least until you thoroughly know the ropes at this particular job.
Step 1: Gathering your stuff 📜📑📎📄📘
My list: folder, sheet music, hymnal, other pieces, pencil, page flags, post-it notes, eraser (a good one like a Clic eraser, that won’t just smear the graphite or tear through the paper)…
Find your folder, and make sure you have every piece for this service in front of you, including psalms, chants, transition pieces, encores, and every piece you think you already know. As a section leader, you never know when you might have to hand it to somebody else. Be prepared for yourself and for the rest of your section.
Now, find the most important piece: get a copy of the bulletin, set list, program guide, or whatever it’s called by your congregation. Make sure it’s a copy that you can write on. If not, ask if you can make a Xerox copy or use post-it notes to make notes as you go. (The latter will be much faster in almost every situation.)
Pro tip: Make sure you have an extra pencil, and make sure they’re both sharpened, or have plenty of lead in them if they’re mechanical. There’s always somebody who needs one.
Step 2: Markup 📝
Grab a pencil (never a pen, because things change!), and start with the hymns.
Go through the bulletin carefully and number the hymns, starting with 1 and going to whatever happens during and after the recessional. If it’s in the hymnal, it gets a number. Remember, even if you already know it, somebody else might need to know where to turn. At this point you’re just marking up the bulletin.
Step 3: Flagging 🟪 🟡 🔶
Now, take your page flags and create one for each number: 1, 2, 3, etc. We use sequential numbers here not because the numbers of the hymns don’t matter, but so you don’t have to create new page flags every single week. They can be reused, and you can store them on the inside back cover of the hymnal so they don’t get it all bent up during the week.
Add a flag to the right-facing page where each hymn is, placing the flags on the page vertically so they look like a set of file tabs. The first one goes at the top, the second one will be placed on the page a little below that, etc. This may seem fussy, but the visual help saves precious seconds when you hear that first organ chord and you’ve got to find your place very quickly.
Step 4: Stacking 📚
Now, go through the bulletin again and mark all of the pieces that are in your folder with letters: A, B, C, etc. There is no need to write those letters on the music. In fact, most music librarians would prefer that you don’t. Use post-it notes if you must, but if you line up the pieces in order, it shouldn’t be a problem. Just put the pieces back in the pocket once you’ve completed them, and your next thing will always be on top.
Last check ✅
Finally, go back through the bulletin and mark everything else that you have to pay attention to. This may include spots to sit, stand, and kneel. There may be prayers and responses that everyone takes part in. Be sure to include any moment that requires a gesture or other participation. You can mark these items up in any way that works for you. Some people use symbols for different kinds of participation, others just put stars by everything. Just make sure you can see it. As you get to know that service, you won’t need as much detail. But at the beginning, this is a lifesaver.
Using the bulletin as a guide, go through everything and make sure it all matches up.
Now, go find yourself a cup of coffee and take a few minutes to get your head together.
This might seem like a lot if you’re more used to flying by the seat of your pants or if you know the service so well that you don’t need to do this. But this system has been proven over many years, and with quite a few people. Use it, and it will help you. In fact, it will make you look like a superstar. It will make you invaluable to your music director, because you can help keep your section on track much more effectively, and your attention can be focused on the music rather than just keeping up.
Why on earth would we go to this much trouble?
First, once you’ve done it for about three weeks, it becomes second nature. It’s not nearly as complicated as it looks on paper. You’ll find your groove.
But second, we are heading into a post-pandemic era that will place a strong focus on skills and reliability for every church job. Most churches will have been receiving reduced income for some time now, and might have to do without as many staff singers as they want. Some churches may choose to cut their professional music budget for quite some time. This means that church jobs will be fewer for a while, and the market may be changed permanently. We’ll have to wait that out. But one thing is sure: the best prepared singers will be far more likely to land and hang on to their jobs.
Now is the time to be your best self. Be prepared, be reliable, be on time, be pleasant to work with, and be committed to doing genuine service to every group and congregation that you work with. Little skills like these make a difference. But the real difference will be in your own mindset. You’ll be great, and the people you work with will see that.
Go get ’em!