“The Replacements”: A View from the Substitute’s Bench(es)

Many thanks to Katherine Reier and Jennifer Baker-Trinity for the helpful suggestions that found their way into the paragraphs that follow!

Ah, summer—a busy season for beaches, amusement parks, and substitute church musicians! Though your vacation is both well-deserved and necessary, you continue to serve in absentia as a steward of the assembly’s voice by facilitating the leadership of those who serve in your stead. Though you may not think that arranging for a substitute needs considerable explanation, you’d be surprised at how often substitutes are left clamoring for details or left standing in church parking lots because of an unforwarded e-mail about practice time.

When working with substitute musicians, strive to foster as seamless a transition as possible: the assembly should be focused on worship, not distracted by significant differences in leadership style. For starters, your substitute should (1) feel comfortable with the particularities of your setting, (2) not be caught off-guard or unprepared by last-minute changes that make them look unprofessional, and (3) want to continue serving in your setting, denomination, or even the church! Never assume that a substitute is just a benchwarmer who couldn’t “cut it” in a regular position: some of us prefer the flexibility and diversity offered by this type of service! Remember, too, that substitutes frequently serve multiple assemblies, each with their own distinct set of expectations and practices. Better for you to provide more information than less about the particularities of your setting: a substitute is more likely to say “yes” (and keep saying “yes”) when you are organized and professional! In fact, consider maintaining a detailed document with some of the information below that can be e-mailed to substitutes as soon as they are scheduled.

In your initial request, be clear about the service time(s) and expectations (i.e. keyboard only, keyboard and choir), the honorarium, and mileage reimbursements (if this is your practice). In subsequent messages, offer possible practice times or the contact information for staff who can assist with scheduling. Consider CC’ing parish administrators, sextons, other musicians, and the pastoral staff as you make arrangements: there’s nothing more awkward than being accosted while practicing with, “who let you in here?” or “why are you playing our instruments?”

Be clear about additional expectations for a given service such as an ideal arrival time, alarm codes, parking recommendations, locations of albs or robes, and contact information for soloists or assisting ministers the substitute is expected to accompany. Substitutes should also be provided with contact information for a presiding minister or choir member in the event of emergency—sudden illness, inclement weather, or a canceled train. Similarly, a pastor or other designate should be able to contact the substitute in the event of similar emergencies that will significantly affect her or his preparation or ability to lead.

Know that you and your substitute(s) may have different expectations about how music is exchanged: be open to an array working methods and preferences! Rather than assume your substitute has invested in accompaniment editions for every denomination she or he serves, kindly offer .pdf scans or copies of all liturgical accompaniments, psalm settings, and hymn accompaniments. For new substitutes who may not know the idiosyncrasies of the organ in your space, it is hospitable to include registration suggestions or even pre-register accompaniments! You might even consider providing notes such as:

  • “The organ blower switch is located on the wall to the right of the console. The light switches are located to the left of the balcony door.”
  • “Use memory levels 1 and 2 for congregational singing.”
  • “Memory level 3 [or general pistons 7, 8 and 9] can be changed for your prelude and postlude. Do not use memory level 4.”
  • “The assembly can sing well with only the 8’ Principal. The chamade reed is much louder in the sanctuary than at the console. The III Zimbel can peel paint right off a wall.”
  • “Soloists and the choir are best supported by general pistons 4, 5, and 6 with the expression box closed.”
  • “Mary, an alto from the youth choir, will often bring her oboe and play descants on the last stanza if you use the hymnal harmonization.”
  • “Paul, a church council member, is a talented percussionist and will often improvise a sweet beat to Latin and African hymnody.”
  • “Pastor Rachel would like you to play the first three pitches of the Great Thanksgiving before she begins chanting. Pastor Mark just goes for it.”

It is also useful for a substitute to have a copy of the bulletin in advance, especially an annotated draft that indicates the intricacies of a given service. There are more of these than you think! For example, my standard list of questions includes variations of the following:

  • When does the prelude end for, let’s say, an 11 AM service? 10:59? Precisely on the hour? Is there a “cushion” that lets the prelude end at 11:03? Or, does the musician need to wait for a signal from somewhere? Who gives that? How?
  • If the service begins with a hymn, does the introduction follow a bell peal or a spoken welcome?
  • Is it expected that the musician provide improvised “traveling music” after the gospel reading or other points during the service?
  • What are some of the typical introductions used for psalm tones or other liturgical responses such as the Sanctus and Agnus Dei?
  • If your assembly observes silence after the sermon, how long does this usually last? What signals announce that the Hymn of the Day should begin?
  • What are the communion practices? Is the substitute welcome to commune? If so, when? (Or, are the bread and wine brought to the musician?)
  • Likewise, what signs indicate that communion has ended? Should the communion hymn be truncated, or is it expected that all stanzas will be sung?
  • What types of introductions are expected for hymns? An extended fantasia in the style Paul Manz? Just the second half or last phrase? Will the congregation welcome alternate harmonizations or will that hinder their singing? Are there conventions for singing in harmony?

Finally, you will want to inform your substitute about the way she or he is paid: ideally, a check is left at the organ or keyboard, or arrives in the mail early in the following week.

And a Note for Substitutes!

Substitutes, remember that this is a two-way street! Like incumbent musicians, you are expected to supply information in a timely and courteous manner: if a piece of music is missing, kindly ask for a copy instead of complaining when you arrive for a service. If practice time is not arranged in initial correspondence, suggest several possibilities. Above all, extend the same professional courtesies that you expect of your hosts. Let your work be a model of hospitality, welcome, and fellowship shared at the Lord’s table:

“Give us grace to live for others, serving all, both friends and strangers, seeking justice, love, and mercy till you come in final glory.” —Joel W. Lundeen (ELW 462, st. 3)

avatar
Chad Fothergill

Chad Fothergill is a graduate student at Temple University, Philadelphia, where he researches the Lutheran cantor tradition in both its Reformation-era and present-day contexts. Outside of coursework and research, he is active as a substitute church musician in the greater Philadelphia and New York City metropolitan areas. He has served congregations and campus ministries in Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.

Speak Your Mind

*