Building Music Program Takes Vision, Time, Talent

By Donald E. Skinner

Music feeds our souls and many of us wouldn’t stay in our congregations without it, but to do it properly takes vision, time, and talent. Ten years ago, when Tom Benjamin, a choral director who had recently moved to the area, was asked to build a music program at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation of Columbia, MD (285 members), he hesitated. Would a congregation that up to then had consisted primarily on volunteer efforts be willing to support a more ambitious endeavor?

When he decided to accept the challenge, he started slowly, selecting quality music and recruiting choir members.That first year, there was a small honorarium for salaries. The next year the money increased. The choir also grew and improved. Benjamin hired a superb pianist and that gave the program another boost. Sometime after that he started a public concert series that attracted people to the church, including some who became guest musicians and choir members. The series now raises several thousand dollars annually for the music program.

He remembers the moment when he knew it was all going to work—that a quality, sustained music program would be possible. “It was after the first few rehearsals, when the outlines of a good choir started to emerge,” he says. “That, and the first time the congregation voted money for music.”

Bart Bradfield, director of music at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL (552), believes the key to a strong program is getting the congregation involved with music in as many ways as possible. He’s held evening workshops on African drumming, and on using instruments such as marimbas and xylophones, and on “universal dances of peace” (simple dance movements). He also leads his congregation in rounds to teach harmony. “It’s important to the whole music program that people who have little music background have a variety of positive experiences,” he says. “We give people experiences they’ve never had. We help the music in them come out and they get real excited.”

Other tips for a quality music program:

  • Create a strong music committee to support and promote the music program.
  • Discourage applause except for children and very exceptional performances. Music should be part of worship, not a performance. “Sometimes it’s better for people to just be awestruck and sit there in the silence and absorb what happened,” says Bradfield. “Applause can diffuse that.”
  • Focus on the choir. “When you have a good choir and people can see that it’s having fun, everyone wants to be part of it,” says Lois Allen, former music d irector at First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City (361). “So much of a music program’s success depends on who you happen to get in the choir. Our choir became a close-knit group where lots of caring went on and where we had lots of fun. Thousands of choir directors can direct circles around me, but I know how to have fun while keeping the quality of music high.”
  • When teaching music to the congregation, choose a song leader without the best voice in the world. “No one wants to emulate perfection,” says Allen.
  • Keep a written record of “a week in the life of a music director” to demonstrate to the governing board and others all that gets done.

In 1993 the First Unitarian Church of Victoria, BC (300), hired its first music director, Sally Braswell Murphy. Now the church has two adult choirs, two childrens’ choirs, and a music budget that is eight percent of the church budget. “Our success is due to vision and commitment,” says Murphy. “The congregation established a clear vision of music as part of ministry. The commitment came as the congregation continued to increase financial support for music in spite of a major capital campaign.”

The UU Church in Buffalo, NY (355), devotes at least one service a year to singing and learning about hymns in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) hymnbook, Singing the Living Tradition, says Barbara Wagner, minister of music. It also has two Music Sundays annually, featuring the choir and a Buffalo Philharmonic chamber orchestra. These events are funded by patrons and raise at least $5,000 annually for the music program.


The Unitarian Universalist Musicians' Network (UUMN) helps professional church musicians and music program volunteers from congregations of all sizes connect with each other to share ideas, ask for help, and learn new skills. Contact its Services Center, (800) 969-UUMN, for information about membership in the group as well as its newsletter, website, email discussion group, and summer conference.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact .