How a church musician can facilitate a smooth transition to a new pastor or priest

June and July are typical times for changes in pastors and priests, depending on denomination. This can be a challenging time for the church, as each pastor and priest brings with them their own habits and expectations for the how the church service should run. Many also have ideas on the music used within the church service. This can include what hymns can and cannot be used, built in “think time” or zero silent time, how long preludes should run before service (if any at all,) and if hymns should or should not be announced.

As a church musician, I think that one of my duties is to help the church service flow seamlessly from one thing to the next, regardless of if the pastor is new, substituting, or has been there for a decade. Over the past 20+ years of playing in traditional worship services in Methodist, Catholic and Lutheran churches, I have developed a few habits that help smooth the transition to new or substitute pastors and priests. And while there are bound to be some hiccups as you get used to the new pastor or priest, this can help make them smaller.

Have a simple conversation with the pastor or priest

The first thing I make sure to have a simple conversation with the person about their expectations. I tell them how much time I play for prelude and depending on the church, that I will stop at a specific time. There are also a set of questions that I ask, and I write myself a note to make sure I remember to ask these questions – otherwise I’ll be 5 minutes into my preludes and realize I forgot! The following are the questions I ask.

Lutheran Church

For the Lutheran church I have just two questions that I ask the pastor.

  1. Do you announce the hymns and different liturgical songs? If yes, you know that you can wait for the announcement. If no, you know you are in charge of starting the songs.
  2. Will you be chanting/singing the liturgy? This is only important if the liturgical setting you use has parts for the pastor.
  3. Is there anything else I should know about how you like the music at Mass to be run?

Catholic Church

For the Catholic church I have some questions for the priest.

  • Will the cantor announce the hymns?
  • How will you let us know you are ready for Mass to start and the Gathering song to begin?
    • This is especially important if you are playing in a balcony and cannot see them gathering in the back to begin Mass. One church had a light that would turn on when they were ready – but it was behind me so I had someone else keep an eye on it. Another would have the priest wave through their side door. Another wanted me to just watch the time and start playing exactly at a specific time.
  • Is there anything else I should know about how you like the music at Mass to be run?

Be Flexible

Be flexible. Remember that just as you have habits and things you’re used to as a church musician, each pastor or priest has their own habits they bring with them. Be willing to make minor adjustments. Write yourself notes – use highlighters and sticky notes if need be so you remember whatever it is that is different.

Be forgiving

I tend to the be the musician that has nightmares about the mistakes I’ve made in the past. Over the years when I have commented about the mistakes to members of the congregation, most say they didn’t notice the mistakes. So when I inevitably make mistakes, I try to remind myself that most likely, people didn’t notice and to give myself grace.

Transitions can be tough on the congregations, pastors and musicians. But one thing we can do as musicians is to think through things that could change, talk to the new pastor or priest about expectations, be flexible, and be forgiving of yourself while everyone gets used to the new rhythm of the services.

Photo by Kati Hoehl on Unsplash

Piano in the Park: A unique alternative to traditional piano recitals

Traditional piano recitals have been a part of my life either as a student or a teacher for over twenty years. While there are wonderful aspects to traditional piano recitals, there are some drawbacks as well. The main one being that some students really suffer form performance anxiety. As a teacher, I want my students to be successful and find joy in connecting with their music. How could I give my students a positive experience and environment to share their music with others?

Drawbacks of Traditional Piano Recitals

The first negative about piano recitals is the anxiety it can cause students, resulting in negative feelings towards piano lessons in general. I remember the anxiety recitals caused me as a student trying to make sure I had no memory glitches. For years, performance equaled anxiety. As a teacher, I have seen the same affect on my students. Some students get so anxious they have decided it’s either quit lessons, or opt out of recitals. Over the years I have tried to lessen the stress of recitals by making sheet music allowed, letting students have control over music selection, helping students prepare more adequately, and even allowing students to opt out . But for some students the very act of sitting in front of people, with everyone staring at them can be overwhelming.

Secondly, recitals can be stressful for parents who are trying to keep siblings quiet for any length of time. I am a parent of young children, and I know this is hard.

Music as the Focus or in the Background?

Last year while reading “Musicking” by Christopher Small for one of my masters in music education class, I came upon the following.

The silence and apparent passivity of audiences at symphony concerts deserves a little more attention. Historically it is a recent practice…Aristocratic listeners [of the eighteenth-century] felt free to treat the musicians and the performance as background to their other activities, to listen attentively when they felt like it and to talk, eat and drink…

Christopher Small, “Musicking” p. 43

I read this multiple times. Up until this point, I had always thought piano recitals and symphonies had the music as the center of focus. But historically, music was background noise at social events. Their experience and interaction with music would have been completely different than ours. Back then, applause would occur in the middle of a piece if someone really was impressed — much like what happens during a ballet when audiences clap after an impressive move. Now, we only interact with the music after it is completed. This thought rolled around in my mind, and eventually I came up with a different model for sharing our piano music that would allow families to relax more, and students to not be the primary focus of the attendees which would hopefully reduce performance anxiety.

Piano in the Park

My main goal for this event was for piano families to gather for a party with yard games and pizza, and students providing background music. We were being historically accurate!

Promotional image I sent via text to piano families the day before the event.

Structure and Considerations

  • Food: CostCo Pizza, cookies (CostCo bakery) and beverages were provided. Families each paid $10 to help cover the cost.
  • Length of time: 1.5 hours
  • Location: Local park pavilion with a large open, flat grass area for yard games.
    • Only one small pavilion by the large open grass area at our local park had an electrical outlet. I had called the city to ask if I could reserve it and they said it was a first come first serve area. I forgot to check if the outlet actually worked. Big mistake. We plugged in the speaker 30 minutes before the event was to start and there wasn’t any power. Luckily, another pavilion was available and we moved over. It didn’t have much space to play games, but no one seemed to mind. Moral of the story: check the outlet
  • Entertainment: playground, yard games (families brought whatever yard games they owned to share), piano music
  • Piano music: Students were given 15 minutes each to fill with music. Most students played 6-10 pieces! I thought kids would just choose 2-3 pieces, but all of them were excited to pick out and play lots of pieces.
  • Equipment needed: keyboard, extension cord, aux cord and adapters for between the keyboard and aux cord, small speaker/guitar amp, working outlet (I forgot to check this and we had to move last minute to a new spot)
  • Announcement: I did make sure to announce that the purpose of the music was to be background music, and we would love if people would be able to talk with each other and play games. I felt this would be necessary since everyone was so used to the traditional piano recital etiquette.

Free Piano Party Checklist for Teachers

For teachers considering this event, here is a free Piano Party checklist.



This was by far my favorite event. I enjoyed being able to listen to a wide variety of music from the students, play lots of duets, play games with my students and talk with the parents. Parents and students also enjoyed it and expressed their satisfaction. One student declared that from now on, all our piano recitals need to be a party in the park! I’d call that a success.


Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan Univ. Press.

If interested in this book, purchase it here on Amazon.