Religious / Sacred Music Organist, Choir Director Careers

Choir directors and organists lead music for congregations in religious settings.

Music is a big part of religious life, and it can have a big impact on how members of a congregation experience religious services. Many religious denominations have a long history of liturgical music composed for the pipe organ, as well as a strong choral tradition featuring a group of singers. Organists and choir directors provide direction for singers in choruses and together they perform music for congregational services and events. Many religious establishments and houses of worship possess amazing acoustics that create tonal resonance and naturally amplify sound. This is especially evident in spaces with pipe organs built in; a pipe organ is a large wind instrument consisting of a keyboard and an array of hollow pipes. Pressing down on a key pushes air up through the corresponding pipe, which results in an audible note. Pipe organs are enormous and often prohibitively expensive, so some establishments have electric or reed organs that serve the same function.

Not all religious organ and choral pieces sound the same; some are ancient and somber, others upbeat and contemporary. Some organists may focus on classical pieces and hymnals, while others may spend time arranging modern music for the instrument and setting. Some musical styles that call for organ, like gospel, may incorporate a choir and organ simultaneously, and it's increasingly common to find an array of other instruments in religious settings. Choirs may perform at various occasions and during services, which necessitates frequent group and independent rehearsal time. It's common for a choir director and organist to coordinate rehearsal schedules so that they can either both be present or so that one can work in the space without interruption. They may also work closely to choose music for singers and collaborate with religious personnel to establish music that goes well with each service's themes and talking points.

Work as a religious organist or choir director may include...

  • Guiding and shaping sung harmonies
  • Accompanying and cuing singers
  • Learning and arranging music for performance
  • Overseeing choral rehearsals
  • Providing music for services and events

Most organists are employed by churches, temples, and other religion affiliated spaces, where they may work part time, full time, or as volunteers. A church's ability to pay an organist or choir director depends on its resources and priorities; it also has to do with the organist's duties. Some organists are responsible for providing music for events like weddings or funerals, accompanying choir rehearsals, and organ upkeep and repair, in addition to their regular service performances. A full time organist can usually make a decent living, but most are in it for the love of music and the benefit of the congregation. Some organists work as organ teachers or freelance musicians; others are part of musical ensembles affiliated with theaters or performance venues. Choir directors appear in a number of settings, especially schools; youth choruses are fairly active and typically perform seasonal recitals.

Becoming an organist requires some specialized knowledge that can be difficult to come by. Some are informally trained in a religious setting over a period of several years, while others are pianists who make the transition to organ in order to fulfill a community need. Many aspiring organists pursue degrees in music, with some going as far as to specialize in organ performance at the Bachelor's or Master's degree level. Organists must be able to read sheet music fluently, and should have a solid understanding of the instrument. Choir directors often begin as choir members, who go on to study music directing, conducting, or choral performance. While a choir director should know how to read music, it's important to understand that many choir members may not have the same training; one of the most important skills a choir director can have is explaining music theory in simple terms and finding ways for all participants to contribute their voice to the music.

Religious music is a compelling cultural wonder that brings communities together. If you want to be a part of that, it could be a fulfilling career move.

The American Guild of Organists is the national professional organization serving the organ and choral music fields.

The National Association of Pastoral Musicians fosters the art of musical liturgy [mostly in the Catholic church].

The Gospel Music Association promotes general interest in gospel and Christian music, building community among industry leadership.