First, Some Background
Two years ago Tallowood was looking to fill our Worship Associate position. This person gives leadership to the two contemporary services that we have as well as other duties.
Since I am retiring from my position in 2017, I was interested in beginning a transition plan for the student choirs at church.
I asked if there was “such a thing” as a contemporary worship leader that ALSO directed student choirs. It turns out that there ARE such animals! We hired one of the BEST to do just that.
His name is Joel Winters—now, he’s one of the youngsters on our staff.
Joel currently directs “Heartlight” the junior high choir. I decided to ask him for his perspective on student choirs.
RK: Joel, how did you get started with “youth choir”—from the beginning?
JW: With a father who was pastor of the church and a mother who was the coordinator for children’s choirs for the state of Arkansas, I was ALWAYS in choir and I learned to love singing and, more importantly, loved singing in choirs. So I was in choir at church through high school graduation.
RK: Did being in student choir play a role in your call to ministry?
JW: It did! In Arkansas they had a state program every summer where music ministers all across the state would come together for a week specifically to work with teenagers who were sensing that God might be calling them to music ministry. Since I was so active in youth choir my music minister suggested that I go to this. So, each summer these fantastic men and women would pour their lives into the teenagers who attended. These people made significant investments in our lives and many kids from those music camps are in music ministry today. Growing up, all of my music role models lead student choirs—it is just what you do if you are a music minister.
RK; So, after high school what happened?
JW: I went to Ouachita Baptist University to study music and worship. The whole time I was in school I was also a music intern at churches—youth choir was ALWAYS a part of the assignment. Usually, I would be assisting the music minister of the church, but God used this training to continue to show me the value of student choirs. Pardon the double negative but “I would never even think of NOT having a youth choir at any church I serve.”
RK: So, what about today. As the contemporary worship leader at Tallowood, what part do student choirs play here?
JW: Student choirs are the perfect bridge between “traditional” worship and “contemporary” worship. Youth are welcome to make music and lead worship in ANY setting at the church. Everyone wants to see young people on the stage leading, singing and worshipping. EVERYONE! That is why we have both student choirs lead in worship services. I very much like the model of having them lead the whole congregation in several songs of worship, as well as to get to sing a song on their own in the service.
RK: Talk about the weekly rehearsal, how has your past affected your weekly leadership in rehearsal.
JW: I am not super innovative. I am kind of a simple guy and I lead in very much the same way. Kids aren’t looking for flashy things, they really just want a director to care about them and have a relationship with them. Student choirs at a church are kind of like a river, if you think about it, choirs have been going on here since before I was even born. I stepped into the river, into the leadership of the choir, 2 years ago. I observed all of the great things that had been going on through the decades and kept the things that really helped me AND the kids.
RK: What things did you keep from the past?
JW: At my previous church we were in a small town and a small church. It was easy to do a lot of things by the seat of your pants. Tallowood requires much greater planning and preparation. I had never had a rehearsal agenda before, but I saw how valuable that was to keeping the students focused on the task. It was like a game to them, they wanted to get through all the songs on the list. They like having the structure of knowing what’s coming next.
RK: Anything else?
JW: Yeah, using adults in rehearsal helps tremendously. That said, having the RIGHT adults is the most important. I don’t want adults who view themselves as disciplinarians, instead, I want them to sing, love the kids, and help them discover the joy in singing and leading others to worship. Having adults in the room does help with crowd control! Also, we continue to use those small incentives to get to rehearsal on time—the weekly drawing for a $10 iTunes or Frozen Yogurt card for everyone in their chair ready to sing at “go time” really helps. That two is like a game to see if they can get in on the weekly give-a-way.
RK: What changes have you made to personalize Heartlight to YOUR leadership?
JW: Since I play the guitar, we do more guitar-driven songs. I mix the repertoire with 50/50 traditional anthems and modern song arrangements that fit the kids voices. That is so important. Some modern songs are in the wrong key, with the guitar I can quickly change key to match their voices. Kids won’t love a song (or WORSHIP with a song) if they can’t sing it!
RK: Like all good student choirs, Heartlight has had “traditions” in the past, did you add some of your own to the mix?
JW: Yeah, just little stuff. We started going caroling in the neighborhood before our Christmas party each year. The kids like it and the neighbors get to see some of the things going on inside that huge church down the street. Since I lead the contemporary services, I can more easily program the choir to just come up and sing on Sundays. They like the spontaneity. We have added a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational choir to the mix on Sundays and the junior high kids love getting to come to the stage and lead worship with people from all over the world.
RK: I am two years from retirement and you are just getting going good, how will student choirs be different going forward? What will student choir ministry look like when YOU get ready to retire?
JW: Here are some things that might happen in the future:
—specifically at Tallowood we might combine into one large student choir, we might not.
—greater development and attention to all the “worship arts” including dance, movement, drama, sign language, handbells, lots of variety for the kids.
—in that model, everyone starts out in choir and then breaks into special interests groups. There’s a place for everyone here, even for a “stomp” experience in worship
—since I think there will be a resurgence in involvement of members of the congregation in worship leadership in contemporary settings in the future, choirs will be a natural fit!
—new settings of old hymns is the wave of the future and (student) choirs can be utilized to teach the congregation those “new” songs.
—America is becoming very multi-cultural and student choirs are leading the way in reflecting the eclectic new musical styles, that will continue and likely explode in the future.
—missions is changing in the American church and student choirs in the future will be missions driven and less event driven.
Note: I will be taking November and December off from writing, the blog postings will return in January. I am praying that you will have a wonderful holiday time with friends and family.
October 28, 2015