Baltimore Chapter of the American Guild of Organists
Enriching lives through organ and choral music

Dear John

John Walker, DMA is Artist-in-Residence at Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, having served earlier as Minister of Music at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and The Riverside Church in New York City. He is a member of the organ faculty at Peabody Conservatory of Music and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Organ at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, following previous teaching positions at Duquesne University, Manhattan School of Music, San Jose State University, and the American Conservatory of Music. His active performance schedule has taken him throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Dr. Walker has recorded frequently on the Pro Organo, Gothic, and JAV Recordings labels. As a student of Herbert Nanney, John Walker earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Stanford University, where he was also Assistant University Organist. He holds two Master of Music degrees cum laude from American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where he was later a member of the faculty. Dr. Walker was the 1984 alumni recipient of the Professional Achievement Award from Westminster College. A Fellow of the American Guild of Organists, John Walker was elected President of the AGO in 2014, having previously served the Guild in numerous other capacities including several terms as Vice President and Treasurer.

In our "Dear John" series, Dr. Walker answers questions from our Chapter members. An experienced, knowledgeable, and pastoral member, he has graciously accepted the board’s invitation to lead an “advice” column for our chapter newsletter. Many thanks to Dr. John Walker for taking up this challenge. If you have an organ, choral, or church music question, please use our contact form to submit your question to Dr. Walker. He will then choose one question to answer each month.

Existential Challenge

Dear John,

Our church is moving more and more toward contemporary music and the belief that by doing so more people will be attracted to a church where the music is in a style they recognize and appreciate. We are a small congregation and have only seven in the choir - two men, the rest women. Most do not read music well but wish to volunteer nonetheless. We cannot afford to pay soloists or section leaders. What do you recommend? --Puzzled

Dear Puzzled,

Your question raises concern for many in our vocation. John Henschen’s article “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy,” published in the August 16, 2018 issue of Intellectual Takeout, laments the alarmingly low percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently:


Two traditional sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons. Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980's, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano, with children taking piano lessons. Now stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but recent sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US.

In the mid-1970's, most American high schools had a choir, orchestra, symphonic band, jazz band, and music appreciation classes. Many of today’s schools limit students to a music appreciation class because it is the cheapest option. The resulting implications for us, Directors of Sacred Music, are painfully obvious.

First I would recommend that you investigate collections of choral compositions such as New Anthem Book: 25 Unison, 2 and 3 Part Anthems, published by Kevin Mayhew; or possibly The New Oxford Easy Anthem Book, which contains “63 easy and accessible anthems – scored for SATB with the minimum of divisi, and using comfortable ranges.”

Second, immediately thereafter institute an active program of music education throughout your congregation. Alec Wyton, legendary former president of the AGO, proclaimed that the church musician must be a pastor, an educator, and a performer in that order of priority. At this critical moment in American church history, we are all called upon to recommit ourselves to music education, working together to replace that vital element of cultural heritage which is sadly missing in curricular offerings of so many schools. Organize classes in music literacy for children in Sunday School; organize classes in the history and practice of hymnody in adult education programs; create opportunities to introduce members of the congregation to the musical instruments of the church. Each of us is called to envision and to create opportunities in music education within our own congregations.

I invite readers to contribute suggestions for creative music education which you have employed successfully with your congregations. Let us each become part of the answer to this existential challenge!

John Walker

Louis Gephardt