The Art and Practice of Musical Curation for Worship, Part 2

4 Practical Things For Great Curation

The role of musical curator has changed (If you are reading this article first, you may wish to start here, where I discussed how things have changed). In the process it has gotten to be much more complicated to do that curation. It is tempting to fall back on "communication" as the primary criteria for making a musical choice in worship. But I think that is not just conceptually wrong, but a form of congregational musical abuse.

As a congregation's song becomes more narrowly defined, it becomes more exclusive. As it becomes less inclusive, it becomes, in its own way, elitist. Once again we are back to a situation in which one or more people are invested with the "divine right" to make all the musical decisions. When that happens, whether the repertoire is all pre-1750 or all bluegrass, the effect on a congregation is to slowly stifle their ability to accept anything else as being appropriate. It would be like a pastor only preaching from the book of Jeremiah. Eventually a congregation might think that a worship service was all about wailing and gnashing of teeth.

How can you deal with the increasing complication of the role of musical curation? The best answer is that you need to know everything about everything. That's an impossible task. But knowing something about a lot of things is a start.

Practically speaking, the role of musical curator can be summed up in the old adage: Local solutions for local situations. It is finding those solutions that can be hard. To do so, you will need four things:

  • a starting point
  • a willingness to explore
  • a system to organize what you know
  • a mechanism to put it into practice

Let's look at each in turn.

Starting Point

Wherever you are, you are there. It really is that easy. Ideally you should have a good background in the history of musical style and a good idea of how to implement as many as possible of those styles with the group of musicians you lead. This doesn't mean you need to program music you don't like. It means that you need to be clear about what you do like, and what you are able to successfully prepare.

You should also know how the congregation's musical corporate culture is defined. No matter what you like and how good you are at preparing it, if the congregation has a cultural style that is not something with which you resonate, perhaps you should polish up your resume. Using the proverbial spoonful of sugar to force your medicine down a congregation's musical throat against their will is a recipe for disaster. Catering to a congregation's addiction to sugar without adding some other musical dietary items is a professional abandonment of responsibility.


Every exploration party sends a scout on ahead to figure out what the lay of the land is before the main party gets there. In the role of musical curator, you need to find, or be the musical scout. Don't just rely on your "we've always done it that way" sources for music. Ask your favorite musical supplier for recommendations. They have your purchase history, and they should be able to suggest things that are a smooth pathway ahead from where you are now.

Creator can help as well. We look at a lot of music each year to choose our Select 20 anthems for each issue. That means there is a huge number of options from which you can choose at our website.

Be proactive when you go to conferences and other worship services. Ask a trusted colleague about what works for them. Use Creator's Facebook page to ask a question to our fans and followers. There is wisdom in crowd sourcing this kind of thing. Remember, though, that you are the curator. You need to know enough about what each option entails to decide whether or not it will serve your ministry.


One of the internet watchwords is metrics. It is used in the context of taking any set of data and dicing and slicing it in ways that are useful to understand not just what it means, but how it can be used.

Does your music library tell you that a piece is able to be used for Christmas? How about for infant baptism as opposed to adult baptism? Can you easily get the answer to the question "What do we have that has an oboe part?" Do you have a list of anthems with congregational participation?

Applying metrics to what you have, and what you know, will make it easier when your preaching pastor says "I'm preaching about Lazarus this week. I know that is a change from what was planned, but I need to do that. What do you suggest for the hymns?" Not only does it preserve you from saying "I have no idea," it makes you look good to be able to say "I know that has 100 songs about Lazarus, let me see what might work." (I just did a google search to find that, by the way, and I have no idea of whether it is completely true or what the quality of those songs are. Caveat emptor.)

Part of the complication of musical curation -- and music ministry in general these days -- is that you need to manage a lot of data. Begin right now to start to systematize the material you have in a way that will allow you to do comprehensive searches to find the answers you need.


Once you have a good idea of what you know, and what the congregation is comfortable with, you'll want to begin to introduce some of your new curation "finds" to the congregation. This is where the whole thing can go terribly wrong if you're not careful. It's kind of like the Jesus Christ Superstar thing I talked about in the first article in this series. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater can be painful for the baby, and leaves you with a lot of explaining to do about your bathing skills.

After a lot of trial and error, I have used the balanced diet food group pyramid as a model to provide guidelines for a balanced musical diet. It is easily adaptable to almost any situation, because the categories, like the food groups, are general. In any category it is easy to see what amount is healthy, but the choice of what to use to satisfy that category is up to you. There is an extended discussion of how to use the pyramid in my book The Choir in Modern Worship, which you can get by clicking here.

As church musicians we have the God-given privilege of providing a ministry of encouraging and facilitating the singing of not just a "new song" or an "old song." We have the mandate to encourage the congregation to sing "with one voice." As a musical curator we must find songs that communicate. What a great and marvelous challenge that is, and how great our joy when we help make that happen.

UPDATE: To read part 2 of this article, click here.

© 2014, 2020 Creator Magazine All Rights Reserved

7 Replies to “The Art and Practice of Musical Curation for Worship, Part 2”

  1. Vern,
    My daughter is in the museum field. She worked as a docent and assistant to the curator while in college.
    Your connection to curation for the Minister is fascinating to me.
    It makes perfect sense that God would want those planning and leading worship for the family to be studied in their craft.

    The knowledge bed of the docent alone can be overwhelming. I went on tours with her. She had more information in her head than she had time for in each tour so she varied the tour and tailored each one to the people who came. The elementary 5th grade class got something quite different from the high school history class or the Senior Living tour. Yet she lovingly tied them all together.

    I guess what we are doing in our churches is working to the end that our leaders study their craft and calling toward a broad knowledge as they unselfishly serve others–their interests and needs.

    Thanks for a great article and prompting me to remember my lovely daughter.

  2. Elaine Haley says:

    In reply to Glenn.

    When I go through publisher packets, after gleaning through what I believe will work well in our situation and are musically interesting, I make several notes on the pieces themselves which would include style, Scripture, all relevant info. I color code by use: purple for Advent/Christmas, green for Holy Week/Easter, red for Pentecost, royal blue for Patriotic, etc. On my computer I have two lists: first, anthems by publisher; 2nd, anthems by use (filed by Fall, 2014 or Spring, 2015 etc.) You can further subcategorize if needed. All this is kept on file in computer, but is also printed and put in a binder. I have several years worth of this info, so when the pastor wants to preach on a certain topic/passage, it is very helpful. I have gone back through my records to find the perfect anthem on Jesus and Nicoudemus or the Woman at the Well, etc. I am also blessed with a pastor who gives me 6+ mo. notice of what he is preaching . . . a first in my career of almost 29 years. I have also found that with pastors who give you practically no notice, armed with the church calendar and a lot of prayer, God uses the music to His glory. The Lord works with what we bring Him, however long or short-planned. Prayer and preparation are key. This whole process is labor intensive!!!!! I go through more than 10 publishers twice a year, and I can generally tell in a few seconds if the piece is interesting enough to make the first cut of something I would consider buying. I love doing this and marvel at God’s creativity/giftedness in composers, etc. . . .even if we can’t use the piece. (Its fun to see when some of our pieces are also on Creator’s Top Twenty list. Let’s me know I’m doing something right!) It would probably feel less labor intensive if I did this when each packet came in , but I haven’t gotten there yet. My pastor goes every year during fall break on a sermon planning retreat for the year. I am so blessed. wish I could go away on an anthem planning retreat! lol!! An isolated classroom in the church works fine!

  3. Vern Sanders says:

    I think the docent analogy works perfectly Glenn…

  4. Vern Sanders says:

    Elaine…why don’t you make a case for your anthem planning retreat, and then perhaps combine it with a choir retreat?

  5. Elaine Haley says:

    great idea!

  6. Kevin G Lindsay says:

    Wow that resonates exactly with what I am up against. Love the food pyramid analogy… Keep up the good work!

  7. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks Kevin…glad it helps

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