Dr. Winston R. Gray is soon to be installed as president of the Hampton Choir Director and Organist Guild of the 2022 Hampton Ministers Conference. (Courtesy Photo)

By Belinda Merritt,
Special to the AFRO

Music ministry is considered one of the most important ministries in the local church and should be acknowledged as a sacred office. Your call begins with a longing to be used by God and continues with learning to make an impact in the worship and beyond. Many church musicians consider their talent good and even exceptional, but talent is just one requirement in becoming a minister of music. The following four experts share their experience, insight, and advice on the essentials of achieving that goal: Dr. Winston R. Gray, Elizabeth “Marie” Alston, William “Patrick” Alston, and James Dewitt “JD” Alston. All agree that  first you must have a passion for music ministry.

Dr. Winston R. Gray is minister of music at the Community Baptist Church in Jessup, Md. He will be installed, June 8, as president of the Hampton Choir Director and Organist Guild. He has 50 years’ experience in music ministry and 34 years as a music teacher for the City of Baltimore Public School System, from which he retired July 1, 2021. 

“A good musician must study,” advises Winston “You must be willing and, more importantly, you must want to do it. Some people are gifted and do not have formal training; but even with that gift be willing to get a mentor to learn everything you can. My mentor, Donald Carey gave me what I needed as a foundation, and is part of the reason I am doing what I do today. Listen, learn, study, and always keep up with technology. Stay educated, go to conferences and workshops to make yourself better at what you do. Winston pointed out there are several schools that offer musical training, Morgan State University, Oberlin College, Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, Towson State University and Lebanon Valley College to name a few. Funding is important, seek out colleges that will help you financially so that you do not acquire a lot of student loan debt. Winston explains, I attended Lebanon Valley College, a United Methodist College in Annville, Pa. They provided funding and that is why I chose to go there.”

Patrick Alston is well versed in the history of church music. (Courtesy photo)

“Be humble, Winston advises, when you are humble before the Lord and you can work with people, that’s what makes you a good musician.  You must know who the Lord is [be saved] when it comes to being a musician in the church and from the Minister of music aspect.” Winston believes studying the word and becoming grounded and rooted in the word are necessary tools that will take you further than anything in the world. If he [God] sees your faithfulness in what you are doing about ministry and not money, he will definitely be faithful to you, said Winston. Establishing and maintaining a good relationship with the Pastor and people is particularly important. Winston’s final advice to young musicians is to learn the hymns of the church because hymns are dying.

Elizabeth “Marie” Alston. (Courtesy photo)

Elizabeth “Marie” Alston began her musical career at 16 in Mt. Moriah Baptist Church where she is a lifelong member. Her private musical training and spiritual growth led her into the role of minister of music for several years and she currently serves as the music administrator for the music department. She lovingly credits her growth and education as being privately taught by musical mentors and Sister Edna Isaac and the Green Sisters. “The music ministry means a lot to me, Marie Alston said.” She said one has to have the right spirit and be dedicated to ministry. “You need to know your church to give them the right music that is needed. You jump to try to do a  new style of music of today and it’s hard for the older members of the church to accept it. I strongly believe in doing a little bit of all of it. If you give them what they like, then bring on newer music, they will accept it better. Sometimes people come to church, and they need a lifting spirit.”  She said this is where studying your craft is especially important. “People have gotten away from hymns, but the hymns mean a whole lot,” Marie Alston said, adding knowing the gospels, anthems, and contemporary music are important as well. Contemporary [music] seems to be the thing for today but we should not forget from where we came.” She shares her love of music ministry with her husband, James Dewitt “JD” Alston, minister of music at the New Psalmist Baptist Church.

James Dewitt “J.D.” Alston ministers music at New Psalmist Baptist Church. (Photo by Daryl Taylor)

It was inevitable that James Dewitt “JD” Alston and William “Patrick” Alston would become musicians. Their grandfather was the choir director at the Pentecost Baptist Church on Poplar Grove and Baker Street. Their parents and grandmother sang on the choir. According to JD, “We were in church every time the doors opened and that’s where our interest in music was developed.” JD says they also established a musical interest in elementary school. He still remembers his music teacher’s name, Ms. Ruth Thornton Hawkins.

Originally JD learned to play music by ear mimicking the cords he heard in church on a little organ his mom brought him. He continued learning and practicing, which eventually led to an opportunity to play the opening choir marching piece, one Sunday, because the regular organist was late.” It has been nonstop ever since,” says JD. 

JD strongly advises musicians who are interested in music ministry to be well versed, “You need to know everything and the church musical. Hymns are important, it pays to know some of everything. “A lot of emphasis is based on money, that’s the name of the game now JD adds, “Folk want the pay but do you know the music? that’s the question.” 

JD advises if a child displays an early interest in music and their school has a music program it will be a good avenue to apply for the Baltimore School of The Arts. He also says “it is mandatory for everyone to find a mentor. A good place to start is with your local church musician.”

Patrick’s first assignment was at the Enon Baptist Church. Since then, for 34 years, he has served as an organist, pianist, and music administrator in several churches, currently at the New Shiloh Baptist Church. 

“Minister of Music used to mean ‘chief musician’ defined by biblical standards out of the book of Chronicles explains Patrick, symbolizing you were the chief administrative musician on a staff of musicians.” 

Patrick believes the education piece is not as marketable as it used to be, because of ease of access to information in the digital world. “The problem I am finding with most young church musicians is that they do not want private lessons, they want YouTube, so they can learn something quick. “They do not want to commit to the craft like we did. It was required of us; nowadays it is no longer required. Patrick states, churches will give you top dollar because of the business aspect.”

“I will say, there are many initiatives that are successful in the country to educate our young musicians, they just need to take advantage of it. Berkley and European Conservatories are now taking students that do not read music but have the ear and giving them an education. Musicians who are trained but cannot play by ear are now required to play by ear. Private organizations like the America Guild of Organists, the National Association of Negro Musicians and the Hampton University Ministers Conference all offer academic courses in music to inspire musicians to improve their craft, not only in church music, but music in general, so that they can be marketable musicians. Patrick adds, we did not have much access to a lot of information years ago. Now you have access online, offline, virtual and in person.”

Patrick offers some hope, “I do see the church going full circle back to those standards, we are heading back in that direction. The Carter Music School in new Shiloh Baptist Church and B-Sharp Summer Music-Enrichment Academy at Timothy Baptist Church are great places to start. In addition, you have Peabody Preparatory. Many churches are offering private lessons and music schools to give people a chance at some training. Every summer Hands and Harmony offer seminars for people who want to get basic training and do not have the money or time for full study in a college institution. I recommend starting at these schools. Local community colleges have good programs as well.”

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