What Happened to Female Musicians in the Church?

by Robert Earl Houston

Let me preface this blog by saying I don’t have conclusive statistics on this issue. I’m just sharing my casual, personal observation:

What happened to the female musicians in the church? As I visit churches and conventions across the nation (baptist), I’ve noticed that men have dominated the black church musician field in sharp contrast to when I started played in the 1970s.

Many churches utilize a band concept that resembles a band of brothers. All wear black to kind of “fade into” the background. There may be a female director, but the band and directors have become predominantly male.

If you visit various black megachurches you will find that to be true. If you watch carefully those who are on TV, the musicians are male. Even the tambourine player is male.

If you go to a Music Workshop, you’ll notice that most of the writers who present are male. Even most workshops are headed by men. 

This is not a discussion about women in ministry. This is a discussion of women in music ministry.

At the church where my faith journey began, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon,  there were five choirs and only one man involved and that the choir director of the Inspirational Choir. All of the musicians were female.  When I joined New Hope, most of the music ministry leaders were female with a couple of exceptions. The largest church in the city, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, had only one male musician in their vast array of musicians and directors. When I first started pastoring, the first musician I had was female (my sister). In the 1990s when I moved to California, my musicians were predominantly female.

In the mid 1990s when I moved south to San Diego, that’s when I noticed a shift was taking place. Most of the churches had employed men as their lead organist. There were no female drummers. And choirs were becoming accustomed to male choir directors.

When I started attending GMWA it was dominated by female musicians initially, but that has changed dramatically. Even the National Baptist Conventions – most of them have now men leading their music ministries.

What does this say?

I think it says that we as a black church need to immediately invest in the music education of young females. After watching the BET Awards, there was an undercurrent that our females should be “on the pole” and “ain’t loyal” and that is farther from the truth. Our African-American males are in trouble across the land, but our young sisters are shying away from the instruments in droves.

I think it also says that there may sexism may play a part in this phenomenon.  Some pastors are stuck in the “let the women be silent in the church” era. Sirs, that era is long gone. Sadly, I know some pastors who have said privately, “I’ll never hire a woman organist – she’ll be a distraction to my members?” That’s crazy talk from a bygone era.

I also think it shows that Music Departments need to redefine their mission. No only should they focus on the Sunday (or weekly) ministry in performance, but they have to identify the young men and young women who have potential (I’m talking 7-10 year olds) and encourage (and in some cases pay for) musical lessons for their children. Studies are stunning – those who have an interest in piano/organ/music have a higher GPA on average.

I’ve encountered tremendous musicians across the country  – Margaret Douroux, Mamie E. Taylor, Lorene Wilder, Gilber Gill, Mrs. O.B. Williams, Virgie Carrington DeWitty, Dorothea Wade, Ruth Sauls, Patrice Turner, Twinkie Clark, Mattie Moss Clark, Willie Faye Inniss, Cheryl Houston, Helen J.H. Stevens, Patriece Reives, Letha Jones” (some who are gone home to be with the Lord. I pray that their collective legacy is not considered “back in the old days” when churches had female musicians.


12 responses

  1. I feel somewhat hypocritical responding to this article since I am a female that played for churches since the age of seven but am no longer playing for churches. I taught piano, taught members how to read music so that they would be able to teach choirs and direct but music for me was a ‘hobby.’ My love was Christian and secular education, teaching English Lit, oral communication, etc.in seminaries as well as secular universities/colleges. I loved teaching Christian Education classes as well. I no longer play for churches but continue to teach piano but only to those parents who have interested children but cannot afford to pay for lessons as they determine if their child really has an interest in music where they can decide to later invest financially. When I was a child, my father was a pastor and it was almost required that we play for the church. As a child, it was also required that each of us that showed any interest in music was given lessons until our specific interest was cultivated. One sister’s focus was vocally while my oldest brother became a concert pianist, pastor, composer… Personally I believe you see more men because music in the church became more a comradery for them. Women seemed to be isolated even though there were more of them, music did not always join them together as did men and their ‘bands.’ When I finished playing on Sunday, etc. I did not get with my ‘girls’ to have jam sessions, etc. Although music was constantly on my mind because I had to keep current, and music was my minor in college because I wanted to be able to read music especially when much of my playing was for choirs whose members did not read music, I did not have a group of women that I ran with ‘musically’ as does men. I usually had my children with me or waiting for me to pick them up, feed them, etc. Music was not and I believe for many other women, my main focus. Enjoyed and often miss the experience but the reasons I’ve given is my answer to your question.

  2. I agree with your statement about the decrease of female musicians seen in the black churches. I started playing the organ for my church since the early 80’s in New York City. During that time I was around 12-13 years old, and my church had only two organists. Neighboring churches had females playing either the piano and/or organ. Matter of fact, I felt like the outsider because females then dominated the church musician role, and they did an outstanding job. Since the 80’s, I’m moved around in the mid-west states (military)and now in Atlanta, Georgia. During my travels and experiences playing for churches, it is (and was) very uncommon to find females taking the role as church musicians compared to the 1980’s. Honestly, I don’t have an explanation to this change. However, since I’m a male, if we can inquire from current/past female church musicians, and allow them to share their views/opinions on this issue, it would be very interesting to know why the change. I’m not sure if the sexism you mentioned would have been the reason, because the pastors I’ve known who didn’t want females in leadership roles, still had females on the piano and/or organ throughout my experience.

  3. My experience growing up in Detroit in the 60s seems to be different. I do not recall women musician being in large supply. Yes, there was Mattie Moss Clark and her daughter, Twinkie. The major musicians were Rev. Charles H. Nicks, Jr., Robert Nix, Herbert Picard, James Cleveland, Rev. Donald R. Vails, Rev. Charles Ashley Craig, Rev. Roderic Edwards, and others who did not achieve national renown.

  4. Wayne P. Snodgrass | Reply

    Rev. Houston, I had not noticed the change so much as I dealt with an issue of availability. In my town, there are not many pianists in our denomination, so we have to receive help from the Sabbath persons, many who may not know your traditions. (I grabbed an old hymn one Sunday and was by myself. I sang one verse and quit.) We decided to raise our own. 2 young ladies and 1 guy. As they were not ready for Sunday, we waited while they improved and were nurtured. They grew up, went off to college, and married. Then, we were back where we started. They were grateful for our investment, but we didn’t benefit as hoped. Things are changing, and I love “my band.”

    1. Bro. Snodgrass, that happens so often. A church will invest but not reap, personally, the benefit. I have visited churches where they had to use pianist from the 7th day churches who did not know the tradition of the church. I agree. Things are changing but we still are not as ‘void’ of many churches I’ve visited where no instrument is used but rather sound tracks.

  5. Church Musicians
    When I was coming up in Cleveland/Berea, OH, there were plenty of women musicians and as well as men. When I lived in Houston, TX, there were also plenty of men and women musicians. In some cases, as used to be the norm, the pastor’s wife would serve as the pianist/organist. Now, there are several pastors who are musicians themselves. I think females have so many more options to choose from, and many of the females who are or aspire to be musicians, sing or play other instruments, but do not play the piano.

    Unfortunately, as a college music educator, there is a lack of talent nurturing in the early years. Many of the public schools have weak music programs or none at all. In many cases, parents cannot afford private lessons. In some cases, where there are private lessons (piano/organ) there is no instrument for the child to practice on. I feel that every child (who is interested) should take piano lessons FIRST, before any other instrument. Unfortunately, students do not take the piano seriously and quit before they really get the hang of it, failing to understand that piano playing only enhances their ability to sing and play other instruments. I have also found every year that less and less of my female students (at the college level) arrive with basic piano skills.

    One thing that I have been striving to do now is to “bridge the gap” between the talented (gifted) and the skilled. I learned how t read music first, then later on, developed a good ear and improvisation skills. There are many people that have a desire to read music and there are those that desire to develop their ears. I bridge the gap and meet them half way. I teach them how to read a lead sheet and chord symbols, while helping them develop their ear training skills through melodic and harmonic dictation. Know I jumped on and off topic, but that is my two cents.

  6. Paula Jay McCalla | Reply

    I am a 67 yr, old African-American female who has been involved in the music ministry as a choir member since I was about five years old. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. My early experience was in a little church in Carnarsie, Brooklyn, Pilgrim Congregational Church. I remember singing in the Children’s Choir which was directed by a woman who played the piano. I don’t recall who the musicians were in the service. At the age of five my family relocated to Greenpoint, Brooklyn in one of the newly constructed housing projects built for the veterans of WW Ii and their families. Although it was integrated the population was predominately Aftican-American. The community on the outskirts of these “project” was largely Italian. My mother took us to the baptist church in the area which was First Italian ( now Devoe Street) Baptist Church. I attended this beautiful little church from 1953 until I graduated from college in 1967. The Children’s Choir director was a woman and she played the piano. The Chancel Choir was made up of youth, young adults, adults and Seniors. The choir director was a male and his wife was the organist. I was baptized by Rev. Militant a charismatic Holy Spirit filled pastor who brought the youth from the neighborhood and thevprojects for alternating sessions of fellowship and bible study which was called Teens & Twenties. For the children we had a group called. CRUSADERS, Warriors for Christ . Our theme was “Christ for Me”. He led us in singing all the little bible songs and we had bible stories and contests memorizing verses from the Bible. After Rev Militano left to go as a servant of the New York Bible society we continued in music ministry in much the same way. We had Family nights where we shared spaghetti and meatballs, games like “Name that Tune” using the hymns and spirituals that we sang in church. I also remember going through out the Italian neighborhood and the projects singing Christmas Carols and then drinking hot chocolate at the end at Sister Barbara Calabrese’ house.
    After graduating from college in 1967 marrying in 1968 there was a short hiatus where I did not attend church regularly. However when my first son was 2yrs I went to Emmanuel Baptist Church in the Fort Greene section in Brooklyn wher my husband and I purchased our present brownstone home about five blocks from Emmanuel. I was familiar with Emmanuel because of the fellowship we had as teenagers in the Baptist Youth Fellowship (BYF). That was in 1972 until the present, July 2014 My first service in the music ministry was in mid 70’s as a member of the Gospel Chorus founded and lead by Sister Carrie Stewart. The chancel choir was directories by Larry……… . When he left the Gospel choir joined the chancel choir under the directoship of Mr. Edward Redic and the pastorship of the first frican

    1. Paula Jay McCalla | Reply

      African -American pastor of Emmanuel Baptist church, the distinguished Rev.Dr. H. Edward Whittaker who served as pastor from 1972 – 1981. In the early 70s Sister Carrie Stewart founded and lead the Gospel Chorus as more African-American joined Emmanuel Baptist Church, after the organist and chancel choir Larry… left he was succeeded by the organist and chancel choir director Edward Redic. The Gospel Chorus joined the Chancel Choir and continued to serve under Mr Redic. Sister Brenda Brown led the Youth Choir and a young woman led the children’ choir.
      In 1981 Emmanuel called the
      Rev. Dr. Michael Neely Harris to pastor the Emmanuel Baptist Church. His wife the lovely Sylvia Jones Harris lead the Gospel choir and I returned to singing that genre of the African-American musical experience. Sister Brenda Brown continued working with the Youth Choir as the Children’s Choir
      was continued under the leadership of a young woman. When Emmanuel Baptist celebrated its 100th Anniversary a young poet at the time, Leonard Green who is now a journalist for a leading NYC newspaper wrote “Emmanuel! God With Us”. It was set to music by Marvin Curtis . The Combined Choirs performed at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center two times and produced two albums ones which displayed the rich heritage of the African-American religious music experience and the other was an original piece composed by Dr Cutis for voice and orchestra entitled the Christmas Cantata”.
      In 1983 Marvin Curtis left to pursue his doctorate at the Univ. of San Diego. His position as organist and Chancel Choir director by several musicians including Marcia Powell. Michael Gittens and Dr. Anne Marie Hudley. Ms Gloria Lyde led the Men’s Chorus.
      Out present pastor Rev. Anthony L. Trufant was called to Emmanuel around 1991. Under his pastorship the music ministry expanded as he brought in the religious motivational teacher and trainer Eli Wilson and then the charismatic Pastor of the Sacred Arts Ministry. Young adults aged 25 to 45 were drawn to Emmanuel and the music ministry as the mass choir TOTAL PRAISE raised the roof of Emmanuel with a combination of Praise and Worship, contemporary, hip hip while continuing to sing the Negro spirituals and original compositions of some very gifted and talented young adults. The dance and drama ministries also grew and included children, youth, young adults and adults. While our seniors long for the traditional hymns and format if the Black Baptist experience I believe that they have adjusted to this new worship experience as Emmanuel Baptist Church continues to thrive while other churches which are not willing to open their hearts and doors to these new experiences while still preaching Jesus! I have loved growing with Emmanuel thoughout the 42 years as a member, servant leader and choir member at Emmanuel Church. The tradition had been passed on to my second son who is a classically trained organist and choir director of a traditional African-American churches for 24 yrs. as he was given an organ scholarship when he was 13 years old.
      We must encourage our youth to study music so that the can maintain our traditional black music of our Ancestors and Eldrers as well as the music of this new millennium ‘

  7. Paula Jay McCalla | Reply

    In my previous response regarding the music ministry at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hills, Brooklyn NY
    I inadvertently failed to mention three young men who served as musicians
    and choir directors. In the 90s a young inspirational gifted pianist Victor Simonson directed the youth choir of which my two daughters were members.
    In the new millennium (2000s) the smooth voice of LeRoi Davis wafted through the chapel and sanctuary of
    Emmanuel Baptist Church as he played for and directed the Youth Choir and small groups within the mass choir
    Total Praise.
    The beautiful voice of Jonathan Hicks who is also a well known journalist must be included in my “treatise” of the music ministries under which as a member of TOTAL PRAISE. Jonathan was instrumental in forming the Men’s
    Choir which I believe it was called VIP
    Voices Praise.

    1. As I reread my “treatise” on the music ministry at Emmanuel Baptist Church I failed to mention the name of the spiritual, prayerful and charismatic leader and gifted musician Pastor Francisco “Frank” Haye, Minister of Music of the Sacred Arts Ministry and director if the mass choir TOTAL PRAISE.

  8. I sang under Doretha Wade as well as her sister Marsha (treachorous on the organ!!!!). I miss her style of musicianship but that legacy is still being used today! Doretha is truly missed, RIP, as well as Marsha who is mow in Denver. Doretha was truly “the director’s director!”

  9. Another female director for hat I would dare not leave out would be Doris Johnson, former Minister of Music for the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church of Kansas City, MO. Not sure if she is still alive but she was D A N G E R O U S!!! She along with Doretha Wade are my go-to for all that I have learned in gospel through their instruction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


by Pastor Robert Earl Houston

H.B. Charles Jr.

About life, preaching, church, books, and other stuff.

%d bloggers like this: