RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Stop by Edgefield Baptist Church on a Tuesday afternoon and you may have trouble finding the music minister — until you peek into the preschool area. There, you’ll see Derry Billingsley sitting on the floor with 12 four- and five-year-olds singing songs and doing motions in rhythm to the music. Though he’s the father of two preschoolers himself, he admits it’s an unusual role for a music minister.
“I haven’t come across any other music ministers who direct the preschool choir, but I don’t hesitate to tell people that it’s my favorite choir,” said Billingsley, who has served as minister of music at the church in Edgefield, S.C., for eight years. “I just love children — that’s a prerequisite for any preschool choir director — and there is so much research out there that shows how the concepts learned in those first few years of life have such impact.”
Billingsley shared his wisdom and experience working with preschoolers in several workshops at Music Ridgecrest, a weeklong music training conference held this summer at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in Ridgecrest, N.C.
He quoted Albert Einstein, who said that learning is experience while everything else is just knowledge.
“One thing preschool choir is — it’s leading preschoolers in experiencing God through music,” Billingsley said. “What it ends up being far too often, though, is teaching preschoolers about God, instead of leading them to experience His love.”
That means leaders must be well prepared to reach preschoolers on their own levels, developmentally and spiritually, Billingsley said.
This may be as simple as changing the room in which they’re taught, he said. When Billingsley, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., first came to Edgefield, the preschoolers were meeting in the adult choir room, where everything was posted high on the walls. They immediately moved to the preschool room, where pictures were hung low, tables and chairs could be moved out of the way, and there was plenty of room for movement. This made a dramatic impact on the preschoolers.
Pacing of the class, and having the right number of helpers, are keys as well, he said.
“If the preschoolers are starting to get restless or you can tell that as a group they’re starting to wander, the learning is over and it’s time to move on to something else,” said Billingsley, who recommends one helper for every six preschoolers. “You don’t want to go too fast or too slow — the goal is to keep it fun and interesting.”
Successful preschool choirs also require teachers to undergo training and take adequate time to prepare.
“Everybody likes music, but many people feel like if they’re not musicians, they can’t offer anything to a preschool choir,” Billingsley said. “All you need to work with preschoolers is a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, a love of children, and an enjoyment of music. A nice singing voice is great, but it’s not necessary.”
Training is where workers can get the confidence they need to be successful, he said.
“A church that’s really interested in equipping their volunteers and leaders is going to look for good training,” Billingsley said. “You can find it at Ridgecrest, the state level or Baptist associations.”
The ultimate goal for any preschool music program should be to share the love of God, he said.
“Through simple biblical truth, so many spiritual concepts can be planted early on through music,” Billingsley said. “If I can share Christ early on, I’ve done what God’s called me to do.”