Diane Dawson has served 40 years in kid’s choir ministry, 25 of them at The Peoples Church in Franklin, TN (now Church of the City). While formally retired from children’s music, Diane still uses her talents for the kingdom: working in her church’s accounting department, leading the more traditional Chapel Praise Worship on Sunday mornings (using resources from Discover Worship), and volunteering her talents in Nashville and around the world. We recently interviewed Diane by phone while she was on a layover in the Atlanta International Airport on her way to Africa on a mission trip.
Discover Worship: Tell our readers about how you got involved in children’s music ministry and the opportunities the Lord has opened up to you over the years.
Diane Dawson: It’s kind of funny. I don’t remember being in children’s choirs growing up. I was a GA (Girls’ Auxiliary) at the Baptist church and all that—but no kids choir. But I married a minister of music, and I had Music Education degree from Samford University...and so, there she goes!
I learned how to do kids choir on the fly. We were in big churches where there were already children’s choirs. But this was so long ago--the only resources were The Junior Musician and Music Maker Magazine and old children’s music from Flo Price. Then came Psalty! I was so excited about the Psalty’s Kids Praise musicals and things developed from there.
I’ve had lots of great opportunities. In particular, I’ve led a network of children’s choir leaders from all over the country for the last 25 years. We meet once a year to share ideas and recharge. These ladies are my best friends in ministry and kindred spirits. The group is currently on hiatus since I’ve retired, but if someone’s interested, they can email me (email@example.com), and I’ll put them on the list to be notified for further opportunities as I pass the mantle of leadership to others.
I did children’s choirs in Nashville for 25 years. Kathie Hill is my dear friend, so we got to do a lot of her music. Our children’s choirs performed at LifeWay VBS premieres, backed up Bob Carlisle’s performance of “Butterfly Kisses” at the Dove Awards, and were featured in Steve Green’s “Hide ‘Em In Your Heart” video series. When Billy Graham came to Nashville in 2000, I got to lead the two thousand voice children’s choir on the Kids’ Day. We had several rehearsals all over town. Ernie Rettino was there dressed up as Psalty; we sang Psalty songs!
Discover Worship: You’ve had a pretty amazing journey. Looking back at what you’ve learned, what specific advice would you give to those who want to start (or restart) a kids music ministry?
Diane Dawson: My answer is to make it about worship. Not about education. Not about performance...it’s about worship.
The whole shape of my own worship and the direction of my teaching really came into focus when I read the book Teaching Kids Authentic Worship by Kathleen Chapman about ten years ago. It rocked my world. Every kids choir leader, worship leader, and kids teacher should read that book.
In the last five years of my choirs, we developed a worship arts program. That’s how we did choir. It gave kids the opportunity to explore the various gifts God has given them as well as participate in choir. We did everything from guitars to pottery to watercolor art to hip-hop dance to photography—you name it, we did it. It was amazing how kids responded when they realized it [worship] wasn’t just about singing. They could use any of their gifts and offer that to God in worship.
Discover Worship: What does a healthy kids music ministry look like to you?
Diane Dawson: It needs to involve teaching kids a wide variety of worthy worship songs and then providing opportunities for them to actually lead worship in many settings. I’m a big believer that they need to participate in the service—not just as the “stars”—but serving along with adults, even outside the four walls of the church to minister.
I learned early on that it’s not a one-man show; you’ve got to build a team of people. I always looked for people who loved Jesus and who loved kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I can teach you to teach music if you love Jesus and you love kids.” Those are the roles. You’ve got to have people who are passionate about it, who see the value in hiding God’s Word in children’s hearts, the value of teaching the old hymns and the new songs...of giving them a vehicle to sing the song that’s in their hearts.
Discover Worship: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. Could you share some pointers about picking “worthy” worship music for children?
Here are my definitions. I consider “psalms” to be songs about God’s nature, God’s character, or straight from scripture. “Hymns” are church songs about doctrine, what we believe, encouragement--songs for the family of believers. “Spiritual” songs I count as testimony songs—songs about my personal experience with Jesus. So I want to give kids an appropriate kid-level song that they can sing about what they know about Jesus and the experience they’ve had. I want beautiful poetry or memorable prose that they can grab hold of. So the first thing is to choose lyrics that are valuable.
Then I want it to be worthy musically. As a musician, I want it to have a memorable melody as well as interesting harmony and rhythm. Mainly, for children, I want it to have a melody...a real melody. And then I’m careful about range and key—what’s appropriate to a child’s voice. I could go on for hours about this.
Discover Worship: To you, how important are teaching the fundamentals of music and singing in a kids music ministry?
Diane Dawson: It’s important, but it’s never been my priority. I like to say that God didn’t call me to be a music teacher; rather, he called me to teach children about him using the tool of music. Music is the most efficient way to teach anything. When you learn something with a tune or a rhythm, it stays in your brain in a different place than if you just learn the concept or words. For example, we can all sing the “Gilligan’s Island” song we learned as kids. Alzheimer’s patients can still remember hymns they learned when they were young.
So while it’s important to teach them [children] about posture and good breathing and beautiful vowels and head tones and how to sing harmony and all of that—I’ve always tried to disguise that in the fun of learning a great song. And if you plan carefully and teach intentionally, you don’t have to tell the children you’re them teaching about intervals today. No, you just build it into how you teach the song, and they’ll get the concept without getting bored.
Discover Worship: What’s on the horizon for you?
Diane Dawson: In the five years since I’ve retired, God has given me had two amazing opportunities. The first has been to lead a children’s music camp through a partnership our church has with Capital City Baptist Church in Malawi, Africa. I’ve gone for the past four years. This year, I’ll be training the leaders so they can lead the camps themselves. I’m actually in the Atlanta airport right now on a layover on my way there.
The other opportunity is to help lead an International children’s choir camp right here in Nashville the third week of June. Terry Taylor (who does the “Growing in Grace” children’s curriculum) and I lead a music camp in the South Nashville immigrant community where the internationals are settled by the government. We have 80-100 kids every year with a great team of music teachers all over Nashville. These kids can then be a part of Terry’s ongoing Children’s Freedom Choir at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church located at 4930 Nolensville Road in Nashville. If you're in the Nashville area this June 18-22 and are interested in helping us out from 9 AM to 2 PM, contact Terry Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Discover Worship: Diane, we're not only grateful for your time today but also for the decades you've invested in children's music ministry. It's an honor to call you our friend and co-worker in Christ.
--Discover Worship offers more than 180 children's choir pieces including seasonal musicals and collections!