After a life of music ministry in The Salvation Army and seven years in the Canadian Staff Songsters (CSS), Salvationist Cathie Koehnen has taken over leadership of the CSS following the retirement of Major Len Ballantine. Abbigail Oliver, Salvationist staff writer, spoke with Koehnen about her experience teaching music, the importance of mentorship and her vision for the future of the group.
Can you share a little about your background in Salvation Army music and your journey to this position? How have you felt God’s hand in this journey?
I’m an officers’ kid, so The Salvation Army has been my life. I’ve always absolutely loved music and participated in the singing company, young people’s band, music camps—I just couldn’t get enough of it as a kid. I used to go to National Music Camp, and when I was too old for that, I was disappointed because it was such a big part of my life. Brian Burditt, who was the territorial music secretary at the time, brought me on to faculty, encouraged me and gave me opportunities. I accompanied the songsters in various corps and when I was 28, with the encouragement of my then songster leader Wayne Taylor, I became a songster leader at Mississauga Temple, Ont. I did that for 13 years.
I also established the first Ontario Central-East divisional youth chorus. Those 10 years were amazing, and one of my greatest musical highlights was taking that group to the Boundless 2015 international congress in London, England, as we were chosen to represent our territory and sing at the O2 Arena.
I studied piano, went to university for music and became a high school music teacher. Music is my whole life outside and inside The Salvation Army. So, when the CSS began seven years ago, I auditioned and got in, and then Major Len Ballantine wanted me to be the deputy leader. When I look back, I can see the progression from when I was a kid until now, and I have felt God’s hand in it. I can recall one moment that really inspired me, when I was 14 years old at Beaver Creek Camp in Saskatchewan, and Len Ballantine was the musical guest. That changed my life because he brought music that I wasn’t used to hearing in The Salvation Army. It was more contemporary. That’s when I caught the bug and became even more involved with music in the Army. I was really humbled when I was asked to take on the role of leader of the staff songsters.
What is your vision for the CSS going forward?
We need to make connections and reach out to more young people. We need to stay relevant. At many of our concerts, we have an older crowd who enjoy the older music. But I want to look at how we can get young people interested in hearing more from the staff songsters.
And one of my visions, too, is not just to mentor leaders in other corps but to mentor leaders within our own group. We have a lot of leaders within the staff songsters. It’s great that they have a place where they can come and sing, and then they can go back to their corps feeling inspired and excited about leading their own groups.
I was first mentored by Len Ballantine at music camp when I was 14 years old. I don’t think he realized at that time what an impact that made on me. So, I think that it is important that the CSS continue to go to music camps and different events where we have an opportunity to mentor others.
I’ve had people come up to me over the years and tell me that God has used me to make an impact on their lives and it is really humbling. That kind of mentorship is important to people.
How do you envision continuing and building upon the tradition set out by Major Len Ballantine under your own leadership? How do you balance honouring this tradition with the goal of staying relevant?
Len has done such an incredible job of establishing this group. And now we must think, Where do we see ourselves fitting into The Salvation Army of today and in the future? What do we look like and how do we present ourselves?
Last year, for example, we did a weekend at Etobicoke Temple in Toronto. And instead of doing a regular Saturday night concert, we did a dinner theatre. We had a meal, we sat with people and we sang between courses. It’s being able to step out of some of the traditions of just singing a concert on Saturday night and being willing to adapt to wherever we are and whoever our audience is.
Music ministry has the power to change people’s lives. Could you share any personal experiences or stories that highlight this impact in your own life or the lives of those around you?
For me, music is my whole passion. As a music teacher, I am immersed in music every day. But when we add Scripture into these melodies and rich harmonies, it’s even more powerful.
Music can bring comfort, healing and strength. It encourages us, excites us and challenges us, and it’s great for our mental health. Even in our rehearsals, I can see the group is moved as we sing. You can see it in their expressions. Once, when I was leading the songsters in Mississauga, we were in the middle of a rehearsal when somebody stepped down from their seat and knelt at the altar. If we can be that for each other, and if we feel that ourselves while singing and practising, then I believe that God really will pour out his Spirit when we’re in front of people. If we are right with God, it translates into what we do.
Can you describe some of the challenges you anticipate as the new leader of the CSS, and how you plan to face this?
A challenge for me is going to be encouraging youth. It’s a challenge just to get people to come out to concerts—I don’t think people go to concerts as much anymore—and to figure out the best way to reach people.
I was on the faculty at National, now Territorial Music School (TMS), for more than 30 years. I talked to some kids at TMS and some of them just don’t want to become soldiers now, which is still a requirement to be in the group. So, we need to ask what things are holding younger people back from even wanting to be part of a group like the CSS.
My heart goes out to some of the young people in the divisional youth chorus under my leadership whom I have spoken to, who had aged out of that youth chorus and there was nowhere for them to go next. But on the other hand, we do need to maintain who we are and what we represent. There’s just that question of, who’s missing out?
What is in store for the future of the CSS? How can Salvationists support this?
In the short term, the group itself is getting comfortable with me as the leader, which I think is already happening and it’s been great. Len was the leader for seven years and I have learned so much from him, but I also want to make my mark on the group and choose repertoire that I am comfortable with and that I feel will push us forward. It’s important that we maintain the level of excellence that Len has established within the group while we continue to minister where we can, be encouragers and help mentor leaders and singers wherever we go.
Salvationists can support us by praying for our ministry and praying for the direction that we go in. They can come out to hear us and see our ministry for themselves and learn what we’re all about.