Hannah Cruse was still in high school when she landed her first position as music director at a church.

“I attended a Presbyterian church in my small hometown in Arkansas,” she said. “Almost everyone there was of retirement age, including the organist.”

When the organist retired, Cruse learned how to play the organ and stepped in. By the end of high school, she was the church’s music director.

“That was a formative experience that sparked a love for sacred music for me,” she said. “I learned an appreciation of what music can be, beyond just performance and enjoyment, which is how the secular world looks at music.”

Hannah came to SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts to pursue her undergraduate degree in oboe and organ performance. While there, she realized that Perkins’ Sacred Music program was the best place for the next phase of her education.

“I got to know Chris Anderson a little bit while taking an improvisation class with him,” she said. “When he learned about my interest in sacred music, he encouraged me to check out the Master of Sacred Music (M.S.M.) degree program.”

She discovered that Perkins’ program offered the right mix of theological study and music for her. Cruse will graduate in May.

“I didn’t see many other programs that have same balance between theology and music that Perkins has,” she said. “Perkins’ M.S.M. is not just a performance degree, it’s also an academic degree. My feeling is that you can’t separate the two if you’re going to work on the music staff in a church setting.”

At Perkins, she’s taking the same basic courses in theology as M.Div. students, such as Old Testament, New Testament, Christian heritage and Christian worship, as well as courses designed specifically for M.S.M. students that link theology and music, such as classes in hymnology, ritual studies and the history of music in the church. She’s also a member of the Seminary Singers choir and takes organ lessons and music theory.

On top of her school work, Cruse serves as music director and organist at West Plano Presbyterian Church, which she describes as a small but liturgically minded church. The church is a member congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that worships in the Reformed liturgical tradition; the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. David Batchelder, is a liturgical scholar.

While her exact career plans aren’t yet final, Cruse says she’s very interested in composition.

“I arrange a lot of pieces for the choir, and I see a number of little niches that need compositions,” she said. She noted a need for cyclical songs, new psalmody and a wider array of anthems for choirs of different sizes and ability levels.

As music director, Cruse especially enjoys finding music that works in the liturgy, blending and expanding the teaching and accompanying ritual action.

“Liturgy is the embodiment of worship in community,” she said. “I look for music that enhances the liturgy and help it move forward.”

Cruse cites 1 Corinthians 13:1 as a guiding principle in work in sacred music: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

“It’s the same reason why music is so important, other than just for enjoyment,” she said. “That love has to be there all the time – or music can turn into a ‘me, me, me’ performance kind of thing.”