Advice on the care and feeding of the church choir
For many choir directors getting people to sign up isn’t the problem. Getting them to stick with their commitment is. Choirs that are loosely organized, that don’t have a clear mandate and purpose, that lack an enthusiastic and creative director, often fade away before Christmas.
In the paragraphs that follow, Brent Assink, minister of music at Calvary CRC in Minneapolis, offers seven guidelines that should help choir directors develop and nurture longer-lasting, better-sounding choirs.
1 Establish a consistent time and style of rehearsal.
Before you decide on a rehearsal time, do some research. Find out when most of those who might be interested in singing can attend and when the practice room is available. Once you have determined the best time for your choir rehearsal—Sunday afternoon, for example—stick with it. You may lose some members at first, but in the long run both you and the choir will benefit from a regular time of rehearsal.
The main function of the church choir is to lead God’s people in praise and worship. However, many choir members may judge the worth of their participation not only by their contribution to worship, but also by the content and value of rehearsals. As a result, it is critical that you establish a consistent style of rehearsing.
In my church we have tried to run rather intensive rehearsal with little opportunity for conversation. This style has a double benefit: members tend to learn more music in a shorter period of time and to look back at the rehearsal hour with a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
2 Select your repertoire with care.
Selecting music is in many ways the most creative and rewarding part of leading a choir. It is also among the most challenging. It’s important to know the abilities of your choir and to test and expand those abilities with a range of repertoire. Overloading your choir with too much difficult music can be just as demoralizing as singing the simplest hymn arrangements week after week. If you have very few men, don’t be afraid to use the vast repertoire available in S-A-B format. But be aware that the baritone line moves around a great deal and may be somewhat difficult as a result.
The Reformed tradition encompasses a tremendous variety of musical expression—as is evident from the content of several new hymnals. Acquaint yourself with the choral literature based on the tunes in these new hymnals. Also, watch for ways to vary expressions of praise. At Calvary we strive to balance selections from the music of Handel and Bach with some of the contemporary anthems of composers such as Hal Hopson and John Ness Beck. The difference in musical styles is pleasing to members of the choir and the congregation—resulting in more meaningful worship. As long as the lyrics express a world-and-life view consistent with that stated from the pulpit, your music can explore the full range of expression available.
3 Expect a great deal from your choir.
Challenge your choir both through the repertoire you select and the role you design for them as worship leaders. In September, provide them with a tentative schedule of what and when they will be singing between mid-September and Christmas. Try to give them a sense of their ability to contribute to worship in both special and regular services through carefully selected hymns and anthems. With the cooperation of the pastor, consistently explain to the choir why they are singing, what they are singing, and when.
After a time, the choir will develop a momentum of its own and learn to keep its finger on the pulse of the congregation. For example, singing an anthem for baptism becomes more meaningful when choir members have been notified several weeks in advance and have the opportunity to express in a unique way their welcome to the newest member of God’s covenant family. Through such experiences the choir begins to realize more fully its awesome responsibility to God and the congregation.
4 Recognize that your choir members are volunteers.
Service as a choir member involves a major time commitment, so be sure to offer your choir as much encouragement as possible. Pass on meaningful comments made by members of the congregation, thereby letting the choir know that it is having a positive impact on the congregation’s spiritual life. For our choir, this realization is much more satisfying (and appropriate) than applause from the congregation or a compliment from the pulpit. It reinforces the efforts of the choir to serve as a conduit through which the congregation finds a new vocabulary of praise and worship.
Make it as easy as possible for choir members to attend rehearsals. Publish a rehearsal schedule months in advance, provide a nursery, serve coffee, and ensure that the church is at a comfortable temperature.
Conversely, make it inconvenient for them to stay away: insist on being notified if a member will not be able to attend a rehearsal. Choir members will soon learn that you consider each one’s participation crucial and significant enough to warrant this procedure.
5 Offer choir members time off.
Because so many people are already too busy in today’s society, the “seasonal choir” approach with Sunday morning rehearsals may be the only way some congregations can keep a choir going. Many people who are unable to take part in a year-round choir may be willing to make a six-week commitment for the Advent-Christmas choir and then perhaps another limited commitment at Easter time.
But even in churches that can sustain a full-time choir, time off for choir members is important. At Calvary, we accomplish this in two ways. From June through August we do not hold regular rehearsals. Instead we meet briefly before the service to rehearse simple hymns and anthems or selections that we have learned and rehearsed earlier in the year. During the regular choir season we provide relief by breaking up the chain of Wednesday rehearsals with an occasional women’s chorus or men’s chorus rehearsal.
6 Be prepared.
Choir members are apt to give more of themselves in rehearsals if you walk in knowing what you are going to rehearse, what you want by the end of the rehearsal, and how you’re going to get it. If you demand much of your members, demand more of yourself. It should be obvious that you’ve carefully considered the choir’s schedule, repertoire, and overall role in the life of the church.
In addition, be prepared for unforseen circumstances. At Calvary, it seems our ranks are thinned by illness every March. I always make sure we have several easy anthems in our folders in reserve so that even with reduced numbers we can take part in the service.
7. Set high standards.
Do all you can to see that the choir consistently sings at its best possible level. If you relax, everyone else will too, and the choir’s sense of accomplishment and contribution will suffer. If necessary, postpone an ill-prepared anthem. Switch from three-part anthems to two-part. The choir will come to appreciate consistent standards for quality, particularly if expectations are clearly defined.
Participation in a vibrant, enthusiastic church choir can be an extraordinarily rewarding and spiritually enriching experience. Through careful planning and a realistic assessment of the strengths of choir members, the director can lead the choir into a fruitful and meaningful relationship with the congregation of which it is a part and the God whom it glorifies.
Brent is minister of music at Calvary CRC in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and manager of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (Saint Paul, Minn.)