Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Proper Care and Feeding of a Choir...Part 1

Well here you go..."the list".  Or at least the first part of it.

If you missed the first post...Here is the introduction that explains "the list"

Introduction to Proper Care and Feeding of a Choir.

I struggled with how to do this since some items on the list require pretty detailed explanations...

I decided to go point by point with explanation as I go.

It will probably make for a rather unwieldy list, but that format seems to work the best for me.


Point 1:  Decide that you want a choir rather than song leaders.

In case you aren't sure what the difference is...I would say...standards and preparation.

For some reason churches have developed the attitude that everyone is welcome to join the choir. That way no one gets their feelings hurt.

That's song leaders, not a choir.

Great music does NOT just happen.

It requires a certain degree of musical ability on the part of the singers, good direction, and adequate rehearsal.

Not everyone can sing well.  It's not mean or uncharitable to say so, that is a demonstrable fact. 

Now that doesn't mean that you have to be a professional vocal musician to join the choir.

In fact, I enthusiastically encourage people with no previous experience to join the church choir.

If God gave you the ability to sing I can think of no better place to develop that talent than in service to Him.

It's been my experience that a church choir is a very supportive environment in which to develop vocal skill.

What it does mean however, is that the person wanting to join needs to be able to match pitch.

Matching pitch is the ability to sing a note played on the piano or sung by someone else.

It is absolutely essential in a choir situation, since one person singing off pitch will throw off the entire chord.

When there is a wrong note, it's heard and that discourages the rest of the choir, not to mention the assault on the ears of those listening.

How do you find out if someone can match pitch?
Point 2:  Hold Auditions.

If everyone can match pitch, then everyone gets in.

If someone auditions and can't match pitch, offer to work with them privately for a few weeks.

For most, that will be all the additional work required.  Very few people are truly tone deaf.

If a person can't match pitch after you've worked with them, then and only then, charitably suggest that they should seek another way to serve the church.

This is not being mean.  It's being fair to everyone, including the person that can't sing well.

It's a lot more cruel to lie to someone and discourage the rest of the choir than it is to be up front.

Holding auditions also lets people know that you take music seriously and therefore...so should they.  It will set the right tone for all your future efforts to build a good choral program.

Point 3:  Show that you value the time of your choir members.

People are extremely busy.

So if you want people to join and stay in your choir program, it is most essential that you consistently demonstrate that you appreciate the value of their time.

How can you do that?

A.  Have a plan.

Sit down with your pastor and any other members of the sacred music team (all at the same time and in the same room preferably), and write down a plan.

With any journey, if you have a map, you are much less likely to get lost.

Discuss, decide on and write down, your goals for this week, this month, the next six months, the next year and the next five years. (I'll throw out some suggestions for a plan after I'm done with the list.)

Understand that this plan may change a bit as you go, and further refine your goals or perhaps reach them earlier than anticipated.  But it is absolutely essential that you have a basic written framework.

For one thing, it will help you discern which professional opportunities are helpful in reaching your goals and which are not.  That will help you with time and money management.

Additionally, if you have a plan to share with your choir, you foster a team-spirit that is going to do nothing but aid you in building and maintaining a quality choral program.

Human nature being what it is, people are usually willing to work towards a goal they can see and understand.

Very few are willing to put effort into anything that they can't see the purpose of.

Even fewer people are going to put effort into something that begins again at the beginning every September.

B. Be completely prepared BEFORE you walk into a rehearsal.

If you need to use sheet music in addition to the hymnal, print it out the day before, and have it in the folders or binders that your choir members use.  Make sure the choir loft and or rehearsal space is in order and ready to go.  Have all music for accompaniment laid out in order and ready to go.

If you are a composer, make sure your composition is complete before rehearsal.  If it isn't, then put it aside for another time.

As a choir member, there is nothing more irritating to me than making the effort to be on time to a rehearsal, only to watch the person in charge scurry around getting ready for the first fifteen minutes.

It says to me that they feel as though their time is more important than mine.  Which is rather rude if you think about it. 

C.  Be early to rehearsal.

As a choir director, be in the rehearsal space at least 15 minutes before anyone else is expected.  This allows you time to ensure that everything is in order for the rehearsal, it also gives you time to collect yourself and prepare mentally.

Taking that little bit of time will enable you to greet your choir members as they come in and perhaps engage in a bit of socializing before the rehearsal starts.  It will also make you available to any member that has a question, without intruding on rehearsal time.

While you are socializing make sure you keep an eye on the clock.

At beginning time, call the choir to order and begin.  Which leads to the next point.

D.  Begin on time, every time.

This practice serves several purposes.

It shows respect for the people who arrived on time.

It reminds those who are tardy that being punctual is important, both for themselves so they don't miss something, and out of respect for the other members of the choir and you.

It also gives you the ability to address a situation of consistent tardiness without being hypocritical.

It makes the most of the rehearsal time, which helps the choir to be adequately prepared for the Mass.

Last but not least, it's orderly.  God is a God of order and humans always do better when we attempt to follow His example in all things.

I think I'll stop here, that's a lot to think about...I'll continue in the next post.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Wonderful post. To wit: Music is a real profession and it is always aggrivating when musicians don't act professionally even when it is a volunteer gig. When they don't act professional, they don't get treated professionally. So, every musician has to deal with people with the attitude that they'll pay you when they get around to it. Try that with your car loan and see what you get.

  2. Wonderful but all this depends also on who's in charge. Our organist is not a choir director. She accepts people like we are song leaders but tries to have us do pieces as if we are a choir. It can be very frustrating.

    1. I've belonged to choirs like that and I completely agree, it can be very frustrating for everyone involved.

      Sometimes it's simply a lack of knowledge that leads to those kinds of situations.

      If you think she would be receptive...send your organist the link to the blog.

      She sounds like the sort of person I'm trying to help. Wants to do well, but lacks the training.

      If she's willing you should advocate for her to the pastor. It's in the best interest of the parish that she know what she's doing...perhaps they can subsidize training for her...tuition assistance, sending her to the Colloquium etc...

  3. This is all very sound advice. Choir members need to be treated with respect and in my experience as a choir trainer if you respect the choir's time and efforts (with lots of honest praise, not soaping up!) the choir will respond in kind. When I ask for extra time, I get it, because the choir knows that I will not waste it or take it for granted.

    With respect to auditions, I tend to not call them auditions, but rather describe it as an opportunity to evaluate singers for proper placement. On those rare occasions when a singer simply can't match pitch despite their best efforts, then it becomes a difficult but necessary duty to encourage them to offer their time in other endeavors. In most cases, it becomes a self-selecting exercise, and when someone who is truly ill-equipped to participate in the choir begins to realize that for themselves, they'll figure out a way to bow out of the group carefully and in a way that preserves their dignity.

    With boys and girls choirs in particular, the screening process evaluates not only the chorister's ability to match pitch, but more importantly their ability to respond to instruction. If they have a gleam in their eye, and respond to my rather eccentric sense of humor, they're bound to become truly outstanding contributors to the growth of the program.

    Well done on your insights, Wendi!