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Beginning conductors: Tips for Organists learning to be Choirmasters

Date: Fri, 25 Jul 1997 13:37:23 -0400
From: "Lee S. Spear"
Subject: Wisdom from the Web - compilation (long)


As promised, here is the compilation of the ideas submitted per my
request for "Wisdom from the Web" -- choral directing tips for
organists. These were presented to participants in the Choral Technique
workshop of the AGO Region II convention in Buffalo last month.

Lee Spear


As a choral musician, I found the most important aspect is attention to
the quality of sound. An organist needs to understand the unique
qualities of the voice, and teach the choir to use their voices in
beautiful, healthy ways. Obviously, this is an enormous subject, but
I'd suggest a couple of places to start:
1. Really listen to the intrinsic sound of the choir. Is it focused,
flabby, pushed, lethargic, etc? Is the sound really connected to the
breath? If you need help in identifying the major vocal strengths and
weaknesses of your choir, seek out a fine choral person in the
community. Ask them to come listen to the choir and identify the 3
major strengths of the group and the 3 major weaknesses. Get
suggestions on improving the sound - step by step processes for building
the sound you want.
2. Set some goals for the choir to work on - "For the next three
we're going to focus on improving our posture and breathing technique"
or "We're going to spend time purifying our vowels, sharpening our
Share the goals with the choir, and spend time each week on exercises
toward these goals. Imperative - connect the exercises to the
literature being learned and performed. Singers want to improve.
Sometimes we get so concerned about making the music, learning the
notes, etc. that we neglect "the basic sound" of the choral instrument.
Got to go - good luck to you!
Pam Schneller, Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee
From: Morna Edmundson
In the end, everything you do - from the way you choose repertoire,
structure warmups and rehearsals to your conducting gestures - should
inspire confidence in your singers to sing their very best, connect
personally with the music, and to strive to do even better next time.
After all, when showtime comes, we are up there making not a sound...
Looks like a neat project. Looking forward to the compilation!
Morna Edmundson
Phone: (604) 589-2300
Fax: (604) 589-2308
==========From: llauderd(a) (Lynne Lauderdale)
I am an organist/pianist/administrator for a music department/choral
director for the UWF Singers/piano and organ professor. I have learned
a great deal on the bench, as a director, and in voice/piano/organ
lessons. I admire your project and wish you well. I would like to offer
a few bits of wisdom I have gained in my positions.
1. (I don't know if you will be addressing those who are only
organists and working with a Minister of Music or not) If you are
addressing those who must work under/with a minister of music, there are
plenty of things I could say, since that has been the majority of my
church organist experience; however, I will say one most important
thing, and that is, there must be mutual respect between the two,
minister and organist.
If there is not, or there is any intimidation on either side, then
someone needs to leave! I work with a very fine Minister of Music who
is as much a perfectionist as I am. We did have some difficulty at
first because he does not have a doctorate (don't know why that bothered
him), and had had a very trying time with the organist at the church
where he worked previously. I think he may have formed an opinion of
all organists from this one person, and, ultimately, it took us about
two years to be totally comfortable working with each other because of
his Napoleon attitude. That all changed when he realized what a
contribution I make, and that music ministry is the reason I work in the
church in the first place. So, rapport and common goals are very
2. If you are not addressing the above subject, you should,
since many of us are in similar positions (Baptist, Methodist,
Presbyterian, etc.)
3. As for choral directing by an organist, if the organist has
not taken voice lessons at any time in life, or sung in choirs (there
are some out there!), then those experiences are a must. There is no
way a keyboard person can be sympathetic to, or know how to communicate
with people who like to sing unless they have done so themselves.
4. Committment to the purpose of their position at the church
should be utmost. Being an organist or organist/choir director is not
just a job; it must be a part of your life's calling. I could never
continue in any of my positions unless I felt that I had been 'set
aside' for those purposes.
There is much more I could say, but it has been a long week and day. If
you would like me to come up with some more, I would be happy to. Your
topic is very interesting to me in my fields of service.
Lynne A. Lauderdale
AGO Pensacola, Executive Committee
The University of West Florida
Organist, First Baptist Church
===========From: Sixthmuse(a)
Try to understand the psychological dynamics of the choir very early in
the game. Learn the political relationships of members, congregation and
pastor. Then work to establish yourself with all three groups as THE
respected, musical expert.
Best Wishes!
Elizabeth Angilette
===== From: Rb9587(a)
In response to your request, I am a trained choral director who has
played the organ for an Episcopal church for twenty-two years, and I
feel that the most important point that an organist working with a
church choir must remember is that the text is the most important part
of the music the choir (and the congregation) will sing. Everything
that the organist does should be done to enhance the meaning of the
====== From: David Schildkret
I have three suggestions:
1. I think it important for all conductors to realize that most people
do their best work in conditions of positive support, not negative
criticism. I work very hard to show no frustration in rehearsals, as
long as people are making a sincere effort (which they usually are).
Temper tantrums, once the stock-in-trade of choral conductors, should
be extremely rarely used, if at all. They are almost always
counter-productive. Music should always take place in an atmosphere of
joyful hard work.
2. Fix one problem at a time. While you may hear six problems, do not
offer a laundry list of criticisms. The observant conductor will note
that only the last item on the list tends to get fixed. So focus on the
problems one at a time for the most efficient rehearsal.
3. While you are correcting the choir, be thinking about what you
could do in your conducting to prevent the same thing from happening
again. In other words, you are as responsible for what goes wrong (or
right!) as the choir is. Don't only fix the choir, fix yourself. Or to
put it scripturally, while you're telling them about the splinter in
their collective eye, be removing the log from your own.
David Schildkret phone:
Director, Salem College School of Music
e-mail: schildkret(a)
================================== From: Judith Conrad
Don't accompany all the time; give the basses a chance to be basic
frequently, and make sure everybody gets a chance to hear what they
actually sound like.
Judith Conrad, Clavichord Player
Church Musician at First Congregational Church
281 High Street, Bristol Rhode Island
======From: "Barbara D. Lee"
Breathe with the singers.
Be sensitive to the volume of the human voices as compared to organ
"voices" and match stops to the quality/style of the music.
Remember that the voice is an instrument and needs to be taught
techniques just like other instruments. It may sound redundant, but
most choir members need to be taught to breathe correctly for singing,
and to opentheir mouths. They also need to learn to support their
tone. Finding warm-ups that can teach these things will greatly enhance
their sound.
Use humor in rehearsal.
Remember that most people are tired at the end of the day. By the end
of the rehearsal, they should feel rejuvinated if you want them to keep
coming back.
I have been an organist, vocalist and choir director for many years. It
is great fun. Enjoy!
=====Dear Lee,
As one who teaches both organists and choir directors on the
university level, I would stress to organists the importance of
BREATHING with singers. Too many organists who have never sung
themselves forget about this aspect of singing. They also forget about
it in their organ playing. Stravinsky once said he hated the pipe organ
because the "damn thing never has to breathe." Well, he undoubtedly had
heard organists play without any kind of phrasing for years. And many
organists STILL play that way--totally legato with almost no phrasing.
By breathing with the singers, an organist's accompaniments will be
much more effective. His organ playing may improve after a time too.
David Tovey
Ohio State University
From: MLycanclef(a)
=============Do simple things well. If your choir can sing a Gregorian chant, a
Psalm to a harmonized Psalm tone, and a Bach chorale in tune and
beautifully *a cappella*, then you can work them up to just about
anything. If they can't do that yet, work on relaxation, breathing,
tone, and diction--with easy materials--until they can.
Best wishes,
Mary Lycan
====Dear Lee,
My submission is:
Balance your musicianship and high standards with a sincere interest in
choir member's spiritual journey, joys and sorrows, triumphs and
weaknesses. Be a pastor.
Susan Onderdonk St. George's Episcopal Church Fredericksburg, Virginia
==== From: miolsson(a) (Milton Olsson)
1. Don't lead with the keyboard.
2. Develop your choir's vocal technique and give close attention to
clarity and unity of pronunciation and diction.
Thanks for asking.
Milton Olsson
President, ACDA-Michigan
===============From: Dan Golden
Remember that you are there to support the choir, not the other way
around. If you're looking for strokes for your own ego, then you have
no business accompanying anything. Stick with solo work.
Dan Golden
San Francisco
Organist, St. Bede's Episcopal Church, Menlo Park
Baritone (and occasional Accompanist), San Francisco Symphony Chorus
==== From: "Felip E. Holbrook"
Everything with singers revolves around the breath. Breathe with them,
especially with the pedal.
======= From: sihuston(a) (Huston, Shelley I.)
Volunteer choirs need laughter (gentle humor or laughing at oneself
rather than constant jokes), a small amount of time to chat
occasionally, freedom to support each other when there is a part
problem, a comfort level which allows them to ask for help, immediate
reinforcement after performance, tolerance of inevitable glitches (with
the understanding that next time will be better), help with voice
production, adequate time to learn the music and rehearsals that are
organized but not stressful (planning).
Organist/director/conductor egos must be left at the door with those of
soloists. Volunteers need to feel needed. As long as they have a stake
in the program, they will be very reliable and supportive. When they
leave, they are telling the musician something very important. It hurts
but intense honest counseling may be in order at that point.
>From a lifelong chorister who happens to be directing a church choir this year
- Shelley Huston, sihuston(a)
on July 8, 2005 10:00pm
Please send more information to me on how to handle a choral group professionaly and schemes on how to teach piano and classical music.
on March 22, 2007 10:00pm
I point that I forgot to mention in my last writing was about extrovert characters within a group and so called attention seekers. How is the best way to stop members from trying to dominate and sing louder than the rest of the choir if nicely mentioning it to them doest work? I feel my authority in leading the group is being undermined by certain members behaviour. Suggestions PLEASE.
on March 22, 2007 10:00pm
I find all the above comments very interesting. I decided last year to get a group of experiencedchoir singers to rehearse with the idea of doing charity concerts with songs suitable for various audiences. We did about twelve entertainments and carols at Christmas, which went very well and resulted in further bookings. The problem is to get all the ladies to commit and meet on a regular basis to learn new material. It doesnt work to phone each one and ask which day suits them and equally hopeless booking the rehearsaal room and stating there will be a rehearsal on that particular date. It seems such a pity as we have some lovely material to work on. What do you suggest? There are about twelve ladies and three men.
on April 4, 2007 10:00pm
all of this has been very helpful to me. I majored in piano and organ performance in college and have been an accompanist pretty much all of my life--our church is a small Presbyterian U.S.A. church that has always had a very good music program with a professional choral director as well as an organist but now that our last director has gone off to graduate school I felt led to tackle being an organist/choral director. We have a small choir, varying in musical tastes and abilities, and most of them do not read music. I am hoping to be able to teach them to sight read. It has been a challenge to try to direct and play at the same time but they have been wonderful. The best thing about our choir is that they are willing to try just about anything, from classical to spirituals to some of the contemporary music or a simple accapella hymn and one of the young couples that sings with us brings their 8 month old baby and 5 year old son to rehearsals and every once in while the 5 year old will pick up on a melody. He will be playing in the corner of the choir room with his cars, but you can hear him singing with the choir and that is priceless.