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Problem with soloists/solos in church choir music?

I have a chorister who has told me REPEATEDLY that she hates when there are solos in our church choir music, even for special events like cantatas or concerts.  She says that isn't really choral music.  I have asked her (not sarcastically) what it is, then, but she said she didn't know, it just wasn't choral music.  She hasn't defined what the cut-off is - is there a problem with duets, trios, or quartets?  How about a descant?  How about the final chord that has a high C and I only want one person to sing it?  Is that a solo?  I don't want to ask these questions because I'm frankly tired of the discussion and because I think she will think I'm being flippant.  Because she has brought it up so often to me, I believe she would like me to say that I agree with her, which I'm not going to do, because I don't agree.  So now she is saying that she is just going to not sing whenever we sing a song or a cantata that has a solo in it.  If I even bring up the possibility of a solo in a piece in discussion - even if we haven't made a decision - she will get up and leave rehearsal and go home.  She will not sing on the following Sunday - she doesn't bother to find out whether we decided to do solos or not.  I think this is her way of trying to force my hand and make me decide to never do music with solos.  I refuse to do this, because I actually think solos are nice sometimes.  Especially in cantatas, where Mary and Joseph have specific parts, or in songs where the rhythms are such that they would sound bad with a larger group.  Since I have not really "reacted" to her statement, I am sensing that her next step will be to tell me that she is quitting choir. 
I do not think she wants a solo; I don't believe that is what this is about.  However, she has mentioned once in passing that it seems like the soloists are "more special" than the other singers, or get more attention.  I don't know if that's her main issue with the solos or not.  I really make every effort to treat my choristers equally, but even though I offer the solo opportunities to everyone, it does seem like the same group of people volunteer for them.  Sometimes I do choose, because there are only certain voices that will sound right.  Either way, I have found that the choir as a whole tends to really enjoy all of our music, with and without solos.  They cheer the soloists on, and some of the pieces with solos are their favorites.  I love that I have solo singers - it's another way to build confidence within the group. 
I really can't afford to have her quit; we are very small as it is, and despite my best efforts, recruiting just doesn't seem to work well in our church (this is actually a larger problem throughout the church in every ministry).  Any ideas as to what to say to her?  I am finding myself reluctant to do songs with solos now, and stressed about picking music...
Thanks, everyone!
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on October 13, 2010 11:46am
Based on what you are saying, that the choir as a whole tends to really enjoy all of the music, and that they cheer the soloists on, etc., you are better off without this person in your choir.  I would tell her that she either drop her protests (including walking out of rehearsals and not showing up on the following Sunday) or she is out.  Do you have a sense as to why the other choristers joined the choir and continue to sing?  Perhaps they can assist you with recruiting by sharing with others their reasons for singing in the choir and encouraging others to come to a rehearsal with them to just check it out.
Best wishes,
Matt Jenkins
Music Teacher
Kings Local School District
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 13, 2010 12:42pm
Hi Marybeth,
I'm sorry that the stressful job of church musician is being made more stressful for you by this singer who seems to be fixated on one issue. If you ever sense that dispassionate information might help the discussion, I'd suggest reminding the singer that the practice of integrating soloists within sacred choral music dates back throughout the history of sacred music, and has been used by composers as diverse as Bach and Handel and John W. Peterson and David Clydesdale. It is severely limiting to a church music leader if they can only choose from among pieces, especially extended works, that never utilize soloists.
If the conversation is still going, I'd go next to the topic of stewardship. I believe strongly that the role of the church music leader includes being "stewardship director" for all the delightful and resourceful musical gifts that have been placed within a congregation. Since singing involves both talent and education/experience, some musicians offer gifts that can best be utilized through the singing of more difficult music, including solo passages. Others are best utilizing their gifts by combining with other voices and remaining within the realm of easier composition and ensemble singing. For the church and its musicians to thrive, it is necessary for everyone to express their giftedness, and it is the role of the leader to offer appropriate opportunities for them to do so. Likewise, it is necessary for the church to follow the leadership of the person gifted to guide the music program. You are being the best steward possible of the church's musical gifts if you are carefully offering musical opportunities that match the abilities of the whole variety of your singers, and if your leadership is being followed by a willing choir and congregation.
And sometimes there are singers that you can just do without.
Best wishes,
Terre Johnson
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 13, 2010 1:36pm
It is just possible, and I write as a complete stranger here, that the issue is not originally concerned with music. If that is true, then you may prefer never to know what is at the root. One of your pastoral team may have a better chance of discussing it, if your singer agrees, and it can be kept confidential. I repeat, this is a guess on my part. It may yet be a genuine dislike of solo voices.
One choir I sang in operated a rota. We said how often we could make it, and the director accommodated our wishes. If we couldn't sing when called, it was then our job to find a deputy. Would you consider leaving your singer off the rota when you programmed a solo? It could allow her to continue giving something when she feels able, however seldom. It may also mean that some other recruits, unable to commit to the full schedule, could step forward.
I hope you can still work something out.
on October 13, 2010 3:44pm
You are allowing yourself, your choir and congregation to be held hostage by an ill-informed diva. Perhaps your clegy should become involved in the discussion (or not) in the appropriatness of offering a variety of musical experiences. Perhaps I improperly infer that your's is not a liturgical church with intoned Psalms between cantor (a soloist) and congregation/choir. This practice has been occuring even before Christianity. No, a soloist is not the very diffinition of "Choral" music but a soloist in church is certainly not profane.
and then, there is my saying...One God, One Faith, One Choir Director
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 13, 2010 8:47pm
Marybeth:  It seems like just when we think we have human beings figured out, somebody comes up with something that is so completely off the wall that no sane person would ever have thought of it!  The definition of "choral music" that your chorister seems fixated on has NEVER been an accepted one in any tradition I can think of.  In fact for many centuries (like about 15 of them!) the church "choir" never sang anything except unison chant, while all the new and challenging developments in music were sung by soloists.  As a generalization, it wasn't until the early 15th century that harmonized music started being sung with more than one singer on a part.
As to choosing and/or rotating soloists, you always have to strike a balance between being absolutely open to hearing anyone audition and pre-casting soloists because you know already who can do the best job.  The man I inherited my university show ensemble from always had his designated soloists, and no one else need apply.  I took a very different tack, and REQUIRED everyone with the proper vocal range to audition for EVERYTHING.  It generally took my rookies about half a year to realize that an audition is a performance, and that the veterans who were getting the solos sang every audition full-out, no hold barred.  And then the rookies started getting some of those solos.  That policy guaranteed that I could discover hidden talents, and I could encourage students who weren't quite ready but obviously would be.  And I agree that it's a terrific confidence builder.
But I have to take issue with your statement that you "can't affort to have her quit."  It sounds more as if you can't afford to have her stay, as long as she insists on obsessing on something that's a complete non-issue to everyone else.  (And I do assume that that's the case.)  There will ALWAYS be someone who can step up when needed, and it isn't always the person you would have expected it to be.  Your choir sound might change, and you might have to adapt, but it's a fact of life that no one is irreplaceable (the entire military Table of Organization is based on that simple premise), and sometimes it's simply necessary to bite the bullet let someone go if they can't fit in.  Or in your case, perhaps to simply tell her that you are going to remain open to using solo voices, and that if she doesn't want to sing under those circumstances she might be happier finding another choir.
Hang in there!!!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 14, 2010 4:14am
First I would say that (1) I have always done some music with solo parts and have no issues with doing so, and (2) I greatly appreciate John's many contributions to this list. But I must take exception to his use of terminology such as "so completely off the wall" and "no sane person...", just because it's not understood. I happen to have had a similar person in one of my choirs, and her argument was completely logical and based on her concept of theology. She felt that worship was a corporate act of humility, and that solo music was a method of self-aggrandizement which had no place in worship. I would make an effort to understand the real motivation at play in the case originally mentioned. Now perhaps that person is "off the wall" or just being a diva, but I would seek more information before making that determination. If indeed this is the case, much of the advice given here would be appropriate. But if some other issues are involved, then the situation should be approached with much more respect.
on October 14, 2010 8:47am
Thanks for the gentle adminition, Lee, and you're correct.  It's just that I've been in similar situations (as apparently have quite a few of us), when something is brought up, out of the blue, that is incomprehensible to everyone else present.  That's what I would define as "off the wall."  It could also be called a "non sequitur"--that which does not follow.
And I'm certainly not qualified to psychoalysize such a person, nor should I be expected to.  As psychologists learned long ago, actions and statements are the only things that can be dealt with.  Thoughts and beliefs are locked up inside our minds, and can't be seen, felt, or measured.
Like it or not, we're all stuck in the middle of interpersonal relationships, and interpersonal communications, which makes us all applied psychologists whether we like it or not.  When a problem comes up, we have to solve it, not psychoanylize it.  If we COULD, then of course we SHOULD, but most of us  can't get much beyond urban legend and pop psycological fashions, and those aren't worth much when a disruptive factor suddenly appears.
All the best, John
on October 14, 2010 4:53am
In my years as a church musician, there has been from time to time an individual who has tried to control the music program by means of psychological warfare, and it seems to me that's what is going on here. Anyone who gets up and leaves rehearsal because of a certain piece is less than a team player, and often by their actions can really put a damper on the morale of the group.
I agree with what has been suggested; I think the underlying issue may have nothing to do with music. Or perhaps its roots are in an unfortunate childhood experience. I think many of us have been in situations in which self-appointed diva-soloists have claimed as their rightful possession any and all solo lines that ever come up, thereby squelching the possibility of anyone else contributing any solos, and that's an uncomfortable situation also. Maybe she has something like that in her background? Or does she the offspring of choir members and somehow  misinterpreted conversations she overheard as a child? (I had that situation once in a choir...)
It might be good to bring the pastoral staff in on this conversation in order to shift the perspective and hopefully hone in the issue.
Best of luck to you. I have been in similar circumstances, and it's not easy!
on October 14, 2010 6:26am
Much good advise has been given above ... all of it valid and it covers most of the understanding of why we intersperse full choral singing with the occasional solo.  Also, how dull the great choral repertoire would be without solo singers ... no Narrator or Jesus solos in the Passions of Bach?  Don't think so!  Contrast is one of the essential elements of music, and this juxtaposition of choir/soloist is a valid means of achieving that ... and most succefful if you look at all the popular literature.
I agree with several of our colleagues ... this person either wants to pick a fight for some unknown reason, and this is the manifestation point of that unrest or she's just off the wall on this issue ... is not going to change ... and you are best left without her. 
At various times I have tried to accomodate singers who had some 'issue' or wanted to quit for some odd reason and did all I could to keep them on board.  In the end, they left anyway, and to my continuing surprise ... life went on without them and in several cases made way for someone new and much more able in the wake.  Don't mess with her.  Tell her to either decide to be part of the choir or not ... but, choir are benign dictatorships and you are the Kaiser!  I joke with my choir that I am the only person in the room who loves every piece of music we do, because I wouldn't pick one I didn't like.  It's the nature of the job ... just do it and let the chips fall where they may.  Best of luck, and I hope this is not your pastor's wife!
on October 14, 2010 8:27am
"I have a chorister who has told me REPEATEDLY that she hates when there are solos in our church choir music, even for special events like cantatas or concerts.  She says that isn't really choral music."
Yes, she's right, a vocal solo is not "choral" per se. Neither is music for organ or handbells or other instruments, or even congregational singing. (Well, some might differ with that last example, but you know what I mean.) Unless your music ministry is specifically charged with presenting ONLY choral repertoire, then why not bring all musical gifts to worship?
I guess it's her choice whether to sing in the choir or not. But please, if she elects to stay in the choir, she must be a real member of the choir - and that means that you must not put up with her walking out during rehearsals or choosing which services she will sing in based on repertoire. If you tried to cater to the taste of every individual choir member, you'd have a mess. If you cater to this one person, you open the door to other choir members who would then have reasonable expecations that you would meet their personal tastes, as well. And if you cater to her without allowing others to pick and choose, you are setting up a situation where resentments will simmer and you might lose some of your good choristers.
You also said, "I really make every effort to treat my choristers equally, but even though I offer the solo opportunities to everyone, it does seem like the same group of people volunteer for them. " If you can, hire professional section leader-soloists - yes, they are treated differently, not because they're "special" or privileged, but because they are employees with specific responsibilities.
I sing in a church choir that has 5 professional section leader-soloists who take the solos within anthems and also present solo songs and arias on a rotating basis. Several of the volunteer singers are also very good and sometimes also are assigned to solo roles. There is no ego involved, no aggrandizement - just good music presented to uplift worship. Members of the congregation are very vocal in their appreciation of all the vocal and choral offerings. The minister of music manages all this so that it is clearly worship-focused, not person-focused. (No applause, ever, for example.)  I can't imagine that any member of the choir would challenge or second-guess the minister of music on his choices of repertoire or assignment of solos - that's his job, not ours.
This whole discussion echoes back to last week's issue of tardiness and chattiness. A chorister must, by definition, leave his or her ego at the door of the rehearsal room. (And leave it there on time,)
Sarah Hager Johnston
GraceNotes Music Research and Writing
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 14, 2010 5:30pm
Hi Marybeth,
I am wondering if there is more to the issue than the solos. Is it perhaps relating to the question of what is a choral music  (congregational) in a workship sense and what music is more performance oriented which just happens to be part of a worship service? Different faith traditions will have their own expectations or guidelines so I cannot speak to your situation.
Just wondering,
on October 15, 2010 10:52am
Hi Marybeth,
I am going to respond first as a chorister and then as a director.  As a chorister, I sometimes found it honestly disappointing to not be able to sing a portion of music that a soloist was singing.  It wasn't about wanting to sing the solo myself, but about cherishing that bit of music and being sad to not also sing that bit of music.  It didn't bother me when it was something I couldn't have sung, but if it was a beautiful melodic line in an anthem that I and all of us could have sung, I sometimes would sing it for myself at another time, alone in my chamber, or in the car on the way home.  I get that sense from some of my choir members, too, when such a thing occurs in one of our anthems.  The older I get, the more genuine pleasure I get in hearing someone else sing such things, but it wasn't always true.  I don't think it is the negative type of jealousy.  I just love beautiful music and have a life goal of singing as much of it as I can.  Also, sometimes music with a large portion of solos means that there is very litle for the choir to do.  Some folks come to sing, and not as much just to listen...that they can do from the pews.
As a director, I don't use solos much.  This is largely because in my church, participation by as many people, as much as possible, is a worship goal.  The continued deep and meaningful involvement of musicians in worship is a highly treasured value.  I look for repertoire that permits as much singing by as many people as possible.  I'm not certain I would get as many people to turn out for rehearsals and services if I didn't make their involvement meaningful.
Also, i have had some problem with assigning solos in the past.  I have probably four sopranos who can sing solos, well.  When I first came to this congregation, I would use soloists for the arias in some of the larger works.  I would ask the choir to let me know if they were interested in any of the solos, and to also let me know if they had interest in a particular solo.  At first this seemed to be going welll...most of the soloists indicated that they be happy to sing any of the solos, duets, trio, snd quartets, involved.  However, after I had assigned the solos, I had sopranos in tears telling me that clearly I did not like their voice as much as I liked someone else, because I gave the solo they had treasured to someone else.  So, I encouraged them to indicate their specific desires and I would try to work it out.  Again, there were tears because not everyone had been assigned their first choice.  I tried rotating the solos so that the next time that piece of music came around, it would be sung by someone else.  So then, they said that obviously I was not pleased with the way they had sung it the last time we used it.  I had always stated that it was my plan to give everyone as many opportunities as I could, and to share those opportunities among those who were interested in solos.  The response to that was that they "deserved" this solo or that one, because of any variety of things (loyalty to the choir, attendance, good nature in singing another solo which was not the one they wanted, etc.)  Ayi, yi, yi!
So, I rarely ustilize solos, except during the summertime.  People can sign up for a particular Sunday and we will mutually agree to a selection that is appropriate for that Sunday's worship.
Wtih regard to your specific situation, I would try to have a conversation with her with a pastor involved, if there is a postor who will support you.  I would let her know that her leaving has been very disruptive to the choir and to you.  I would ask her for the reason she comes to choir in the first place.  I would share your philosophy with her and then see where the two of you might have a connection.  I would ask her for her support in the decisions you make as a director, whether or not she agrees with them.
I would ask the pastor if there is a potential solution that he/she might suggest (do this before your conversation and then again within the conversation).  I would let her know that you greatly value her contribution when she is making it, but that the picking and choosing of when she participates needs to have a less disruptive way of taking place, if it takes place at all.  Stomping out of rehearsal, refusing to sing when there are solos, those are not very supportive or helpful attitudes.  She is trying to get you to do it "her way", which is not acceptable in this case.  If she cannot see herself participating without this sort of negative and disruptive behavior, I would thank her for her past service, let her know that the door is always open, but for now, she will not be able to sing with the choir if that is the behavior you can expect in the future.
Best of luck to you!  We have probably all had something at this annoyance level, I'm sure, but there are many different ways we see it manifested!
Nan Beth Walton
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