(An excerpt from the interest session “Where 10 or 12 Are Gathered: Strategies for Smaller Church Choirs,” presented by Matt Caine during the 2014 ACDA Southern Division Conference)
. . . In any of these situations you may have to help the choir develop a new vision, but in the case of the has-been church, in order to be successful, one of the primary goals will be helping the choir to create a new vision of choir. With all their being, they want to be the 40 to 80 voice choir they once were; they want to perform Brahms’ Requiem and works of that level of difficulty two or more times per year; they want to sing warhorse anthems like Parry’s I Was Glad every Sunday; and anything short of these experiences constitutes failure. Thus, they are living in a constant state of failure. One must help them create a new definition of choir and a new vision so that they can then experience the success they are capable of and actually be able to recognize and celebrate it as success.
While creating the new vision, it is good to remind the choir and one’s own self of the church choir’s primary responsibility: to lead congregational singing, with its secondary responsibility being to sing music to help others worship through listening. Most conductors spend so much time rehearsing anthems that they fail to adequately prepare the choir for its number one responsibility: leading congregational singing. Rather than being the leftover portion of choral preparation, this should be a starting point. Since hymns are where many, if not all, of your singers have developed their vocal technique, many sing hymns poorly . . .
(An excerpt from the interest session “Church Choir Reimagined: Priestly, Prophetic, Pastoral, and Participative,” presented by Kai Ton Chau during the 2014 ACDA Central Division Conference)
. . . We have just examined the tension between “performance” and “ministry” for the role of a church choir in a Christian worship setting. Then we looked back, very briefly, the development of the New Testament church choir from the early house church movement in the biblical times through the establishment of Scholar Cantorum of the Roman Church, and saw how the church choir in the Middle Ages quickly moved away from the priestly and Levitical nature of the Temple musicians in the Old Testament. The complexity of choral music for the church choir had evolved to a stage that choral music was no longer music of the gathered people (that is, the congregation). Throughout the centuries, choral music for the church choir has been liturgical and functional (as in the sung mass); the beauty of choral music has been fitting to be offered as “living sacrifice of praise” (as “the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name” – Hebrews 13:15). Since the Reformation movement in the sixteenth century, however, church leaders have been asking a very important question – how can church music be the music of the people? As choral musicians who have worship leading responsibilities, we therefore should ask ourselves: in addition to the anthem, how can the church choir be more participative continually throughout the Christian worship?
One of the possibilities for the church choir is to be “prophetic.” The prophets of the Old Testament had the calling and charge to bring God’s message to His people. In the 21st century, the word could refer to those people who preach and teach God’s word. This is proclamation.
A Christian church choir can be prophetic and participative in a worship service. If Scripture reading in a worship service is the proclamation of God’s word, then why not ask the choir to sing God’s word? When text is coupled with music, truth unites with emotion; it is powerful. Instead of reading the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 24:12-18 on Transfiguration Sunday, the choir can sing Hymn 728 from the “Lift Up Your Hearts” hymnal – a hymn in 7/8 time with echo effect! How about incorporating Pepper Choplin’s “This Is My Beloved Son” (Lorenz 10/3475L), sung by the choir, into the reading of Matthew 17:1-9 (rather than using that song as an “anthem”)?
Once this week’s Thanksgiving holiday is past, those who conduct choirs in schools go just a little bit crazy with the onslaught of December concerts. Whether the performances be in a concert hall, a banquet room, the local shopping mall, or at the city tree lighting, the sounds of choirs will be everywhere.
Those who conduct church choirs also face a heightened schedule with additional services and civic appearances. It always seems as though every club and study group in the church wants to hear the choir at their holiday banquet.
Here is a sample of a church choir’s performance from the recent ACDA National Conference. Imagine packing this ensemble in the fellowship hall for a holiday banquet performance.
For many choral conductors, this time of year heralds both the beginning of the academic year and the new church choir season. It is a special privilege to share our art with the delightful folks who offer their time and talent to sing in a church choir.
While it may be true in some places that the church choir may appear to have fallen on hard times, that is not universal. Many church choirs are experiencing a sudden explosion in membership with an attendant rise in the quality of music they are able to sing.
Here is a selection from a recent ACDA divisional conference that included an invitational performance by a church choir.
FIVE FROM THE FOLDER: CHURCH CHOIR by Terre Johnson
1. "He, Watching Over Israel." Felix Mendelssohn, G. Schirmer 50293760
The perfectly useful chorus from an extended work. Singable counterpoint and beautiful expressive elements.
2. "There Is a Balm in Gilead." William L. Dawson, Neil A. Kjos T105
Deeply moving, and valuable for working toward singing multi-ethnic music expressively and authentically.
3. "His Voice as the Sound, Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, Lawson-Gould 915
An example of the authenticity and simplicity of style that give the Shaw/Parker repertoire a unique place in the choral repertoire.
4. "The Glory of the Father." Egil Hovland, Walton Music W2973
Exquisite setting of text, and an invaluable tool for working on a cappella singing. Also a springboard for discussion of form.
5. "Cantique de Jean Racine. Gabriel Faure, Broude Brothers B. B. 801
Beautiful linear construction and arching phrases make it useful for developing musicianship and vocal expertise.
(An excerpt from the interest session, “Where Ten or Twelve are Gathered: Strategies for Small Church Choirs,” by Matthew Caine. Presented during the 2013 ACDA National Conference.)
I have one final resource to mention in regard to repertoire, one that is readily available, free to use, but, I imagine is seldom accessed in the ways I will mention: your mind. Yes, I promise I did have my three cups of coffee this morning. Your mind holds several keys to opening additional repertoire to you, if you will but allow these keys to be used. We will find these by taking a quick walk through the music history floating around in your mind. First, channel the spirit of the Renaissance. Your situation may very well be in need of a re-birth anyway! We know that often one or more “voice” parts in Renaissance music may have been doubled by an instrument or even played by an instrument without having a singer sing it. Why should such a practical and wonderful performance practice be limited to the Renaissance? Take a look at Renaissance repertoire, as well as repertoire from other historical periods, which you would like to teach your choir if you had sufficient singers. Then see if there is a way you can reduce the piece by one or more voice parts and still preserve the textual integrity, and have those remaining voice parts played by instrumentalists. This is a wonderful opportunity to involve instrumentalists from your congregation who may otherwise never use their talents in worship.
Second, channel the spirits of Bach and Handel. Not necessarily in regard to specific repertoire, so much as their spirits of practicality. If Handel did not have a great contralto at his disposal, he would have a bass sing the alto solo (think of the various Messiah performances he conducted and how he would change soloists). Almost all of Bach’s sacred music was meant to be functional church music. If his resources on a particular Sunday or Holy Day did not quite match what he needed, I am certain he would have made an adjustment. You should, too. We have become such servants to the score and to the composer’s wishes that we often leave pieces unperformed, doing the composer, our singers, and our congregations a great disservice. Consider reassigning sections to different voice parts.
(The ACDA National Conference is just one of the many benefits of membership in the American Choral Directors Association. Join ACDA today.)