My lessons in the language of music began before I was born. My mother sang “the air” in a trio, her mother played the piano by ear and I was adored by both. By the age of 24 I had received 17 years of private instruction in piano, 8 years of private instruction in classical voice and 6 years of saxophone lessons, which included enough instruction on the clarinet and flute to play through the charts for the high school “Big Band” dances and jazz competitions at Berklee College of Music. I spent most of my growing up years in choirs, bands and musical ensembles. I captured the leading role in several musicals and was hired as the soloist for dozens of weddings, funerals and ordinations. But when it came time to pass on this acquired knowledge and understanding of my language of choice to the volunteer choirs I was hired to direct, the task, at times, proved daunting.
Over the past twenty years I have had the privilege and pleasure of directing several adult choirs and youth choirs, as well as providing private piano and voice instruction for many children, youth and adults. Over these twenty years of triumphal successes and tragic failures in my world of music I have cultivated different strategies and methods for reaching each individual in my diverse body of students. During this twenty-year journey I have tried a wide variety of ideas and activities to cultivate musicianship in a volunteer corps without pulling all of my hair out in the process. I have narrowed down the principals of successfully directing volunteer choirs to these six: Recruiting, Retraining, Rehearsing, Revealing (performance), Rewarding and Retaining. In this essay, I will deal with the principles in an orderly and consequently, linear fashion. However, they actually work more like the spokes of a wagon wheel, consecutive, yet revolving, and together they move the hub I call “the choir.”
One of the first tasks that fell to me as the newly hired Minister of Worship and Music at a medium-sized church in Massachusetts was the compilation and direction of an original work, more precisely: a 150th anniversary cantata. The challenge of this assignment was not in arranging and composing the work itself. Rather, it was the recruitment of a 50 member volunteer choir that was to be trained and ready for a televised performance in less than 6 months! Added to this challenge was the fact that there was already in place an adult choir of about a dozen members. This choir was conducted by the adult choir director, a part-time staff member that I was newly hired to supervise whose greatest challenge was the "aging" of the choir. Each Sunday they brought forth a musical “offering” that was weak, though well-intentioned, while dwindling numbers exacerbated an already frustrating situation. Because, as Psalm 42:7 says, “Deep calls to deep,” I realized I was not going to be able to recruit quality younger singers for the cantata by pointing to the choir and asking, “Now, wouldn’t you love to be a part of that?” Although, I still firmly believe that the best method to recruit talent to a choir is by having a great choir, I also discovered other ways to recruit members.
On Sunday mornings, instead of sitting in my regularly designated position of front right pew, I decided to move about the sanctuary in an effort to “overhear” talent in the congregation. It worked! If a particular Sunday morning’s hymn-singing revealed a voice or two around me that could a) carry a tune or even better, b) sing a harmony part, I would take the liberty after the benediction to personally introduce myself to that “voice” and extend a personal invitation to sing in our 150th anniversary cantata choir. I discovered what I have come to understand as a common misconception in churches, which is that when the choir is small or lacking in quality it is because the talent is simply not available within the congregation. Although, occasionally this may be true for very small churches, I have come to believe that it is not lack of talent that produces poor choirs, but rather lack of initiative and discernment on the part of the director. According to John C. Maxwell in his book The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader:
Highly competent leaders do more than perform at a high level. They inspire and motivate their people to do the same. While some people rely on relational skills alone to survive, effective leaders combine these skills with high competence to take their organizations to new levels of excellence and influence (34).
It is important to note that I first recruited the choir director to sing and be the soprano section leader for the cantata. Then I personally invited each member of the existing choir to sing for the cantata choir. I wanted them to know how much I valued their faithful commitment. Then I went out into the congregation in search of gold. I believe in the adage that says people must hear something seven times before they will respond. In my recruiting efforts for this choir, and other choirs, I learned to recruit through a variety of mediums including printed word, such as bulletins and newsletters; spoken word, such as announcements and telephone calls, and kinesthetic experiences, such as bringing potential recruits to great concerts in an effort to whet their appetites. My recruiting efforts usually paid off…which led to new challenges, including retraining. I use the term re-training because, in my experience, most adults come to the choir setting with at least an elementary school music background, but most of the information has been forgotten through years of disuse.
My first experience in directing an adult choir was actually 10 years earlier than my anniversary cantata choir experience. I was hired – for a stipend – to direct a small New England Baptist church choir of approximately 30 members. Of those 30, perhaps as many as eight were music-literate. In the first season of my tenure there, the majority of the 90-minute weekly rehearsal was taken up with teaching parts “in the oral tradition” or by rote. Though I didn’t really mind this method, I noticed that my eight “musicians” were becoming bored, quickly losing interest and showing up to rehearsal only sporadically and usually late. I needed these musicians to be faithful to the rehearsals, not because they needed the practice, but because the other choir members needed the strength of their abilities. I determined that the only way to keep the “musicians” was to either a) guilt them into being at rehearsals or b) advance the musical skills of the other 22 choir members. Though I am aware that many choir directors choose (a), I opted for (b).
The following season I launched a new “Basics of Music Theory” class which was held 30 minutes prior to choir rehearsal each week. I discovered an inexpensive little book called the Pocket Guide for the Church Choir Member by Kenneth W. Osbeck at a local Christian book store and purchased 25 copies to hand out at the first class. I was delighted when 15 non-readers showed up that first evening. The purpose of this 30-minute session was to re-train these 15 volunteers in the rudiments of music. By the “rudiments of music” I refer to the basics, including pitch names, clefs, grand staff, ledger lines, accidentals, enharmonics, and steps (tones and semitones); as well as key signatures, intervals, chords, time signatures- including metre and rhythm, and notation. These rudiments are foundational to reading and understanding written music. I also used the time to teach the fundamentals of singing in a choir, including rehearsal postures, watching the director and understanding basic conducting patterns, choral diction, page turning, following measure numbers, and even the importance of remembering to bring a pencil to mark your score. The students were particularly enthusiastic and easily mastered many of the concepts…on paper. But the application of these concepts was another matter. I decided to utilize the choir rehearsal time to work on applying the concepts learned in the Theory class of that evening.
A rehearsal that is carefully planned ahead of time, I came to realize, is a rehearsal in which much is accomplished. It did not take many “see how it goes” rehearsals for me to realize they don’t go very well if there is no plan. Without a director’s agenda, the 90 minutes of rehearsal time becomes fair game for any strong opinion. Thus, I made it a point to jot down a simple list, which included:
1. Opening prayer and short devotion
2. A fun warm-up exercise
3. The rudiments of theory that I wished to reinforce during that rehearsal
4. The pieces or sections of music that had to be brought up to performance-ready that evening (such as the piece(s) to be sung the following Sunday morning)
5. The following week’s music to sight-sing through
6. A bonus piece, in case (by some miracle) we had extra time!
I recruited the readers in the choir to assist me in tutoring the rookies during the rehearsals. Their tasks were simply to help the new readers to keep place, and to lead their sections during rehearsals by setting an example of musical excellence. Though they may have occasionally done these things without being asked, I found my musicians taking on a greater sense of responsibility and pride in the section work when I made the effort to ask for their assistance.
In the case of rehearsals for a special event, such as a Christmas worship service or special Lenten series, I concluded it was better to hold a separate rehearsal for the event music, in which we would only rehearse that performance music in addition to having an opening time of prayer and warm-up exercises. This decision accomplished two important things. By holding a separate rehearsal I could 1) keep on task of the weekly Sunday music to be presented by the regular choir and 2) encourage those who could not make the year-long weekly commitment of choir to join for the season. On average, my seasonal choirs were double the sizes of the weekly choirs. In order to tackle and accomplish a project of significant size (such as a cantata) with a volunteer choir in a scant 10 weeks, I found it necessary to spend the first 30 minutes together in review, the next 60 minutes in section rehearsals and the last 30 minutes rehearsing the newly explored music as a whole. I also discovered that it was easier to get people to make the additional 2-hour per week commitment if I provided free childcare during rehearsals.
As I see it, the work or task assignment of the church choir is to bring forth choral music that elevates the Word of God, edifies the body of Christ and through which the congregation experiences worship. This is not easily accomplished. Since the choir is, at least in presentation, the sum of its parts, weaknesses, and not strengths, often determine outcome. Hence, I have come to realize that great choir directors, “prize the seed rather than the bouquet” (Jones 71). In other words, while it is important to present as beautiful a “bouquet” of music as possible for each worship service, it is more important to plant the seeds of beautiful, worshipful music into the hearts of the choir members. The challenge for me as the director then seemed to lie in trying to bring about the optimal offering for each service, while simultaneously enriching the overall experience of leading worship for the members of the choir. Sometimes, I tried to meet this challenge by encouraging the choir to work a little harder, think a little clearer and reach inside to bring forth more. The fruit of hard labor is often the sweetest. Sometimes, though, I found it necessary to meet this challenge with mercy. One such occasion happened during the Saturday evening dress rehearsal of a service presentation of The Thrill of Hope by Bob Krogstad.
In this particular church, I found it necessary to hire professional musicians as the orchestra members to accompany the choir for special services. Because they were professionals, I simply mailed each of their parts to them several months in advance, requiring that they attend only the final rehearsal and the two performances. We were chugging along nicely on that final evening before the “big day” when all of a sudden my tenor soloist got stage fright. He was a very capable young man, though he did have very limited experience as a soloist and I had a moment of panic as I began to realize the importance of the message in the song he was to deliver! I quickly called for a ten-minute break and invited him into my office for a heart-to-heart.
“Paul, you know that I will understand if you cannot go through with this,” I encouraged.
“I’m so afraid, but I don’t want you to be disappointed in me,” he spoke with great anxiety.
“Well, what about the solo is frightening to you now?”
“It’s the coda…I just can’t do it! All of those high notes and the energy of the choir underneath…it’s just too much!” He was practically in tears by now.
“So, what you’re saying is, that if you didn’t have to sing the coda, you’d feel fine about singing the rest?” I felt a spark of hope somewhere in my chest.
“Well, sure, but how can we do that?…just leave that part out now?…at the last minute?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said in a conspiratorial whisper, “but if Don is willing, I will just rewrite your part in the coda as a trumpet solo. How does that sound?” Paul nodded enthusiastically. I spoke with Don, my professional and very capable 1st trumpet, who was most amenable to a solo of his own, quickly transposed the section for him, and went on with the rehearsal. The services went without a hitch and no one in the congregation noticed the change. But, more importantly, I learned that if I value the person over the performance, the performance usually falls in place. I also found out that sometimes valuing people means choosing what is best for them even if they disagree. This was the case for me during another final rehearsal.
The service presentation was of Carols, Communion and Candlelight arranged by Hayes, Martin, Harlan and Purifoy and the choir was still struggling with the arrangement of “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.” The clock was ticking and I soon realized that there simply was not enough time left to clear away the cacophony. So I made the executive decision to give the piece to the orchestra, allowing the strings to bring forth the vocal parts. To my way of thinking, it was better to allow the piece to be played beautifully by these professionals than to risk embarrassing the choir because of this one selection in the service. The choir, on the other hand, thought differently. They felt that they had worked hard on this piece and should be allowed to perform it. I knew that they could not hear what I did, nor did I have time to record them and let them “hear” what I heard. I was also not willing to single out the individuals that were dragging the choir down. The singing of the tune was not worth the deep embarrassment they would experience in front of the choir and orchestra. I remembered the words of author Laurie Beth Jones in her book, Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership: “Maintaining that connection with your own inner knowing is so important. Doing the difficult thing means not letting public opinion sway you from what your heart, gut, spirit, or instinct is telling you” (26). I stuck to my guns and have never regretted learning the lesson that “professionals stay focused on the successful accomplishment of their mission, and do the difficult things” (25).
Though much of the reward for choir participation is intrinsic, I have learned that due to the emotional nature of musical expression, it is often necessary to provide more kudos than the applause at the end of a worship concert. Thomas L. Are penned in his choir devotional “Please don’t ask me to sing in the choir” concerning the let-down many experience after a big performance:
Are emotion and reason incompatible? Worship is exciting and often too deep for logic. The sensation of God moves beyond theology and becomes doxology.
Yet the thrill of elevated emotion risks a pitfall. Emotions are fickle and can change without my control. The mysterious mood that lifts me to ecstasy can suddenly plunge me into irrational despair…sometimes I even feel like quitting (83).
Experience has shown me that it is important to follow up small accomplishments, such as the regular leading of worship on Sundays, with small tokens of gratitude and affection, including thank you notes, phone calls and an occasional coffee date. Regularly affirming the dedication and sacrifice made on the part of choir members in public – that is, to the congregation – is also very important. Larger sacrifices, such as the extra rehearsals necessary to present cantatas, etc. require larger “thank you”s.
In the same church for which I recruited that anniversary choir, I instituted what came to be an annual event at Christmas time to celebrate and honor the members of the music ministries in the church, including the choir. This event included a concert presented by the New England Brass Band under the direction of Boston Symphony Orchestra’s bass trombonist, Doug Yeo, to which the entire community of Andover was invited free of charge. But before the concert, there was a dinner exclusively for the members of the music ministries to dine with the members of the NEBB. What great fun it was for everyone to sit together, eat together and talk music with “pros.” In essence, I had discovered that when I treated my choir members with the same honor I gave this world-renown musician and his band, I communicated their value to me and to our faith community.
According to Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, “Connections are a major reason people say they stay with organizations. If links are weak or nonexistent, leaving is easier….it is up to you to strengthen whatever bonds you can between the people who work for you and others in the organization” (Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em 101). Unfortunately, I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I’ve always been a highly energetic, focused, and task-driven individual and therefore assumed that all of the choir members would be equally driven to wring the excellence out of every rehearsal minute. Finally, exasperated, one gentle soul had the courage to tell me that most of the members were discouraged by the lack of “down time.”
“There are two essential elements to teams,” he gently chided, “task and maintenance. By maintenance, I mean that the fabric of the team itself needs to be strengthened by providing opportunities for relationships to be woven together.” I was stunned and somewhat embarrassed by his wisdom. It seemed so obvious. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“What do you suggest?” I asked, my mouth full of humble pie.
“Schedule a pot luck social. Ask a choir member to volunteer to be the host. Do not plan any tasks for this evening. Let it be just for fellowship,” was his advice.
I did as he suggested. The choir loved the activity so much that one of the sopranos signed on to organize a social every 4-6 weeks. In addition, I hosted a Christmas Yankee swap, which allowed me an extra opportunity to give gifts of gratitude while they were enjoying cultivating friendships. To further strengthen the team, I arranged for the church to provide a “music team only” retreat where I led them through lessons on spiritual disciplines as well as many team building exercises. I learned a valuable lesson from that gentle brave soul who confronted me that day in my office: a wise leader knows that many of those she leads are wiser than she is. In other words, stay humble or be humbled.
Now, I am not saying that if I just provided enough time for socializing I would never have lost a choir member. On the contrary, it was also necessary for me to provide new and exciting ways for the choir to learn and grow such as leading worship for different churches, singing at a local coffee house and holding worship services for a few nursing homes in the community. I also found it very important to affirm and advance the skills of those with potential through periodic private instruction. I also learned when it is time to let someone go.
One of the sopranos in the choir – I will call her Celine – was a quiet complainer. Celine would ask to see me regularly to “share” her concern about another member of the choir. Several times she asked to be moved in the section because she simply could not abide another member’s voice. Celine herself was nothing to write home about and was more resistant to learning than most members. Several times she came to me saying that if “this or that” did not change she was going to quit. Several times I begged her to stay, saying that I would try to accommodate her wishes. One day I finally woke up to the fact that I would never please Celine. I realized that the reason I did not want Celine to quit was because I would appear a failure. Her actually quitting would probably be a relief to me! I decided to listen to some advice that I read in The 21 Qualities of an Indispensable Leader which said, “The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging” (Maxwell 44). The next time Celine came in to “give her notice” I graciously accepted it. I discovered that the choir did not see me as a failure for this action. Rather, they saw in it great courage and good leadership. The overall level of buoyancy within the choir rose and I learned that sometimes you’ve got to let go in order to grow.
Though I came upon these six principles – recruiting, retraining, rehearsing, revealing, rewarding and retaining – by directing volunteer choirs, I think that the principles can be applied to any number of situations in which a volunteer team of individuals is assigned a reoccurring task. Such teams could include drama teams, mission teams, and soup kitchens teams or even sweat equity teams! I utilized these same principles in managing a team of volunteer teachers for a large children’s parachurch ministry in
Are, T. (1985). Please don’t ask me to sing in the choir.
Hayes, M., Martin, J.M., Harlan, B. & Purifoy, J. (Arrangers). (1995). Carols, communion and candlelight.
Jones, L. (1995). Jesus CEO: using ancient wisdom for visionary leadership.
Kaye, B. & Jordan-Evans, S. (1999). Love ‘em or lose ‘em: getting good people to stay.
Krogstad, B. (1996). The thrill of hope.
Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader.
Osbeck, K. (1969). Pocket guide for the church choir member.
|9:48:01 AM #||comment |
OK: So i'm in conversation now with some people concerning the concept of "choir." A Worship Pastor approaching the age of 40 suggests that "choir" is definitely NOT PoMo. While he thinks occasional large group participation in leading the congregational worship time (choruses) is cool, choir for listening (his word: performance) is not.
A female M.Div student of about 22 says, "That's so Willowcreek to think that choir is dead. Choir is definitely a part of the PoMo feast of liturgy."
I've got to admit, i'm leaning toward the 22 year old (if for no other reason than she'll be pastoring my grandkids ten or so years from now). I may be sounding a discordant alarm here, but it would seem that multi-voice sounds like chant, celtic, tribal, even madrigal are attracting more attention with the PoMos. Maybe the church music of the '60s and '70s is gasping for air (e.g., Pass It On: give the spark a rest), but human harmonization (yes, even a capella: maybe especially a capella) is, as my voice teacher used to say, "the highest elevation of the Word."
So, here's the question: will our choirs pass the PoMo crucible? Can we transform stale tradition into genuine, fluid, corporate faith-story? Can we, through choir, model harmonious living - a community of song, if you will? Can we, through woven voices, provoke spiritual reflection in the PoMo crowd?
*PoMo: abbreviated form of Post Modern
Church on the Other Side by Brian McLaren
(renowned author and founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church)
|11:29:15 PM #||comment |
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