Types of Music Sung by Choirs in Intergenerational Churches

Ephesians 5:19 NLT “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.”

One of the things I expect to hear from most leaders of intergenerational worship ministries is that their choirs and congregations sing varied types of music. While it’s is entirely possible to have an intergenerational music ministry where all the music is basically the same, I don’t really know of many. When I studied intergenerational choral ministries in SBC churches in Georgia, all of those I interviewed indicated using more than one type of music in their church.  While I interacted with hundreds of leaders, I only interviewed 62 leaders in depth, and almost all indicated that used contemporary choral music with their choirs. While contemporary could mean anything newly composed, I made sure to clarify what I was looking for were choral arrangements of contemporary/modern worship songs that would not fit better in another category. Southern gospel was also high; this is not surprising due to the geographic region here in the south. Traditional Church Anthems, which are generally written by certain writers and arrangers, also are published by publishing houses that typically sell these types of work. Equally popular are hymn arrangements, which vary in “style” and “type” but are based on existing hymn tunes. Black gospel, classical/historical works, and spirituals (which I classify differently than Black gospel) are not as prevalent in our Georgia SBC intergenerational churches. See the results found below:

Music Types

Here are some things I found that were interesting. Some of these results raised more questions than answers:

  • Contemporary is common and it should be. We should sing a new song to the Lord. I think the hallmark of any intergenerational church is that there be new music and old music. Some would call it “something for everyone.” I believe it’s important to always be looking for the best that’s out there. PERIOD. It may be a 30 year old anthem, or the newest choral arrangement of a popular Hillsong or Passion tune.
  • Southern gospel is not sung regularly (or enough for the leader to even mention it) in roughly 30 percent of Georgia intergenerational SBC churches. I was initially surprised by this until I did some data comparison. There are large choirs not singing Southern gospel regularly as well as choirs with larger numbers from younger generations.
    * 90 percent of choirs ranging from 26-50 persons sing Southern gospel. Look back at the norm for all for comparison. The almost 70 percent who sing Southern gospel have choirs this size.
    *Almost 80 percent of churches that wore robes every Sunday sang Southern gospel, whereas only a little over half of those churches wearing Sunday attire every week sang Southern gospel.
    *Fewer choirs that include large numbers of choir members from Generation X sing Southern gospel music than choirs that are Boomer dominated.
  • Traditional church anthems are sung less often by the largest choirs in my study and almost 80 percent of those choirs who wear robes every week sing Traditional Church Anthems. Less than 40 percent of Generation X leaders and choirs that have a dominant number of choir members from Generation X sing Traditional Church Anthems
  • Hymn Arrangements are used by Generation X leaders more than Boomer leaders percentage-wise.
  • Black gospel is sung more often by choirs over 76 persons (67 percent, which is much higher than the average found on the graph above). Black gospel is most prevalent in choirs where there are more choir members from Generation X

    What does this all mean?
    I think it means that different generations “prefer” certain types of music…but that’s not news. I do think it’s probable that Southern gospel is more common (not extinct) in smaller to medium-sized churches, because large churches have greater concentrations of younger cohorts. I think black gospel is the more common in larger churches/choirs because there is likely more racial diversity in those churches. Although I would also mention that many of the largest churches/choirs in my study were in more urban/metro areas. I’m not sure what to think about why Hymn Arrangements are used more by Generation X leaders, but as a Gen X leader myself, I would agree that I prefer hymn arrangements over traditional church anthems…maybe it has something to do with a familiar hymn tune in a new way that something traditional, yet newly composed, lacks?
    As for my church, I’d say we fall within these ranges. We qualify as a large church choir (from the parameters of my study), from a metro area, with a large cohort of choir members who are Gen Xers and Millennials.  Their leader is also a Gen Xer. So, we don’t do much Southern gospel. In fact yesterday was the first time we’d done a true southern gospel song in quite awhile. We do a lot more Black gospel, hymn arrangements, and contemporary literature and yes, plenty of traditional church anthems!

Selecting Choral Literature that Fits the Size of Your Choir

Last week I wrote about choosing literature that fits the people in your choir based on their ability-levels and the culture of the church. Because of the length of the blog post that week, I wanted to wait to discuss one of the most important portions of selecting choral music based on the people in your choir…the size of the choir.  I want to explore briefly the merits of using such literature, especially as it relates to creating a culture of excellence in your own church setting.

Choose literature that fits the size of your choir

It is very interesting that 75% of intergenerational church choirs in Georgia have no more than fifty participants. My educated guess is this is probably similar (if not more common) in other areas of the country. Even the major evangelical publishers are attuned to this fact because many offer choral music options for the smaller choir.  As a undergrad Music Ed student, one of my favorite classes was a class called Choral Techniques. One of the things we discussed in the class was rehearsing larger and smaller choirs and how to handle the unique pros and cons therein. Having worked with both large and small choirs here’s a selected list of some observations based on the literature and production of it:

Large Choir
1. Able to produce a large sound-especially if singing with orchestra
2. Less confident singers can find confidence in stronger singers/readers
3. Larger possible pool of soloists
4. Able to sing most songs with lots of divisi
5. Sing songs with more extreme ranges
6. Able to sing longer phrases (stagger-breathing becomes easier)
7. Easier to blend parts because no one has to “carry the section”
8. More difficult to sing especially rhythmic (syncopated) tunes

Small(er) Choir
1. Most have to pull their own weight, confident or not
2. Members feel more obligated to attend due to numbers
3. More difficult to blend
4. Can be easier to sing more rhythmic tunes due to the weight of the larger number of singers
5. Literature choices can be limited by range, phrasing, etc.

When I arrived at Ivy Creek five years ago, we would run 30-35 in the choir on a Sunday. We fit in that “smaller choir” category. I certainly felt more limited in what we could sing and sing well. Today, I lead a music ministry in the upper 25 percent. So what I chose for the choir to sing now can be broader in scope now that we run 55-75 each week between our worship services.

Here is the plan I used to ensure confidence and excellence each week without sacrificing the importance of stretching, molding, and inspiring for greater things when I first arrived:

*Make rehearsal FUN and WORTH the time of all who come. Bring energy to your rehearsal and make sure if you’ve got people in front of you, make sure that you aren’t wasting anyone’s time. Being efficient it not always easy. Follow some of these rules I live by.

1. Have a REHEARSAL PLAN each week of what you plan to rehearse. Make sure you write it down and let your pianist know which things to prepare for. In that plan you need to anticipate the trouble spots or SCORE STUDY.  This would include tricky rhythms, tricky harmonies, and the like. Think of multiple ways to solve the problem, because your first idea might not work!

2. STOP TALKING and SING. When I first started conducting choirs, I talked a lot. I didn’t meant to waste time, but I did. Model what you want with your voice and use conducting gestures instead of talking about it.

3. Have a time of DEVOTION and prayer

*Make sure your people CAN sing the literature. This is based on the points above. As yourself: is the tessitura too high or too low? Is there so much divisi in the choral parts that the sound will be too thin or unbalanced? Are the phrases so long that your people are going to struggle to make it through? Do you have the personnel to handle it? Are they going to sound good on this piece? Will they feel successful and know the song well enough to “lead” in worship—need to internalize.

*Start with things they know (or think they know) and CAN sing, and  then work for greater accuracy and musicality.  When I arrived I didn’t care for many of the pieces that were in the library, but I also didn’t have luxury of learning everything new every week (who does?). We were on a limited budget so revamping the whole library wasn’t an option. Regardless, they needed to learn to trust me and I needed to see how far I could push them. One week, I’ll never forget, we sang something that really sounded good and so we just did it again the following week. No one cared that we did it twice. In fact most were glad we did because it sounded good the first time. I had never done that before, but it was a good move. What I found out around this time was this choir had been learning music too quickly (thus, not fully securing the pitches and notes) and really needed to spend more time being secure. I found out having adequate time to prepare without beating the song to death was the key.

*Slowly I started introducing new songs (simple ones) with just enough repetition that they could attach to the song quickly. Because they had an overabundance of solo-driven literature they had used, I purposely chose things that were choir featured-only. Many of these new songs featured homophonic choral parts, which helped in the learning process. These types of songs early on always had repeating sections (like a chorus) that we learned first before getting into more specific details.

*Use classic literature. I don’t mean classical, necessarily. I mean used tested and proven literature with your choir. There is a reason songs stay published for many years. Use those things because they work. I regularly go back and buy things that I did 15-20 years ago that I think would work well with my group. Most of the time, the choir loves the nostalgia of singing something they haven’t seen in years. The other benefit to doing time-tested literature is you have enough familiarity with it that you probably know the pitfalls to learning it and can be proactive in your teaching approach.

*Strive for live accompaniment at all costs. The choir I inherited did not usually use live accompaniment for choral things. Our orchestra was in its infancy when I arrived and was not “ready” for the challenge of playing for choral things in additional to songs for congregational worship. My goal was to work towards more live accompaniment. At first, we did some things with piano and organ (perhaps guitar, keyboard strings, and drums) and that took us through the first couple of years I was at Ivy Creek. By the third year, I sensed our orchestra was ready to try out playing for the choir. If I remember correctly, we sang By Our Love from Word as our first orchestra/choir piece. Over the next several years, we’ve moved to orchestra accompaniment mostly entirely. Mostly, because some pieces are just not scored for full orchestra. Plus, there are some pieces that should be done “simply” with piano and/or organ.

Striving for Excellence Through Proper Selection of Choir Literature. Part One: Know Your People

Last week I wrote that the number one driver for selection of choral literature in the intergenerational choir was text. I discovered that while text should be a non-negotiable for selecting literature, what “drives” that “driver” is really the desire for the leaders’ choirs to sound good and feel confident in their ability to present a particular piece. I don’t think this information is anything new, but I think it’s important to validate this idea because we leaders are always wondering, “is this going to sound good so I don’t look like I have any ability to lead this choir?” Maybe you’ve never been there, but I have!

Early in my days of teaching and ministry, I learned that sometimes simple is best, because it’s more important to sound good than to be technically difficult. I struggled with this attitude because I felt often convicted that I wasn’t always challenging my groups to sing above their potential… especially when I was an educator. I wrestled with this for many years. I justified my sometime “simple” choices by making sure that while the song itself might not be overly challenging in terms of notes and pitches, I was going to really focus on articulation, diction, musicality, and interpretation…and I did. Man, we worked some very simple things into musical masterpieces (okay, maybe not…)  What I really wanted to accomplish was to let the choir hear and feel what it was like to make an excellent, artistic, worshipful offering to God through song. As time went on I ventured out into more difficult things, which definitely took more time to prepare, but were worth it in the end. I believe that in simple and in difficult, if the choir is working hard together while growing musically and in their collective understanding of the text, the greater “ownership” they will feel. I believe this idea builds more confidence towards the future.

Today I want to share the first of a few blog posts related to what steps I believe are important to building a culture of excellence in the intergenerational church choir as it pertains to literature. Obviously, selecting music with strong text is key, as is working all the musical elements of pieces, but I want to bring out two interrelated points about choosing church choir literature based on the people in your choir and the culture of your church. Both are mutually inclusive and should driver your choir selections:

  1. Choose literature that fits the personnel in your choir. This could be related to areas such as the balance of parts in your choir, the overall age of the singers, the musical ability of the singers, and the like. I’ll speak more specifically about this next week when we unpack more about the people in the choir as it relates to what choir literature you choose.

    When I think about choosing literature based on balance of parts, I can’t help but remember my own experience in middle school. When I was in the 8th grade, my 3rd period choir class had 2 guys in it. The choir was made of multiple classes combined, so we weren’t the only guys in the combined choir. However, if we had been the only 2 against 30 or more girls, the balance would’ve been, well, unbalanced! Take this into consideration as well in your choir. Don’t select songs that demand lots of part singing from your men if you only have a few. OR, at least, rework the parts so the men have only one part—remember, making them sound good and feel confident is the key!

    Church choirs are often limited by the range their singers can sing. If you lack first sopranos who can sing in tune only up to a G, then don’t pull out the Clydesdale tunes (the same goes for the tenors as well or any part with extreme ranges).

    Music readers are also important to take into consideration. When I asked leaders of choirs in Georgia how many functional music readers were in their choirs, most said not more than 40 percent. I’d have to agree in my own context, especially as our choir has grown. I try to locate music that gives enough challenge that your strong music readers aren’t completely bored, but your followers aren’t struggling to keep up. I’ll speak more about this next week.

    When I’m picking music for different seasons in the year, I’m looking for variety, but I’m looking for varying levels of music too. There should always be something that a least a few people say, “I’m not sure we can do that” and then prove them wrong! A few Christmases ago, I pulled out a piece from the musical A Christmas to Remember from the late 90s called “Rhythm of Rejoicing.” It was from the height of the Irish Riverdance era. I thought my orchestra was going to string me up when we read it for the first time. It’s fast, it’s got several meter changes (back and forth from simple to compound), and it’s a style of playing many of my players had either never played or it’d been years. Anyway, I told them to hang with me and we’d eat the elephant one bite at a time. If you’re going to bite one elephant at a time though, make sure you build in enough rehearsal time so it sounds good.

    One other note, if you’re learning a new song and after several weeks it’s falling flat, or just not going well, put it up!  A couple of times I’ve simply said to my choir, “take this piece of music in your hands–turn to your neighbor to the right and keep passing it to the end of the row.” The few times I’ve done it, I’ve gotten more sighs of relief than groans!

  2. Choose literature that fits the culture of your church. I’ve harped on this factor many times already, but it bears repeating because it is essential. Pick literature that mostly works in your context. I say mostly because a little stretching is okay. Be okay with the fact that your folks might not sing something that don’t like with the same level of excellence that they would something in their wheelhouse. Use familar songs or types of songs they like as leverage to push them into learning something new. At my church, I was surprised (shocked, actually) when I arrived that almost all of the music they had in their library came from one publisher. Talk about unbalanced in terms of musical style!  This didn’t stop me for using their familiar music, but I slowly started bringing in what I consider time-tested anthems and other new pieces to mix things up. Nowadays, my choir sings all sorts of literature from many, many publishers. Here are a few of our favorite anthems over the last few years. These are in no particular order.  It’s certainly not exhaustive, but will give you a sample of the types of songs we do. I’d like to say there is a little bit of everything in here. I do want to point out that MANY of the songs listed here are solo-driven. I can’t help what they like the best, but I assure you we do many choir-only featured pieces. I will add this, however; we are blessed to have many, many fine soloists in our church. I think their contributions to these pieces have been integral in them making this list. Here you go:
  • How Great Thou Art arr. Vader and Rouse- Praisegathering
  • This Blood arr. Knight- Prism
  • He Looked Beyond My Faults arr. Knight- Prism
  • Lord, You’re Holy arr. Knight- Prism
  • I Bowed on My Knees and Cried “Holy” arr. Fettke- Word
  • At the Name of Jesus– Cindy Berry- Word
  • Written in Red– arr. Kirkland- Word
  • God With Us– arr. Duren- Lifeway
  • Midnight Cry arr. Fettke – Lillenas
  • Through the Fire arr. Knight- Prism
  • Thou, O Lord– arr. Knight- Prism
  • Forever (We Sing Hallelujah)-arr. Semsen-Word
  • Mercy Tree  arr. Semsen- Brentwood Benson
  • Yahweh arr. Phillips/Gardner- Brentwood Benson
  • Great is the Lord Almighty arr. J. Daniel Smith- Word
  • He Never Failed Me Yet Ray-Jenson
  • Praise His Holy Name- Keith Hampton- Earthsongs
  • God Of My Praise Williams/Smith/Culross- Discovery House
  • Listen To The Hammer Ring arr. Krogstad- Good Life
  • Then Will The Very Rocks Cry Out arr. Hayes- Ariose
  • The Great I Am  arr. Sorenson- Hal Leonard
  • God Leads Us Along  arr. Rouse-Praisegathering
  • We Will Remember from Brentwood Benson (we learned this first as a chorally, and now we just do it congregationally. Our people love to sing this song)

I’ll mention one other thing in closing; look for holes in the music types your choir is singing. I noticed a few years ago we pushed so far away from southern gospel because there was so much of it in our library before I arrived that I “overcorrected” the imbalance in the music. So, be sure you are including things from as many music types as you can, but remember: the balance doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced…remember the culture of your church. If your church’s heart language is southern gospel or contemporary choir arrangements, do plenty of them; just don’t do them exclusively.

Now, you may be saying to me…why should we venture out of anything that we don’t do well? We should just be who we are and sing the things we like. There is plenty of pragmatism in that thought process, but remember, just as in congregational music, the culture of the church may “lean” one direction, but if you’re intergenerational, you’ve got folks from every generation with preferences in music. If we lived on Traditional Church Anthems, some would love that, but others wouldn’t. We humans thrive on variety…especially if it’s done well. So try various things out and see what happens. You might find that your church likes other types of music as well.

Next week…Part 2!