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!

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