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:
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
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.