Are Solo-Driven Choir Songs Anti-Intergenerational?

Have you thought about how many songs your choir sings that feature a solo that “drives” the song you are singing? I don’t mean a simple verse solo or a small section in the song, but a full-song solo where the choir essentially takes a “back-up” choir role. If you are in my choir, you’ll sing plenty of these types of tunes. There are a few reasons this is the case in my choir and possibly yours as well:

  1. Some of the most popular songs for choirs today have solos that drive the song. I’m not in a popularity contest, but there are some great church choral songs (new and not so new) that have solos in them. I want my choir to learn lots of great things that have great texts and are solid musically.
  2. I can because I have lots of soloists. Having lots of great soloists makes it easy to present these types of songs, especially when you have some that really communicate the message in a special way…like Spencer in the feature photo here.
  3. Sometimes they are easier or faster to learn because the soloist has the bulk of the song. Sometimes the hardest part of learning a choral song are verses because of the variances of texts and rhythmic structures that can be tricky. If the choir is learning choruses only, which often repeat, the process of learning the song is expedited.

While we enjoy the flexibility to do lots of solo-driven choral literature, I am often conflicted about over-using these types of songs because of my commitment to value the contributions of all the singers in my choir. It’s a constant battle; one I’ve been contending with for years. When I researched intergenerational choirs in Georgia in 2014, I asked the leaders of those choirs how much of their own choral literature was solo driven.  Here are some results:

  1. Over half of them indicated that they only used solo-driven choral literature in about 20 percent of their anthems.
  2. About another 25 percent of those interviewed said they used solo-driven literature up to 40 percent of the time. 
  3. Smaller church choirs sang fewer solo-driven anthems than the largest church choirs.

A couple of observations from this data…

  1. Solo-driven literature does not “generally” dominate the choral offerings of churches that are intergenerational.
  2. Small church choirs probably have fewer soloists than the largest church choirs. Therefore, it’s plausible that more soloists could possibly equated with more opportunities to sing solo-driven literature. 
  3. There were no indications that age of leader or choir members had any bearing on the percentage of solo-driven anthems used.

One area that seemed to have a bearing on how much solo-driven choral literature was sung was the publishers frequently used. Those leaders who frequently purchased from more traditional publishers rarely used solo-driven anthems. Conversely, those who used only one or two publishers from the evangelical side reported much higher use of solo-driven anthems.  My personal observations (a quick count at any current choral pack from any publisher will reveal) Prism, Word, and Brentwood-Benson publish more solo-driven literature than other evangelical publishers (Lifeway, Lillenas, Praisegathering). I love, and use music from, each of these publishers, so do not think I am speaking negatively about any one publisher. I am simply commenting on what I see when I open their choral club packets/boxes.

The long and short of it? Broaden the number of publishers you listen to as you search for choral music for your church choir so you may find all types of songs—especially if you find yourself leaning towards solo-driven literature all the time.  This it is often hard to achieve, but necessary for balance if your goal is to create an atmosphere where all members of the choir feel valued and important.

Personally, I am guilty of relying on solo-driven literature at least 40 percent of the time, sometimes more. We sing tunes from every one of the above publishers and I love the variety of music types that can be found, but often I find some of the best tunes I can find (in my opinion) are solo-driven. But, since I firmly believe that valuing all in my music ministry is important, I know I must be careful to look for balance, which includes purposely looking for choir only literature that fits our context.

As a side note: thankfully, some solo-driven songs can be adapted to include more of the choir. For instance, verses that a solo would normally sing could be sung by the women or the men. I’ve done that on several songs and it has worked very well.

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