Lots of Music Readers in Your Choir Doesn’t Translate to Learning More New Music.

Assumptions are often not all they appear to be. It seemed logical to me that if I had lots of music readers, I would be able to conquer more new music than the church down the street that learns everything by rote. However, that’s not entirely the case. Here is some interesting related data I collected on choirs that I think are interesting:

  1. Number of music readers does not affect number of new anthems learned in a year.
  2. The largest choirs in my study learned the most anthems; the smallest learned the fewest. While one could assume this was due to the music readers more commonly found in larger choirs, I think this data is more likely a financial decision. Larger choirs more often have more money to spend on new anthems and smaller choirs in smaller churches.
  3. Choirs that used printed scores only learned far fewer new anthems than those who just use projected media in worship services. This seems almost hard to believe since it seems that having the printed score means the song could be learned quickly. However, these churches using printed scores only in worship are usually smaller—thus, the financial piece in number 3.
  4. There is no correlation between age of leader or dominant generational cohort that affects the number of anthems learned in a year. So the reasoning is not philosophical, but pragmatic.

With this information in mind, here are some other factors that can influence the number learned:

  1. The church has a limited music budget. This factor overwhelmingly drives how much music in learned in a year. Unfortunately, the reality is many churches are limited on budgets and new music is reserved for Easter or Christmas, with maybe a new collection here and there.
  2. Rehearsal time. A 1.5-2 hour rehearsal definitely gives any choir more opportunities to learn music over an hour rehearsal.
  3. Fail to have music readers in every vocal section. There are plenty of choirs who have one (or two) sections that cause the rehearsal to lag because so much time is devoted to bringing a non-reading section along.
  4. Leader does not desire to learn lots of music. I’ve spoken with several colleagues that are against picking up a song in a week or so of rehearsal and then singing it. They believe that much time is needed for the choir to internalize the text and the artistry of the song.
  5. The choir uses full orchestra and one part (choir or orchestra) may have a much harder part than the other. I’ve personally had this issue. Some songs are very difficult for either the choir or the orchestra and so more time is required for one or the other parts.
  6. The choir takes breaks in the year. While most choirs take some time off in the summer or after Christmas, there are some choirs that only sing 2-3 times a month, thus limiting how many new songs may be learned in a year.

I’m sure the list could go on and on. My best guess is the financial piece and the rehearsal time drives most of the decisions on how many anthems are learned in a year. What else would you add to this list?

Who (or What) Accompanies the Choir in the Intergenerational Church?

Psalm 150 (ESV) Let Everything Praise the Lord
Praise the LordPraise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp !Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LordPraise the Lord!

It’s probably no surprise to you that churches use a variety of accompaniments when singing choral music. I remember, in the not too distant past, when most churches either used tracks or piano and/or organ every Sunday to accompany the choir. Yes, there were always the large churches in metropolitan areas that used orchestras every week due to their proximity of available and capable players, but certainly not common. Other churches of some size and proximity to metro areas would often hire orchestras for their seasonal works. The variety has continued, and even expanded, according to a recent data I collected from full-time ministers of music in Georgia. Here’s are the reported methods of accompaniment used on CHORAL pieces for every Sunday use:


You’ll notice that over 60 percent of those I interviewed used some form of combination each week (note that the numbers and percentages don’t necessarily match because some leaders could fit into more than one of the sub-categories). I broke down further underneath that heading those combinations using an accompaniment choice at or more than 50 percent of the time. Moving down the chart, you’ll see that less than 20 percent use orchestra every week. Less than 10 percent use some sort of “keyboard only” scenario, band, or tracks only. It is truly a cornucopia of possibilities and I didn’t even include any combinations that might have included less than 50 percent. The list is LONG!

What I discovered in this process through data comparison with church size was that the size of the church (and choir) directly related to the accompaniments used. Surprised? I wasn’t. Here are some interesting facts:

  1. Half of the largest church choirs (average attendance of 76+ each week) use orchestra at least 80 percent of the Sundays.
  2. None of the choirs with 25 or fewer in average attendance used orchestra at all.
  3. 53 percent of the church choirs with 25 or fewer used accompaniment tracks at least 50 percent of the time
  4. 40 percent  of choirs averaging 26-50 in attendance used tracks.
  5. 11.3 percent of choirs averaging 76+ in average attendance used tracks
  6. Overall combinations for varying instruments/tracks were more likely in smaller church choirs

This data supports the idea that more “live” accompaniments were found as the church body was larger (with its greater possibilities of having resources and talent to play). Conversely, more pre-recorded music and combinations of accompaniments were found in smaller churches (choirs averaging fewer than 50).  No significant data supported the idea that education of the leader, age of leader or choir members, or even music sung (literature or type) had any bearing on what types of accompaniment were used. Basically, those who CAN play live, do. Those who CAN’T every week (for a myriad of reasons), don’t. I doubt there are many music ministers who wouldn’t want a full orchestra every week if they could!

If your goal is, like mine, to utilize as many people that have talents and calling of the Lord in worship and music ministry, then hopefully you will consider doing all you can to find ways to use live music for choir literature no matter the size of your church or choir. Even if it’s in a combination with another accompaniment type, having the freedom and flexibility to do things live makes a huge difference. There is something odd to me about having band driven congregational song and then blasting a pre-recorded choir track that screams artificial to me, but a LARGE number of churches do just that. Please hear me, I’m NOT condemning or shaming those you who use tracks…I certainly have had to over the course of my ministry, but I always felt the goal was to push towards more live accompaniments for the choir songs just as I was using a band/instruments for congregational singing.

So, if you’ve got a rhythm section that can handle congregational song, then use them for the choir anthem whenever possible. If you have some horn players, add them to that mix. Yes, it means more rehearsal time, but I think it will strengthen the overall impact of the choir ministry in the life of the church.

Who’s Steering the Ship? How Dominant Music Types in Church Choir Literature are Influenced by the Publishers.

Nehemiah 9:6- You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.

God has created everything! He has created everything unique and diverse. He is Giver of Life. He is worthy of our praise! God has made creation unique—including you and me. Because we are differently made, we have different opinions and experiences. This means that we must learn to be humble in our understanding that our neighbor might have a different opinion or experience than we do. We bring these biases into all parts of our lives. I’ve found that most who lead choirs are brand loyal to some degree or another. I bet you know folks who are adamant that certain car makes are superior to others. Others are sure that certain cell phones and other technology are far greater than the other “competition.” We leaders of choirs are no different when it comes to being loyal to the publishers of choral music we buy for our choirs. Often, it’s even a composer or arranger that we like, so we stick with what “works.” There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself. My concern is that we limit ourselves by not branching out and seeing what’s available from other publishers because we think we are taking an unnecessary risk.

When I studied the choral literature of leaders of intergenerational choirs, I noticed a couple of general trends as I asked the leaders which publishers they buy their music from. These observations  highlight some interesting points to ponder:

  1. Church music publishers may be “loosely” identified in two camps: traditional/liturgical and evangelical
  2. Most leaders I spoke with purchase music from publishers in only one camp
  3. There are far more publishers out there that are traditional/liturgical
  4. While the evangelical publishers are fewer in number, they sell the lion’s share of music for the choir in the intergenerational church.
  5. Roughly 2/3 of the leaders (n=62) I studied buy almost all their music from the evangelical publishers. See chart below from my study:

primary publishers

If you are like me, you’re probably wondering why these publishing houses are so popular. There really can only be a few reasons why:

  1. Trustworthy. Most of us know what to expect from these publishers and the arrangers they employ. We subscribe to their choral plans and eagerly await the quarterly boxes (that fill up my office!), workshops, reading sessions as conferences, to see what’s newly published.
  2. Marketing. I don’t want to get into specifics here, but these publishers above spend an awful lot on marketing. They package things so they look “cool” and offer great discounts for choral plan members. These things make a difference for churches with limited budgets!
  3. Compatible Music Types offered. Similar to point one, we buy from publishers that will supply us with choir music that fits our choir/church, our preferred music type, and ability level.

I think the third point is really the most important. Are we really getting variety if we only buy from a few publishers? This is the question that drives me to ask—well, so what are the other publishers producing? I think it bears taking a deeper look into what music types these publishers are actually publishing. If contemporary and Southern gospel are the two most common music types found in choirs in intergenerational churches ( see Variety of Music is a great thing in the Intergenerational Choir), does this jibe with what the publishers are producing?

Publishers and Music Types

In my quest to figure out what were the dominant types of music published by these publishers, I decided I needed to speak to someone who was not affiliated directly with these publishers—I went to our local music distributor, PineLake Music. I spoke with both sister owners, Cynthia Revo and Beth Carter, as well as the late John Koger for a more objective opinion. Each provided me with great insight as to the dominant music types each of many of our church music publishers. Here’s the data:

What I did first is create a numbered list of each of the music types most likely found in church choral music. It is certainly not exhaustive…

  1. Black gospel  (1* will indicated what a called a whitened version of gospel music – 1 will indicated what I referred to as authentic gospel music including Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir arrangements at Word Music) Also, in my experience, only a small percentage of authentic gospel is ever written down for the purpose of publishing. You’re more likely to find this in non-evangelical publishers
  2. Southern gospel
  3. Contemporary
  4. Hymn arrangements
  5. Traditional Church Choral Anthems (I’ve typically described this term to my respondents as arrangers and writers such as Pepper Choplin, Joseph Martin, Mary McDonald, Heather Sorenson (some), Ruthie Schram)
  6. Spirituals
  7. Classical (Like Beethoven, Haydn, Bach-Masterworks)
  8. Modern Worship Anthems (A VERY newly composed Hillsong tune and the like)

After creating this numbered list, I made a list of many of the most frequently named evangelical and traditional publishing houses and I asked for input from the team at PineLake to identify the most common music types they published (see the first numbers in black). Then, I asked them to identify the top 3 DOMINANT music types they publish in rank order (most dominant first, then second, and third) in red

Prism – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 1)

Word – 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 2)

Lillenas – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8(8 3 2)

Brentwood Benson – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (8 2 3)

Lifeway – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 2)

Hinshaw – 4, 5, 6, 7 (5 4 7)

Shawnee Press (includes GlorySound & Mark Foster) – 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

Alfred (includes Belwin, Lawson-Gould, HW Gray & many others) – 1-8 (5 4 3)

Hope – 1*, 3, 4, 5, 6 (4 5 3)

Hal Leonard (represents tons of publishers – largest music publisher in the world – ALL STYLES) 1-8 (5 6 3)

Beckenhorst – 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

Integrity – (No longer exists as a publisher, what is left is available at Hal Leonard) 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 (8 3 1)

Lorenz – (includes Heritage Music Press, SoundForth, Crystal Sea and Santa Barbara Music) 2, 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

PraiseGathering/Randy Vader – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (4 3 2)

Here are some insights:

Prism, Word, Lillenas, Brentwood-Benson, Lifeway, Integrity & PraiseGathering (the EVANGELICAL publishers) are almost identical in their style and these priorities have varied over the course of the years.  I believe PraiseGathering is probably the most unique because they tend to be more inclusive of traditional church music styles (i.e. Piano Plus Hymn Arrangements) than their evangelical brothers. Integrity probably represents the highest representation of black gospel music for their artist/writers like Israel Houghton, Ron Kenoly and Alvin Slaughter of the evangelical publishers. Word had the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir for years, but as of the last 5 years or so they have begun their own publishing/distribution arm.

While it’s true that Hal Leonard, Alfred and Hinshaw have masterworks kinds of materials, I have limited my comparisons to the church division side of these companies.  Shawnee Press, Hope, Beckenhorst and Lorenz (the TRADITIONAL/MAINLINE church publishers) are similar to their evangelical cousins in that their styles of music are similar.

Side note: Another trend that has developed over the last few years is that arrangers who were once closely tied to a particular publisher are now free to roam the publishing world and you will see their names with many different brands. More later…

Let me tie this post up by bringing it back to how this relates to the intergenerational choir setting, since this is the purpose of my blog. I want to make a few points from the hierarchical rankings and then suggest some trends:

  1. All the top five listed in the above graphic, have contemporary and Southern gospel as one of the dominant music types
  2. Of the top 5, only Prism offers quasi-black gospel literature
  3. Hymn arrangements are found in many of the publishers, but only PG produces a large number of arrangements for publication.

The dominant music types found in these publishers suggests that choirs (all, not just IG) are singing what the publishers are producing. The question remains out there: who’s driving the ship? Are the publishers driving or is the consumer? I’ve met many arrangers; I am friends with some of them too. They want to write things that the church will use and the leaders will buy. If the church leaders were dissatisfied, the writers and arrangers would simply write something else. But, I believe that most leaders are not dissatisfied with the publishers and arrangers they have deemed a fit for their choir and congregation. AND that’s my issue. We leaders are enslaved to what we think is out their for us to choose from. So, we choose to stick with what works (see TRUSTWORTHY), and thus have no pressing reason to explore other publishing houses.

I think we leaders of choirs need to look beyond the top 5 for more variance. Look at Hal Leonard, Shawnee, Alfred, and Hinshaw if you typically stick to the top 5 above. The converse is also true. Go to reading sessions that offer a variety of publishers (such as at GO Georgia). Don’t simply listen to the same choral club CDs you’ve always subscribed to as they come in…listen online to these other publishers. Don’t simply drive to the nearest Prism Workshop as your sole source of literature—branch out so there is variety of music type, and variety of writers and arrangements—you’ll be glad you did!

Additional notes:

Did you know PineLake has two choral clubs that are from their bestsellers for that quarter that feature many different publishers. I’ve enjoyed subscribing to their contemporary/blended club for the last few years. Prism is a excluded. Check it out!

Many music distributors, such as Kempke’s, JW Pepper, and PineLake, have bestseller lists that can be very helpful for seeing what other colleagues are buying.

Variety of Music is a great thing in the Intergenerational Choir

Every choir has favorite songs they love to sing. These songs can have some special meaning to the choir or the choir just sounds good on these particular tunes. While I was researching literature of the intergenerational church choir, I asked my leaders to name 3-5 of their choir’s favorites. Almost every leader had no trouble coming up with a list of things their choir loves. After I gathered the information from the leaders, I had a total of 283 titles. Several of the leaders had similar titles, so there actually wound up being 160 different tunes in the list.

What I wanted to find out was two-fold. First, what was the music type category of each tune (Contemporary,  Southern gospel, Black gospel, Traditional church anthem, Hymn arrangement, etc)? Second, was there a difference between the music types the leaders reported they used and the actual music types from the favorite anthems?  Here are the results:favorite anthems

Now, look at the graph below from my last blog where I reported the music types given by the leaders when asked what types of music they use with their choirs. Remember,  the percentage of the graph above must equal 100 percent of the total of 160 different titles given, whereas below the percentages equal the percentage of the leaders that use the music type.

Music Types

The first thing I see when comparing the two lists is the ORDER of frequency. In both the music types of the favorite anthems reported AND the self-reported list of music types the leaders use with their choir, the music types are ranked similarly in frequency. This suggests that the leaders are well aware of the music types their choirs are singing and reported similarly when giving me their common music types. This suggests to me that choirs in the intergenerational church don’t have favorites that are in one music type either. Perhaps it is because they are exposed to various types of literature or maybe it has to do with the various ages that are involved in the church music ministry. Whatever it is, it reminds me that variety is alive in well in the intergenerational church choir.

I know some of you are interested in what would be on this list. Here are the top five songs in rank order:

  1. Thou, O Lord (19 indicated)
  2. The Majesty and Glory Of Your Name (11)
  3. We Will Remember (11)
  4. Jerusalem (8)
  5. This Blood (8)

Even in the list here, there is variety of music style! Variety is good, especially when done well.


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!

Drivers for Selecting Choral Music in the Intergenerational Church

It’ll come as no surprise that most leaders of choirs find their choral music from major publishers of choral music. While it’s a great idea to talk with your colleagues about effective music used in your own choir, most leaders of choirs I interviewed (and still talk with) listen to, and peruse the websites of, publishers offerings of new choral music. Leaders of choirs usually know what to expect from specific church music publishing houses, especially which arrangers and composers are published. Throughout the years, I have come to trust the product of certain publishers and subscribe to most of the major publishers choral clubs used by my colleagues that lean to “contemporary/blended” worship music in their services. But, as I suggested last week, often our “trust” of what to expect from these publishers limits what our choirs sing if we are not careful. I plan to unpack this idea (and more) more the next several weeks. But, before we dive into the world of church choral music publishing, I want to speak more globally about music selection. Specifically,  I want to touch briefly on what I discovered about what drives leaders of intergenerational church choral ministries to select the choral music for worship services. What I found in my own research in Georgia was that two main factors, text and the ability to present music well, seem to drive the ship.

It should be no surprise that almost all leaders (91.9%) indicated that text was a driving factor for anthem selection. Theological sound lyrics, lyrics that are biblically sound (or even adaptations of Scripture itself), and lyrics that exalt and give glory to Christ, are important to these leaders.

You may recall a few months ago, I wrote about those leaders who indicated that they value leading an intergenerational worship ministry because they believe it is biblical. Read more about it here: Profile of the Worship Leader that values Intergenerational Worship because it’s biblical  If you chose not to click the link, you may recall that fewer than 20 percent of those interviewed indicated this. To me, this is shockingly low! So, when those handful (>20 percent of leaders) were asked what drives the selection of their choral music, only 2/3 of those leaders who reported they should value an intergenerational choir because it was biblical also indicated text as a driving factor for anthem selection. It suggests to me that our leaders understand that need to pick strong, biblical texts, but there seems to be little correlation between text decisions and their biblical understanding to be intergenerational. Apparently they are not mutual inclusive.

Regarding the second driver besides text, almost 60% of leaders indicated the ability to present music well as a major factor for anthem selection. This second most frequent factor was lower in frequency than the first answer, but it makes perfect sense. Excellence and ability for a specific choir to be able to sing and play the song well are very important. No matter the church, it’s important to find songs that are a “win” for your choir. I did discover some interesting information when comparing those leaders who indicated that ability to present well was important. My results suggested that leaders of choirs that are Boomers were more likely than Generation X leaders to indicate this answer…2/3 Boomers to 1/3 of Gen X! I can’t speak to what this means without further study, but I wonder if the higher numbers of Boomers who had advanced (graduate-level) education may play into this answer.

Text and ability to present the music well were not the only answers given to me, but they were the most frequent. I doubt these answers wouldn’t be given by ANY church choral leader regardless of worship philosophy. Remember these answers, because as we journey through my research on the choral literature of these churches, you find that while a strong text is a non-negotiable driver of choral music selection, the ability to present the music well is FAR greater DRIVER of what actually makes it to the worship service.  More to come…

Is Choral Literature in the Intergenerational Church Actually Varied?

One of my favorite portions of the research I conducted on choral ministries in the intergenerational church, was finding out what types of music the music and worship leaders of these churches chose to use with their choirs. If you asked most church musicians what type of music best suits the intergenerational church, you’d most likely get a response that includes “a little bit of everything.” While I believed this to be true before I researched the literature of intergenerational churches, I discovered there was more to discover than simply defining what types of music are used in these choral ministries. ***By the way, I DO agree that multiple music types should be used as often as possible in worship. This does not mean that you should employ literature that is completely out of context for your church culture. See my post from a couple of weeks ago when I discussed this topic: Building relationships in your community is the key to creating a more diverse church

This blog post is one of many I will share what I found and explain what I believe is driving the musical choices in our choral ministries. I don’t think you’d be surprised at what I found, but the implications are far-reaching.  I will share a few highlights here and then use the next few posts to go into greater detail.  Here are some highlights to whet your appetite. As a reminder, these are generalizations and specific data will be presented in the coming weeks:

In regards to choral literature, music and worship leaders of intergenerational churches have this in common:

  1. Say that a biblical text is a driving factor in selection of choral music, but when asked why they espouse intergenerational philosophy, many do not indicate because it’s biblical.
  2. Say they value a variety of music types, BUT the variety usually consists of only 2-3 music types.
  3. The major choral music types in intergenerational churches are: Contemporary, hymn arrangements, southern gospel, traditional anthems, and black gospel. These are not found equally and I think you’ll be surprised by the un-balanced use of these choral music types.
  4. Choices of music literature are generally dictated by what the major church music publishers send/push to the music leader.
  5. Buy music from these major church music publishers which lean towards only 2 (possibly 3) music types and publish/promote literature as such

So—the question becomes—who’s driving the ship? The publishers are supposedly listening to  the consumer (church musicians) about what they want and will buy, but then if they never “push the envelope” or take chances on something multi-cultural or other ethnic-sounding literature, the consumer (church musicians) aren’t very likely to look for literature outside the publishers they trust.

In the coming weeks, we will be dealing with the following questions:

  1. What are intergenerational music leaders looking for in choral music for their choirs—musical, textual, non-musical, etc.?
  2. What percentages of choral music may be categorized into the music types that are most prevalent?
  3. Of the major publishers used by intergenerational choral music leaders, what are the music types most prevalent in the music they sell and is the correlation between what is sold and what is sung in our churches?
  4. What is the percentage of solo-driven choral literature used by each music leader and how does the presence of solo-driven literature correlate with your vision to treat all as equally important? OR is the literature presented by the publishers dictating the over/under-use, of solo-driven literature?
  5. What are some of the favorite anthems of these choirs and what are the music types of those anthems? Do these findings correlate to “general” literature chosen for worship.
  6. What types of accompaniments are being used by these churches and does that have any affect on the literature sung?

Looking forward to sharing these discoveries with you. My HOPE in all this is simply to help the music leader remember that there are MANY places for choral music that will not only engage multiple generations, but also multiple ethnicities in our churches today.


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