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:

Accompaniments

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.