Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Congregation Hymn singing

A young church musician of my very close aquaintance came home from church this morning with a very interesting problem. The Warden of his Anglican congregation told him in an after-worship meeting that the congregation was not singing hymns perfectly.  She suggested the choir spend their rehearsal time working on the hymns, and having the choir sing anthems less often.  But this week part of the rehearsal was spent with the children's choir, and this music director often does rehearse hymns during choir, and sometimes has congregational rehearsals.  How can we encourage her to be less of a control freak, and more importantly, understand congregational singing is more about making a joyful noise than expecting the congregation to sing perfectly.
He told me this question was too bizarre for ChoralNet--that no one could possibly have had a problem like this before-- and I told him he ain't seen nothing yet!
Replies (36): Threaded | Chronological
on February 5, 2012 2:08pm
WOW!!  A Warden, whether Senior or Junior, has no business acting as music critic!  You're right; this is a sign of a control freak.  But my question would be, where is the priest in all this?  His or her word is final, even though there is a good deal of self-governance in the Episcopalian demonimation (and perhaps less in the Anglican-Catholic).
Sounds as if a meeting of the grownups is in order, with a discussion not only of the perceived problem but with the definition of such vague terms as "perfectly."  But you didn't say whether your young church musician was the choir director or simply one of the choir.
on February 5, 2012 2:57pm
I'm really not sure what perfectly means.  I have never worked with a congregation who sang every hymn perfectly, either. My comment to him was she is being unrealistic and there's no pleasing her.  And taking time from choir rehearsals to do it.  He wants his choir to be able to do more difficult music and build it up and can't because he isn't allowed to have them sing every week. It's crazy.
The young church musician is the director of music--organist/pianist/choir director.  And this is his first church job.  As far as the priest is concerned, I think she's keeping her head down :( He has a meeting in two weeks.
on February 5, 2012 3:10pm
Seems like if the congregation doesn't know the hymns well enough, then more choir rehearsal isn't going to solve it. What they need is congregational rehearsal. Perhaps that could take place next Sunday in place of the sermon. Maybe your friend could suggest that to this timid priest.
on February 6, 2012 8:14am
Oh, Allen, shame on you!  Good idea, though! (One of the comments I make when I hear, "We don't know this/that/the other hymn you've got us singing" is:  "When you came out of the womb, you knew NO songs.  But you learned, right?  Stick with it; it'll happen; you'll learn - you have already" - and then, work new songs into the repertoire by letting the choir do it first, then encouraging the congregation's participation, etc.  We would NOT be permitted to take the time before Mass rehearsing a hymn with the congregation - it would disturb people disposing themselves in prayer to participate well at Mass, so, were we faced with that, the options are pretty limited.....)
Marie, have someone ask the Warden the following questions:
Is every person in this building exactly alike?  With exactly the same talents to the same degree?  Are they all musically trained?  Are you aware of the psalm text that requires us to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," not "sing a perfect hymn unto the Lord?"  (What a lot of clergy and people around them forget is the wisdom in the Bible!)  Does everything in the church happen perfectly, week after week, day after day, moment to moment?  No?  Well, then; our task is to do it as well as possible; and, incidentally, will you, Mr./Ms. Warden, stand up before that very congregation and demand perfect musical results, since they're the ones who have to deliver it?  No?  Go do your job; leave us, with the direction of the rector, to do ours.  Amen.
The director may very well have an enemy at the end of the "discussion," but at least there will be some room.  AND an opportunity to put a spine in this priest's back!  I suspect she's being railroaded by this shnook as well.  This might come even better from a respected member of the community who ISN'T the director, but is willing to stand the gaffe of this clown and hold his/her own.
P. S.  Yeah, I am a prickly sort!  After 40+ years of this, I have no patience for this sort of nonsense - and none of us should, either!
on February 6, 2012 9:19am
Thanks, Ron.  And thanks Allen and John and every one who has contacted me off list. 
This is the kid's first church job and it's been a pip....he graduates with a performer's certificate in  piano (and plays organ and harpsichord, too) in June. I told him to hang tough and look for another job.
He thinks he can change people and they think he's just a kid--but he's the one with degrees in music (with more to come) and they're not.   Do we have to be micro-managed when we have been hired to do a job and they're just the kibbuzters on the side? Why hire a professional when *they* think they know more?
I know what you mean about being prickly----I'm crabby when it comes to this stuff myself.
on February 8, 2012 6:04am
Marie - Your comment about him thinking he can change people - sigh; that'll get knocked out of him with time.  Either that, or he'll end up in another field with the same problem....youth, it's wonderful, but sometimes wasted on the young!  But more to the point:  no matter where he goes, and you know this, he'll always encounter those who are never happy with anything he does or tries to do and, oh, incidentally, the world would spin so much more smoothly if ONLY he would listen to "THEM" and do as "THEY" say.  Remember, "THEY" didn't get to hire him, most likely; "THEY" wish they could have, so they can bully yet one more person (and that's what this is, bullying); "THEY," because they have an official position within the worshiping community, are entitled to an opinion on everything, even if they haven't the foggiest notion of what they're talking about (the comment about "opinions are like..." er, well, where nasty stuff comes from, "everyone's got one," comes to mind).  Part of the problem too is that this Warden is likely a much older person and has become very accustomed to treating younger people like idiots - even if their knowledge is far greater than the Warden's - and if the priest is a weak-kneed sort, that isn't going to get fixed (I would suspect that much the same dynamic applies there as well).
As to looking for another job, probably the sensible thing to do, but he may hesitate to do so because it IS a "bird in the hand" situation, and we all know that it's tough out there for church musicians.  What he needs is a cute, non-threatening way to deliver the message we all know needs delivering - maybe something like, "Well, thank you Warden, for your kind thoughts; perhaps you'd like to show us just how that could be done?  Would you like to demonstrate that for us?"  Naturally, the likely response would be something like, "Well, I'm not a musician, so you should do that," to which a sickly sweet reply should be, "But I'm SURE you could show me how to do this so much better."  Time for a disappearing act by a Warden at that moment...
What he also needs to know is that this person is not ever likely to become a friend, so not to worry about that.
on February 8, 2012 11:28am
Hey Ron--We're all idealistic with our first real job in music--and this is his first where he is THE director.  It isn't so much fun in reality, is it?!?!?!  I actually articulated aloud your comment about opinions....I guess in this business, we all have to get down and dirty sometimes, even Lady Marie, to tell it how it is!
The Warden told him she is a perfectionist this past summer and THAT made me uncomfortable. And you're right, she is a bully. And being a perfectionist--or having to deal with a perfectionist--is exhausting because you are never satisfied or can never satisfy them. And a *little* person will try to be the*Big Dog* because in every other aspect of their life, they have no control. 
Looking for a new job.......while trying to hang I think what he will do.
Sigh. Poor kid.
on February 9, 2012 6:40am
Marie - I suspect when you gave the missing word to my thought on opinions, he probably guffawed!  And that has a lovely double entendre!  Perfectionism, as you have pointed out, is another word for "control" - and the problem most of us have (self included) is that we don't have it, and don't want to recognize that (I was reminded about this last night at rehearsal - wanted to do a special piece for Offertory - nope!  But I think I'm gonna do a hymn we introduced last week that's new, and follow my own advice about how to get a congregation to go places with a new piece of music - it's a hymn based on THAXTED (O God, Beyond All Praising) which has a corresponding Holy Week hymn (Three Days) based on the same hymn tune).  Give him my encouragement on this one - while sharing another thought:  "Keep smiling - it'll make those around you wonder what you're up to!"
on February 6, 2012 10:03am
WELL SAID!!! With over 40 years in this work as well, and while my patience has strengthened over time, I still get "prickly" over stuff like this. A more worth goal for congregational singing would be to get more of them to sing! It still amazes me that so many people calling themselves Christian worshipers refuse to participate in the singing of "Psamls, hymns and spiritual songs." Further, me thinks this "Warden" is taking her title way too seriously! 
A suggestion: By using the Metrical Index in the back of the hymnal, many wonderful texts can be discovered and experienced by the congregation by singing them to familiar hymn tunes based on the same poetic meter. I have found this exercise to greatly increase participation and enthusiasm for hymn singing. It provides the comfort of familiarity (the tune) with a sense of discovery and relevance to the morning theme (the text/hymn). 
Marie, continue to give all the personal encouragement and support you can to this aspiring young church musician. The rewards WILL be great - for him and for you!
Wayne Miller
on February 8, 2012 12:06pm
Hi Wayne,
To sing better, we have to sing more and you are right about the lack of participation in many congregations. The Warden also thinks his choir should sing less so they can be more perfect. It makes no sense.
When he arrived at this job, the choir hadn't sung with any regularity for several years.  I think the congregation and the choir got out of the habit of singing, for whatever reason. He was expected to make a miracle and it's been a little over a year with him having to fight for the choir to sing, eventho he was hired to revive the choir.
The money was good (at the time) so he took the job. 
The Metrical Index is a good idea....will pass it along.
Thank you!
on February 7, 2012 12:05pm
Not a bizarre question at all; in fact, perhaps an all-too-common kind of problem in the shared territory (ie. the worship arena) that clergy, church music leaders, and in this case, lay leaders find themselves in. 
On the bright side, at least some COMMUNICATION was made, even if it looks like (from what I have read) it was inappropriate, and from a control freak. I am not making excuses for this warden, but believe me when I say I have seen situations where a passive-aggressive thing was going on, and NO direct communication was made to the leader about a desired change, complaint, or what-have-you. Thus... resulting in a "quiet party" of dissenters who eventually take control some other way, and in some cases, get the leader ousted! I saw that happen to a fellow youth director, despite glowing annual evaluations from the supervisor, the Pastor! After seeing that sad situation, I made it a point to focus on relationship and communication strategies with the various leaders in all the ministries of the church as they relate to worship (as if we are a team, even though many leaders don't really like to work that way; takes too much time), so as to not get isolated or compartmentalized in my own ministry, and find a surprise down the road.
These are my thoughts, from my experience across 30 years as music director, mostly in the Anglican worship world, where (in my opinion!) opinions tend to run too high and become all-too-personal. It's nice when the Rector leaves the music director alone, and everyone gets along fine. But I have rarely heard of that happening for very long. I have found that working towards a Win-Win often has to do with the musicians and clergy finding shared worship/music values, agreeable goals, and a positive way to communicate about them, and most importantly- carry them out in a way that doesn't compromise anyone, and in a way that furthers God's Kingdom. A lofty achievment indeed, but one worth pursuing even if it feels like one step forward, two steps back.... At least you can always fall back on your shared values and goals to determine your action, rather than giving in to someone's opinion, or power struggle. Call it building integrity?
It could be considered unfortunate that this young leader finds himself in this tough position already. I think it's almost inevitable in church work. I agree with what someone else wrote- where is the pastor in all of this? It seems that the pastor and music leader should be most closely working together through these rough waters. Also totally agree with a previous comment that the "grown-ups" (and I use that term loosely;-) should prayerfully meet, though they may need some kind of good mediator if it has any chance of being successful.
However, in a not-perfect-world, it could also be considered God's economy for this young leader have this experience now, and begin to figure out a good way through it (as opposed to "fight or flight..."), at least during the time remaining that he feels called to stay in this position. In other words, what good can come out of this? You wrote that this young leader "thinks he can change people..." That will be a hard lesson to work through. Only God can change people, who are willing to be changed, that is... and how many of us are?! Even though the Gospel is supposed to be transforming. But if others you work with don't/won't change, there's not going to be much this young leader is going to be able to do. Probably good advice to get him looking elsewhere for a new job in the meantime...
That being said, though, this leader at least has youth, enthusiasm and perhaps the lack of cynicism (that us older, jaded folks can tend to have;-) on his side. At the same time, he should not take any "bullying" from the older leaders, who thinks he's just a kid who should follow their orders. This young leader does have the authority to shape the goals of the choir and choir rehearsal. That can include training the choir to help lead congregational music, but should not exclude the other goals of the choir (building repertoire, anthems, etc.) I think the warden/clergy understand the need for balance in all of of this.
It's likely that this young leader is already playing keyboard (piano/organ?) quite well, but there are certain hymn-playing techniques he could learn in his keyboard playing that can improve congregational singing, if he isn't doing them already. It doesn't all have to be focused on the choir's singing, though if they breathe well and articulate text well, and... believe it or not, make eye contact, that always helps the congregation. And yes, some congregational rehearsal here and there is appropriate (I like that idea someone else had; in place of the sermon;-)
Well, I fear I am starting to ramble. This is a sore subject for me. Does anyone know of a good book out there specifically addressed on how church leaders (eg. clergy and musicians) can learn to relate better, so they can actally minister better, and maybe spend more time making music, rather than having power struggles?!
One last piece of advice that I have heard and used successfully that you could pass on to this leader if you wish:
If you want to change the situation you're in for the better, BE the change. Start where you are, first.
Maybe start with changing the language of the current situation. The words "perfect singing" for the congregation is inappropriate, I think in this case. I have a teenage son with Down Syndrome who LOVES to sing his praises in the congregation, and in my children's choir, for that matter. What is his "perfect hymn singing" supposed to sound like?" you might pose to that warden. Well, I will tell you- it does sound exactly like a joyful noise (more like a joyful wail...!) And people from my congregation tell me all the time how they are incredibly blessed when they hear his "joyful noise." That is all he has to give; his "widow's mite." And we do work very hard to help him improve, and not be a distraction to others...
But the more important question is: What does it sound like to God? I like to think, for my son's sake, that it sounds like heavenly voices.
on February 8, 2012 11:46am
J. Senja,
So many good ideas, thank you! 
Since I wasn't at the service in question, I don't know if the hymn was a new one, or an old one or how he played.  I do know this young man has been playing for choirs since he was 10 years old and literally, took his first steps in a church choir loft.  He was an accompaniest for another church for several years before getting this job.  I do know this is not a *singing* congregation but more of a *mumbling* congregation since I've helped him several times as a canter and have worked with his choir.  Allen is right--the choir reheasing the hymns won't make a differecne. And I also know he has had *congregation* practices before worship--possibly, once a month--to introduce new hymns. I think it is more the Warden than anyone and her ideas of what congregational singing is suppose to be.
And, as an aside, I have an adult son with autism who loves music and know EXACTLY what you mean. Things that used to be important to me are just not as important since he came into my life! Please consider joining the ChoralNet Community "Friends of Joyful Noise"--this is a place for those who work with choirs with challenges or who are trying to form choirs such as Joyful Noise--a choir of adults with physical and intellectual challenges based in New Jersey-- or have music inclusion questions.  We would love to have you there!
on February 9, 2012 11:47pm
Hi Marie- thanks for the tip on the group "Friends of Joyful Noise..." I will look into it as soon as I get past a Valentine's show I am accompanying...! I also teach piano lessons to kids and adult with special needs (mostly Autism) through our local park district, and it is an area of my music career I am contemplating expanding. There's certainly a need for special needs music teachers (and other arts, for that matter) out there, coming from a parent of a special needs child...
Hey- some other questions occured to me, back to that original question of "congregational perfect singing;" or (shall we change that language to "improving a congregation's singing?") What reason lies at the main ROOT of the problem singing for this congregation?
Are they just not used to singing? Are they inhibited? Feeling forced? Being passive? Just not motivated to sing? Any amount of rehearsal, good articulation, or what-have-you is going to make little difference if they are not motivated to sing in the first place. And, what motivates a worshipper to sing? Hmmm.... praising God, as Ron wrote? And the more you grow in your spiritual relationship to God, the more you respond in praise... and who is responsible for the spiritual growth of the parish? Seems like a good discussion topic for BOTH the clergy and musicians together.
on February 9, 2012 3:48pm
J. Senja - Thank you for reminding us of the whole point of the exercise - praising God.  We do forget that sometimes, don't we?  And if we do, and we're around it all the time, is it any wonder that others do it even more frequently?
on February 8, 2012 5:11am
Hello Marie -
When a new hymn is being inroduced in our congregation, it often "mysteriously" appears in the prelude so it somehow sounds a bit more familiar to the congregation. If the hymn is not too long, it also helps for the organist/pianist to play the entire hymn as an introduction, instead of just the last stanza. When we moved to a new liturgy, our congration actually took some time at the beginning of the service for several Sundays to learn the new version.  The leader would sing a phrase and then the congregation would repeat that with the leader. Even in our rural Lutheran congregation (where we don't change a light bulb without a study committee) there weren't the complaints that we feared - and the congregation seemed quite comfortable when we actually worshiped with the new setting.  Not everything was perfect - but that is why we start the service with a confession and the kyrie. Just my two cents.
Best wishes,
on February 8, 2012 11:50am
A good idea--including a new hymn portion of the prelude.  Couldn't hurt!
on February 8, 2012 5:25am
I agree with J. Senja - at least some communication was made, and directly to him.  All the communication that I ever get - except from the pastor when she wants a certain kind of song for the week - is through my church choir, telling me that "someone" doesn't like the music that I've picked, or thinks it was to slow, etc.  By then the message is second or third-hand, and when I ask the church choir member to clarify, they can't!  I work in a Methodist church, so I'm not certain what a Warden's job description is, but I assume it's something similar to a deacon?  A layperson who's volunteered to help with congregational matters for a year or so?  Or is it a hired position, and perhaps that's why she is taking her job so seriously?
I also agree that it's a good idea to ask the Warden what she means by "perfectly."  When I first arrived at my current church job, I made the mistake of introducing too many new songs at once - the congregation couldn't keep up.  I had to learn that if I wanted to use new songs, I would have to introduce them one at a time, and sing them several weeks in a row until my congregation really understood how they went.  It's tricky when you're new to a congregation - you don't know what tunes they do or do not know.  Generally I just ask my choir or praise team members if they know the song already.  Maybe what the Warden meant to ask (she definitely could have approached this more professionally!) was if your friend could try to use more familiar songs in worship.
on February 8, 2012 11:52am
I think asking what *perfectly* means is a good idea.  He was flabbergasted because a congregation normally doesn't sing perfectly in any situation.
on February 9, 2012 6:58am
Rebecca - You bring up another issue not necessarily directly related to what this young man is facing, but which is real:  how to get out of the "same-old-same-old" rut with the hymns.  (We've often joked in choir that there are some parts of the congregation who would be happy if ONLY we would do the same four hymns just rotated around to the main four positions - Entrance, Offertory, Communion, Recessional/Sending Forth.)  The main problem here is satisfying the artist in us who wants to do "new things" and, in our enthusiasm for the great new piece of music we've found, we rush to give the gift to an unprepared congregation and expect their enthusiasm to match ours - NOT!  You are dead on with the thought of introducing things slooooooooooooooooowly, and one at a time, and not too many times in a year, otherwise the congregation sits there looking at you, dumbfounded.  (And can you imagine this Warden's reaction THEN??!!)  Dunno where you are the music minister, but in the Catholic Church it's a real challenge, sometimes; we have just enough people who are old enough to remember that congregations did NOT sing - that was the choir's business.  Then, on top of it, with the "folk" experience of post-Vatican II songwriting (which has created a really wierd dynamic in our music-making in the church - you have 50-and-60-year-olds who think that "folk" music is the "traditional" music of the church - and do NOT know what were traditional hymns back in 1962 and look at you cross-eyed when you do "Faith of Our Fathers" and "Now Thank We All Our God" and "Holy, Holy, Holy"!!!!) and inevitable developments and return to older forms (lots of chant-based music), is it any wonder that congregations are mum when we introduce a new piece ("What???? A new song?  Omigod, I haven't learned the LAST one....!!!") in all our wonderful enthusiasms?  And this Warden wants "perfect" hymn singing from this congregation, Episcopalian as it may be?  I'm sorry, what universe does she inhabit?
And so we keep on learning, and he's got a whole lifetime ahead of him for this....
on February 9, 2012 6:22am
My heart goes out to this young man who is in a no-win situation.  Having dealt with this attitude multiple times, I believe there is another dynamic at work here.  I suspect the Warden is someone who views herself as the "spiritual leader" of that church, and that the music of the church is in competition for dominance.  It is a common view of small minded, power obsessed control freaks.  With these people there is never any realization, nor even any openness to the realization that the music is chosen to complement and dovetail with the scripture and sermon of the day.  They only consider this to be "trying to be too big for your britches," and yes, I've heard these exact words!  I once was told by a pastor that I could no longer have the choir sing a communion anthem during communion, because a member had complained to him that she didn't know when she came to the rail whether she was supposed to listen to the anthem or take communion.  Would have been nice for him to have the backbone to say, "Well, you take communion when you come to the rail, of course!"  But he was also afraid of the music being valued too highly, thus "diminishing" his place.
I agree that looking for another position is probably his best way out of this situation, but another thought occurs to me.  Perhaps this would best be handled by someone on the vestry addressing the warden and telling her she's overstepped her bounds.
on February 9, 2012 9:45am
Wow...I am late to reply to this thread, but it is clearly a case of the warden overstepping her bounds as mentioned by a few other posters.  I am an organist and choir director of an Episcopal Church, and according to my priest the only function of a senior warden is to step in and run the place when the priest is not there and to act as consultant and advisor to the priest.  All worship areas are the responsibility of the priest.  Thanks be to God that my priest defers to me in all matters of music in almost all instances aside from offering suggestions or ideas.  Someone needs to hand this warden the little booklet put out by the Episcopal Church that explains what her duties are and she really needs to butt out!
Jason Kamrath, 
Baltimore, MD
on February 9, 2012 3:46pm
Gee, Jason, you wouldn't happen to have an extra copy of that "little booklet" to send to Marie to hand off to her young friend, do you?  (Imagine an evil little grin on my face!)
on February 9, 2012 6:41pm
Allen said it succinctly. I agree. Further, I have made a twenty minute talk on "In Ihe Garden." Many folk shun it thoughtlessly. Who in the New Testament spent saignificant times in a garden? And where did Adam encounter God? Many hymns are sermons ipso facto. As Allen said, a whole sermon/service could be dedicated to learning at least one new hymn. The church where I am helping now repeats some of the same ditties, at least, monthly. (Not my doing) Sad.
Oh, by the way, how does one perfectly sing a hymn, or anything else? Surely a cleric would know!
on February 10, 2012 5:16am
Edward - Tempting as it may be to put this on the clerics, but in this case, we need to remember that it's an individual, not a class of individuals, who's guilty of the sin of perfectionism - and bullying.  And from Marie's description, the one assuredly clerical person in the mix (the priest) seems herself not to be a particularly strong character and may very well be being bullied by this very Warden.  No; this Warden needs to demonstrate perfect hymn singing - that's an exercise I'd like to be a fly on the wall to see and hear!
on February 10, 2012 8:26am
Do you suppose the Warden (Frankly a new thing to me) spoke entirely on her own or was she speaking the words of a "shy" person of the cloth?
Your last sentence is what I was getting at - thanks. That demonstration I would travel miles to witness.
on February 11, 2012 10:06am
Ed - You and me both!  But you do bring up a good point about the Warden being a mouthpiece for a rector who might want to avoid conflict about hymn choices, etc., though Marie's response to you seems to put the lie to that - if the Rector has, even at the last minute, made changes to the hymn selections, I don't think she's so shy that she wouldn't express her opinions about the congregation's singing style.  In addition, Marie also said that this Warden pointed out early on that she's a perfectionist - no, I think this one's squarely on the Warden.  Marie's comment below, though, concerns me, because this sort of clerical behavior ("I don't care what you've planned; change it") at the last minute is, if it happens often enough, an expression of exercising power and reminding everyone around him/her that that power is his/hers.  We had something like this happen here at Ft. Belvoir; my predecessor would go downstairs to check things out at the last minute with the celebrant (a particular one, in this case) who would invariably throw this, that, or the other piece out and demand changes - poor her; she'd come upstairs to the loft fuming (I think he did it as much to annoy her as any theological reason).  When I became the director, though, he'd ask me right before Mass what we were doing, and he tried to pull the same stunt on me; my answer always was, "Father, hugely unfair to the work the choir's done preparing this; besides, you might not like the piece, but there are others out there who do.  We're doing it."  (I admit, his position as a contract padre as opposed to being the pastor made it easier to do that, but I've always found it interesting that it's NOT the pastor or the lead cleric who does this nonsense, but always the help!  Also me being the closer side of 60 as opposed to 25 also helps, to be honest.)
Emily's points are well-taken as well; there's something else afoot here, and our poor young director is caught in the middle of something - don't know what, though.  Well, I'll keep him in my thoughts.  Oh, and Ed, IF that demonstration takes place, shall we reserve our seats?
on February 10, 2012 9:33am
One of the interesting queries y'all keep bringing up are the hymns in question. 
My young friend helps choose them with a committee and the Rector can (and sometimes does)change them, sometimes at the last minute with him  not knowing in time enough to practice them before hand. Lousy.  It is not clear to me if the Warden is on the hymn committee but that could be the whole problem--not him, per se, but the dynamics of who is in the hymn selection group.  A power struggle within the church and he's just an innocent bystander.  This didn't occur to me until I read through this thread.
This definitely is a hot button issue for us all.  Thanks to all who have responded thus far and keep 'em coming!
on February 12, 2012 3:38pm
Interesting discussion.  In my opinion, particularly when dealing with difficult personalities, it is better to focus on facts than feelings.  Difficult people are already insecure and usually will not respond well to confrontation about their behavior.  Why not try asking the warden for his/her suggestions?  "We practiced these hymns at choir rehearsal this week.  What do you suggest we do in addition to that?"  Maybe the warden's agenda from the get-go was to improve congregational singing (even by using the choir), and your young friend, being a music educator/director, had an agenda to improve the choir.  Two different goals.  Maybe clarity could be reached--via Pastor or committee--on what the actual goal is, then it would be your friend's responsibility, as their employee, to work toward that goal.  To stick to facts, again, as many people have brought up the question is why the congregation is having difficulty.  Are there too many new hymns at once?  Are there 30 of them sitting in pews meant to hold they can't hear each other and don't get any confidence?  Is the balance of the instrument (piano/organ) supportive of congregational singing?  Is the warden by any chance right---even the choir is faltering on the hymns?  I don't think your friend should feel threatened by the suggestion to not sing anthems every week.  So many church choirs have to produce anthem after anthem, every week, with no chance to really develop a piece and do it really well.  Relieved from this pressure, perhaps they would get better!  Also, it is wonderful that someone cares about the congregational singing (outside of the music director).  One skill that I believe every young (or old) music director needs to learn is to simply smile and nod :).  Developing a repertoire of responses like, "That's a great suggestion!"  or "I'll keep that in mind."   Or just simply, "I see.  Uh-huh."  Doesn't commit you to anything but makes the person think you heard them.  (Don't tell my congregation I said that.  :) )  Best of luck to your friend.  These are life lessons that I believe people in all lines of work run into.  While he's looking for a better environment in which to work, maybe he will develop some coping skills where he's at.
on February 12, 2012 5:25pm
I have being following this discussion from several thousand kilometres away in south eastern Australia, and have been interested (surprised) to notice that the leading and supporting of congregational hymn-singing does not seem to seen as a primary responsibility for church choirs.  The congregation where I direct the church choir (mainline protestant -- not Anglican) has a clear expectation that this is what the choir will do, and members will let me know if they are not getting the assistance they would like.  :-)  We always practise the hymns and other response -- which are always chosen by the minister/worship leader -- making sure that the we are singing the familiar well and that we learn the new thoroughly. 
on February 12, 2012 8:56pm
Good point, Helen, but it leads right to the question, what is meant by "leading" the congregation.  Singing the right notes and rhythms with good phrasing and understanding of the words, certainly, and the SATB parts if that's what the choir does.  But unless one assumes electronic amplification, it can actually be rather difficult to HEAR the choir with the organ honking and (we pray) a full house with everyone singing the melody in unison, octaves up, octaves down, and sometimes other interesting intervals not present in the hymnals. 
I doubt that anyone is advocating NOT going over the hymns in rehearsal.  My wife always did, whether it was with the junior choir or when she was filling in with the senior choir.  And the younger kids in the Choristers could pick up the melody instantly with the once-through organ introduction, and were actually only reading the words from the hymnbook until they got a little older and were reading the notes as well.
All the best,
on February 13, 2012 9:56am
To John's (later) point, while I value the influence of the choir in leading congregational hymns, by far our BEST congregational singing is on those rare Sundays (alternating weeks in the summer when choir sometimes takes a Sunday off) when the choir is not in the loft but seated among the congregation, and I have a large choir.  This is primarily an issue involving the size of our sanctuary and the organ volume.  Whenever we do special hymn sings, I never put the choir in the loft; rather I encourage them to scatter among the congregation.  In addition to the common and familiar ways of encouraging congregational singing, some of the less direct ways we do so is by including occasional a cappella stanzas and in the (community building) practice of assigning different stanzas to men and women/children.  A cappella stanzas are often very beautiful and moving.  (Logically this works best with familiar hymns.  The effect is greatly enhanced by the choir richly singing parts--not unison--from the loft.)  Basically, I think these practices increase expectation and challenge the congregation to become fuller participants....
on February 13, 2012 10:24am
I would say that leading the congregation's song is a pretty vital part of what my congregation expects from our choir.  We don't have a choir at our early service, so the folks who attend then are on their own, but the choir at the later service really assists the congregation singing by their powerful voices and knowledge of singing and musicianship.  I rather imagine that one of the reasons my congregation sings in parts is that our choir does so...the singing in the congregation gets a lot of support from the choir.  I also believe leading the congregation's singing is my first responsibility, and probably why I was hired for this particular is on the top of my interests and skills.  It helps me a lot when I get some say in the hymns selected, because I can pick them so that each service contains familiar hymns whenever a new hymn is selected.  When I cannot select them, I look very carefully to the new hymns to see how I can best lead the hymn for the congregation so that they will sing with the passion for the text and tune of the hymn, and be less concerned about their ability to sing it at all (though there are some who are always less wiling to try...who can control that?).
Nan Beth Walton
on February 13, 2012 12:55pm
Getting back to the orignal issue--is it proper for a Church Leader to tell us, as the church music professional, to spend most of our time rehearsing hymns in choir rehearsal even if it means not having the choir sing as often? Having the choir lead hymns is one thing but being expected to take time away from the function of the choir--singing music to enhance/enlarge the message of the Lectionary or Homily and lead worship--is another. And this Young Church Musician was hired to get this church choir back on track after several years not having a choir. You can't get a choir back on track if they never sing.
In my 25+ years in mainline Presbyterian churches, I would also hear this about hymn singing and the congregations--especially as we eased into new hymnals.  And it was also suggested to me to take time in my rehearsals to go over hymns--no one ever suggested not having my choir sing--my choir would not have stood for it (a couple of my altos would have eaten them for lunch!). My solution was to use any hymn that wasn't as famillar--usually there was one--and incorporate into our rehearsal warm-ups for that week.  Singing them on a loo or ahh, in SATB, and working on blend was great to get the choirs thinking, too.  It didn't take time away from rehearsal since it was a standard part of my rehearsal.
It may interest you to know I got a phone call yesterday after servcies from the Young Church Musician and he told me the Warden complimented his children's choir.  They were adorable--4 to 9 year olds--and sang very well, even getting applause.  The congregation's hymn singing went well but the YCM chose all of the hymns for yesterday instead of others choosing them.  That might tell you something.
on February 13, 2012 6:21pm
Folks - Point:  Irrespective of the denomination we work for/with/in, the general view is the choir, when singing, is there to assist and lead the congregation in singing the hymns, responses, etc., that are a part of the liturgical flow of the service.
Point:  Unless the hymns are extremely well-known, upcoming hymns of the next service are rehearsed before tackling other matters.  (In our case, we add the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel Acclamation to the rehearsal mix - this is for Mass.)
Point:  This isn't about the issue - Marie's last post told us that her YCM's Children Choir had done a bang-up job, and he'd picked the hymns.  My question, Marie:  Did the Warden complain about not having "perfect" singing from the congregation? 
Point:  While confrontation may not be the best answer most of the time, the problem here seems to be that someone (the Warden) has stepped out of her lane.  Unfortunately, the person who should firmly put her back in it (the Rector) doesn't seem to either want to or acknowledge that there is a problem.  That leaves the problem squarely in the YCM's lane.  Yes, to address it politely and cooperatively would be the best; but there are times when steel needs to be shown.  This may, and I emphasize MAY, be one of those times.  As I said in my original post, this may be also a case of "I'm an adult, young man, and you're not yet, and so you'd better listen to what I say and do it" even if not put precisely in that harsh a way.  He needs to make it clear that while indeed he may not be as experienced as others, he is nonetheless the hired professional, and that his understanding of his professional responsibilities is NOT to have a congregation singing "perfectly" (whatever that may be, and by whomever's judgment), but to encourage the congregation TO sing in praise of God.  Furthermore, if it gets to this point, he should point out that the Warden is NOT his supervisor, but that the Rector is.  If the Rector is unhappy with what is going on, she needs merely to speak with him and make her intentions known; but that second-hand or other-hand information is not a good way to run a railroad.  I also pointed out that the result may be that this Warden will not ever be a friend; if not, too bad, so sad; onward to the next issue, please.  Now, if I misunderstand the dynamic and the hierarchical arrangement (and no matter that this may be a "low-church" Episcopalian church with much less emphasis on hierarchy), there is STILL some sort of hierarchy, or otherwise it's chaos - which this is threatening to become.
Now, perhaps the YCM's experience with the kiddies' choir may encourage him to think that the situation is improving, but I think not.  I think the Warden might simply think that the "aw" factor with the kids is more important than "perfection" (Lord knows, I've run into THAT problem, only this time with a Parish Administrator - a pastor-in-training - who felt that the little 3rd grader who led the congregation in song along with the choir ought have sung perfectly - this from a man who claimed no musical knowledge, and yet he was a perfect critic! - and I hastened to point out that "lambs must first learn to bleat, Father, before they 'baa' well as sheep"), and that criticism of the wee ones is going to be more of a problem than it's worth.  She's still out there, lurking.  Beware.
on February 13, 2012 10:03pm
I do know the Warden didn't not say anything about the congregation's hymn singing this week.  In fact, the YCM chose what he thought would be "kid friendly" hymns for this service since he knew the kids would be a big part of it, responses and all, before this all unfolded.  Given his meeting last week and his following of this thread, he wanted to go over one of the hymns with the kiddos--"Wade in the Water"--during rehearsal.  In a twist of irony, the Sunday School superintent thought going over the hymns would take time away from the kids rehearsal of the anthem--stop laughing, will ya--so he didn't rehearse it and they all did a really good job despite not going over it.
This tends to be "low church"  Episcopalian and I don't think they know what they want, musically, and I think that is a huge problem. He's been told he's "not Anglican enough" and then told to be more "Catholic" and then dragged to Taize services to get "ideas" for music, by the Warden--all of those things can be included in a good music program but the church musician should be the one to decide where and when within the music program. I do agree with you about stepping up about this. I just don't understand the Rector not speaking up--it doesn't make any sense to me. He has to be firm about the Warden overstepping and YCM has to be the adult about it--he has the degrees in music, not she, and I have told him so a number of times.  But what do I know--I'm just his materfamilias. Yep, you read that right and in Latin, too. And he's worried someone will google and figure out who he is, so Mum's the word. And why I've posted for him.
I have gone to help out with his choir a few times and they have a huge case of low self-esteem. Probably from a few people telling them they're not perfect. It always amazes me when non-musicians think choirs/singers should be able to perform perfectly the first or second time they sing something or give up, not realizing "practice makes perfect" is not just a cute saying.
I told him not to get too comfortable with the Warden's praise of the kids.  Lurking is a good way of putting it.
Thanks everyone.  Ron, you are such a helpful, giving person!
on February 14, 2012 6:35am
Marie - Oh, wow, the problem is worse than I thought!  Your comment about "not Anglican enough" (meaning....what, exactly?  Not enough "high" church - what a dear friend called "Episcalopian" - so high even Catholics of the old school variety got nosebleeds? more Catholic than the Pope - esp. this one?), more "Catholic" and then "Taizé" (?!?!?!?!?!) - this church has no idea what it wants to be "when it grows up."  I gather that bleeds over into everything - liturgy, prayer life, etc.  Man, what a mess "filius primus unus" (my Dad used to say that! :-)) has gotten into.  When the Rector herself doesn't seem to know or can't/won't articulate what direction she wants this congregation to head in, it can make anybody's head spin, and the implication in an earlier posting that a power struggle was going on becomes much clearer now.  This is really about the "soul" of the worshiping community in question, and he's just a pawn in the struggle.  This Warden is either confused about what kind of music should be part of the worship there - to go in one breath from "not Anglican enough" (suggesting high church) to "Catholic" to "Taizé" means this person hasn't the foggiest idea of a musical direction - or this is part of the power struggle.  You CAN have a service where the music is a mix - I do that all the time here at Belvoir, because we're not just serving a single-age group, but everybody from babes in arms to nonagenerians and from all over the place (literally - an Army base) - and their musical experiences and (un)willingness to sing is a primary issue - but to whipsaw the person responsible for the choice of music (with constraints, I gather) means that NOTHING satisfies.  (And as we all can admit, THAT can be a power play in itself - keep the pot boiling, keep folks running around and in confusion, and NOBODY has the time to look at the Warden and what he/she should be doing.)  I don't know if the YCM has specifically requested a one-on-one with the Rector to address this and other musical issues, but if not, it's overdue time, I think.  Without a clear sense of where this woman wants to go and how he can help her partially get there via the music program, it's going to continue to be chaos, which I sensed and commented on in my last posting.  Oh, my, this IS really bad.
However, that said, a little gleam of light just came on.  I think we're tending to see just the negative here, and understandably so - but I wonder if the Warden's efforts "dragging him to a Taizé service for 'ideas'" isn't actually a well-intentioned effort to help out?  I know; it sounds crazy after all this flogging of the issue; but is it just possible that she herself has such a serious concern about the direction of the worshiping community's journey, that she's latching on to the music as the most obvious way to help settle things down?  Look, we have a weak-kneed leader, who may/may not be providing adequate direction; we have a Senior Warden who seems to think that she has some sort of responsibility towards leader and community; and we have the most obvious focal point in the liturgy, the music (and consequently, the YCM).  I'm going to do a 180, here, and suggest that the conversation take place FIRST between the YCM and the Warden, as someone suggested earlier.  I would, however, suggest that the YCM phrase it not in purely musical terms, but in terms of striking straight to the possible heart of the matter:  "You know, I'm confused.  You tell me about the music and the choices and you suggest musical directions that are wildly opposite each other, but I wonder:  what are you really worried about?"  A real answer may not be given; but a surprised look can speak volumes.  If she DOES share, the YCM may understand the REAL reason for all this "perfectionism" - it's a cover for a far deeper concern.  That may actually open up a dialogue between them and can help the YCM limn out the limits of what he can/can't do musically to address those concerns - and whether, properly speaking, he ought to.  If she DOESN'T share after a momentary pause of surprise, then he has an answer as well - she has other issues in mind, and she's only using him as a means of (starting) to address them.  If that happens, his situation isn't necessarily better, but he can then say when a musical "suggestion" comes up - "Is this really about the music, or something else?" - and it may just give him the needed room to do his job in something approaching peace.  I just wonder...
Dunno if I'm really helping here, but you're far too kind to say what you did - but I did have a momentary "aw, shucks!" when I read it.  Thank you - I just hope we can help the YCM.  The first experience really ought not be so stressful!
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.