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Small church choirs

Hi folks,
Allow me to introduce myself.  
 
Briefly, I'm from the UK, a choral singer (with a large symphony chorus) and I also direct a chamber choir of about 25 singers and a very small church choir. In recent years I've also taken to writing quite a bit of choral music (including some hymns!)  
 
I've recently started looking at some of the interesting and informative posts on ChoralNet, and have joined a couple of the 'communities'.  I thought it would be good to join the 'Music in Worship' one, as I'm certainly very involved in this!  (I sometimes play the organ as well, but am not the 'main' organist.  Our church choir consists of a handful of very committed and enthusiastic people, who arrive every Sunday at 9.30, at which time I have to decide on anthem for the service (which follows at 10.30!)  The choice depends on a number of factors, but is somewhat limited by who actually turns up.  We may or may not have any men, we may or may not have anyone able to sing tenor or alto - so there is no point in setting one's heart on doing an SATB piece unless I'm sure that there will be at least one reliable person on each line!  Flexibility is the name of the game.  Naturally I've used my own settings and arrangements from time to time, but often I have to arrange things 'on the hoof'.  In spite of these limitations, people in the congregation often comment on how much they have enjoyed or been uplifted by the choir's contribution to the service.
 
My impression of church choirs in the USA is that they are usually quite large (the ones I've seen anyway! but I imagine there must also be some very small choirs like ours around.  I don't know if it would make an interesting topic for discussion to examine the role of the small choir in worship, including the challenges people have faced and the strategies that people have found useful.
 
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on June 24, 2012 1:28pm
Dear Gordon,
 
I am the choir director for a very small choir of all women because our men left a number of years ago.  I have 4 tenors, 3 altos, and 3 sopranos.  I can completely understand the limitations under which you work, and to the list, I would add that frequently I have to sing a part because one or more people cannot make it on a given Sunday.  We have a number of elders in the choir and health becomes an issue.
 
How do I deal with it?  I usually prepare 2-3 anthems for each Sunday we are scheuled to sing (we only sing once a month Sept - Jun except for Advent and Lent during which we sing every Sunday).  One anthem will require all three parts, one will need only 2, and the third is usually a round or some other simple form.  Luckily, several of the anthems can work for several Sundays. 
 
I would love to have a discussion about small choirs, especially around challenges and solutions.
 
Count me in!
 
Amy
on June 24, 2012 3:53pm
Hi alll--
While there certainly ARE many large American church choirs, I think there are probably many more that range from a "handful" to about a dozen. Even with a small size, I do plan specific anthems for specific Sundays, based on the lectionary or the season or occasionally a thematically based service. At present I have 10 with just one "leading" singer, who happens to be a good soprano, so I tend to space out the SATB things so we have longer to work on them. We do sing every Sunday (except summers), so I work on 6-8 anthems at a time. Occasionally we do a hymn variation, but generally I use 2 and 3-part anthems--but I try to make sure they're not trite. Most of my singers are older and several aren't very good readers; a couple learn only by rote, but they all are dedicated and really work hard. I'm organist as well as director, so I can't usually sing to help a part, although I do that during rehearsal during the learning process. I also try to make sure we have fun at rehearsal, so it's not just work, work, work. We have a 90-minute rehearsal on Thursday night plus a 20-min. warmup on Sunday morning.
 
Something that I've always done, and it does help in planning, is to have a calendar sign-up at every rehearsal. I ask them to sign when they know they're NOT going to attend a particular rehearsal or Sunday morning. This way I know of vacations, work travel, family visits, etc., so I won't schedule a more difficult anthem if there will be several absences or an absence of a key singer. It's not perfect--people get sick, have unexpected emergencies, etc., but it's a big help regarding things they DO know ahead of time. I also keep in touch by email and ask them to let me know if something comes up and they aren't going to be there. They're pretty good about email or texting (not so much with phone calls).
 
I also give them an anthem schedule to put in their folders, so they know what we will be singing for the next couple of months, including any service responses like introits or whatever. Occasionally I have to alter the plans, but generally it works pretty well.
 
I think this is a great topic and look forward to hearing from others.
Nancy
 
 
 
 
 
 
on June 24, 2012 4:37pm
Thanks, Nancy- we also prepare several anthems at a time and have the calendar to sign "out". The list and schedule of anthems is terrific. Can't wait until next fall to use that. Our choir has grown from approx 8+/-2, mainly older to sixteen- the result I think of having a paid soprano, tenor and bass. They make everything so much more musical and fun- and have changed the demographic distribution completely- it has made singing in the choir attractive to others, it has halved the median age and raised the quality of our tone, our reading and their avaialbility for solo assignments opens a great deal of repertoire. Hopefullt the trend will continue.
 
on June 24, 2012 5:22pm
I currently sing in a small church choir: on a good day, we have 6 sopranos, 8 altos, 3 tenors, and 4 basses. I sing alto, but will sing with the tenors if we need more support there. This morning, I sang soprano due to the absence of 5 of our usual members. For 8 years, I directed another small church choir in a different city with a membership of around 15 or so, so I've experienced this from a couple of aspects.

With my vurrentbchurch, we are lucky to be in a university town with an excellent music program; our choir director is the tuba professor there, and her husband, who heads up the graduate music program, is our organist.

That said, only a few of our members have had any formal vocal training. The average age is skewed by two members who are in their 90s (both altos, both quite adept). We rarely have a full contingent in any section on any given Sunday, except for the two Sundays when we present choir "specials" -- 15-20 minute programs.

We generally follow the same rehearsal pattern as Nancy mentioned, although almost everything we do is SATB. We get a schedule each September and January laying out which anthems we'll sing on which Sunday. We always rehearse 5 or 6 anthems during our Thursday night rehearsals (1 1/2 hrs long). Sunday morning, we have a 20-minute "run through" of the Introit (always a hymn verse sung in parts), plus the anthem. It's surprising how much we can forget from Thursday to Sunday! We also use a sign-up calendar so we know who will be on vacation or unavailable for each rehearsal or Sunday, and the schedule can be adjusted as a result.

Our choir sings an anthem every Sunday between September 1 and June 30, and then sings 3 times during the summer, when more folks are out of town. Today was our last "regular" Sunday. Two Sundays ago, we presented our spring "special": an all Rutter program including "O Clap Your Hands" and "Te Deum," with brass, woodwinds, and organ. No, it wasn't perfect, but it was quite respectable for an aging all-volunteer small church choir.

I've also written some pieces and arrangements for our choir ("Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us" in the Composer Showcase here on Choralnet is one of those), as I enjoy the challenge of making "old" texts feel " new" again, both for the singers and the congregation. As for our role in worship, i think that our role as a choir is to supplement and underscore the scripture and lesson for the day. If we can touch one person in the congregation, we've done our "job."

Lana Mountford
Bellingham, WA

Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 24, 2012 6:24pm
Dear Gordon et. al. - First off, great topic.  I think, Gordon, you might be very surprised how many worshiping communities have rather small (8-16 singers) choirs here in the States.  Sure the big ones get lots of attention, but the standard is probably the small group of generally not-formally-trained musicians except perhaps for one or two.  I currently have a choir in a military community consisting of UP TO 10 sopranos (one paid section leader), three altos, three tenors (one paid), and three basses (one paid).  I would love to have a paid alto section leader, but for some reason (which has been the subject of a previous thread here) they don't show up on the "will hire" lists!  I also sing tenor, though I have taken the occasional whack at alto and could, if needed, sing baritonishly (i.e., don't ask me to go much below A below Middle C - that ain't pretty!).  What do we have on a regular basis?  Well, today, for example, I had 7 sops, 2 altos, 2 tenors, 2 basses.  It's summer, so it's not atypical at all.  On the other hand, come the High Holy Feasts during Holy Week and Christmas, and we get a couple more folks to come and sing out of our cantor (song leaders for other Masses) group, which can add 1 or 2 sopranos, 1 or 2 altos.  However, I have another group, an a cappella sacred music service choir which meets every other week, and we focus on singing at retirement communities, local Knights of Columbus councils, for the Military Archdiocese of the USA at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC, etc.  So what do we do for anthems, never knowing really from week to week how many we'll have of whom?  Well, part of it is resolved by having a "basic load" of anthems that we prepare during the course of the year for use after Communion, and which can be pulled out at any time - such pieces as "Veni Jesu, Amor Mi" (Cherubini), "If Ye Love Me" (Tallis), "Calm Me, Lord" (Margaret Rizza), etc.  This morning, as an example, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  We sang "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (Really?  Sure 'nuff - absolutely appropriate and even recommended), and then, "Veni Jesu" as a post-Communion.  Having this sort of "basic load" always available makes it easier to cover the cleansing of the sacred vessels after Communion and give folks a chance to contemplate in prayer.  I have about 18-20 of these sorts of pieces, and I find it works very well.  A lot of them are indeed SATB - but if I'm short a voice part, we'll just do what we can - or not do anything if it's that desperate a situation.  Problem for all of us is we get anxious when we don't seem to have something to "cover" an action or a movement - sometimes, silence works - much as that is not a popular option in modern America!
 
Would love to see this kind of a community thread keep going.  Hello, ACDA/ChoralNet - what do we do?
 
Ron
on June 24, 2012 6:25pm
Dear Gordon et. al. - First off, great topic.  I think, Gordon, you might be very surprised how many worshiping communities have rather small (8-16 singers) choirs here in the States.  Sure the big ones get lots of attention, but the standard is probably the small group of generally not-formally-trained musicians except perhaps for one or two.  I currently have a choir in a military community consisting of UP TO 10 sopranos (one paid section leader), three altos, three tenors (one paid), and three basses (one paid).  I would love to have a paid alto section leader, but for some reason (which has been the subject of a previous thread here) they don't show up on the "will hire" lists!  I also sing tenor, though I have taken the occasional whack at alto and could, if needed, sing baritonishly (i.e., don't ask me to go much below A below Middle C - that ain't pretty!).  What do we have on a regular basis?  Well, today, for example, I had 7 sops, 2 altos, 2 tenors, 2 basses.  It's summer, so it's not atypical at all.  On the other hand, come the High Holy Feasts during Holy Week and Christmas, and we get a couple more folks to come and sing out of our cantor (song leaders for other Masses) group, which can add 1 or 2 sopranos, 1 or 2 altos.  However, I have another group, an a cappella sacred music service choir which meets every other week, and we focus on singing at retirement communities, local Knights of Columbus councils, for the Military Archdiocese of the USA at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC, etc.  So what do we do for anthems, never knowing really from week to week how many we'll have of whom?  Well, part of it is resolved by having a "basic load" of anthems that we prepare during the course of the year for use after Communion, and which can be pulled out at any time - such pieces as "Veni Jesu, Amor Mi" (Cherubini), "If Ye Love Me" (Tallis), "Calm Me, Lord" (Margaret Rizza), etc.  This morning, as an example, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  We sang "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (Really?  Sure 'nuff - absolutely appropriate and even recommended), and then, "Veni Jesu" as a post-Communion.  Having this sort of "basic load" always available makes it easier to cover the cleansing of the sacred vessels after Communion and give folks a chance to contemplate in prayer.  I have about 18-20 of these sorts of pieces, and I find it works very well.  A lot of them are indeed SATB - but if I'm short a voice part, we'll just do what we can - or not do anything if it's that desperate a situation.  Problem for all of us is we get anxious when we don't seem to have something to "cover" an action or a movement - sometimes, silence works - much as that is not a popular option in modern America!
 
Would love to see this kind of a community thread keep going.  Hello, ACDA/ChoralNet - what do we do?
 
Ron
on June 25, 2012 3:11am
Great to have all this helpful input!  It seems that there are many more small church choirs over there than I realised..
 
One point to make is that it is very unusual for any church choir member to be paid over here, apart from in the big cathedrals, etc.  It may be that in some Anglican churches the boys are given some pocket money, but I'm not part of that tradition - our church is United Reformed (formed from a merging of free churches - Presbyterian and Congregationalist), and we don't have the same sort of prescribed liturgy as the Church of England.  
 
Our main role, therefore, is to provide an anthem, which fits in as far as possible with the theme of the service, and to lead the congregational singing - especially when new or unfamiliar hymns are being used.  At one stage we always used to do a 'gathering song' or introit as well (our minister at the time happened to be from the USA!)
 
I suppose I should also declare a special interest in that I compose music (for both small and large choirs!), and most of what I've written so far has been to religious texts - whether for church or concert use.  A big area of interest is music for Christmas, in particular writing fresh, new settings to traditional words. I may well start a thread here on Christmas music (when would be the best time to start it, do you think?)   In the meantime, you may care to have a look at my website at www.newcarols.com and click on 'compositions'.
 
I have, however, also done a sequence for Palm Sunday/Holy Week, and non traditional setting of the harvest hymn, 'We plough the fields and scatter'.  These aren't published, so do let me know if you'd be interested to see either of them.
on June 25, 2012 6:44am
I have the impression of the UK that everyone stops and drinks tea at 2 PM while watching Dr. Who.  Funny how those impressions go.  As others have said most church choirs in the US are EXACTLY like yours.  The choral tradition is still strong and provides part time employment at most churches in medium to large cities.  In smaller towns a volunteer director often leads or an underpaid or volunteer organist.   You had two tenors on at a summer service!? Most choirs in my area take the summer off as schedules get impossible and we feel people need a break.  To address the same problems you do, we prepare an anthem at our reheasal the week before and use a backup familiar piece if not enough people show up.  At churches where I had a larger choir I put in the Rule that if you haven't rehearsed a piece twice in your recent life you don't sing that Sunday (self enforced by members) but at most places I have been members just come when they can and I am grateful for anyone who is there.  Good luck and welcome again to ChoralNet, the best place on Earth for choral musicians!
 
 
We Need Allen Simon! Join the community: http://www.choralnet.org/list/grouppost/354270
Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 25, 2012 9:40am
I just clicked 'applaud' to see what would happen... (I didn't hear anything!)   No, afternoon tea isn't until 4pm, and Dr Who comes on later (my wife watches it, but I don't!)
 
 Who is Allen Simon?  I can't really join the community if I don't know what it's about!!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 25, 2012 9:00pm
Applaud is ChoralNet's version of a like button.  I was watching Dr. Who when I read your response LOL.  Thanks for the clarification, I've never been to the UK.  Allen Simon is our webmaster that ACDA just let go.  Some of us are participating in a community to make clear our support for him and to encourage a change of heart by those that made the decision.   We are encouraging people to post the signature as an awareness campaign.  The community is to show our support.  
 
 
 
 
We Need Allen Simon! Join the community: http://www.choralnet.org/list/grouppost/354270
on June 29, 2012 12:07pm
Thanks for your helpful contribution, Travis.  I've a feeling that your observations and suggestions will be particularly useful to people whose churches/congregations are quite large and flourishing, even though their choirs may be comparatively small.  Our average congregation on a Sunday morning numbers around 50 - sometimes fewer. And that may include a handful of very small children, but with a preponderance of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. We don't have a 'choir loft' or large group of women who could be invited to special rehearsals!  But we are a friendly church and an accepting community.  
Sorry, I have to rush off to start packing for a holiday that starts at 5am tomorrow (!), but I'll be very interested to catch up with this thread when I return....
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