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The challenge of pride

Our church is a small Presbyterian congregation in the Pacific Northwest. We number approximately 80 on a Sunday in worship. Our demographics are 75% 50+, 25% families with young children.  Our worship style is generally traditional.
 
Our choir has been dwindling over the past 5 years (and I'm sure before then...I've only worked there 5 years) as our members have been...well...dying. For a variety of reasons younger members are not taking their places, and we have about 10 regular members.  The choir director (not me) is a well-meaning guy, but with little training.  He chooses the pieces he remembers singing, mostly Joseph M. Martin and Lloyd Larson, with a healthy serving of Hal Hopson thrown in.  As our choir ages, the agility of the singers' voices is less and less, and the ranges are certainly narrower.  Our "sopranos" top out at top-space e. We have 2 "basses" - one who can sing and one who can't. Etc, etc, etc.
 
For the past 5 years, first as choir director and now as worship coordinator, I have been trying to encourage the choir that they still have an important roll in worship, but that the repertoire they have been singing is not appropriate to their current make-up.  They refuse.  They refuse to sing fewer than 4 parts.  Even a hymn, it must be in 4 parts.  A unison verse, well, that just isn't the mission of the choir, is it? Any congregant can sing the melody! (They sound good when they sing unison, for the record.)
 
Our situation is not unique. For those of you who have channeled your choir through this kind of transition, how do you combat the challenge of pride?  I'm glad our choir is proud to be the choir, but things have to change.
 
Any thoughts or advice is welcome.
on December 9, 2012 1:07pm
Hi Julie -- One thing I have pointed out to my choir, which was also resolutely SATB when I arrived 11 years ago, is that when I used to participate in choral competitions and adjudication, unison singing was considered one of the most challenging things for a choir to do well. What I have noticed is that if I choose music I love to hear, including unison, 2-part, SAB, SATB, SSATB, SSAATTBB, etc, and communicate to the choir my pleasure in hearing their voices making this music, they get involved in making music rather than worrying about whether they are singing "their part". I don't focus on what they can't do, but on what they do well (or what I think they'll be able to do well with a bit of help). This time of year, singing a chant like Veni Emmanuel or Conditor Alme in unison, maybe accompanied by a recorder or a cello or a solo organ stop in unison with voices, really shows off how beautiful and effective unison can be. (We'll break into parts on "Rejoice" on Emmanuel).
  Choosing repertoire that really shows off our choirs when it's a small church with unusual(!) voice combinations is one of the most rewarding and challenging parts of the job, I think!
Good luck, Julie --
on December 9, 2012 9:51pm
What is your role at the church? As worship coordinator are you a supervisor for the choir director?   If not, be careful that you are not stepping on your choir director's toes as it is usually their job to choose the repertoire.  If you sing in the choir you can have a greater influence.  You can also try to find funding for workshops for the director and maybe even the choir to attend or local ACDA conventions.   You said he had little training, if you are in an administrative role, adding a line item for training, if presented in the right way could be an encouragement for the director to get some training.  
 
I would be carful calling it prideful.  There is alot that goes into the equation.  Is there adequete rehearsal time to start a whole new performance repertoire? Do they practice after the service on the same day or on a week night?  How early is the service as their voices may be warmed better for practice than performance etc. ? 
on December 10, 2012 8:42am
I'm in a very similar situation right now (the week before I began they "sang" the Thompson Allelluia)  and here's what I've found.
 
1. Find "names" that they'll recognize. My first few weeks I showed them some Byrd, Tallis and Bach. The pieces were not especially hard, however they recognized the names enough to respect the music. The most important thing for me was to pick something that they could accomplish and feel good about.
2. Advanced childrens choir music is awesome. Splits into 4 parts at times, but easy enough to do!
3. Force them outside of their comfort zone, in moderation. My choir was rather opposed to unison singing, so to show them just how hard/fun it can be, I worked with my pastor and designed a worship service that allowed the choir to sing some Gregorian chant. Six months later, they do not have a huge problem with unison singing. Also, while asking them to do these things I made sure to point out the challenges presented (completely unified vowels, being able to make the full line, cutting off exactly on time etc...) and asked them to perform the "easy stuff" perfectly. You can always find a challenge :)
4. New languages! Gives you the excuse that "we cant do 4 part now because you dont know how to pronounce the words! once we get that, then we'll move onto the harder stuff!" - my choir has become fond of Spanish.
5. Supplemental texts. I use the Methodist "The Faith We Sing" on an incredibly regular basis. Check out both the Black and Green books for some easy anthems that can also be used as hymns.
 
Good luck!
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