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Conference Morsel: Strategies for Smaller Church Choirs

(An excerpt from the interest session “Where 10 or 12 Are Gathered: Strategies for Smaller Church Choirs,” presented by Matt Caine during the 2014 ACDA Southern Division Conference)
       . . . In any of these situations you may have to help the choir develop a new vision, but in the case of the has-been church, in order to be successful, one of the primary goals will be helping the choir to create a new vision of choir. With all their being, they want to be the 40 to 80 voice choir they once were; they want to perform Brahms’ Requiem and works of that level of difficulty two or more times per year; they want to sing warhorse anthems like Parry’s I Was Glad every Sunday; and anything short of these experiences constitutes failure. Thus, they are living in a constant state of failure. One must help them create a new definition of choir and a new vision so that they can then experience the success they are capable of and actually be able to recognize and celebrate it as success.
       While creating the new vision, it is good to remind the choir and one’s own self of the church choir’s primary responsibility: to lead congregational singing, with its secondary responsibility being to sing music to help others worship through listening. Most conductors spend so much time rehearsing anthems that they fail to adequately prepare the choir for its number one responsibility: leading congregational singing. Rather than being the leftover portion of choral preparation, this should be a starting point. Since hymns are where many, if not all, of your singers have developed their vocal technique, many sing hymns poorly . . .
on May 23, 2014 4:10am
The sad truth is, this is where many of us are.  My choir, at its biggest, consists of 16 - and a very imbalanced one - loads of sops, and some altos, doing well in tenors (four, including myself) - and one bass (who, thank God, is a rock - and also sings occasionally in the Washington Opera Chorus).  MOST of what we sing, besides the principal parts of the Mass (Gloria when appropriate and when the priest isn't in a hurry, the Sanctus, the Acclamation, the Amen, the Lamb of God) IS focused on the hymns and the Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation.  And Matt's right - that's where the focus has to start and to be.  The documents of the Second Vatican Council on the liturgy called for the "full, active and conscious participation" of the worshiping community, and that included not only the prayers not otherwise reserved exclusively to the priest, but also the songs - which, before the Council, had been left mostly to the choir.  We have been very fortunate in the choir of having a dedicated core, and now that we have paid section leaders, it actually allows for a greater range and flexibility for music.  Do we do the Brahms?  Of course not.  But we DO the Tartini "Stabat Mater" for Good Friday.  There are ways to not only lead the community effectively in song, but also to satisfy the need of the musicians singing to do some serious and worthwhile music not otherwise done, and publishers like GIA and (sometimes) OCP and others provide octavos that can be essayed by a smaller choir.  It's taken us 9 years to get to the point where now they don't balk at singing an SATB a cappella work - it may take time, but it happens more often than not - and there are even times when the community becomes an extended choir on an SATB hymn - no, they do not sing anything other than the melody, but it works.  We have to be creative; we have to be patient; and we have to focused.
on May 23, 2014 5:16am
Volunteeers come to church choir for the joy of singing and the stimulation of new musical experiences, challenges, and the joy of accomplishment as a team.  
on May 23, 2014 9:27am
What is it with bassos?  Are they so few out there?  Or, is choral singing simply not sufficiently macho for a bass?  I say this tongue-in-cheek, but isn't it true?  Getting men into a choir is just a greater challenge altogether but again, what is it with bassos?