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Small Church Choirs

June 29, 2009

I was asked to write an article for a journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians on working with small church choirs.  I am posting it here so you can read it if you want.  Please feel free to comment.

Small Church Choirs: The Mighty Few

As a parish musician I love to talk shop.  I’m sure you do too.  When I meet someone who is involved in any way in a church music program that is what we end up talking about.  Invariably the question is asked: “So, how many people do you have in your church choir?”  My first thought is to give the answer of 25.  Now, that is not a lie, as there are indeed 25 (or so) who come to choir and are on my roster.  However, we almost never have 25 people at a rehearsal or to sing on a Sunday morning.  We usually have between 13 and 17, sometimes going as high as 23 or as low as 9.  While this works well for our congregation, I must admit that, at least at first, I am jealous of musicians who have larger choirs, thinking that I am missing out on something.  But I have discovered that a small church choir can be the most fun group of people to work with.  However, I had to learn the different dynamics between small and large choirs.

This brings me to my first comment about small church choirs (and church choirs in general): the people are there because they want to be.  No one is forcing them to sing in the choir.  They are not being paid (at least not in the Lutheran church choirs I am aware of) and they are under no obligation to be there.  They want to be there.  This also can mean that a church choir is as much about socializing as it is about singing. Yes, they are there to sing, but they also want to talk to each other and catch up on what’s going on. Many of them have been singing together for a long time and are good friends.  So, when you are rehearsing, you must balance being productive and on task with having a good time.  This is certainly a challenge, but I find that on the nights when the choir and I find a good balance, we have the most productive and enjoyable rehearsals.  The key is to be flexible and go with the flow.

Flexibility in piece selection is also important.  I plan the entire year in the summer before the choir season starts.  There maybe some holes to fill, but I have the major pieces picked and a good idea of where we are going.  However, these plans must be flexible to accommodate the choir.  For example, I picked a well-known Mozart piece for the choir to sing in Latin.  I thought it would be a good piece for them and would push them a little bit out of their comfort zone.  I did not anticipate the language causing such problems and after several rehearsals in which they were getting frustrated with the piece, I decided to put it away to try again another year.  I substituted one of their favorites and they were a happy bunch again.

I have also had days where several of my strongest singers got sick or had family emergencies at the same time and would not be there on a Sunday.  Since I have three tenors and five altos, having three missing can totally change the dynamic in the group.  Rather than go right ahead and do a piece that the rest of the choir was uncomfortable with because of the gaps, I substitute an easier or more familiar piece they can be successful with.  That is a big key to church choirs: give them music they can perform successfully.  This does not mean that they can never sing complicated pieces. It does mean that the more difficult pieces must be rehearsed well in advance and may require some extra support in the accompaniment, such as having woodwinds double the choir parts.  We were able to do a fairly complicated double choir piece by Melchior Vulpius by having the choir and woodwinds function as Choir 1 and a brass ensemble be Choir 2, with harpsichord accompaniment.  This piece has since become a choir favorite that they enjoy singing each time we pull it out.

I have also found it important to listen to the choir’s ideas when picking music.  If you give them one piece they like and know very well, even if it is not your favorite, they will be much more willing to sing new pieces that you want to introduce later on.  However, they will not always tell you that there is a piece they like to sing, and if you have not been in the position very long you may overlook a choir favorite simply because the piece is not familiar to you.  I did this very thing when I came into this position.  I was fresh out of college and thought I knew better than them what they should sing.  Yes, I was trained, but I did not have any experience in this particular choir.  While no one complained (at least not to me) during my first couple years, when I finally asked the choir at the end of the second year to write down their favorite songs, they had many suggestions.  Now I try to always start the year with a choir favorite, and then intersperse them throughout the rest of the year.

One final ingredient to a happy small church choir is having choir parties.  In the case of my choir this has nothing to do with learning new music, but I think it is important to get together as a group and have a good time.  We get together twice a year, once in mid-January, after the Christmas rush, and once after the choir season is over.  It is a great chance to unwind and shoot the breeze.  It is also a nice way to say thank you to your group for all their hard work.

Small church choirs may be small in numbers, but they are a great blessing to their congregations.  My choir sings anthems, teaches new hymns, leads the congregation in chanting psalms, and provides general musical leadership to help supplement the organist.  Functioning as a team, the choir and organist can make a dynamic duo.  So have fun with your choir and don’t forget: they are there because they want to be, so do all you can to make sure they have a good time.

Repertoire List

This is not an exhaustive list, but contains pieces and collections I’ve found useful for my choir.  If you have questions or want more ideas please let me know.

Assist Us to Proclaim – Don Hinkle – Augsburg Fortress – 11-10313

Children Rejoice and Sing – Jeffrey Blersch – CPH – 97-7074

Children Rejoice and Sing, vol 2 – Jeffrey Blersch – CPH – 97-7108

Christ Be My Leader – Henry Gerike – CPH – 98-2378

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God – Healey Willan – CPH – 98-2238

God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It – Kevin Hildebrand – CPH – 98-3981

Good Christian Friends Rejoice and Sing! – Hal Hopson – CPH – 98-3039

Have You Not Known? – K. Lee Scott – CPH – 98-2807

On Christmas Night – Hal Hopson – Morning Star – MSM-50-204

Psalm 67 – Charles Callahan – CPH – 98-3865

Return to the Lord – Kenneth Kosche – CPH – 98-3798

Shepherds’ Cradle Song – Dana Mengel – CPH (Logia) – 98-3384

Still, Still, Still – Kenneth T. Kosche – CPH – 98-3010

The Lord, My God, Be Praised – Bach/arr. Christopher Johns – CPH – 98-3762

The Tree of Life – K. Lee Scott – Morning Star – MS -50-3000

Three Festival Psalms – Kosche/Behnke – CPH – 98-3365

Today Is Risen Christ the Lord, Alleluia! – Melchior Vulpius – CPH – 98-1900

We Are Singing, for the Lord Is Our Light – arr. Hal Hopson – Hope – C 5330

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From → Church Music

3 Comments
  1. Lance Klamer permalink

    Nice article, Nathan! Congratulations!

  2. Mary Elizabeth permalink

    Thanks so much – I have a very small choir in Arizona – during the summer, our members rarely show up to sing. A great day for us is 12 or 13 and we sing primarily SAB or SSA arrangements. Your article is helpful, especially the part about why people attend. Our group can’t survive for more than 90 minutes and engaging in fellowship really encroaches. I love this work and your article is helping me be less intense. MEK in AZ

    • Mary,

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad it helped. It can certainly be a challenge to balance social time with productivity, and I still struggle to do it just right, which I’m sure will never end. But we keep plowing along and singing praises to God. Blessings!

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