Have you been thinking about starting a children’s choir at your church? Perhaps these tips might help you to get started.
1. Have organisational aims and objectives.
It is important that you have clear aims and objectives for your children’s choir or choral group, and that these are articulated to everyone who will be involved – preferably in writing. Why does your church want to start a children’s choir and what will the role of such a choir be?
Your aim might be quite general and could be – to provide an opportunity for young people to contribute to worship through music and to develop children’s skill development in choral singing.
Objectives might be more specific, relate to the members of the group and encompass some of the following:
- to contribute to the church community
- to be part of a team and work with others
- to take responsibility for attending rehearsals and services
- to take responsibility for learning the chosen music
2. Age group
Decide on the age group that you will start with and try to stick to it. You can, of course, adopt a “whole of primary school approach” but a wide range in ages makes rehearsals and choice of music very difficult. I have found that a grouping of children in grades one to three, and four to seven works successfully. These age groups are quite homogenous socially but at the same time allow for the older children to take responsibility for leading a section, doing solos, providing good models for new choristers etc. I don’t include pre-school or prep children in the group because the even wider age range can be difficult to handle and the length and intensity of rehearsals and performances can be taxing for the younger ones. You might decide to start with one age group, and then expand to the other group as the number of choristers grows. Both groups can eventually join together for some occasions but have separate rehearsals
3. Type of music
The style of music that you want to present at your church may have a bearing on the
type of group that you put together. Are you intending to sing traditional hymns (in
unison or parts), children’s unison worship
songs, popular songs with instrumental accompaniment or one of many other styles? Once you are clear about the type of music that suits your congregation, make this clear to anyone who might like to join so that they know what to expect. I once had a little boy who joined one of my choirs and was disappointed because we never went on a plane – he thought that he was joining the “Qantas”
4. To audition or not to audition?
I prefer not to audition in this age group because I see a children’s choir as a beginning and formative activity in choral singing, and therefore my responsibility to provide the experiences and materials that will help a child become a good chorister. Yes, there is a downside to this, but even with adult choirs I have observed many instances of people who have developed into very competent choristers but probably would have been passed over in an audition process. If you have to audition, try to see the children in groups of 4 or 5 and play some music games that will enable you to see potential. One-on-one auditions are difficult for anyone!
When will rehearsals be held? How long will they go for? and How often will the choir sing for church services? Families are very busy these days and need to plan ahead for all of their children’s activities so, the more notice you can give, and the more consistent you are, the better. My children’s choir (5 – 9 year olds) rehearses for one hour per week. At the beginning of each year and with many new members, it takes us quite a while to be
ready to sing for others. In the second half of the year, we are able to plan for more
It is always preferable to have someone to assist you in rehearsals and when the children are singing at a service so that you are sure that you can meet your “duty of care” obligations. You can’t leave the choir to supervise someone who needs to go to the toilet, or to assist a child who is feeling ill or upset. I invite parents to stay for my rehearsals and they are always a great help. However, if you can have a specific person whose role it is to look after the children, it allows the conductor to concentrate on the rehearsal or performance without distraction. Make sure that everyone who is working with the children has a BLUE CARD well ahead of the start of rehearsals. They can take up to 8 weeks to be processed.
A good accompanist is an invaluable asset and can assist with warm-up exercises, games, and part-work, as well as actually playing for the choir. Having an accompanist, and preferably a paid one, also gives you an ally and another musician to bounce ideas off or contribute to selection of repertoire.
Technology can help in a number of ways:
- Have an email contact list or sms distribution list for the families involved in your choir so that you can easily let them know what the choir is doing, any changes to the schedule, how parents can help the children to learn their music at home, what pieces are needed for the next church service etc. Communication is the key to consolidating your work in the early stages.
- If you don’t have an accompanist to start with, there are many publications now that include both rehearsal and performance tracks. There is no need to sing along with a group of adult singers on a pre-recorded CD.
- Consider creating rehearsal tracks for the children to use at home for practice. You might record these yourself and send them to the families as mp3s or burn the tracks to a CD. You can also create scorch files of the music you are using and make them accessible to the children. If you don’t have the equipment or time to prepare these yourself, there is sure to be someone in the parish who does. Access to practice materials contributes to the success of the choir and engagement in its activities.
If you have clear aims and objectives, it is easy to communicate these to potential choristers and their families. Can you talk about your plans for a choir at regular church services? Put clear information in your church newsletter? Have an “Open Rehearsal” or “try before you buy” session? Advertise in local school newsletters? There may be families who attend a non-denominational school who would be very happy to attend your church. Ask a local newspaper to do a story and include a photo to catch people’s attention.
Singing in a choir should be a joyful and enriching experience for everyone – the choristers, their families and most importantly, yourself. Your choir may be the first experience of choral singing for some children and, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the experience of being in your choir was one that lead them to a lifelong engagement with choral music and the worship of God through singing?
[Judy is a Senior Lecturer in Music at Australian Catholic University, Brisbane Campus, and is the Musical Director and Conductor of The Young Conservatorium “Melodic Minors”]
1: Spicing up your hymn playing starts with getting the fundamentals right. It’s like cooking a healthy meal: assemble the basic ingredients first, and add the spices for extra flavour.
2: The process of getting the fundamentals right can be summarised by three P words – Prepare, Practice, & Perform. The first two Ps have to happen during the week before the service, in order for it all to come together in the performance.
3: Preparation includes thinking about the text of the hymn and how the music can support the interpretation of the text. It includes deciding on an appropriate tempo (speed), suitable dynamics (loud and soft expression), what to include in the play-over (hymn introduction), where the singers need to breathe, and how much time to leave between verses.
4: Practice! There’s a classic story of a tourist walking around New York City, who asks a local “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The local responded, “Practice, practice, practice.” To accompany hymns, we need to practice everything about our hymn playing – correct notes (including correct rhythm and correct harmony), selection and changing of registration (stops), and the play-over.
5: The play-over should not only allow time for the congregation to find the hymn in the book, but more importantly, let the congregation know clearly what tune is being used, and to signal the tempo of the hymn. The first and last lines are usually sufficient for this. This can vary in some cases. For example, in the hymn “We limit not the truth of God” (Together in Song, Number 453), it would be better to play the last half of the hymn as the play-over, to avoid a dull repetition of the first line.
6: Interpret the text in musical ways. Recently I played the hymn “Jesus Christ is waiting” (TIS 665) at our church service. Each verse required special treatment. Verse 1 “Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the streets” needed to be played strongly (as with all first verses) to establish the tempo and provide a lead for the tune. For verse 2 “Jesus Christ is raging” I pulled out a strong reed. Verse 3 “Jesus Christ is healing” required a gentler sound. In verse 4 “Jesus Christ is dancing” I played very rhythmically with lots of staccato. I played the last verse (“Jesus Christ is calling”) strongly, with a rallentando in the last line (“I will follow you”), and ended with a major chord as a positive sign.
7: Select an appropriate tempo for the hymn. This is guided by singing the hymn yourself during practice and making sure it does not drag, and it’s not rushed. There must be a feeling of ‘line’ to the melody, with stresses on important syllables and notes in the phrases.
8: Decide where it is appropriate for the singers to breathe in the verses, and provide a small break for this to occur. Allow singers to take a big breath between verses and provide a rest for this too.
9: Match the dynamics of the music to the text. The hymn “Dear Father Lord of humankind” (TIS 598, previously “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”) presents a challenge. Firstly, it should not be too loud, but stop selection must still provide a clear lead. Try to have small variations of tone colours in verses 2, 3, and 4. In the last verse, there should be a crescendo and decrescendo to contrast the ‘earthquake, wind and fire’ with ‘the still small voice of calm’. This can be achieved with the use of the swell box as well as combination pistons.
10: The final verse provides an opportunity to reharmonise, however this must be well prepared. There are books of reharmonisations available (e.g. by Eric Thiman, Noel Rawsthorne, Steven Nisbet) for starters. Then if you have the skill, write your own. The reharmonisation must be practised along with the whole hymn.
[Dr Steven Nisbet is an RSCM Member and the Director of Music at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane. He is also a committee member of the Organ Society of Qld.]
…unless playing the organ pedals, and that my young friend, is what you are now about. Sure, your finger technique is quite good but be not daunted by all those wooden keys below for, in truth, they are easy to master and much easier to play than the twelve sticks at the port side of wee spinet organs. You ask for advice, so…..
Get a GOOD teacher, or if none is available, a good instruction manual.
1: Pedals are easy to play but one needs to get the knack of co-coordinating hands AND feet. This is not a musical task as much as a muscular one, akin to patting your head while rubbing your tummy. Be patient and work from the beginning and resist the urge to jump ahead prematurely.
2: All organ benches should have their height adjustable. Unpleasant back pain results from a stool either too low, or too high. If yours is too high, then get a carpenter (better still an organ builder) to cut down the legs. This can easily be raised by the insertion of thin pieces of wood for those with longer legs
3: Sit on top of middle D#, and while looking, see how your left toe can feel the gaps between bottom D# and F#, A# and C# and the right toe an octave higher. Have a good look and feel, then DON’T LOOK AT THE PEDALS AGAIN: be content to grope around in terra incognito. (A wag has dubbed the top octave as virgin territory for no one has yet trodden thereon!).
4: These three variables are important. (a) How close? So that the arm can comfortably reach the uppermost manual. (b) How much body on the seat? So that the leg can freely swing sideways: if too close to the front, one might fall over the edge of the cliff, if too far back, then there is too much drag of the lower thigh. (c) How High? See all the above remembering that the height difference of half an inch (oops, 1.2cm) can make a big difference to the angles involved.
5: Even in hot weather, wear long pants as bare skin will drag even on polished benches & inhibit movement
6: Shoes……Stilettos are out (for the gals) and most male type shoes are too wide, counting the welt, so better to buy a special pair, NOT for walking. Google Organ Master Shoes who make especially for us, both guys and gals. These are good especially for playing with heels. Current price c US$60.
7: Think of an axle going through the ankle: remember Fred Astaire tap dancing, or Happy Feet, and never but never pound the leg up and down as if riding in the Tour de France, even when playing French music! Cuddle the pedals gently with the feet, and play, ideally, with the leather actually on the key before pressing down smartly without clatter. When the toe is depressed, the heel will rise slightly and so, to a small extent, does the knee.
A prayer for those of you who are still privileged to preach from the console:
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love,
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.
It’s a big decision. It’s a fair amount of the proportion of a church’s budget. It’s something that you’re likely to live with for a long time. It can have a significant effect on your church’s worship. Is it time to do the church sound system upgrade, and what are the things you need to consider and the questions you should ask? Here’s my top ten.
1. Have a budget in mind. A decent one. All in or all out. There isn’t buy something on the cheap and upgrade progressively. This is fraught with constant disappointment. Trust me, I’ve seen it all too often. Make your decision based on need. Fundamentally, can everyone hear the spoken word – do people complain often? Can they actively participate in worship or are they just “going through the motions”? Is there something more significant that you want to achieve musically. Use these factors to start the process for setting a reasonable budget. Remember you’ll need to allocate a fair proportion for consultancy and installation too; it’s not just about the equipment. Also, think of it as an investment in your congregation. The sound system can be the most inspirational, or most detrimental force in your church.
2. Identify specific requirements or objectives. List them. What do you want your system for? Is it primarily for speech reinforcement or is it for full-blown musical worship. Whilst pipe organs and choirs should be able to be heard without amplification, sometimes it is appropriate to give the choir some additional reinforcement (maybe due to location – tucked away at the side), plus help out with human voice (readers, clergy etc..). Additionally, your church may have more contemporary or popular forms of music that require even more than reinforcement, maybe even a separate system (or zone) in some cases. It’s important to understand, agree and articulate the objectives of the system up-front, even going so far as to describe these requirement (and potential measures of success) in a church committee document.
3. Automatic or manual? Identify whether you need or want a sound system requiring to be manned by church volunteers. Does someone need to operate it? There are certainly advantages if you do. Do you even have a pool of available volunteers? It’s pretty unspectacular work, and whilst initially attractive, it can quickly become a commitment too much for those whose heart really isn’t in it. Or maybe an automatic system, with little intervention (and little flexibility) is more appropriate? There are automatic mixers, especially for speech, or even software that can be used as part of higher-end digital systems that can accommodate this requirement.
Additionally, think about the development of volunteers, maybe even youth involvement, if the system is going to be mostly manual. In successful audio installations, community, especially youth, forms a basis of a successful implementation and a “Sound System Ministry”, as it’s sometimes called.
Think about initiating a complementary training program for volunteers. Maybe this can be used together with some rules in the church on who is able to touch the sound system going forward. There is terrible tampering of sound systems in most churches, it’s unfortunate but I suppose it seems to be human nature, so access to the system needs to be seriously thought through. The equipment may not be holy in itself but its operation and care facilitates a holy environment and thusly should be treated with respect.
4. Analogue or Digital? Are you looking for a mixing console which is analogue or digitally based? Digital mixing also allows for some rather extreme extras, such as remote mixing via iPads – especially good for consoles located in terrible mixing positions. Digital mixing consoles generally take up less space compared to their analogue counterparts, so if space is a restriction, it might be the only option. Digital also includes the ability to recall settings, which is great as an anti-tampering measure, plus they include lots of inbuilt equipment and the option of running far less cabling than their analogue counterparts. I’m a great believer in digital mixing consoles for churches as a great number of settings can be pre-set, leaving the volunteers with basic fader/volume adjustments to begin with. Plus, make a mistake, or turn the console off and all the settings are recalled again like nothing ever happened.
5. Ask about microphone choices. Even though a lot of attention seems to get focused on the loudspeakers, one of the most important components is selection of the microphones. There are lots of types and price ranges on offer, but it’s essential to select something suited to the job at hand. For example, there are some lovely acoustically isolated, pulpit, long-necked, condenser microphones (they don’t go “boom” when you knock the pulpit stand), but they require a mixing console that supplies something called Phantom Power, plus need to be professionally installed. For the altar, you can practically turn the entire altar surface into its own microphone using something called a boundary or Pressure Zone Microphone (PZM) but once again consultation is required to see if that’s a fit for your church. Microphone choice will greatly influence the susceptibility for the system to feedback (that dreadful “ringing” sound we’re all unfortunately too familiar with), and an investment in this area is always worthwhile.
6. Equally consider wireless microphones. This is an area where I typically see too many establishments saving too much money, with terribly unsatisfactory results, and an essentially useless wireless system. If you have a need for wireless microphones, invest in a decent multi-microphone wireless microphone system, oh, and please, please change those wireless batteries for every service! The other thing to be aware of is that in Australia, we’re currently undergoing a “Digital Dividend Restack” where wireless microphones operating in the 694-820MHz will become illegal to operate after January 1st, 2015. Rest assured, all the major wireless microphone manufacturers will (or already do) have products that operate under 694MHz, but given this equipment is likely to be operating for a long time before another upgrade, it’s worth asking about your future compliance to Australian standards (read more at www.readyfordigital.com.au).
Radio interference is a fact of life with wireless microphones, and this is accentuated by any single channel receiver; Dual or Quad channel receivers are best. Digital is preferable – I’ve just never liked the thought of the possibility of others listening into analogue wireless systems and especially the odd taxi radio call making it inappropriately into the middle of a service, but the encryption and error correction make digital less susceptible to interference and noise in general, plus you can stack lots of wireless microphones together with modern systems, so there’s great expandability options too.
7. Selection of speakers, and more importantly, speaker placement. Acoustics are never perfect for a sound system in a church (which is an advantage for the choir and pipe organ), and speaker placement is key. Do you care if they are visible? Do you need something invisible? There are some creative options these days that when installed
correctly are virtually invisible. Both approaches will have implications that the systems consultant can talk you through. There are clusters, line arrays, even speakers that come colour matched, or can be painted to match columns or existing paint work, making them virtually invisible. Often the best speaker location isn’t the highest visually appealing option, so compromises have to be made and talked through.
Think about outside coverage too, or coverage for major festivals. Usually a church sound system has multiple zones, with each zone tuned and controlled slightly differently. You may want the flexibility to configure the sound system for a major festival versus a daily weekday service.
8. Mixing console placement. Whilst we are on the topic of placements, what about mixing console placement? It’s an important piece of equipment that’s key to getting results service after service. Ideally it should be in a line-of-sight place, but many churches don’t want the sound and lighting person and console prominently visible. That’s fine, but consider it will be very difficult for the sound mixing volunteer to get a consistent sound if they can’t hear properly from where they are mixing. Sure, they can work with a pair of closed headphones, or maybe use remote mixing, but these are compromises to seriously consider based on your overall sound system priorities.
9. Think about recording capabilities. Did you want the capability to record a particular guest presenter/speaker, or maybe record an entire service? These might be released and sold as CDs at church later, or even posted for download on the church website. Maybe you’d like the capability to stream live to the Internet? Let the consultant know about these potential requirements up front as it will affect the choice of components, especially the mixing console.
10. Choosing a consultant and installer. Everyone is an apparent expert in this field (as an example, knowledge of hi-fi is in no way related to professional audio), but actually few installers have the experience of working with churches. Ask around. Look around at other churches. If there’s one you like, ask them who installed it. They’ll be plenty of people giving advice, most of it inappropriate or outright incorrect, so it’s important to engage a professional with an existing track record, or one that comes highly recommended.
Ask about support after installation. Will they be around after the system is installed, to fine tune settings, maybe together with you for a few services.
What about long term maintenance. What if someone resets the whole system – will the installer retain a backup (if it’s digital). What would they charge to come in and set it up again?
I’ve seen sound systems that I’ve installed have a prolific and positive effect on congregations including growing them dramatically, and on the opposite side I’ve seen the effect of tragic decisions and wasted budgets because someone on the committee thought they were an “expert” and everyone would save a bit of money, ultimately costing the quality of worship day-in, day-out. I’d like to think the above “top ten” represents mostly common sense applied to sound systems, nonetheless asking the simple and obvious questions can be a sure step in achieving a really great outcome for your church. Good luck in your search for a truly inspiring sound system!
1: Spend time by yourself exploring the organ stops. Your knowledge of the stops will increase as you spend more and more time at the console, listening and experimenting.
2: Explore the organ, division (section) by division, i.e. each manual separately, then the pedals. Associate the names Swell, Great and Choir with the manuals. On a two-manual organ the lower manual is usually the Great; above it is the Swell. On a three-manual organ, the middle manual is usually the Great; above it is the Swell; and below the Great is the Choir.
3: For each division, identify which stops are speaking stops (e.g. Open Diapason 8’, Flute 4’, Oboe 8’), and which are non-speaking stops (e.g. couplers such as Swell to Great, and Swell to Pedal, or tremulant).
4: Get to know the sound of each speaking stop individually. Play some single-line melodies or scales all over the keyboard (and pedalboard). Hear what they sound like at different pitches.
5: Listen to and classify the speaking stops according to which family of sounds they belong to, namely:
- principals (the characteristic organ sound);
- flutes (imitating the orchestral flute),
- strings (imitating stringed instruments), and
- reeds (containing vibrating brass reeds; imitating orchestral reeds and brass instruments);
6: If there is a Swell pedal (usually for the Swell manual), get to know how it affects the sound of the stops as you open and close the Swell box.
7: Play some simple music (e.g. hymns or melodies) using the various stops, starting with a Diapason 8’, then Flute 8’, etc., and try to describe the sounds in words.
8: Get to know the significance of the numbers on each stop knob, e.g. Flute 8’ and Flute 4’. These numbers generally signify the length of the longest pipe in the rank (in feet). With an 8 foot stop drawn, the pitch of middle C on the manual should match the pitch of middle C on a piano. Stops labelled as 4’ will sound an octave above the 8’ pitch. Similarly, stops labelled as 2’ will sound two octaves above the 8’ pitch. Stops labelled as 16’ will sound an octave below the 8’ pitch. Remember the relationship between pipe length and pitch: in general, long pipes have low pitch, and short pipes have a high pitch.
9: Try combinations of stops within families. Play some music starting with an 8’ principal
stop (perhaps called Principal 8’ or Open Diapason 8’), and then add a 4’ principal (perhaps called Octave 4’), and then a 2’ principal (perhaps called Fifteenth) if there is one. Repeat for the other families of sounds – flutes and strings. These combinations are called choruses – e.g. principal chorus.
10: Identify the mutation stops and mixtures. Mutations are stops labelled with fractional numbers such as 2 2/3, 1 3/5. They sound the fifths and thirds in the scale, rather than octaves. Try a mutation stop in combination with an 8’ stop, or 8’ and 4’ stops. Listen to these interesting effects. Mixtures have multiple pipes playing for each note pressed and are labelled as 2 ranks, 3 ranks, 4 ranks, or with Roman numeration II, III, IV, etc. The pitches of the pipes are high and add brilliance to a chorus.
[Dr Steven Nisbet is an RSCM Member and the director of music at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane. He is also a committee member of the Organ Society of Qld.]
- Don’t rehearse in the church before a service. Of course, there are times when you can’t avoid this, but the best hymn rehearsals happen when you are in a more “secular space and time”, with room to set chairs up in different configurations, room to move, perhaps some refreshments at the end, and a less formal atmosphere which will allow humour, laughter, mistakes, and the time to do a decent job.
- We learn best from those we like. Congregations will learn most when they like the presenter and (to extend the idea) when they like the experience. This doesn’t mean you have to become Ms Personality with dazzling smile and a super slick charismatic presentation. It does mean you simply have to be “you”, but you have to be your “best you”, your “you” who knows the music, knows how you will present the material, is warm, relaxed, friendly, accepting, and at times perhaps humorous and funny. They will learn best when you make it fun and easy, when you “change gears” often, when you make it a game, when your enjoyment of the occasion is evident.
- Rehearse the whole and the parts. To learn well we need to work on the “bits” – small chunks of music where we can get the details right, but we also need to put the bits into context, so we need to rehearse the whole as well. Some of your rehearsal may be spent rehearsing “line by line” (or even smaller phrases) with singing (or listening to someone sing or a recording) the whole at the beginning and at the end.
- Teach the emotion first and the notes last. We often think our task is to teach the notes. It’s not. The notes are one very small part of what we do. We should start by deciding for ourselves which emotion the music conveys. Is the hymn mysterious, does it suggest awe, is it ecstatic, is it a hymn of praise, is happy lively and vivacious? Does it suggest the strength and power of God, or is it penitent? These are all legitimate emotions that a composer might wish to express. How would I and my congregation express that in the way we sing this – in our tempo, tone, volume, use of consonants, etc etc? I often begin simply by having them sing the first note to “dah” until I get the emotion I want. Then you can teach the rest of the notes, and if you keep them to it, they will continue with the right emotion.
- Use words as much as necessary and as little as possible. Words are great for giving explanations and sometimes for “firing up” and motivating a congregation. You can make vivid descriptions of the emotion you are looking for, and sometimes fanciful descriptions make all the difference “I want you to sound as if you have the power of a jet plane taking off”.
But they can be a great hindrance. We can be verbose where we need to be concise and compact. We use them often when we don’t need to speak at all! If you sing a melody and the congregation is to sing it back, all you need to do is sing, and then indicate with your hand when they should sing – you don’t have to say “let’s all sing that”. If they need to do it again, then use the hand signal again, or simply say “again”.
- Let’s get physical! In my boy’s choir as we sing we may march in time, walk around the room, stand on chairs rather than on the floor, or lie on the floor. We may “punch the air”, conduct the music, clap in time or stamp on the floor. We may sing and wave hands and arms in shapes to describe the music we are singing. We may have some choristers clap or stamp while others sing. We may sing nonsense syllables or make up words to our sacred songs (start singing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring to “I like pizza yes I do”). We may hiss and whistle or shake and shout as we sing. Of course adults won’t do all of this, but you get the idea! Singing is a physical act. It requires energy just like playing sport does. A congregation which spends all of its rehearsal time slumped back in chairs or uncomfortable pews will sound as tired as its demeanour suggests.
- Don’t be afraid of “technique”. When we rehearse with ordinary folks we often don’t introduce issues which might be deemed “musical or vocal technique”. We are either afraid to do so, or we believe we shouldn’t. Let me state clearly: our goal is not to be “arty” or produce some aesthetically pleasing performance for an audience. Our goal is “expressive” – we want to express the meaning and emotion of the words and the music. “Technique” simply means “having the ability to do what you need to do”. If a little bit of basic work on breathing technique, posture, producing vowels, mouth shape etc gives the congregation the ability to be more expressive, then do it.
- Don’t let them get away with anything! Have you ever conducted a congregational practice where no matter how many good ideas you had, how hard you worked, how energetic you were, the assembly sounded lifeless and listless, weak and limp, and expressing none of the emotion of the text. Why is this? The might be many reasons, but one might be that you allowed them to sing like that. They sang that way, and perhaps you tried a few things but in the end you simply accepted it. The best song leaders and choir conductors are not necessarily the best musicians, but they are the ones who have a very clear and detailed mental picture of what they believe their group can sound like, and then they don’t rest until they get that sound. Their mental picture of the sound is realistic; they are not asking the group to do more than the group can do, but they want the group “to be the best that it can be”. Often “the best that it can be” is far better than we think.
I don’t mean that your rehearsal demeanour should end up cajoling, whining, negative, critical, confrontational, or nasty. Your manner remains warm, caring, friendly, energetic, and exuberant and so on. You are accepting of them and where they are, but you have a place that you want to take them, and you will not rest until you and they get there together. “Don’t let them get away with anything” is probably a crude way of saying this. Another might be “show leadership”.
- Practise the music yourself. Ultimately this is the most important advice, and perhaps even the only advice you need. Practice is the musician’s prayer. I use the term “practice” in a wide sense here – it is sitting at the piano banging out the melody or playing the accompaniment, or singing phrases over and over again and experimenting with them. But it is also sitting at a table with music and note paper and brainstorming and meditating, or quietly reading the texts over and over again and making them your prayer. It is “worrying” the music like a dog with a bone, or wrestling with the music like Jacob and the angel. Practice is talking to the music and allowing it to talk to you, and letting it wash over you. It is learning its secrets and learning how to communicate them to your congregation, and then learning how to help them to communicate them in their singing.
- Plan the rehearsal. The foregoing tips imply you need to be prepared! Good teaching doesn’t just happen – it is planned and prepared. So what do you need to prepare? That’s hard to say, because rehearsals, presenters, hymns, congregations, and occasions are all different. But here are some things you might think about:
- The order you’ll teach the hymns in
- Stories about the words, music, text writer, composer
- Words or phrases which might be handy to use
- Words or phrases which you shouldn’t use!
- How long you will spend on each hymn
- How to regenerate spirits if interest or energy are flagging
- Warm up exercises
- Jokes, humourous anecdotes etc
- How you might use movement
- How you might “place” your singers (if you know some strong singers, you might put them in strategic positions which will help the congregation)
- What to do if things are going badly
In the end you won’t use all that you have prepared, and in any case, you don’t want to be rigid in sticking exactly to your plan. A hymn rehearsal is something of an improvisation – it is done spontaneously and “on the spot”. But the most spontaneous people are also often the ones who have done the most preparation. They are not afraid to depart from the plan – but they do have a plan to depart from!
Finally, if you have never tackled a hymn rehearsal – have a go! It can do wonders for your congregation’s hymn singing, but also wonders for its sense of unity, friendship, sociability and sense of mission. Go for it!
- Be inspired yourself
It is all too easy for we conductors to get bogged down with the weekly grind of conducting the choir, or with hassles with other people in the organisation/church, or in maintaining the balance between our “conductor life” and the rest of life. These can all be transcended by reminding ourselves of our belief in the choir’s mission, by our commitment to, and love of, the music, and the joy of interacting with our singers.
- Be inspiring yourself
Adult singers come to choir for a wide variety of reasons, some musical, some social, some because of their sense of commitment and in some cases for reasons not necessarily obvious even to the singers themselves. Remember that singers bring to the rehearsal many of the problems of daily life, and at rehearsal encounter all their doubts and concerns about their musical competence. It is the conductor’s inspiration that in large part enables the singers to let go of such matters, and to come to a place where the music itself elevates this spirit and nourishes their soul.
Remember that to be a conductor is to be an actor! Play the role of the embodiment of inspiration, even if your own inner strength is a little lost.
- Train the choir with purpose
The singers in your choir are often as time-poor as you are, and possibly more so. Some conductors in response to this, and being sensitive to their singers, minimise the amount of rehearsal and even cancel rehearsals when there appears to be no immediate need to rehearse. Other conductors take an opposite view, and run the choir in such a way that the singers feel that the time they devote to choir is worthwhile. Rather than feeling that they were “wasting time” that could have been spent in other important pursuits, the singers feel uplifted by what has been achieved, and by the rehearsal experience, and that the rehearsal was time well spent.
- Find a balance between the choir that is and the choir that is to come
As the conductor it is important that we have a sense that our choir will be different in the future than it is now. If we train the choir without any sense of what that future is, the choir will never get there, but if we train the choir focusing too much on that future, current singers may well become daunted and discouraged, so find the balance between these two ends of the continuum.
So for example, while you may think your choir not yet ready to attempt the wonderful unaccompanied music of the Renaissance, and to achieve the sublime beauty of that style, to not ever attempt it will not encourage new and more competent singers to your choir, nor inspire your current singers to think beyond the choral world they already know. But too much Renaissance music too soon may well discourage the singers who are
currently in the choir. Find the balance.
- Know the difference between your singers as “the choir” and as your friends
The role of conductor has with it a certain level of detachment from our singers, at least while we are fulfilling the role of “designated leader” of the ensemble. How else can we manage with authority processes such as placing singers, correcting singers, chiding singers, and encouraging accountability from the members of the choir? In “choir time” (as distinct from social time) such a distinction is important. This is not to say we should appear detached, nor be unfriendly. We must show, and must be seen to show, to each individual in the choir, so that each person feels valued and affirmed within the ensemble.
- Give each singer a sense of musical self-worth
Research about excellence in music has identified that the best musicians have a sense of self – efficacy, and that those ensembles whose members have such a sense will develop better than when members have a poor sense of their worth as a musician, or of their role in the ensemble. Further members with a poor sense of self-efficacy will not only fail to make a positive contribution to the choir – they may eventually leave.
So encourage each of your singers to understand their musical gifts and/or the role they play within the ensemble. For amateur musicians this is especially important because many will be “victims” of the idea that good musicians have some special inner talent that the rest of us missed out on – the idea of “God – given gifts”. Recent research also shows us that what separates the expert from the person with less expertise is also about the amount of training and skill development that the expert has undergone, rather than about talent or giftedness. To quote the title of one such book that discusses this issue “Talent is Overrated”. Further, the amateur musician is unlikely to recognise the musical “gifts” that are naturally a part of their personal make up. For example, a singer who naturally phrases expressively may not recognise this in themselves because it was not a skill they had to work hard to acquire. It was just there. As conductors we can encourage their sense of musical self-worth by helping them identify, and by us acknowledging, such qualities.
- Share your own mission for the choir with the members.
On the face of it one might assume that the mission of the choir is self evident, and particularly in a church choir. However, the reality is that the choir will have a variety of missions – to the church itself, and specifically to the liturgy, to the members (obviously), and possibly to the community in which the church is placed, and different church choirs will place different values on these various aspects of the mission.
Make sure your choir members share or at least understand your view of the choir. Is it first and foremost to (1) serve the liturgy, or (2) is the social element of choir membership the first priority (that is, having the church provide a dynamic and cohesive church organisation alongside the other organisations that make up the community life of the church), and the liturgy itself provides a framework for the choir while the choir’s internal dynamic remains the first priority? Alternatively, is the first priority in the choir’s mission to (3) expand the knowledge and experience of sacred music shared by choir members and the congregation, or is such a developmental role not part of the mission of your choir? Or is the role of the choir to manifest the Christian injunction to (4) be the best that we can be, and if so to what extent is this to be the focus on the individual, or the focus of the choir as a single unit? In other words the “best possible choir” might have visions of excellence that cannot be realised even when all members strive for the individual best, so if this is the prime purpose of the choir, some singers may be excluded. These same singers may have a very worthwhile role in the choir if other aims underpin the mission of the choir.
All of the above views of a church choir have legitimacy, but you can see that some of these would make uncomfortable bedfellows, and the juxtaposition of such differing views held by different choir members may make the achievement of an inspiring choir difficult.
- Love the music that you sing, as well as loving your singers who sing it
Well of course, I hear you say, I do! However I think many conductors have this out of balance. My point is that the music deserves to receive more “love” than at present, and that we conductors often confuse love of the music with love of what the music does for us (e.g. we might love it because it provides the means by which the singers choose to come together to sing). I often get the impression that many conductors believe that they love the music when in fact what they love is not fundamentally the music itself, but other tangential things that arise from the music. Why else would there be so many choirs that perform very poor music, pleasant though the experience may be? It is because the prime focus is on the flow-on benefits of the music, rather than on the music itself.
Look at it this way. Unless we sing music we are not a choir, so in this sense it is the music itself that gives us a role and an “excuse” to interact together as musicians – it justifies our existence as a community group. And because it is this interaction which gives such satisfaction and joy the danger is that we confuse this good that the music achieves for us with the good of the music itself. So in your reflecting on the conductor’s role, strive for the intrinsic appreciation of the music and not merely an appreciation of what it does for your choir.
And it is not an either/or situation. To focus on poor music which gives a sense of community is surely not as enriching as focusing on great music (which also gives a sense of community).
- Forgive failure and celebrate success
Sometimes as conductors we need, it seems, to be able to articulate musical criticisms of our singers or their efforts as proof that we ourselves are musically astute. And as Australians I suspect it is our nature to be deprecating of others rather than affirming. But since “nothing succeeds like success” use positives as the foundation for future growth, rather than over-emphasising the negatives.
- Accept duality – Don’t expect the singers to be (and think) like you, and similarly do not be (or think) like your singers.
Accept the duality of the conductor’s role as reflected in the following juxtapositions. a) have high expectations while accepting that they will often not be fulfilled b) make the choir one of the most important priorities in your life and accept that it may not be so in the lives of your singers.
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mat.7:16
…and while it is highly admirable to be able to play the latest brutally difficult piece without making a mistake, there is a much more subtle and comprehensive skill in not merely playing a hymn tune (simple though that might seem at first glance) but in leading and energising a congregation to an advanced spiritual awareness of the text. But first…
A) HOW TO CARVE AN ELEPHANT
- Take a block of marble
- Remove therefrom everything that does not look like an elephant.
B) HOW IS ALL MUSIC PERFORMANCE LIKE PEANUT BUTTER?
It varies from oily-smooth to crunchy. Yes, all this is relevant to hymn playing.
In A) one needs to have at least a mental image of an elephant and in hymns, one needs to have a sonic impression of how it (words and music) should sound. If you are not energised by quality examples live (But where shall wisdom be found? Job 28:12) then there are many examples on the internet. Don’t merely listen but dissect analytically. P is for plan, persist, paper (for jotting down discoveries) and prayer so read James 1:5 plus verse 14.
In B), from choir training (no not merely choral conducting for almost anyone can stand up and wave their hands around) to playing every instrument, there must be, where the texture demands it, contrast between the ultra-smooth and the short, detached style: to paraphrase the Bard, “A surfeit of the sweetest (SMOOTHEST) things a loathing to my stomach brings.” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 2 Sc.2]
Here are some basic tips for beginners.
- A hymn tune is written for a four part choir and needs to be arranged for an organ. Tie together all repeated notes except in the treble and in the bass from a weak to a strong accent. This basic legato style is vital but NOT if that is all. At times, to move a congregation along, I have for a short time, played every chord staccato. To give an accent, let there be a sliver of silence before the sound, the more ‘martial’ the words and tune, the more silence to give the effect of an accent on the unaccentable organ!
- The introduction must be played in the tempo of the hymn WITHOUT ANY SLOWING DOWN. Often the first phrase, then the last phrase can be used.
- Be consistent for in doing so, you will gradually train your congregation. Only slow down at the end of the last verse and nowhere else otherwise the whole hymn will get slower and slower and end up going backwards!
- There is no one ideal tempo for a hymn, it depends on the time of day, acoustics, the instrument, the liturgical season of the year etc. Try to be consistent in the way you finish a verse, breathe, then start the next one. I like to continue the (silent) musical pulse and this helps the singers to anticipate the start of the next verse.
- In all of this, the words are the most important so be aware of the overall ethos of the poem, the places where this will change and phrase (and alter the organ sound) accordingly. Play the words and not merely the music.
- If the tune drags, use higher pitch stops (4’2’mixtures) rather than more mere decibels, bullying the singers instead of gently leading “those who are with (out)…”Be aware of the places where it is difficult to snatch a breath in strict time, and allow a little elbow room of tempo variation without distorting your basic pulse.
- It is far, far easier to lead from the console if the organ is large with a wide range of tone colours and not mere volume. This is easy on the seven-manual monster in St.Abinadab’s Abbey-On-The-Hill (above) and very difficult on a harmonium (a wheezy little excuse for an organ) (below) or the staggered two-manual baby electronic with twelve sticks underneath. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
- The introduction should be played on clear, incisive stops and at times, even the melody only at this time, is a welcome breath of fresh air. Then, firm without being belligerent appreciating there is a difference between Good Friday and Easter Day!
- If you cannot play the pedals, then don’t!
- Be daring, experiment, ask for feedback from the singers. Dominus vobiscum.