I know many readers of this seedbed collective serve at churches without choirs, rendering this particular post seemingly irrelevant, but I would wager to guess that many churches might love to have a choir, but aren’t quite sure how to get it off the ground. If you’re in that group, this post is for you too!
If your church is lucky enough to have a choir, then you know all too well the struggles and challenges in recruiting and retaining members. Between over-worked parents, jam-packed family schedules, and the already existing worship team rehearsals and meetings, more and more people are too busy to come out to church and sacrifice a(nother) precious week-night for choir rehearsal.
Sometimes I’ve thought about throwing in the towel. When attendance and morale drop, I assume that choir is just not important enough to warrant people’s time, and our church can worship just fine without them. So I have to constantly remind myself that our choir is important, and after a breathtaking and awe-inspiring concert, many choristers and parishioners are beginning to realize just how important it truly is.
Our choir has about 25 members on a good day (on a not-so-good day this can dip into the low teens). Some are good sight readers, but most sing by ear and rely heavily on the few sight readers in the group. Being an all-volunteer group, this means that learning music takes time, which wears on the more experienced singers. We hit a slump in 2013 when, wanting to engage the less experienced singers, I programmed really simple hymn arrangements and contemporary octavos. The result was a bored group of singers singing boring music and morale plummeted even more. After five years directing this group, and trying many different repertoires, I’ve learned that the best way to energize the choir and engage all levels of experience is to do excellent music on a big scale. The quality of the music is inspiring for all who participate, and by performing on a big scale, strong singers are encouraged to lead, and less experienced singers are supported by the numbers. The demands of large-scale works help the recruitment process and may help entice singers to join for a seasonal project.
I quickly realized the error of programming small boring music and began dreaming big. I realized that our church had quite a few talented student string players, and several really talented adult musicians as well. In the fall of 2015 I shot an email on a whim to another church music director in my area and hoped for the best. A few emails later a concert program had formed: Fauré’s 1893 Requiem and a contemporary pairing, Dan Forrest’s Requiem for the Living. Between our two churches, we had a combined choir of almost 50 singers, and an orchestra of 23. After studying the music and imagining the final result, I began to see this concert as not only a great catalyst that would energize the choir, but as something our congregation desperately needed to hear; the message of the gospel proclaimed in a medium that was unlike anything we’ve ever heard within the walls of our humble New England churches: a massive musical force of 70+, complete with pipe organ, strings, winds, brass, timpani, harp, orchestral bass drum, and crash cymbals! The lush musical landscape would invite all ages to sit back, relax, and enjoy about 60-minutes of “classical” (in quotes because Dan Forrest is hardly a classical composer, but you get the idea) music and consider two composers’ views on the life and death, of Christ’s victory over death and the eternal rest available for those who believe in Him.
Most of the choir, at first, did not see our vision for a collaborative choral orchestral concert. Many of the less experienced singers were overwhelmed at first with the scale of the project, and agonized over having to learn 60+ minutes of music, when a five-minute anthem was already a challenge. I knew it was hard. I constantly reminded them of the goal and implored them to put in the hard work early in the learning process, so that by concert week they could be relaxed and really enjoy making great music. One of the most dedicated and hard-working singers confessed to me that it was the hardest thing she’s ever done, including her PhD dissertation! But she kept showing up, kept studying the music at home (I provided learning CDs to help those who don’t read music well learn faster), and soon became a leader in the alto section. Other singers began looking to her for leadership, and her commitment was infectious.
By combining with another local choir, we were able to double our numbers, which indeed boosted morale for both groups. We also combined our modest music budgets which helped in hiring a few professional musicians to fill in some missing spots in the orchestra.
To help the incremental learning process, I programmed selections of each work throughout the year, so that by the time the concert came around, the singers had already sang 4 or 5 movements in our regular Sunday worship services, accompanied by organ alone or a small chamber ensemble.
Our more experienced singers were energized by the musically rich program. Some had sung the Fauré Requiem before and loved returning to this masterwork. None had sung the Forrest Requiem for the Living, but a few months into the rehearsals it began to come to life. The singers all began to sense that we were all working together to create something incredible.
Let’s do it again!
Six months, hundreds of emails, and dozens of meetings and rehearsals later, and more work than I’ve done for any Christmas or Easter Sunday later, and we did it! In the fall I planned the music and hoped for the best, and the response has gone above and beyond my expectations for this project. The choir was elated after each performance, and both churches were amazed by the sound that the choir and orchestra was able to make together. We are already being asked, “when can we do this again?,” though, for now, it’s time to rest!
If you’d like to see more about this collaborative choral concert, visit:
Have you done a collaborative choral concert or any other multi-church musical collaborations? Let us know in the comments!