Directing Choral Music

Directing Choral Music
Carl Hopper

What is the future of choral music in the church as this century ends and another begins? The Bible does not support a spectator philosophy of music ministry, although recordings and the media have produced a population of spectators.

Scripturally, worship and praise are described as corporate acts of the body of believers. There are numerous exhortations for believers to “sing to the Lord,” and throughout the Old and New Testaments are references to groups of people singing and making music in thankfulness to the Lord. Paul instructs Christians to join in singing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs.

There is no technological replacement for a singing church. Church choirs enjoy the role of leading congregations in corporate worship, and choir directors assume the task of training the choirs.

Requirements of the Director

In many churches, the choir director ranks next to the pastor in the level of training required for the job and the amount of influence and congregational contact involved in the position. Conducting is a skill mastered by some at the professional level and practiced by others at a basic level. Simply being able- to play the piano or read music doesn’t qualify someone to become a choir director; a gift of leadership in music needs to be discovered and nurtured.

For example, college music majors require at least a semester to learn the basic skills of conducting, and the learning seemingly never ends for those wanting to improve their skills of musicianship, teaching, communicating, and ministering effectively.

Musicianship is the most important skill a conductor needs to develop. Good musicianship includes sight reading skills, theoretical knowledge, and understanding of performance practice, keyboard skills, and vocal technique. In addition, the choral director must understand and be fluent in the physical gestures necessary to conduct a choir. Another valuable aspect of musicianship is the knowledge of sacred choral literature and how it relates to Scripture and the church year.

Just as an outstanding teacher will inspire students to continue to learn, so an outstanding conductor will inspire the choir to sing more beautifully in service of the church. Rarely is a church choir an auditioned group. Typically it consists of people with varied musical backgrounds. The director’s task is to teach music reading and vocal technique, while working on balance and blend in preparation for worship each week. Teaching becomes an even more essential component when working with children. The future of congregational participation in the music of the church lies in the musical training of young people.

Effective communication skills are essential in relating to the choir, as well as to the church staff and the congregation. Choir members become most disgruntled when they feel pressured by lack of time or when they haven’t clearly understood what is expected of them. Publishing a schedule of anthems and services facilitates communication. While a pastor may be able to write a sermon in one week, it is often impossible for a choir to learn an anthem in one week. Therefore, the director needs to be in constant communication with the pastor to coordinate plans.

Communication with the congregation through social activities, coffee hours, new-member classes, and other contacts helps the director attract new people to the choir. Choir directors will never be able to recruit new singers if their only route on Sunday morning is from their car to the choir loft.

Choir directors can also communicate music to the congregation and encourage their participation through short introductions to anthems or hymns. Congregations today need encouragement to sing and actively participate in worship, and choir directors can boost enthusiasm by assuming more leadership in the worship service.

The choral director also functions as pastor to many church members. Taking time to pray and provide spiritual direction in the form of short explanations of hymn texts should be a regular part of every choir rehearsal. Many church choirs become natural support groups in times of grief or trial, and the directors can facilitate this support through their ministry of caring.

Technical Skills

The conductor plays a key role in the choir’s performance and thus should possess the basic skills to help the choir members sing their best. Communicating through gesture is an essential component of choral conducting. The good conductor economizes movements in a way that reflects the beauty of the music and communicates necessary information to the choir.

Conductors serve as models for their singers, so their posture and breathing need to help the singers achieve effective breathing and tone production. Both feet should be planted firmly on the floor, with the body weight on the front part of the foot. The spine should be straight and the head held high but not pushed too far forward or back. Tension in the director can create tension in the singers.

To discover the correct arm position for conducting, the director can swing his or her right arm back and forth several times and finally bring it to a resting position with the hand just above the waist. The elbow will be slightly bent and close, but not tight, against the body. The palm should be facing the floor, and the fingers should be extended but relaxed. If the choir is planning a work with an orchestra, the conductor will want to use a baton.

With a gesture of preparation, the conductor tells the choir to begin singing. Many pieces start on the downbeat, and this gesture of preparation is the most commonly used. The right hand should begin just slightly above waist level and to the right of the body. The arm is swung upwards and to the left and brought down in front of the body. The direction of the gesture communicates what beat the choir should begin singing. A basic rule: The gesture of preparation is the pattern of the beat preceding the beat on which the choir enters. Only one beat is necessary, since accompanists and choirs can easily be trained to enter with just this one gesture. The size and speed of the gesture alert singers to the dynamic and tempo of the music. The conductor should breath clearly (though not loudly) with the gesture of preparation to encourage the singers to take a breath.

The conductor can execute a gestural cutoff by a circular motion signaling the choir to prepare to stop. The gestures of preparation and release are similar in that they consist of a preparatory motion and end with either an entrance of sound or a cessation.

Once the choir can be started or stopped, the conductor must know what to do with them as they sing. Conductors use standard beat patterns to communicate. One mistake is to try to gesture every note the choir is to sing (rather than the beats of the measure), which becomes nearly impossible to follow. It is better to stick with the basic patterns for conducting in one, two, three, four, and six beats to a measure. Conductors can practice in front of a mirror until the patterns become automatic. Sometimes conductors need to subdivide the beat, which they do by simply retracing several inches of the previous beat pattern for the second half of each beat.

Next comes the effective use of the left hand, which is used for expression, independent of the right hand. Exercises to help develop this independence include doing unrelated tasks like brushing hair or tracing geometric shapes with the left hand while conducting fluid, controlled beat patterns with the right.

Other skills include the gesture of syncopation (especially necessary when dealing with contemporary or pop music), articulation, fermatas, and mixed and changing meter. A good conductor is always striving to use economical but clear gestures.

The Rehearsal

Rehearsals provide opportunity for the greatest contact between the choir director and the choir. Rehearsal times vary, and finding the best time for most of the people is challenging. Always there are persons who express an interest in singing but are unable to attend rehearsals. The choir director must choose the time for rehearsal convenient for the most people and then be firm with an attendance policy.

For instance, should members be allowed to sing on Sunday morning if they were unable to attend the rehearsal? A director must decide, and many plan rehearsals such that occasional absences don’t hinder singers from singing. Asking choir members to record expected absences is also helpful in planning rehearsals and Sunday anthems.

* Preparing for the rehearsal. Acoustic ambiance is the most important factor in choosing a rehearsal space. Choirs sing more effectively in rooms not too “dry” (where it is difficult to hear other singers) or “live” (where it is difficult to hear anything).

When new construction is considered, the choir director should be involved in acoustical design for both the rehearsal room and the sanctuary. Even chair purchases are important. Metal folding chairs are least ideal for singers, whereas chairs with flat seats and backs provide the best support and encourage good posture.

Arrange the chairs so that each singer clearly views the director and hears other singers. For example, a semicircle arrangement sets a better acoustic environment than straight rows. Other aspects of the rehearsal room that the choir director should be concerned about are adequate lighting, temperature and humidity control, blackboard and bulletin board space, and a tuned piano.

Careful analysis of the music prior to rehearsal is absolutely necessary. Decisions about breathing, cutoffs, dynamics, and phrasing should be made before presenting a piece of music to the choir. Analyzing a piece structurally is a valuable aid in planning rehearsals. Analysis also helps the director identify unison parts and potential rhythmic and harmonic difficulties. A conductor needs to go into a rehearsal knowing the music well enough to teach it to the choir.

A church choir is unique in that it performs every week. This creates special demands on the director and the choir, and care should be given to account for it. For example, some music can be repeated from year to year, effectively lifting the burden of learning a new piece of music each week for the worship service.

The director should also choose music that is appropriate for the size and ability of the choir. For instance, a choir of 15 to 20 singers should not attempt thickly textured anthems from the nineteenth century. Directors who program Christian contemporary music can also have unrealistic expectations, thinking the choir should sound like the professional recording. It is wise to search for music that fits the capability of the choir. A good blend of old, new, easy, and difficult pieces eases the load of weekly performance. This blend also helps create a rehearsal that is varied and interesting.

* Conducting the rehearsal. The rehearsal time should begin with vocal warm-ups, since most of the choir members sing only twice a week. This time can also be spent in tuning, developing tone and breath control, and expanding range. Work on diction and vocal production can be achieved by practicing the hymns and songs to be sung in the worship service. This practice also helps to improve congregational singing.

The structure of the rehearsal is important both to the vocal health and to the energy level of the choir. Most of the choir members have worked a long day before an evening rehearsal and are tired. Singing with energy and good breath support can actually be an invigorating experience, but a poorly run rehearsal with little sense of direction will only add to the choir’s fatigue.

It is best to plan rehearsals that begin and end with familiar pieces. Singing with confidence at the outset enables choristers to comfortably continue the warm-up process. Next it is best to work on the most difficult and least known piece in the repertoire. The rehearsal should continue with more familiar works and conclude with something that allows the choir to sense accomplishment. Most directors feel the pressure of preparing for Sunday, but careful rehearsal planning should include anthems for subsequent Sundays as well.

The actual rehearsal method for individual pieces will vary. A basic plan begins with reading a piece through in its entirety, followed by work on specific sections, and ending with a final read-through of the piece. Typically it is the middle section that demands the most attention.

This work compares to a medical diagnosis. The first run-through provides an opportunity to analyze what is right or wrong with the performance. This is followed by a prescription for correcting the error. The tenors may miss an entrance because they are not sure of their pitch. The solution is to listen for the note in the soprano line the measure before their entrance. Singing the piece once more helps to double-check for accuracy.

As a director gains experience, new and varied ways of rehearsing can be employed. It might be good to start at the end of a piece and work backwards, adding sections as they are learned. Or the director may choose to work on only five measures of one piece instead of attempting an entire read-through. Just as there are varieties of pieces included in a rehearsal, so are there varieties in rehearsal methodology.

No choir thrives on all work and no play! The choir rehearsal should also have social and spiritual components. Devotions or prayer times provide an opportunity for the choir members to share concerns. This time can also be used to emphasize the text of a piece to be rehearsed or to direct the choir in understanding how the anthems and hymns will add to the service.

Social time is also an important factor for the choir. People will sing and communicate better if they know each other. Coffee following rehearsal offers one way of providing fellowship. And the fun need not occur only outside of rehearsal, but also during it. Elements of humor and lightheartedness are great for building esprit de corps. Socializing may seem frivolous when there is music to be learned, but it is good to remember that choristers devote significant time to a church’s music ministry, and one of their rewards is the fellowship they experience in that context. The ideal rehearsal is a mix of singing, music education, prayer, and fellowship.

On Sunday morning, careful voice warm-up, anthem review, and focus on the demands of the service are important. This may compete with other church activities but requires at least 15 to 20 minutes. This time is especially helpful for singers absent from the preceding week’s rehearsal. Those persons may be asked to rehearse earlier in the morning, to be joined later by the rest of the choir. The choir should be alerted to any unusual events in the service and given instructions for processing, standing, and sitting. Difficult spots in the anthem should be practiced before a final run-through of the anthem. This saves time and gives the choir a sense of completion prior to beginning the worship experience.

Extra rehearsals may be needed at certain times of the year. Fall is a good time to have a workshop. This is the time to introduce a guest conductor or clinician to work with the choir. Use the opportunity to build basic vocal skills and lay a foundation for coming work. A read-through of coming anthems is helpful to the choir in understanding the work expected from them.

Special musical events, such as major works, cantatas, Christmas or spring concerts, and musicals, also call for extra rehearsal time. Structure these rehearsals carefully, since choir members are giving up time and need to feel it is worthwhile. Most singers are willing to give of their time if it is spent effectively.

Professional Development

One goal of a choral director is to enable the choir to sing better than it did at its last rehearsal, to make them better, more expressive singers and musicians. Because this calls for the constant motivation of others, most choral directors are interested in professional development. Churches should encourage staff members�including musicians, to seek professional development, and help financially as much as possible.

It is vital that church musicians continue to expand their horizons through education. Myriad workshops and courses are available, and denominations frequently have musical associations that sponsor national summer workshops as well as regional gatherings held geographically throughout the year. Most colleges offer courses in basic conducting.

Professional organizations offer workshops in technique, repertoire, and interpretation annually. Local churches are wise to join one of the several sacred-music organizations and encourage musicians on their staff to participate in them. Some of these organizations include:

* Chorister’s Guild, 2834 W. Kingsley Rd., Garland, TX 75041

* American Choral Director’s Association, P.O. Box 5310, Lawton, OK 73504

* American Choral Foundation, 130 West 56th St., New York, NY 10019

* Music Educators National Conference, 1902 Association Dr., Reston, VA 22091

* American Guild of Organists, 475 Riverside Dr., Suite 1260, New York, NY 10115

* Fellowship of United Methodist Musicians, Box 840, Nashville, TN 37202

* Presbyterian Association of Musicians, 1000 E. Morehead S., Charlotte, NC 28204

* Fellowship of American Baptist Musicians, P.O. Box 851, Valley Forge, PA 19482

* Hymn Society of America, P.O. Box 30854, Fort Worth, TX 76129

* Royal School of Church Music, Addington Palace, Croydon, Surrey CR95AD, England.

The call to be a church choir director demands a deep commitment to Christ and his church, a thorough knowledge of music, the technical skills of conducting, administrative abilities, and public-relations skills. These expectations seem daunting but should inspire churches to seek the best professionally qualified persons to lead their music ministries. The worship and spiritual life of a congregation is deeply affected by the leadership of the choir director.
– Mary Hopper

* Ehmann, W. and F. Hassemann. 1981. Voice building for choirs. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Hinshaw Music.
* Garretson, R. 1988. Conducting choral music, sixth ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
* Heffernan, C. 1982. Choral music: Technique and artistry. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
* Lamb, G. 1988. Choral techniques, third ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown. Lovelace, A. and W. Rice. 1960. Music and worship in the church. Nashville: Abingdon.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes ” Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”

This article “Directing Choral Music” written by Carl Hopper, was excerpted from the book Leadership Handbooks of Practical Theology, vol. 1. It may be used for study and research purposes only.