The Adult Choir
By Austin Lovelace
PROTESTANT CONCRECATIONS IN AMERICA HAVE NOT ALWAYS LOOKED TO choirs for musical leadership. At various times during the past three centuries, music of the church has been led by the pastor, a clerk precentor whose responsibility it was to “line out the hymns,” or by a quartet, the last named usually consisting of professional singers. A transition group made its appearance in certain areas; it is aptly described by Leonard Ellinwood in The History of American Church Music:
The infamous but popular “quartet choir” began to appear early in the nineteenth century. This term is descriptive of the volunteer chorus choir built around a quartet of strong solo voices which never blended with the ensemble, and for which frequent solo and duet passages were necessary, leaving a relatively small portion of the anthems for truly choral singing . . . .
Whatever their origins may have been, the quartet choirs, wherever they were maintained, soon degenerated into mere quartets of professional singers who were frequently more concerned with personal vainglory than with the worship of Almighty God. This fault became all the more apparent in liturgical churches, for the quartets could seldom achieve that impersonal association between music and liturgy which is the sine qua non of true worship. (1)
During the last fifty years a somewhat better understanding of the place of the choir has developed. The quartet and quartet-choir are for all practical purposes no longer with us and the basic principle of using a more or less select part of the congregation to serve as musical leaders of the congregation has been generally accepted.
Confusion is still rampant, however.
I assume that one hundred lay definitions of the choir would probably agree in substance, but the dictionary unexpectedly offers supplementary and suggestive information. “A choir,” it says, “is an organized company of singers, especially in church.” Disregarding the question as to whether all the members of any choir may accurately be described as “singers,” my mind went on to the word “organized” and I decided to look it up also. An “organization,” the dictionary informs us, is “any vitally or systematically organic whole; an association or society.” The words systematically organized whole” I find provocative. Those words imply integration, a fusion of the separate members, a corporate sense of responsibility, continuity, and a planned existence. (2)
He becomes even more pessimistic as he writes:
As the situation now exists, however, choir directors know from painful experience that the choir is a pretty constant abrasive; it often represents only such cohesion as is expressed in loyalty to the parish or to the choir master; is easily distracted from attendance at rehearsals by the slightest lute of entertainment, and from service on Sunday by rain or snow, by too much heat or too much cold, by sports of sundry natures, by the radio, and by television. I sometimes wonder why the volunteer choir continues to function at all. Church choristers are, to my way of thinking, an unsung race of heroes and heroines. Superficially viewed, there is not much to command their loyalty. Has anyone ever inscribed on a tombstone the fact that this man or this woman conscientiously served his or her God through membership in the parish choir over many years? There is a deal of graveyard literature on the subject of husbands and wives who behaved themselves, arid on piety in general; but that John and Mary, side by side, week in and week out, mounted to the choir loft and dutifully labored in the vocal vine yard that, it would seem, represents no virtue at all. (3)
Long ago, Waldo Selden Pratt made a statement that is true today.
The chief cause of trouble about the choir is that its field and its aims are too vaguely defined in the minds of its members, its managers, and the public at large. . . . In default of some definite basis of principles, we shall find ourselves swayed hither and thither by chance impulses, bewildered by conflicting currents of hasty opinion, and occasionally swept completely off our feet. Happily for the general welfare of the subject, in all of our churches and among most musicians there is a far greater readiness for sound opinions than some good people suppose. In this field, as in others, we may be sure that there is everywhere a large amount of diffused, latent commonsense and right feeling to which we may confidently appeal. (4)
This “diffused, latent commonsense” has pulled church music through many periods of doubt and uncertainty, and is the foundation upon which we wish to build our presentation of choir methods and materials. In the discussion to follow, basic principles applicable to churches of any size and condition will be discussed. It is not important whether a church has a music budget of fifty or five thousand dollars. It is, however, very important that the church’s attitude toward and understanding of its choirs be correctly formulated and firmly established.
As a part of this understanding, it should be kept constantly in mind that the choir is a service organization whose members give freely of their time and talents. The term “volunteer choir” has unfortunate connotations, and its use should be discouraged. In the first place, one does not “volunteer” to attend church, to contribute to the budget, or to perform any other act which is less than the just return to God of a very small portion of all that he has given to us. When Jesus told the parable of the talents, he was making a statement of cause and effect. God gives us certain abilities which he expects us to use. If we fail to use them and by so doing fail to glorify him, we have sinned. It follows, then, that “in the musically mature church, the ministry of choir singing is now regarded as a privilege and a trust.” (5)
In the second place, very few Protestant church choirs are professional in the sense that their singers are paid. The paying of soloists under certain special circumstances can perhaps be justified, but the entire choir must understand and approve. The practice of secretly paying some choir members is not only poor churchmanship but also is quite dangerous because choir morale will deteriorate rapidly if word of the situation were to get out. The paid singer may not have the attitude of dedication and service that is the foundation of every successful choir. In the long run, his is the greater loss because he is denied the privilege of giving freely of himself. However, it must not be inferred that the acceptance of pay automatically makes a singer any less dedicated than he would otherwise be.
“Volunteer” has an additional implication that is indeed unfortunate. Joseph Ashton aptly described the situation in the following statement:
The shortcomings and deficiencies of the choir are many times excused on the plea that it is volunteer and that therefore a respectable standard of excellence and efficiency for its purpose is not to be required. That its music is distressing and the service is rendered vapid is not duly regarded. Such a plea is, as a matter of fact, totally unworthy of the high function of a service f divine worship. (6)
Perhaps we can extend Davison’s definition of a choir by listing a few of its characteristics. It is reasonably safe to say that a choir is:
1. A dedicated group of people who have joyfully accepted the opportunities provided by the choir for advancing the kingdom of God. “Ultimate human happiness probably results from creating something worthwhile, serving something besides one’s self, and believing in something bigger than one ‘s self Singing in a church choir is an adventure in human service.” (7)
2. A leadership group in hymn singing and worship, functioning ways as a part of the worshiping congregation.
3. A priestly group, whose primary purpose is to strengthen the act of worship by singing portions of the service which the congregation is unable to do quite so effectively.
4. An organization of people who consider that regular attendance at all choir activities is a vital part of their service to God.
5. A crusading force, striving always to make the worship service more beautiful and more valid.
6. A unifying force in the whole life of the church. On the other hand, a choir is not:
1. A concert organization established for the purpose of displaying or collectively the operatic abilities of its members. Neither is it a display place for the director or organist with concert ambitions.
2. Maintained as an entertainment and social organization to which everyone who is anyone must belong. While the social life is important, it must never interfere with the real function of the choir.
3. A part-time group, holding the allegiance of its members on a basis of personal convenience, and accepting various flimsy excuses for their occasional attendance.
4. A group which one condescends to serve, thereby “laying up treasures in heaven.”
5. An organization of persons who are pleased to help the director regularly or on special occasions.
6. An organization that increases in size, improves its attendance, and works with concentrated interest just before Christmas, Easter, and other “special” events, leaving the remaining services to get along as best they can.
7. A group of people who may attend rehearsal, and probably the morning service if an anthem is to be sung, or the choir featured in some other fashion.
8. An organization that offers opportunities for any kind of personal aggrandizement or for the display of temperament or jealousy.
Why do people belong to choirs? Directors may overlook the fact that it is sometimes highly inconvenient for laymen to fulfill the pressing demands of a good choir program. The service aspect has been suggested in preceding statements, and no one wishes to speak disparagingly of this phase of choir life. But despite his spirit of dedication and the attendant desire to serve, even the most consecrated choir member cannot be expected to remain enthusiastic unless he receives something more valuable than money in return. The effective choir can and should contribute much to the lives of its members.
1. The enriching experience provided by singing and hearing good music is perhaps the most obvious reward. In many communities there are few if any other such opportunities and it behooves the director to build his library and plan his rehearsals with this fact in mind
2. A good choir rehearsal will give all the benefits of a voice class, provided the director takes into consideration the varying degrees of previous vocal training possessed by his singers. He can teach posture, support, diction, and many less obvious principles of good singing without seeming to do so. The fact that this learning is incidental will make it all the more effective.
3. Whether or not the rehearsal is opened and closed with a period of worship, a rewarding spiritual experience should be provided, often on a level not attainable elsewhere. The sincere participation, in public or at rehearsal, in the singing of sacred music offers benefits that cannot be understood by persons who have never known such joy.
4. Membership in a choir must not depend upon social values, but it cannot be denied that such values should, and can, exist. Parties, teas, and other kinds of entertainment can make their contribution to the development of choir morale. However, there are other phases of social life that are far more important. Working together as a unit, ignoring individual differences and personal likes and dislikes for the greater good, and the growth of a tangible group personality all contribute to the development of finer men and women.
The choir is often thought of as having as its reason for existence the preparation of anthems for performance each Sunday and the creation of services for Christmas, Easter, and other special occasions. Granted that these responsibilities are very real, and their fulfillment has significance in the life of the church, there is an increasing trend toward the thought that the choir is able to make other contributions of equal and perhaps greater significance. The actual meaning of the word “choir” will be found in these less obvious responsibilities.
The first task of the choir is to lead the congregation in worship. This leadership starts with the choir’s first audible or visible activity at the beginning of the service and continues as long as the choir can be seen or heard. It includes the singing of hymns, responses, and anthems with or for the congregation and the praying of collective prayers and the reading of other collective items. It also includes an area that may seem at first thought to be no part of the choir’s work, namely the pastoral prayers and the sennon. While the choir should at all times remain sufficiently aloof to keep the service moving, it must be one with the minister in all that he says and does. A noticeably wandering mind, a roving eye, or a wriggling body in the choir loft can interfere with the close communication that should exist between the minister and the congregation. The choir should not be the focus of worship, but should help to bring focus to the sense of worship.
Since the first responsibility of the choir is to make a positive contribution to the worship service, careful attention should be given to the apparently simple matter of getting into and out of the choir area. Perhaps the best procedure is to use a singing processional and recessional, provided the sanctuary is constructed in such a way that this is practical. If a processional does not seem advisable the choir should move quietly into and out of the chancel during the prelude and postlude, remembering that the service does not end until after each member is out of the sanctuary. It is even more effective if the choir is in place before the prelude starts. If they bow in silent prayer and listen to the prelude, the congregation is quite likely to follow their lead. Every attempt should be made to bring to life the beautiful words so aptly quoted by Halford E. Luccock:
For the artist who works in words, that sense of a reality which enters the mind and spirit from outside is expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson in a familiar purple passage in his letters legitimately purple; for while purple is not to be splashed inadvisedly, but reverently and discreetly, nevertheless it is in God’s spectrum. Recovering from a severe illness, he wrote to W. E. Henley
“After this break in my work, beginning to return to it, as from light sleep, I wax exclamatory, as you see.
Art and Blue Heaven,
April and God’s Larks.
Green reeds and the sky-scattering river.
A stately music.
Enter God. R. L. S.
“Aye, but you know, until a man can write that ‘Enter God, ‘ he has made no art! ” (8)
There are many reasons why a processional is not always advisable, the type of architecture perhaps being the most obvious. “When the choir room is but a few steps from the chancel a sung processional becomes absurd. . . . Taking a circuitous route . . . is parading for the sake of a parade. ” (9) The manner in which the choir enters and leaves the choir loft should be determined by the physical structure of the church, and the requirements of the worship service. As with all other elements in the service, a processional can be justified only in terms of the positive contributions it makes to the service.
Because of doctrine or faith, certain churches maintain a pulpit enter. Usually a processional is out of place in such a church. In others he aisles and entrances are so arranged that a logical processional cannot be worked out. The choir should be able to walk down a center isle, two abreast, and directly into the choir area.
If a processional is used, it should be balanced by a recessional. How wer, neither has any value unless the participants understand the significance of this often mutilated act.
The processional solves the problem of getting a choir into its place without awkwardness. The entry of a choir is bound to attract attention, just at a time when the congregation ought to be settling down to a mood of meditation and prayer. The processional makes the choir’s entry part of the worship itself and riot an interference with it. The psychological value is that the procession, since it involves drama and movement, heightens the atmosphere of expectancy non just at the beginning of a service, when such an atmosphere is of real importance in keying up the worshippers to the action in which they are about to take part. Care of course must be taken with the ensemble, step, tempo, and spacing of the entrants. (10)
There is much debate and little agreement about marching and non-marching processionals. Advocates of the former maintain that its effectiveness and beauty are enhanced by the precision of the choir as they sing a hymn that is played with a metronomical beat. Others believe that the emphasis upon military precision is not conducive to worship. “If you have a processional . . . , make it as little like a march as possible. Swaying of hips and tramping of feet are out of place. “The marching processional has other liabilities.
1. It does not contribute to the creation of a true attitude of worship because it tends to be theatrical. The emphasis is placed upon mechanical factors. The music and words of the hymn are partially or entirely ignored as attention is given to keeping in step. The congregation may be more interested in seeing how many are out of step than in singing the hymn.
2. Many people find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep in step, and valuable rehearsal time is lost as the director struggles vainly with the mechanics of marching. Few sights are more ludicrous than that of a line in which one or two people zig as everyone else zags.
3. The number of hymns that can be used with a metrical processional is limited to those few that are duple meter and of such a nature that they can be sung at a marching tempo, with proper accents. Five sixths of the praise hymns that are appropriate for the opening of a service cannot be used.
4. The physical and mental requirements of playing an organ are such that very few organists can keep time with the precision of a metronome. In addition, the time lag in a long sanctuary is sufficient to break down any rapport that might otherwise exist among choir, congregation, and organist. It is physically and acoustically impossible to keep everyone precisely together. Because of the obstacles he is constantly trying to surmount, the organist may find it impossible to play musically.
We suggest that marching be eliminated and a comfortable walking pace be substituted so that attention can be given to singing the hymn. Each pair of singers should step together, with elbows slightly touching, and the hymnal carried high in one hand, supported by the other. Whether the hymnal is carried in the right hand or in the outside hand, uniformity is the goal. With bodies comfortably erect and eyes looking straight ahead over the hymnal the choir will find it easy to keep the agreed upon number of pews between couples. The elimination of swaying shoulders and hips and any suggestion of a “hesitation” step will result in a smooth flowing processional that will add to rather than detract from the beauty and effectiveness of the service.
Changing a choir from marching to walking is not difficult. It will be wise to practice the new way, perhaps for several weeks, before trying it in the service. The use of chorales and other nonmetrical hymns or hymns in 3/4 time during the transition period will help to break the marching habit. I was needlessly concerned over my congregation’s reaction to the change. Actually, few people were conscious of any change; one very intelligent, usually observant, member complimented the choir on its improved “marching.”
Certain churches find it difficult to use a recessional because an invitation to membership is given during the final hymn If such be the case, the choir should remain quietly in place until after the benediction and response if any and then leave by side or back exits. Individual members should not rush out into the congregation. Because of the anticlimactic effect of ending in such a fashion we are of the opinion that, as mentioned before, the processional should be balanced by a recessional. The processional is symbolic of the onward going of the church, in which the immediate movement of worship is toward certain other symbols the altar, the Bible, and the cross. The choir, as the leaders of the congregation, come out of the congregation during the early part of the service, and return to it at the close. Some churches carry this symbolism even further by having a baptismal font at the rear of the church. Thus the processional moves from the beginning Christian experience to its climax at the altar and the cross.
There is a narrow dividing line between a dramatic, effective processional and a spectacular flare of activity that jars the congregation out of the mood of worship into which a beautiful sanctuary and an appropriate organ prelude have led them. The church that uses several choirs for each service may unintentionally fall into procedures that are theatrical rather than worshipful. It is not unknown for the choirs to be announced by a fanfare, after which flag bearers lead them in a variety of fancy maneuverings until the congregation is reduced to the status of an admiring audience, all thoughts of worship forgotten.
Directors and organists who permit the choir to sing one or more stanzas of the processional and recessional alone are forgetting that the hymns belong to the congregation. The congregation should stand with the first note of the organ and sing all stanzas. The choir should move forward as the congregation stands so that they are in the sanctuary when the singing begins. The recessional should be so timed that the choir is in the nave for most of the hymn. Once they are out of the door they should not sing because the choir will get ahead of the congregation.
Sometimes the acoustical problems created by the time lag in long, narrow churches, make it advisable for the choir to enter by the shortest possible way, except on special occasions. Many Episcopal churches use the long aisle only on festival days. The congregation has a tendency to “drag” the hymn regardless of the tempo set by the organist, and as the distance between the choir and the organ chambers increases, the choir may tend to “drag” also. Two devices are effective in such a situation a small antiphonal organ, placed where the choir can best hear it, or a speaker in the narthex with its microphone placed in the organ chambers.
The second major task of the choir is to lead the whole church in the appreciation of better music and worship. Most congregations have been exposed to relatively little church music that is either good or sacred. The people who learn “Sunday school songs” of doubtful value during their childhood will carry the same level of understanding and appreciation into the sanctuary. The choir that accepts the challenge posed by this situation will take advantage of every opportunity to enrich the lives of young and old alike. Since most churchgoers resist any obvious effort to separate them from the music and poetry with which they are familiar, it is necessary to plan a deliberate and systematic program of education by enrichment. Consideration should be given to the level of understanding of the congregation that hears the choir every Sunday. The music and poetry must have some meaning for the people or they will be unable to make use of it, and these unused portions become stumbling blocks as choir and congregation move toward the attainment of higher levels of perception. It is not necessary to sing cheap or tawdry music in order to please the most inexperienced congregation. There is much that is good, simple, and easy to appreciate. By careful selection and programming over a period of years, it is possible to broaden the understanding of any congregation and to replace the poor material with more meaningful music.
Individual choir members can hasten the musical growth of the church by serving in the church school as teachers, pianists, music directors, and in other capacities. Others can serve on the committees or commissions that guide the church school. Still others can work with children’s choirs and with choir parents. Wherever and however they serve, everyone should be working as part of a total plan that is established for the greater good of the whole church.
Third, the choir is a potential force for good in the whole community.
Unfortunately, not every choir recognizes this responsibility. It is significant that the more community-minded choirs are almost invariably the best local church choirs. In some instances a large area can be strongly influenced by the missionary activities of a single choir. Ensembles, soloists, accompanists, and director can serve in small neighboring churches that have limited musical resources. The musician who has worked in one of the thousands of churches that lacks an adequate accompanist and/or director can appreciate the great lift that comes when these deficiencies are eliminated as a result of the generosity of a more fortunate church. It is difficult for us to realize that many churches have neither pianist nor instrument and that almost any program of music provided for them will be an improvement. Many choirs known to the writers could serve as parish resources for areas of thirty or more miles in diameter, sending out musical help to all who need it. The openhearted reception given to those who serve as leaders would be more than enough pay.
The immediate community can also benefit from the accomplishments of a choir that is generous with its time and talent. By calling upon the congregation and local schools, enough musicians may be found to provide excellent vocal and instrumental ensembles for a variety of community uses. In these days of strict church and school separation, any co-operation that can be worked out without creating antagonisms is all to the good. After the successful formation of vocal and instrumental ensembles, it will be a simple matter to organize a community-wide chorus and orchestra for the performance of works which could not be sung by the individual participating groups.
The interchange of ideas and the loaning of equipment and personnel will enrich the musical lives of all concerned. The choir that makes itself available for community ventures is usually a live, enthusiastic group, anxious to be challenged and looking for opportunities to serve. While the opportunities provided by the regular morning service offer the challenge that keeps a choir functioning at its best, other activities provide the variety that transforms a good choir into a great choir. It is well for the church and community to see and hear the choir under varied circumstances, including some of an informal nature, in order to understand its true worth. Participation with the congregation in a hymn festival can supply satisfying experiences for all concerned. Adult and high-school choirs can occasionally sing for various church-school departments. But however active the choir may be, its leaders must keep in mind this important fact: it is an educational organization, influencing for good or bad those who hear it as well as those who sing in it. A choir should be much more than a twice-a-week group whose members are content to practice an hour each Thursday in order to sing an anthem each Sunday.
The effective choir is not something that just happens. It is the result of many hours of hard work and planning by many people, and is dependent for its success upon certain basic principles of attendance, discipline, and organization which must be understood by all concerned.
New members should not be accepted, nor old members retained, unless they agree that their primary responsibility is to attend all of the activities of the choir except when kept away by a serious emergency, at which times the director will be notified. It is difficult to dispense with the services of the only good singer in a section perhaps the only singer despite his being tardy or absent whenever he wishes. However, the courageous director will find that choir morale builds quickly if all such occasional persons are eliminated and membership limited to those however few who are entirely dependable. Walter Samuel Swisher had this to say about attendance: “A dance or a motor trip has been known to decimate a choir. If the director has one-half of his choir at rehearsal and the other half at morning service, how can the singing be effective?” (12)
The choir that has a waiting list is fortunate. Attaining this delightful situation is no happenstance, but the result of careful planning and strict adherence to attendance regulations. If membership in the choir is limited to fewer singers than are available, and this number is increased only as the list of reserves increases, regular members will have an added incentive for maintaining a good attendance record. Reserves should attend rehearsals and be available to substitute for regular members who are excused from a choir presentation. It is not necessary to wait until the choir numbers forty or fifty before putting such a plan into effect. A regular, dependable choir of ten or fifteen is far superior to an uncertain group of thirty or forty. Good attendance alone gives no guarantee of a successful choir, but it provides the foundation upon which the whole choir structure is built. On the other hand, poor attendance is an almost certain guarantee of failure.
Choir discipline is concerned with a great deal more than whispering, “horseplay,” and such secondary matters. It involves the complete attitude of the choir and is directly concerned with the development of the spirit of dedication which must be present if the choir is to serve effectively.
The well-disciplined choir functions as a single unit whose value is much greater than the sum of its parts. Since the choir leads the congregation throughout the entire service, its members must make it habitual to do only those things which provide proper leadership. When the minister prays, the choir prays with him; when the minister preaches, the choir preaches too, with its
collective facial expression, posture, and listening attitude. The choir that can eliminate personalities and become in the minds of the congregation a single entity has in all probability mastered the mechanics of worship. The matter of standing and sitting together is often an indication of the degree of unity.
The average choir has two extremes the jack-in-the-box who literally pops up out of his seat and looks around gleefully at his slower associates and the deliberate type who unfolds himself with great care. It is a simple matter for a member of the choir, the director, or the organist, to give the cue for rising. The well-disciplined choir stands and sits together, opens and closes hymnals and music folders together, watches the director care fully, holds its music in approximately the same way, and sits and stands with good posture. After some months of careful attention to these seemingly unimportant details, the choir will not only look better, but it will sing better because it is beginning to think as well as act as a unit.
The wearing of robes by the choir is accepted without comment in many Protestant churches today. Unfortunately, choirs are not always aware of the philosophy that justifies the purchase and maintenance of his expensive equipment. Robes have one basic value they help to subdue the personal element and by doing so give the group the appearance of unity. The wearing of earrings, flashy arm jewelry, “bare- foot” or other unusual shoes, and flamboyant hairdos restores the personal element and interferes with the attainment of this desired unity. A student at Garrett Biblical Institute described a situation that exists in all too many churches:
There were several women in the choir who put on a weekly show for the congregation. One was a rather large soprano who sat in the front row and wore some of the most unusual earrings I have ever seen. It must have been her hobby collecting them and I’m certain that she had more than fifty-two pairs because she never repeated in one year. They were big, and they always dangled way down and jiggled at the slightest movement. I know that the congregation was held spellbound by those dancing earrings many a time when Mrs. X was holding on to a long high note and vibrating all over. (13)
Well-ordered rehearsals usually produce a well-disciplined choir. Music in folders, chairs in place, proper ventilation, a good well-tuned piano, good acoustics, all tend to eliminate disciplinary problems because distracting elements have been removed. Common courtesies should be observed by director, accompanist, and choir in order to maintain a healthy atmosphere. The singers should not be permitted to talk while any part of the choir is rehearsing. Proper posture should be maintained even in moments of repose and relaxation. No one should indulge in sarcastic comments, temperamental outbursts, and similar displays of bad manners and unchristian conduct. (See Chap. IV, “The Director.”)
Some kind of choir organization and resultant delegation of authority will strengthen the choir by giving the members a greater part in determining its policies and shaping its growth. It may be advisable to have an elected governing body, sometimes called a cabinet or council. This group should be given actual responsibilities which may increase in number and significance as the choir grows and as the members show that they can accept added duties.
The cabinet may work with the director in determining matters of policy in relation to attendance, discipline, finances, social activities, and the like. Over-all promotion of the choir and its program is sometimes best handled by the cabinet, or by persons designated by it. A number of important tasks, such as the care and cataloging of music, the keeping of attendance records, arid the care of robes can and should be assigned to choir members. Someone may be appointed to look after remembrances for members in times of family emergencies. Such an important but often forgotten item as arranging for a nursery attendant on choir practice nights may be handled by the choir.
The well-organized choir functions smoothly and efficiently when every member feels that he has an important contribution to make. The choir is, in a very real sense, a part of him and he a part of the choir. It is human nature to love and cherish the things for which sacrifices are made and to which a part of oneself is given, and singers are proud to participate in a group that expects the most of them. Paradoxically, this intense pride in and love for the choir sometimes creates problems. The singer who because of age or health has become a vocal liability may be a disturbing influence if he continues to sing and perhaps may disrupt the choir and congregation if he is dismissed.
It is difficult for the man or woman who has given talent and time for thirty years to accept the limitations imposed by age. Friends of the singer may let their loyalty obscure the real problem, thereby reducing the situation to a personal matter. An understanding choir cabinet can often assist the director in solving this issue. Individual conferences with the person concerned may bring his quiet acceptance of the need to retire voluntarily. If, as a final resort, dismissal becomes necessary, it can be done more effectively by the cabinet, acting as the choir’s representative, than by any single individual.
Some choirs have an age limit for their members, thus establishing the machinery for avoiding trouble. For example, if fifty-five is the maximum age, the choir director is given the privilege of deciding, on the basis of a tryout, whether or not the member shall continue for another year and for each year thereafter.
The cabinet should work with the director and the music committee in establishing standards for admission of new members. If the choir is quite small and recruiting is a constant need, there is real danger that anyone and everyone will be begged to sing. Regardless of the choir’s size, some system should be maintained that makes choir membership a prized possession.
The choir must not become a tight clique of the musically elite, however. Great singers and talented musicians do not always make the best choir members. The person with an accurate voice, a good sense of pitch and rhythm, and an intense desire to serve is a far better candidate than the outstanding musician who is concerned with finding an opportunity to display his voice. Every old member should be interested in the addition of new singers. The choir through its cabinet may regularly evaluate its standards and counsel with the director in setting new ones. The director is, of course, charged with the responsibility of interpreting the standards and determining the status of all applicants.
The choir may or may not wish to have a constitution and bylaws. There are values in having the basic philosophy of the choir expressed in written form, especially if the final draft is the result of co-operative effort which includes director, organist, minister, music committee, as well as the choir. Other constitutions should perhaps be studied but each choir must work out its own in terms of the needs, responsibilities, resources, and opportunities of the church to which it will apply.
The benefits to be derived from the maintenance of an efficient choir organization are many and varied. However, one particular kind of benefit is very well described by a choir member in Church Choral Service:
This is a most amazing statement in view of the fact that four years ago this president had not the remotest idea of doing any singing other than congregational. . . . We have a choir of some thirty voices whose loyalty and dedication is something wonderful to behold. The voices range from the completely untrained, even practically unused, to four superb soloists . . . . Through participation we all became keenly aware and appreciative. An appreciative human being never remains static but grows, slowly but surely. This is especially true of all who experience the “togetherness” of those who gather to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” (14)
The solution of problems related to attendance, discipline, and organization will not be complete unless the choir has access to a plentiful supply of good, singable music. In some respects, the building of a choir library is the director’s most important task. Certainly it is a constant one. He is primarily responsible for determining what the choir sings, but the choir, minister, and congregation should have a concern in the matter.
Just as ministers sometimes select hymns entirely on the basis of their own likes and dislikes, so directors and organists tend to depend entirely too much upon their own standards in the evaluation of repertoire. The director must be the final authority, but he should not close his ears to suggestions that may serve as an indication of the direction in which he should move, and the speed with which he can safely travel. When certain well-worn anthems of doubtful quality are requested he should be able to substitute compositions that are similar in structure but of better quality.
A Midwestern choir director, who is also a successful public-school teacher, has said that he selects his new music in sets of four one for the congregation, one for the minister, one for the choir, and one for the old man (himself). Over a period of years each category has moved up two steps so that the congregation understands music that had been a challenge for the choir, and the minister appreciates music originally understood only by the director. In the meantime, the choir and the rector have moved ahead to even higher levels of attainment.
Perhaps this director was being a bit facetious when he described his plan; nevertheless, the philosophy contained in it is excellent. Everyone is given an opportunity to feel completely at ease, and everyone is challenged. Such a procedure cannot be followed unless a great deal of time is given to repertoire study, and just as much time studying the needs and interests of the choir, the minister, and the congregation. (See Chap. VIII, “The Choir’s Music.”)
Mention is made elsewhere of the care of the library. Entirely too many churches have inadequate facilities for cataloging, repairing, and scoring music. One person should be given the task of caring for the music. He may assign certain duties to others, but he alone has the over-all responsibility. If he follows certain basic procedures, he will save the choir a great deal of time and money.
1. Every copy of music should be stamped and numbered.
2. A file card, giving number of copies, composer, title, publisher and number, voice arrangements, and seasonal nature should be filled out for each selection. Other pertinent identifying material may be included. The card may contain space for recording the use made of the selection.
3. Damaged copies should be repaired with permanent music mending tape without delay.
4. Music not in use should be stored in durable envelopes, boxes, or folders which are plainly marked with the name of the composer, the title of the selection, and the arrangement of voices. A cross filing system will make it a simple matter to locate desired titles.
5. Music being studied should be kept in folders assigned to individual choir members. There is a great deal of hard work connected with the proper functioning of a choir, and the singers may sometimes wonder whether or not their efforts are worthwhile. Their reward will not be found in words of praise or in public adulation, but in the deep satisfaction that comes from making a sincere contribution to the worship of God.
All must regard themselves equally as servants in their high calling; that they are unfitted for their position if they think the musical portion of the service is the most important of all, the rest being merely accessory to it. Nor is their leading of the praise to be directed towards impressing the congregation or attracting strangers to the church. Their joint work is to be in all humility an act of personal worship. It will attune the minds of others to their act of worship and must be devoted to the beautifying and dignifying of it. It will be a tender expression of glory and aspiration to the Lord of all, so that those present may not be found saying what fine music is to be heard here, but, rather, what an air of spirituality is over the service and how natural it is to worship in this holy place. (15)
(1) New York: Morehouse-Barlow Company, 1953, pp. 73-74. Used by permission.
(2) Archibald T. Davison, Church Music: Illusion and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 47. Used by permission.
(3) Ibid., pp. 47-48.
(4) Reprinted by permission of the publisher, C. Schirmer, Inc., New York.
(5) Ruth Nininger, Church Music Comes of Age (New York: Carl Fischer, Inc., 1957),
(6) Op. cit., p. 132. Used by permission.
(7) Wilson and Lyall, op. cit., p. 13.
(8) In the Minister’s Workshop (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1944), p. 13.
(9) Clokey, op. cit., p. 45.
(10) Devan, op. cit., p. 189. Used by permission of Mrs. Winifrede R. Devan.
(11) C op. cit., p. 45.
(12) Music in Worship Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Oliver Ditson Company, 1927), P. 73.
(13) Quoted by permission of the author.
(14) Laverne Palmer, “I Am a Choir President” (February, 1957).
(15) From the Ch. “The Choir and Choir Training,” T.C.L. Pritchard, in Manual of Church Praise.
“The Adult Choir,” exerted from, “Music and Worship in the Church,” by Austin Lovelace.
“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.”