Learning to simplify in the right ways can make life easier.
One of the most challenging tasks for any church music director, especially those who serve smaller congregations, is choosing music for their small choir. Generally speaking, the fewer congregants you have, the smaller your choir (if you even have one), and the more limited your options. My challenge to you today is that you reconsider how to respond to those limitations. Often the best solution is to simplify. Choose easier music, so that your singers can actually enjoy the process of making music, rather than merely learning notes.
Dislodging one BIG misconception about music selection
The largest misconception about simple music is that “simple equals boring.” This is simply not so. I have sung and heard beautiful, moving performances of music that is simple in every respect: stepwise melodies with a regular, predictable rhythm, paired with a remarkably simple yet tasteful harmonic foundation.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t rule out pieces that seem complex in some regard but aren’t actually so. You can find six-part anthems that are readily achievable for all but the most amateur of amateurs. Likewise, a unison voicing doesn’t guarantee simplicity. (If it did, a great many contemporary hymns would succeed every time.)
Filtering your search for music
Take a look at the following table, which provides a few guidelines. I want to emphasize that I intend this only as a starting point; of course each specific situation will call for different strategies. These guidelines can be quite flexible, depending on the specific strengths and weaknesses of your choir.
|Small Choir (up to about 12 members)
|Medium Choir (between about 13 and 29 members)
|Large Choir (30 members and larger)
|basses down to G, sopranos up to f'', with sparing use of sustained extremes
|basses down to F, sopranos up to g'', with a few sustained extremes
|basses down to D, sopranos up to a'', with some sustained extremes
|mostly "strings" of predictable rhythms; some dotted notes
|some "strings" of predictable rhythms; some passes with syncopated rests and dots
|most rhythms are "fair game" here, but remember that it still takes time to teach them
|mostly homophonic, with some simple imitations
|mostly homophonic, with some imitations of varying complexity
|sometimes homophonic, sometimes fugal and imitative
|mostly unison and 2-part mixed; some SAB and SATB
|mostly 2-part mixed and SAB; some SATB and unison
|mostly SATB; some SAB, 2-part, and unison
|replace some 'soli' passes with solos by stronger singers; reduce number of singers on the highest notes; truncate or omit inaccessible passages
|reduce number of singers on the highest notes
|sing mostly as written, occasionally re-configuring voicing as needed
I have listed the five parameters of range, rhythm, texture, voicing, and something I call “proactive simplification” in order of importance. In other words, you can probably get away with a more complex voicing (SATB or SSATB, etc.) if the range is modest. The opposite is rarely true; a range that is too high for amateur sopranos and too low for amateur basses (many of whom will actually be baritones) pretty much trumps any other consideration, no matter how simply the piece is written otherwise.
Think about anthem selection as strategically and as creatively as possible, without limiting your choices more than absolutely necessary. There is plenty of quality music out there; you just have to know how to weed out the bad stuff.
Using your filters in context
Allow me to give you a personal example. For a period of years, I was in charge of a choir of about sixteen, and I felt fortunate that this number was divided roughly equally between women and men. I took a liking to the Alice Parker/Robert Shaw arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which is mostly written in four-part texture, but with quite a bit of bass divisi. Rather than immediately ruling out this terrific piece of music, I evaluated its range, rhythm, and texture, which were relatively simple. I felt confident that this was an achievable piece for the group, and sure enough we were able to put it together in about eight rehearsals of 15-20 minutes apiece.
As long as you can preserve the spirit of the music, you should consider opportunities to simplify the piece. You can bring within reach a work that would otherwise be inaccessible for your choir. It is entirely fair and not at all rude to ask half (or all but one) of your sopranos to take a break during high, sustained passages, because balance considerations often demand it. As long as you are sure to frame your decisions in terms of what the music calls for—as opposed to your personal whims and tastes—most reasonable people will understand that it is not a put-down.
Have fun experimenting with new ways to use the resources you have. One of the most rewarding parts of the job of a church music director is finding satisfactory creative responses to practical problems, including how to include amateur singers of widely varying ability. Good luck in your adventure!
For specific suggestions on simple, free pieces to try out with your choir, start with my Lean Thirteen list.
Ashley Danyew also has an excellent article on music for adult SAB (soprano-alto-bass) choirs.
I want to hear from you! What part of this article resonates with you the most? What other advice would you give someone who works with a small choir at their church? Leave a comment below or drop me a line.