Don’t assume that your church choir can’t do quality music just because they learn slowly.
We’ve all been here before. Somewhere in your music files (likely tucked under “Q” for “Quatre Motets”) is the Duruflé Ubi Caritas, a much beloved setting of a timeless text. Trouble is, you only have enough tenors and basses to place one on each part, and that’s if they’re all present! So much for programming something great, right? If only your church choir could learn music more quickly.
Because there are so many faults underlying this assumption, I’m going to tackle them one at a time.
Look at yourself first
You have to be brutally honest with yourself about whether you’re making optimal use of your rehearsal time, because that’s how your group will learn as quickly as possible. Here are a few essential questions to get you started.
- Do you always begin rehearsals on time, so that those who are present feel valued and respected for their commitment to the group?
- Do you spend time identifying specific techniques for rehearsing each piece?
- How much time do you spend explaining things to your singers when a simple gesture or demonstration would suffice?
- Do you sing through each part ahead of time so that you’ll always know where to listen for specific mistakes?
- Do you take the time to mark the choir’s scores ahead of time, thereby minimizing the amount of time wasted giving tedious instructions at rehearsal?
- How much time do your singers spend sitting in silence (or visiting with neighbors) when they could be singing? I can’t think of a single time when having the sopranos learn the bass part caused them to forget their own notes.
These are only a few dimensions of the kind of self-assessment you should conduct, but if you don’t answer these questions honestly, you will never know what your group is capable of achieving.
For more detail on self-assessment, you might enjoy reading my e-book (free of charge) on success and fulfillment in church music.
Question your definition of “good” music
What do you mean by “good”? Isn’t that perilously subjective, driven mostly by taste? Well, not exactly. I can definitely think of numerous pieces that won’t ever see the light of day in my own programming choices because they are mediocre examples of the style in which they are written. The reason I know this is from decades of exposure and ten years of formal study in music that follows solid principles of compositional integrity. Here are a few that come to mind.
- Each vocal part is written for the range and tone color appropriate to the singers
- Repeated material is truly repeated to minimize confusion. Approximate repetition creates work without any apparent improvement in the final result. For the skilled composer, repetition is an advantage; for the mediocre composer, repetition is a liability.
- The text is written expertly, by an author who has carefully studied and internalized the principles of good writing.
- The music follows the natural contours the text, placing accents in the correct metrical position.
In other words, it isn’t a question of style, but rather a question of integrity. Don’t assume that good music is difficult to learn. Composers have given the world many works of high quality, composed in a style simple enough for amateurs to learn in four to six weeks. Your main task is to find these works and program them—no easy task, for sure, but well worth the effort.
For a list of thirteen easy, free, high-quality pieces for your church choir, check out this post.
Pull out the bag of tricks
There are simply too many of these to name, so I’ll give a few examples instead.
- If the range presents difficulties, consider having singers who aren’t busy at the time double the troublesome part. This often works well, for example, with a bass part that’s a little too high. You can simply have the tenors double the basses until it is time for them to sing their own part.
- For homophonic (hymn-like) textures, double the parts (or at least the bass and soprano) on the organ, using only eight-foot string and flute stops (plus principals if they’re enclosed).
- In polyphonic or imitative textures, you might try improvising a thoroughbass-like accompaniment. This allows the singers greater security in how their part fits into the texture.
If purism prevents you from exploring these options, I hasten to point out that Bach and Beethoven probably had their own “bag of tricks” like these.
Identify one “stretch” piece at a time—and keep working on it!
Here’s a tip for those occasions when you really do need a lot of rehearsal time for a specific piece, no matter how efficient your rehearsal technique.
At the beginning of your choir season, select a piece that stretches your group to the limits of their ability. Identify two or three Sunday liturgies where the piece would be appropriate. Spend ten minutes on the piece at each rehearsal, no matter what else is planned. Then, when it is performance-ready, program the piece for the nearest Sunday for which it is appropriate. (I realize this doesn’t work very well for anthems composed for specific feast days or Christian holidays.)
The upshot (TL;DR)
If you’re feeling discouraged by a lack of programming options for your church choir, you must first analyze your own rehearsal techniques and identify areas for improvement. Chances are you’re not getting as much done as you could at each rehearsal. Then, get really clear with yourself on the definition of what “good” music really is—the definition has very little to do with voicing (SATB versus two-part mixed) and much more to do with the fundamentals of part-writing and formal design. Finally, try your “bag of tricks” to help you more effectively match the piece with your group.
 Keep in mind that if you’re adding an accompaniment to an existing work, this may quality as re-arranging the piece, which requires the permission of the copyright holder (if applicable). Consult an attorney if you need advice on copyright law.