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Online Edition - February 2006
Vol. XI, No. 10

How to Form a Choir: In Ten Easy --and not so easy -- Steps.

(A light-hearted but still serious approach)

by Lucy E. Carroll

Is your church ready to form a parish choir? You need a good, well-trained choir director who knows music, theory, Latin, English, chant, polyphony, harmony. The bad news is that there are as few well-trained choral directors out there as there are trained organists. The good news is that with the following tips, lots of elbow grease, and prayer, you can still develop a nice church choir.

1) Find a choir director

Is money no object? Search and hire someone with a master’s degree in directing and training in liturgy. (Lucky you!)

If you fit into the other 99.5% of parishes, you will have to do some looking around. Public high schools usually have trained music teachers on staff, and school choirs. Ask around: a music teacher may be interested, or may know someone who is. Look into local community choruses. Check with local colleges: if not a faculty member, there are college students who could use the experience putting to practice what they are learning in class.

If this fails, find someone in the parish who can be coerced -- uh, that is -- convinced to assist. He or she must be able to read music, know some theory, play keyboards at least a little, and be willing to study about liturgical music.

Pray to Saint Jude.

2) Arrange for help and supervision

Be sure you have the full backing of the pastor. The pastor or assistant priest must go over plans, liturgy documents, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), and the long-range goals. Discuss a beginning budget.

Photocopying copyrighted music is illegal, even if for church. Be sure you have a room for rehearsals (with chairs, a piano, a blackboard) that you can have every week. Find a file cabinet or closed shelves for the music.

If your director is a novice, obtain materials from the American Choral Directors Association, or arrange for funding to send your volunteer to conducting class, or summer workshops, or find a good soul, perhaps a retired professional, willing to mentor the beginning conductor.

Pray to the parish patron saint.

3) Find an accompanist

Ah, another difficulty! In the absence of a trained organist, or during the continued search for one, again go to the local high schools. Students may be available. If all else fails, the director will have to play until an accompanist can be found. This is not the end of the world! You can work on a cappella pieces forever, you know!

Pray to Saint Cecilia.

4) Find singers

Actually, this is much easier than 1) and 3). Some cantors may wish to do additional singing. Advertise in the parish bulletin, but be aware that personal contact and word of mouth is the best recruitment venue. Do not write “no experience necessary” or “do you like to sing in the shower?” People are not going to want to join a group like that. As a friend once said, “I wouldn’t want to hear any choir that took me as a member!”

Instead, be encouraging. State exactly what you need: “We are looking for a few good folks with a generous heart, a little extra time, and the willingness to learn music for the liturgy”.

You don’t want soloists. You want nice folks who can work together as a group. Do not take anyone who is a prima donna, excessively garrulous, too busy (“I’ll be there for Mass but not rehearsals”. No, no, no!), or who sounds like a water buffalo with no volume control.

If all else fails, mandate that all the cantors must meet together once a month to rehearse together and must sing together as a group once a month. There’s a beginning choir.

Pray to the heavenly choirs of angels.

5) Have a plan

Work on the assumption that you will find at least a few hardy souls. Have some hymnals or sheet music copies ready. A good place to start is to obtain choir editions of The Adoremus Hymnal. Set a date for the choir’s “debut”. Plan to have them sing at the same Mass at least once a month. Work with a priest and/or mentor and plan easy music for the first time through Christmas, Holy Week, etc.

Lean on your guardian angel.

6) Select good but quickly learnable material for the first year

Ah, this is one of the reasons you want your director trained ... or if untrained, to do some study or find a mentor. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of publishers who -- let’s be honest here -- want to sell you their music. Of course, the material you select will depend on the voices you have.

Be objective. Handel’s Hallelujah from Messiah is not a good starting place! Neither are all the pieces that you’ll want to do after the choir is formed. Start small.

If no one in your group has any choral experience, start with unison music. Eventually, with some vocal exercises (another reason you need to get some training for your director), ranges will become obvious and can be stretched here and there until your singers fall into the standard soprano/alto/tenor/bass categories.

The very best suggestion I can give for a “first piece” is to head to The Adoremus Hymnal #541, “Mary the Dawn”, by Paul Cross (a pseudonym). Excellent text relating Mary to her Son, beautiful symbolism, an Ambrosian-chant-like melody, and all learnable in one sitting.

To make it sound like a choral piece instead of a hymn, have the men sing the first line “Mary the dawn” and the women, the answer “Christ the perfect day”. Continue in this antiphonal fashion until all sing the final line and Amen together. Guaranteed success. My choir loves to sing this piece this way!

Next, find a nice Gregorian chant. This is a great way to introduce chant to your congregation (the goal is that they will sing the piece someday, too!) and will be a nice challenge for your singers. Also, it is still in unison.

If your director and singers are uncomfortable with Latin, The Correct Pronunciation of Latin According to the Roman Usage, from the St. Gregory Guild, is still available through GIA Publications.

Which chants? Head to The Adoremus Hymnal again. For Easter season, use the “Regina Caeli” (#546). For Advent, do a few verses of “Veni Emmanuel” (#300) or “Conditor Alme Siderum” (#308). For Christmas, there is “Puer Natus” (#324), for Lent, “Stabat Mater” (#400; not really a chant, but can be chant-like when sung in unison) — the melody will be familiar to the singers, as will the “Veni Emmanuel”, so the only challenges are the Latin, beginning and ending phrases together, and blending together rather than trying to out-shout each other.

If the congregation does not have Adoremus Hymnals, but the choir does, some hymns that are not found in the parish liturgy booklet but are in The Adoremus Hymnal may be used as choir pieces.

As the motley bunch begins to “turn into a choir”, don’t try all four parts at once. If the altos are willing, let everyone sing melody and teach the altos their part. Or alternate verses men/women. Here’s a dandy suggestion: let the tenors sing the melody and give the tenor part of a hymn to the sopranos to sing an octave higher. Instant descant!

Next, find some rounds and canons. No, not “Row, row, row your boat”, or “Three blind mice”. There are sacred pieces of music out there not much more difficult than those, which sound … heavenly. Some suggestions: for Lent: “When Jesus Wept” by William Billings. By that great composer Unknown, there is the lovely “Dona Nobis Pacem”.

When things are going well, try a canon at the fourth: “Non Nobis Domine” by William Byrd. This is a gorgeous piece, and within the realm of the beginning church choir. Also sung by advanced choirs! A secondary benefit here is that the singers will be singing these pieces unaccompanied, training them for a cappella singing and weaning them off the keyboard. Resist the temptation to cover the singers with a multitude of instruments until they are well established and can hold their own.

When you can, but not before, move up to published choral music. If you have the choir able to sing in two parts (women, men) a nicely written piece is “Peace to Soothe Our Bitter Woes” by David Cherwien (GIA Publications).

Don’t know where to find music? Request catalogs from CanticaNOVA Publications (www.canticanova.com), Gregorian Institute of America Publications (www.giamusic.com), and World Library Publications (www.wlp.jspaluch.com). Also, there is J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc. (www.jwpepper.com), a music supply house that can help you locate things or send you things on approval. All are online and anxious to help you. Ask established choir directors for suggestions.

A trained choral director will also be able to arrange music to fit the particular needs of a choir, if, for example, you have really strong altos and weak sopranos, or no tenors.

Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

7) Organize the choir

Have the choir write by-laws and select officers. Who to call if they will be absent? Or if they have a question? Or need a ride to rehearsal? How to care for music? When will music be collected? End of rehearsal? End of season? End of year?

Select or appoint a president, assistant, treasurer, secretary, music librarian. Of course, the director is still in charge, but input from the ranks is very important. Take attendance at each rehearsal and Sunday Mass. Make membership rules. (But be nice! These are, after all, busy volunteers.) It’s better to have eight people who come all the time than fifteen people, eight of whom are faithful, and seven of whom wander in and out without explanation.

Pray for patience.

8) Morale boosting is a must

Be sure the choir is thanked for their work. From the pulpit. In the bulletin. Perhaps do a “recognition” some Sunday after the choir has really taken hold. An annual social event for the members is a good idea too: a picnic, or just a cookies-and-punch reception.

A good choir is a family. Sign birthday or get-well cards for members. Eventually, there may be choir lapel pins. And choir robes.

Any good choir needs a name. How about: The St. Cecelia Choristers? The St. Walburgis Warblers (oog, try again)? The St. Agnes Schola Cantorum (impressive!). Resurrection Parish Adult Choir (nah, sounds like “adult movie”); Resurrection Parish Choir (nice and succinct).

Pray to the Holy Family.

9) Continue to prepare

Once the choir is established, they should be greeted each September with a tentative yearly calendar. Mark all the rehearsals, extra rehearsals for Christmas and Holy Week, the Sundays they will sing (with the goal of eventually becoming an every-Sunday choir), and a list of pieces to work on. (Doesn’t mean they’ll all be learned. Set goals just a bit high).

If your choir members are all non-readers, make tapes for them of their part of a difficult piece. Your section leaders (or officers) can make copies of those tapes for the full choir. This way, the singers can rehearse at home and save valuable rehearsal time.

10) Be creative

Once the choir is established, plan special activities. Invite the choir from another parish to do a “choir exchange”. On a given Sunday, the guest choir will sing with your choir on service pieces and hymns, and they can sing a special piece before Mass and at communion. Next Sunday, bring your choir to their church. Same procedure. Or, find a piece that both choirs know and sing it together at both churches. Take a group trip to hear a concert by a really good choir -- or a professional choir. And so on.

Say many prayers of thanksgiving if you have gotten this far and a choir is functioning in your parish.

The important thing in a choir is not that it be large in number, but willing of spirit; that its members understand the importance of the place of the choir in the liturgy, and be willing to work for quality in choice of music and execution. A large part of rehearsals will be taken up with preparing those parts of the Mass in which the choir will be leading the congregation. But certain parts of the Mass, according to the GIRM, belong to the choir.

When I first began, my mentor, Monsignor Remey, told me two things I’ve never forgotten: “pick choir singers, not soloists”, and “a good choir is a family”.

I would like to add something I truly believe and try to practice: the motto of all choir members, all church musicians — professional and amateur — should be Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your name be the glory!)

Amen.

***

Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, and adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She is also the creator of Churchmouse Squeaks cartoon.

***

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