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September 6, 2016

Knowing Your Limits: Adding New Members to Your Choir

Choir directors are almost always looking for new choir members. On any given Sunday there can be numerous members absent—illness, travel, busy lives! It is challenging to program repertoire without knowing who will actually be present on a particular Sunday. In an effort to avoid such conflicts, I welcomed eight new choristers into the Cathedral choir this past season.

I begin each new choir season with a kick-off barbeque. It is a time for fellowship and camaraderie. Our time together serves as inspiration and motivation for the coming season. New members are encouraged to attend—to begin developing relationships with fellow choristers and make the transition into the choir a smoother one.

Our first rehearsal is always exciting! Following a well-deserved and much-needed summer hiatus, everyone is enthusiastic to resume making music together. Eight new choir members were going to make for a much improved sound, I thought. I could depend on fuller sections each Sunday and be certain that challenging music would fall together with ease! Well, not exactly. The addition of new choir members is gratifying on many levels but likewise it can make for a delicate situation.

Like any choral program, there is a percentage of music that is “in the repertoire.” It has been sung in previous years and must be recycled to balance the new music that is being studied. I count on little rehearsal time for such pieces and program them accordingly. But for these eight new and valued choristers, there was no “in the repertoire.” Everything was new. Everything. Imagine the trepidation and distress of learning all new music!

And, imagine the concern and apprehension that I encountered as well. The pace I like to maintain during my rehearsals was waning. The five-minute touch up to a piece we’ve known and used for years was suddenly not coming together at all. Wrong notes and inaccurate rhythms were wafting through the sound. Thirty-five members knew the piece well, but unexpectedly, the piece appeared to be new to everyone. My work rapidly became more difficult.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from twenty-five years of choral conducting, it’s that choristers need to be challenged. Seasoned choir members can get bored very quickly. The result can affect rehearsal attendance. “Why should I attend rehearsal if we aren’t learning anything new” might be a shared thought among the long-time members. Finding the balance is key. How can I nurture new choristers while making it challenging and inspiring to the seasoned choir members? How can I be pastoral and practical with new members while inspiring and further challenging the already proficient members? These thoughts and questions kept me up at night.

While it felt initially uncomfortable, I had to ask new choristers to listen rather than sing on some pieces that had little rehearsal time or simply weren’t coming together; in particular, when preparing for Advent and Christmas with limited rehearsal time. Each year I find myself coveting additional rehearsal time as we approach the beginning of the new liturgical year. Annually, the Cathedral choir sings a requiem setting the first Sunday of November as we remember the deceased of the parish. We dedicate many hours to requiem settings such as the Duruflé, Fauré, Victoria, Rutter, and Andrew Wright (TRINITAS 4628). The timing is tough as Advent and Christmas is literally just around the corner. As countless Advent and Christmas motets were distributed, I could see an overwhelmed look upon the faces of these new members. How could we possibly spend enough rehearsal time on the 30 to 40 pieces that span many years of usage? The result was that I had to ask new members to more or less “fake it” and mouth the words on some pieces in order to achieve the freedom of sound to which we were accustomed.

Most new members of a choir will respect such a request gracefully. They are eager to contribute positively and will comply for the good of the group. The real challenge is when someone doesn’t.

Previous years of choral experience does not mean a chorister is exempt from watching the conductor, is allowed to choose one’s own tempo or cut off wherever he or she desires. When I said, “Anyone who has not sung this piece before, please listen the first time,” I should have been more specific and inserted, “under my direction.” No two conductors will interpret a piece the exact same way. It’s the privilege and role of the conductor to make a piece work with the given choir, in the given space, and under her own musical interpretation. After several individual conversations with no consideration for change, I made a decision for the benefit of the choir to sever the relationship and ask the chorister to abandon association with the choir. It is one of the most difficult circumstances I’ve encountered during my tenure, but to continue on was corrupting the morale and accomplishments of the choir.

So, how many is too many? Knowing that people often join a liturgical choir without fully realizing the magnitude of the commitment, it has been my experience that, from time to time, new members come and go. Should you take five and be thrilled if three or four remain? Should you take no more than one new voice per section? It’s a difficult and very important decision to make.

If you intentionally take as many new members as possible, call it a building year! Progress will be slow. It’s an investment in the future and you should go into the year with that intent. However, it is important that seasoned members of the choir know your intention. They must be patient, understanding, and supportive of both you and the new members. The reward, perhaps a few years down the road, will be great!

Be transparent with new choristers. I endeavor to communicate individually every couple of weeks with new members. Check in to see how they are feeling and encourage them to remain committed through the sometimes overwhelming learning process. Assign a mentor within the section to provide additional support and instruction when needed. Simply getting a rehearsal folder in order can be a challenge to a new member. I seek to rehearse approximately seventeen to twenty pieces of music at each rehearsal. Music should be in order before rehearsal begins to make for the most efficient use of time. The seasoned choir mentor can give advice when needed concerning rehearsal protocol that may not be evident, such as showing up on time (early!), keeping the chatter to a minimum and communicating absences with advance notice.

Don’t be afraid to use a small group on pieces that call for a more intimate, polished sound. I recall using a schola (two to three voices on a part) on a particular piece that just wasn’t gelling one Christmas. The following year, the full choir sang that same piece exquisitely. Hearing a challenging piece skillfully and beautifully executed makes members aware of the proper choral practices desired. In fact, encouraging all members of the choir to listen to recordings aids in learning choral music. Stylistic nuances, phrasing, and choral colors become part of the of the subliminal aural learning in addition to simply learning the notes on the page.

I frequently send out YouTube links to the choir. Of course, I spend hours selecting the videos I most like and aspire to.

Provide positive feedback, in particular, to the new choristers. Early in my career I made a conscious effort to compliment each section at some point during every rehearsal. Members of a choir devote up to eight hours each week to this ministry. If the experience is not positive and rewarding, dedication fades. However, a conductor must draw attention to things that need improvement as well as when things go well. It is rewarding and motivating to feel a sense of progress. Praise when deserved and constructively fix areas in need of improvement.

Gaining new choir members has many wonderful advantages. Additional numbers allow for a cushion when absences occur. Choirs add to the sense of hospitality in a parish and music frequently brings people into the parish community. However, the addition of too many new members at the same time can present some obstacles in a choir. Know your limits and consider them fairly when welcoming new choristers.

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Photo of Angela Westhoff-Johnson

Angela Westhoff-Johnson

Managing Music Editor for OCP
and music director at St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland, Oregon