Glenagene from Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada, writes:
It has been nearly two years since I last corresponded with you. At that time you were very helpful in helping me get some information for a Nauvoo Christmas program; which, by the way, went very, very well.
I have just had my calling changed from Activities Chairman to Ward Choir Director. With fear and great trepidation I am reaching out and saying “Help“!!! Could you please remind me how I can make use of your Circle of Sisters, and read what others have written about this subject? Thank you so much!
Well, congratulations, Glenagene. You're the next contestant on “Your Calling or Your Mind: which will be the first to go?” I loved and thoroughly enjoyed the calling, but personally (and some may scoff at this), I think Choir Director can be one of the most challenging callings. I've been there and done that several times over, and have learned a few things through the years that I'd be more than happy to share.
The largest contributing factor is, unfortunately, not in your hands. It's quite simply the personalities, attitudes and level of dedication to music of the members of your ward.
I've been Choir Director in a very small, out-in-the-middle-of- nowhere South Carolina ward, and our choir was great! Fantastic participation! People drove home after our 3 hour block, then drove for half an hour to come back to the church on Sunday evenings for choir practice.
But here, in my current ward, despite the efforts and bribes of homemade cookies, our poor choir director can hardly get four or five people to show up. Our ward is three or four times the size of that tiny ward in South Carolina, and the members here only have a ten minute drive at the most; AND, we meet right after church since the majority of them didn't want to have to go back in the evenings. But still, there have been plenty of days when hardly a handful of people showed up.
The choir in my ward in Utah was a cinch. People came in droves, but then again, they lived right across the street.
So, a lot will depend on where you live, and quite simply the level of activity of your ward.
There are many things you can do though, to make it as easy and successful as possible:
- Talk with your ward's previous choir director(s) and find out if there was a rehearsal time that attracted the most participants.
- Also, ask your Bishop when all the ward council, welfare, and missionary correlation meetings are. And whatever you do, do not have your choir rehearsal during those times, because, those are the same people who will make up half your choir!
- You can have the Bishopric announce from the pulpit that the choir will meet immediately after church for a short 10-15 planning meeting where you can discuss the possible rehearsal times. Obviously, you can't please everyone. Some people will want to meet right before church, some right after, and some later in the evening on Sundays. Our choir in South Carolina met on Wednesday evenings for awhile! Many of the members were having to drive their teenagers to Mutual anyway, so we met in the chapel while their kids were having their youth activities.
- Have a nursery!!! I cannot emphasize enough how crucial this is. People won't come if they have to get a babysitter every week, or have to worry about their kids running around the church unsupervised for an hour. And you don't want Dad at home watching the kids while Mom is singing, or vise versa; especially if they both like to sing! You want both of them there!
- Talk with your Bishop about the possibility of “calling” choir members. This is discussed in the Church Music Handbook (if you don't have a copy, ask for one!) This could be especially helpful since people feel a greater sense of obligation and commitment when they've been “called to serve,” rather than simply “asked to participate.”
- Don't bore them! According to the handbook, the hymnal is supposed to be the choir's main source of material. But you know what? Unless you do something different with the hymns, you'll bore the choir and the congregation. They sing those same songs in their church meetings all the time. Call me a cynic, but frankly, when I'm visiting another ward and the choir sings straight out of the hymnal, I always think, “What's the point? If that's all you're going to do, why didn't we just have a congregational hymn? At least singing the song in its standard form would be more interesting and spiritually uplifting than sitting here listening to it.” So the choir needs to do something with songs out of the hymnal. Have someone do a solo on the first verse, the women sing in parts on the second, the men sing in parts in the third and everyone joins together on the fourth, or something like that, so you're not boring the choir or the congregation.
- This takes a little more skill, but where it's lyrically appropriate, you could modulate a verse into its relative minor key.
- In 99% of the hymns, the piano plays exactly what the choir is singing, so as pianist, I always “fancy up” or come up with a completely different arrangement for the piano, so that I'm playing an accompaniment part, rather than what's written. You can buy different piano arrangements called Hymn Sweeteners. The choir sings right out the hymnal, but the pianist is playing a different arrangement.
- For other sources, there's always The Choir Book, which I believe every ward has stashed somewhere. But again, some of these are done repeatedly, and choir members and congregation have often “over-heard” them.
- Another good source is Deford Music. Sally Deford has graciously made all her music free to the public for non-commercial use. You can hear clips of most of the music at the site, and then download and print the sheet music for free. It's only her music at the site. It's great music! There're a lot of really beautiful pieces, but those who are real music aficionados will notice the commonality in much of it. And I hope no one takes that as a negative criticism. It's just a natural thing that happens. Musicians have a certain “voice”. No matter the genre, those who are really “into” music can usually pick out a Janice Kapp Perry song, a John Denver song, or a John Williams theatrical theme song.
- There's also LDS Music Source. This is wonderful published music by many different writers, but instead of ordering professionally printed copies of the music, they allow you to print out copies of the music from the site, after purchasing stickers that will be sent to you in the mail. You place the stickers on the music which show that they are legal copies. Each sticker is 75¢. So instead of paying $1.50 per copy, which is what you'd pay if you ordered the regular choral copies, you pay half the price. They also have sales, clubs, etc. where you can get the music for even cheaper. You can also order the previously mentioned “Hymn Sweeteners” here. Some of my favorite pieces have come from this site!
- Another good source is Mormon Music. You can order just about any LDS written or arranged piece here. This is standard choral sheet music though. So generally, you'll be paying between $1.00 and $1.75 per copy. They do have something called Hymplicity however, which is similar to the Hymn Sweeteners, so you wouldn't have to buy copies for the choir members.
- The handbook recommends that the choir sing in Sacrament meeting twice a month. This is good for the meeting, but it's also good for the choir itself. Frequent performances will keep choir members coming to rehearsals. So it's better to work on several simpler pieces (this is where Hymn Sweeteners and Hymnplicity really come in handy) than one really challenging and difficult one. What I like to do is work on several easier pieces and one more difficult one at a time, saving the different, less heard and more difficult to learn pieces and arrangements for the weeks of Ward Conference, Easter, Independence Day, Christmas, Pioneer Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc.
Let me quote something from the preface of our Hymn book:
Inspirational music is an essential part of our church meetings. The hymns invite the Spirit of the Lord, create a feeling of reverence, unify us as members, and provide a way for us to offer praises to the Lord. Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end.
The power of music is astounding. It touches us in ways that words alone often cannot. I remember my mother telling me one time that she believed that music is the one celestial thing that Heavenly Father let us bring with us from our premortal existence. I think she was right.