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Variety of Music is a great thing in the Intergenerational Choir

Every choir has favorite songs they love to sing. These songs can have some special meaning to the choir or the choir just sounds good on these particular tunes. While I was researching literature of the intergenerational church choir, I asked my leaders to name 3-5 of their choir’s favorites. Almost every leader had no trouble coming up with a list of things their choir loves. After I gathered the information from the leaders, I had a total of 283 titles. Several of the leaders had similar titles, so there actually wound up being 160 different tunes in the list.

What I wanted to find out was two-fold. First, what was the music type category of each tune (Contemporary,  Southern gospel, Black gospel, Traditional church anthem, Hymn arrangement, etc)? Second, was there a difference between the music types the leaders reported they used and the actual music types from the favorite anthems?  Here are the results:favorite anthems

Now, look at the graph below from my last blog where I reported the music types given by the leaders when asked what types of music they use with their choirs. Remember,  the percentage of the graph above must equal 100 percent of the total of 160 different titles given, whereas below the percentages equal the percentage of the leaders that use the music type.

Music Types

The first thing I see when comparing the two lists is the ORDER of frequency. In both the music types of the favorite anthems reported AND the self-reported list of music types the leaders use with their choir, the music types are ranked similarly in frequency. This suggests that the leaders are well aware of the music types their choirs are singing and reported similarly when giving me their common music types. This suggests to me that choirs in the intergenerational church don’t have favorites that are in one music type either. Perhaps it is because they are exposed to various types of literature or maybe it has to do with the various ages that are involved in the church music ministry. Whatever it is, it reminds me that variety is alive in well in the intergenerational church choir.

I know some of you are interested in what would be on this list. Here are the top five songs in rank order:

  1. Thou, O Lord (19 indicated)
  2. The Majesty and Glory Of Your Name (11)
  3. We Will Remember (11)
  4. Jerusalem (8)
  5. This Blood (8)

Even in the list here, there is variety of music style! Variety is good, especially when done well.

 

Selecting Choral Literature that Fits the Size of Your Choir

Last week I wrote about choosing literature that fits the people in your choir based on their ability-levels and the culture of the church. Because of the length of the blog post that week, I wanted to wait to discuss one of the most important portions of selecting choral music based on the people in your choir…the size of the choir.  I want to explore briefly the merits of using such literature, especially as it relates to creating a culture of excellence in your own church setting.

Choose literature that fits the size of your choir

It is very interesting that 75% of intergenerational church choirs in Georgia have no more than fifty participants. My educated guess is this is probably similar (if not more common) in other areas of the country. Even the major evangelical publishers are attuned to this fact because many offer choral music options for the smaller choir.  As a undergrad Music Ed student, one of my favorite classes was a class called Choral Techniques. One of the things we discussed in the class was rehearsing larger and smaller choirs and how to handle the unique pros and cons therein. Having worked with both large and small choirs here’s a selected list of some observations based on the literature and production of it:

Large Choir
1. Able to produce a large sound-especially if singing with orchestra
2. Less confident singers can find confidence in stronger singers/readers
3. Larger possible pool of soloists
4. Able to sing most songs with lots of divisi
5. Sing songs with more extreme ranges
6. Able to sing longer phrases (stagger-breathing becomes easier)
7. Easier to blend parts because no one has to “carry the section”
8. More difficult to sing especially rhythmic (syncopated) tunes

Small(er) Choir
1. Most have to pull their own weight, confident or not
2. Members feel more obligated to attend due to numbers
3. More difficult to blend
4. Can be easier to sing more rhythmic tunes due to the weight of the larger number of singers
5. Literature choices can be limited by range, phrasing, etc.

When I arrived at Ivy Creek five years ago, we would run 30-35 in the choir on a Sunday. We fit in that “smaller choir” category. I certainly felt more limited in what we could sing and sing well. Today, I lead a music ministry in the upper 25 percent. So what I chose for the choir to sing now can be broader in scope now that we run 55-75 each week between our worship services.

Here is the plan I used to ensure confidence and excellence each week without sacrificing the importance of stretching, molding, and inspiring for greater things when I first arrived:

*Make rehearsal FUN and WORTH the time of all who come. Bring energy to your rehearsal and make sure if you’ve got people in front of you, make sure that you aren’t wasting anyone’s time. Being efficient it not always easy. Follow some of these rules I live by.

1. Have a REHEARSAL PLAN each week of what you plan to rehearse. Make sure you write it down and let your pianist know which things to prepare for. In that plan you need to anticipate the trouble spots or SCORE STUDY.  This would include tricky rhythms, tricky harmonies, and the like. Think of multiple ways to solve the problem, because your first idea might not work!

2. STOP TALKING and SING. When I first started conducting choirs, I talked a lot. I didn’t meant to waste time, but I did. Model what you want with your voice and use conducting gestures instead of talking about it.

3. Have a time of DEVOTION and prayer

*Make sure your people CAN sing the literature. This is based on the points above. As yourself: is the tessitura too high or too low? Is there so much divisi in the choral parts that the sound will be too thin or unbalanced? Are the phrases so long that your people are going to struggle to make it through? Do you have the personnel to handle it? Are they going to sound good on this piece? Will they feel successful and know the song well enough to “lead” in worship—need to internalize.

*Start with things they know (or think they know) and CAN sing, and  then work for greater accuracy and musicality.  When I arrived I didn’t care for many of the pieces that were in the library, but I also didn’t have luxury of learning everything new every week (who does?). We were on a limited budget so revamping the whole library wasn’t an option. Regardless, they needed to learn to trust me and I needed to see how far I could push them. One week, I’ll never forget, we sang something that really sounded good and so we just did it again the following week. No one cared that we did it twice. In fact most were glad we did because it sounded good the first time. I had never done that before, but it was a good move. What I found out around this time was this choir had been learning music too quickly (thus, not fully securing the pitches and notes) and really needed to spend more time being secure. I found out having adequate time to prepare without beating the song to death was the key.

*Slowly I started introducing new songs (simple ones) with just enough repetition that they could attach to the song quickly. Because they had an overabundance of solo-driven literature they had used, I purposely chose things that were choir featured-only. Many of these new songs featured homophonic choral parts, which helped in the learning process. These types of songs early on always had repeating sections (like a chorus) that we learned first before getting into more specific details.

*Use classic literature. I don’t mean classical, necessarily. I mean used tested and proven literature with your choir. There is a reason songs stay published for many years. Use those things because they work. I regularly go back and buy things that I did 15-20 years ago that I think would work well with my group. Most of the time, the choir loves the nostalgia of singing something they haven’t seen in years. The other benefit to doing time-tested literature is you have enough familiarity with it that you probably know the pitfalls to learning it and can be proactive in your teaching approach.

*Strive for live accompaniment at all costs. The choir I inherited did not usually use live accompaniment for choral things. Our orchestra was in its infancy when I arrived and was not “ready” for the challenge of playing for choral things in additional to songs for congregational worship. My goal was to work towards more live accompaniment. At first, we did some things with piano and organ (perhaps guitar, keyboard strings, and drums) and that took us through the first couple of years I was at Ivy Creek. By the third year, I sensed our orchestra was ready to try out playing for the choir. If I remember correctly, we sang By Our Love from Word as our first orchestra/choir piece. Over the next several years, we’ve moved to orchestra accompaniment mostly entirely. Mostly, because some pieces are just not scored for full orchestra. Plus, there are some pieces that should be done “simply” with piano and/or organ.

Varying Music Types that are Biblically-rich Promote Unity

Colossians 3:15-17- And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

My children find it strange that my favorite radio station in my car is the one that no one can hear–power off! Yes, I rarely listen to anything while I’m in the car. Likewise, when I run, I find solace in the quiet of my footsteps and the occasional barking dog. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to my children why someone who has devoted himself to music ministry needs a “break” from music listening. I don’t hate music; I just tend to compartmentalize my enjoyment of it since I’m “working” with music all day. Can you imagine what life would be like without music? Most of us cannot fathom a day without music to propel us forward or to simply soothe the soul. Paul knew the power of music as well as he admonished the Colossians to use music to remember the gospel truth.

Having been called by God to serve in vocational ministry, I’ve devoted most of my life to promoting, teaching, and glorifying God through church music. I feel fortunate that I enjoy leading and worshiping in most music contexts that glorify Christ and articulate the message of the gospel clearly. I’m an anomaly, however. Most people I encounter do not like all kinds of church music. In fact some are more adamant that certain types of music are genuinely more worshipful and edifying to the body. Further, there are those that believe that the presentation of “their” idea of worship music is somehow more authentic. Just like my penchant for “music” while driving, there are folks who given the choice in their churches, would rather simply just turn the worship team “off.”  It is vital that worship leaders be sensitive to this me versus them mentality and strive to integrate a musical atmosphere that is sensitive to the various generations and cultures in our churches.

Likewise, Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, knew that unity was important for the early church because sin would always creep in and cause division. Not only should worship be vertical (in praise to God directly), Paul asserts that unity could be achieved by singing the WORD of God to each other (horizontally) in a variety of types of songs. Paul knew that the early church didn’t have the printed Word of God that we enjoy today. These early Christians would need to remember the Word somehow…and singing scripture was an incredible way for the word to “dwell richly” in the hearts and minds of those early Christians. The songs we sing today should do the same thing. We must sing substance and the music should complement the text of Truth. Further, the various types of music available today should be reflected in our worship services.  Here are some suggestions to select worship music that reflects ethnic and generational diversity, while being rich in text.

  1. Text is most important factor in selecting worship music. Period.  Worship music should include vertical and horizontal expressions of worship where the people of God sing to God as well as one another the truth of the gospel. For more information, see this previous blog post Building Community in the Intergenerational Church through Music- Selecting We-Centric Songs
  2. Use black gospel as well as southern gospel music, especially if you have African-Americans in your congregation. We Georgians are well adept at singing southern gospel; our people are familiar with it. However, if we are to reflect our communities, we need to sing black gospel also. There are numerous wonderful songs out there to sing. However, I’ve found the best places to find these songs is by looking into literature written for schools and/or community choruses.
  3. Investigate music from Latin America. I love syncopation, especially the habanero and other cross-rhythmic beats. We have a severe lack of latin flavor in many of our churches. Just be sensitive if the presence of congas and a cowbell make some folks in your church squirm! Again, school literature often has more variety in terms of literature.
  4. Integrate music from Asian cultures. In our county, the Asian population is exploding. Traditional Asian music utilizes a limiting pentatonic scale, but there are some interesting things out that can be used if you investigate.
  5. At the very least, utilize worship leaders (players and singers) who are not ethnically the same as the majority of your congregation. Example, I have a wonderful Korean young woman in my choir who studied opera in South Korea. She is an excellent singer, but didn’t know many songs in English she could use in worship. I suggested she look at some oratorios she might be familiar with. She wound up singing “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” during December and it was a glorious offering of worship.

The key is strong text, varying music types, and utilizing folks from various generations AND cultures. Doing so can really make the difference in the worship experiences for ages to come. I believe this is exactly what Paul was referring to when he was encouraging the Colossians to be unified…bring your various experiences and abilities and be unified in PURPOSE and the Lord will be glorified.

Over the next few weeks, I will begin a series of blog posts related to choral literature in the intergenerational church. These blog posts reflect my research in the area of choral literature in intergenerational Baptist churches in the state of Georgia. Stay tuned…