They didn’t know what was in store for them this year. I decided at the end of the last school year that I was unsatisfied with my ability to get a good choral tone out of school and adult choirs and that working on this aspect of my skill set would be a primary focus for me. To better understand the voice I’ve been taking private voice lessons all school year. I took voice lessons in my undergraduate years, but never took them seriously. At the time, anything that took me away from organ practice was a distraction to be completed in as little time as possible. But now that I’m actually taking this seriously, I’m really enjoying singing.
But my poor choir.
Stand up straight! Breathe! Support! Open your mouth! Sing on the vowels! Listen to each other! I need to hear your consonants!
I have been a lot harder on them this year, this semester especially. I’m asking them to improve their singing skills, which is a difficult task. I’m at my wits end as to how to get a proper [u] vowel out of them. I really hope they don’t quit on me.
But what is the purpose of the church choir anyhow? The norm at this time and place is that the church choir is a group of amateur volunteers. This means, in the vast majority of cases, that the performance level will be nowhere near that of a professional, semi-professional, or collegiate group. Since a good collegiate choir is the lowest level that the public will seek out and pay to hear perform, I think I can assert that people aren’t interested in listening to musical performances by volunteer church choirs. There are some notable exceptions, but these are definitely exceptions rather than the rule.
If the church choir isn’t performing music at an excellent level, then why have one? These four views of the church choir all give the ensemble value apart from musical excellence. There may be more, but I have encountered all of these:
1. Church choir as sacred singing club.
Singing in a church choir is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do. It lifts up the spirit, exercises the mind, fosters community, allows for depth and understanding in one’s devotional life, and puts the worship of the Triune God onto the lips and into the hearts of choristers.
2, Church choir as song-leader.
The primary purpose of the choir is to lead the congregation in the songs of the congregation. In this view, the singing of anthems, psalms, and motets is downplayed because these things are less important than leading the hymns.
3. Church choir as adult music education.
The church choir gives adults the opportunity to learn how to sing. The choir director here is primarily a music educator, raising the level of music literacy in his or her parish. The performance of the choir in worship is similar to a middle school music concert; it’s a chance for those in the choir to share something they’ve learned with those who care about them.
4. Church choir as social club.
The church choir talks through rehearsals, does not focus on musical excellence, but really wants to spend time together. I once accompanied a choir like this. They were terrible, but they had a great time being terrible together.
Music is an inherently good thing and has value apart from performance. The quality of the music we present in worship, however, relates to how we view aesthetics, truth, and our God. This is the church musician’s dilemma; the tension between praising God with the best that we can offer and the desire to draw as many as possible into the joy that is making music in Christian community.
I will continue to push my choir to improve, but let’s hope their director doesn’t forget the tremendous meaning and value in the process along the way.