Friday, November 22, 2013

Thoughts about themes and subjects for Christmas music

The story of Advent and Christmas is rich with meaning. As music ministers, we can find many themes and subjects to inspire choices for Christmas music to use in ministry. Even some songs that were not written with Christmas in mind can be beautiful expressions of the spirit of the season.

Here is a list of topics that are related to Christmas. For each one, I have a few suggestions of songs that fit, and I hope these inspire you to think of other songs as well that relate to the same topic that would be great for your choir or group.

These are major subject themes that relate to the Christmas season:
(And for each category, I added an Amazon player so you can hear excerpts from all the songs.)
Baby songs. “And they came with haste , and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:16.

Everybody loves babies, and songs about Jesus as an infant inspire feelings of love and tenderness that are a beautiful part of “the Christmas spirit”.
  • Christmas carols like What Child Is This and Away in a Manger.
  • Mary Did You Know? (Lowry & Greene)
  • Sweet Little Jesus Boy (Mahalia Jackson and lots of other artists)
  • Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child (Traditional)

Songs about beholding and adoring Jesus. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down , and worshipped him:” – Matthew 2:11.

These are different from the “baby” songs because instead of focusing on Jesus himself, they focus on our own feelings and acts of worship toward him. This worship is what all of the visitors did when they were in the presence of Jesus, and these songs encourage us to do the same. There are lots of songs that are not actually Christmas songs that would be great in a Christmas service because they fit in with this same theme of reverent adoration and intimate worship.
  • O Come All Ye Faithful / O Come Let Us Adore Him (Christmas carol)
  • Emmanuel (Norman Hutchins)
  • Now Behold the Lamb (Kirk Franklin)
  • Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes) – “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that You're my God.”
  • Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (Hymn) – “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”

Other events from the Christmas story.

Along with the birth scene, there were other events that were a part of the arrival of Jesus – the prophecies to Mary and Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds on the hillside, the treachery of Herod. Songs that recreate these happenings are an important part of keeping the Christmas story alive.
  • Carols: The First Noel, While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, We Three Kings, the Coventry Carol
  • Rise Up Shepherd and Follow (Traditional)
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain (Traditional)
  • When Christ Was Born (Joan Hall). This one is an original song of mine. You can hear the whole song here –

Songs about the Advent of the Savior. “ . . . and he shall send them a saviour , and a great one, and he shall deliver them.” – Isaiah 19:20.

This is the reason WHY we needed Christmas. There was no one who was able to save mankind before Jesus came. Songs that deal with the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus or songs about our need for a Savior remind us of the hope that Christmas brings to our lives today.
  • Carols: O Come O Come Emmanuel
  • Still the Lamb (Mary, Mary)
  • Hero (Kirk Franklin). While there are some lyrics in this that are Easter-related, the main message, especially in the opening verses, is that we needed someone to come on the scene to be our deliverer. That's Christmas.
  • Choruses from Handel's Messiah: And He Shall Purify, For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Songs about “the light of the world.” “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined . . . For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . .” – Isaiah 9:2,6. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” – John 1:4-5.

Songs about the light of Christ are a part of the Christmas story and also fit in with the “look” that we associate with Christmas (the lights on the tree, the lights on the houses, all that pretty stuff).
  • Carols: Silent Night. Pay attention to the lyrics of “Silent Night”. There's a lot about light shining in darkness – “All is bright round yon virgin”, “Glories stream from heaven afar”, “love's pure light radiant beams from thy holy face.” I think this song is more about light than it is about babies.
  • Walk in the Light. Either the regular version or the Christmas version –
  • Jesus Is the Light (either the hymn or the Hezekiah Walker song)

Following the example of the angels – corporate praise. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. – Luke 2:13-14.

This is different from the intimate personal worship that the wise men experienced. This is worshipers coming together to make a joyful noise of praise. This includes songs about the angels, songs that use the same words the angels sang (in Latin, it's Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.”), or any other proclamations of praise.
  • Carols: Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Joy to the World, etc.
  • Rockin' Jerusalem (Traditional spiritual)
  • Glory (Joan Hall). This is another original one –
  • Oh Bless the Name (New Jersey Mass Choir)
  • Worthy Is the Lamb (Daryl Coley)
  • Choruses from the Messiah: Glory to God or the Hallelujah Chorus

Keep Christ in Christmas” songs. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” – Matthew 22:21

In the ungodly, materialistic world that we live in, these songs remind us where we as Christians need to keep our focus during Christmas. Yes, it's true that the winter solstice celebrations are older than Christianity, and I'm OK with secular people doing the holidays whatever other way they want to do them, but we who believe in Jesus can be at peace with the secular world and still have a holy holiday of our own. These songs are not trying to tell other people what to do, they're reminding US of what WE want to do. It's especially important for our children to hear messages like this so that they will remember that even if the rest of the world sees Christmas as a time of “gimme, gimme, gimme”, we are focused on the Lord.
  • Jesus Is the Reason (Kirk Franklin)
  • The Real Meaning of Christmas (The Winans)
  • No Christmas without You (John P. Kee, Kirk Franklin)

My hope is that these suggestions will give you ideas to broaden and enrich the Christmas repertoire of your choir or singing group. May you and yours have a beautiful and blessed holiday season, always with a song in your heart.

Friday, November 1, 2013

For gospel choirs -- Taking the next musical step

Church gospel choirs are known for singing one type of music, and we do it very well. But how do you expand from there? Does your choir want to do other styles? Jazz? Spirituals? Classical? What do you need to learn if you're trying to branch out into any of those areas?

I made a video that starts to talk about ONE aspect of this – the music theory part of it. There's a particular format that most gospel choir music uses to put together the melodies and harmonies, but other types of choir music are not put together the same way. This video starts the conversation about how typical gospel choir music is structured and the ways you would need to grow from there in order to do a greater variety of music with your choir. There's a lot to say about this subject, so this video is just the beginning; I'll be getting more into it in future videos.

Don't worry if you've never studied music theory before. We're going to approach it very gently.

Here's the video: 

Monday, September 30, 2013

How should I position my choir in the choir stand?

A reader asked me for my thoughts about how to physically arrange a choir when they're going to sing.  I think the best positioning will vary from choir to choir.

Back when I was a kid, church choirs usually positioned themselves in rows, something like this (where S stands for Soprano, A for Alto, and T for Tenor):


But as time went on, more and more choirs started using a block formation, like so:


Sometimes the sopranos will be on the left, sometimes on the right.  Usually the tenors and/or basses are in the center.

I use the block formation and I like it for a few reasons:

  1. It makes it easy for the director to signal to different sections of the choir.  If I signal to my right, it's clear that I'm talking to the altos.
  2. When all the singers in one section are close to each other, it can be helpful to those who sometimes forget their part.  They can hear the others around them all singing the same note and they're less likely to drift onto a different part.
  3. I'm not an expert on sound tech stuff, but it appears to be easier for the sound people to adjust the microphone levels to balance out the different sections.
But the block formation can have some downsides as well:
  1. I've heard some choir members say that they don't get the full experience of the music because they can only hear their own part, the other singers are too far away.
  2. On songs where the different sections are singing different lines and rhythms, it can be a challenge to stay on time together if sopranos can't hear the altos.
For those reasons, some choirs might do better with a formation where the different parts have more proximity to each other.

So a director will want to know their choir and choose the best positions based on their own choir's strengths and weaknesses.  A really sophisticated approach would be to try different positionings for different songs, but I have not done very much of that myself (there was one song, though, where the basses worked out a new positioning for themselves because they found that it helped them support each other for their difficult part).

Another thing to consider is where to put individual singers within their sections.  The singer with the loudest voice might need to be in the back, off to the side, away from the microphone.  And the one who forgets their notes sometimes can benefit from being beside the person who's always solid on the part.

When you have a really strong choir, you can do some beautiful things with positioning.  Like the choir I saw in Long Beach, the Master's College Chorale.  I wrote about it here --

What positionings has your choir used?  Leave a comment and tell me your experiences.

Does your choir's music capture the spirit of YOUR church?

As a music minister in a church, your mission is to use music to advance the purpose and values of your church. This might seem simple – “We're a Christian church, so we do Christian music. Easy.” But to be most effective, you want to align your music with the particular vision and focus of your individual pastor and congregation.  This can vary from one congregation to another.

What do I mean by that? Here's an example. Every minister preaches about both God's forgiving mercy and God's righteous standards for holiness. But sometimes one preacher's sermon about holiness and discipline might strike another preacher as “harsh” or “sounding like the Pharisees”, while somebody's teaching about mercy and second chances might sound to somebody else like “tolerating sin.” None of us would dare to pass judgment about who is “right” in the situation, but as ministers we want to make sure that the songs we choose are in harmony with the values of the shepherd of that particular house.

Another example? A lot of gospel songs focus on messages of prosperity. Some ministers see that as positive faith-building, while others may feel that those songs are “all about self.” Again, the music minister wants to know the heart of their own pastor as well as possible in order to pick songs that will enhance his or her ministry.

Remember that song from the '90s, “My Mind's Made Up”?

I like that song, especially for teen choirs or when ministering to unchurched people. But I had friends at one church whose pastor wouldn't approve of the way the song says things like “I've been in this thing too long. I've got to change my attitude.” At their church they felt it was not appropriate for saved people to say things like that, it sounded like they were still in sin. So the choir changed all of the lyrics to the past tense – “I had been in that thing too long. I had to change my attitude.” It might seem like a small thing, but for them it was significant because it kept the music ministry in line with the values of the pastor.

And musical styles can be an issue, too. Maybe a certain pastor thinks that rap is not edifying, or thinks that slow music depresses the spirit of the service, or thinks that songs that use bits of tunes from secular songs are worldly. You want to cultivate the kind of relationship and communication with your pastor where he or she can comfortably talk to you about what is desired from the music ministry.

The best way to get to know all this is to spend as much time as you can listening to and understanding the ministry and message of your pastor. Sermons, Sunday School, and Bible study will help you to gain this understanding. This can be a challenge if you are working as a music minister in a church that is not the church where your membership is. But still try to take any opportunities you can to learn as much as possible about the spirit and values of the church where you are working.

One of my theme scriptures as a music minister is “Know those who labor among you.” (I Thessalonians 5:12 This is yet another application of that principle.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Video about singing in unison

A reader had some questions about unison singing, so I decided to make a video on it (so glad to have the new webcam!).

Unison singing can be a very good thing for both beginning choirs and experienced choirs, but it still takes awareness and practice to make it the best that it can be.

Here's the video:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What is warm-up time really about?

In classical music choirs, warm-ups are seen as an essential activity before a rehearsal or performance.  Some gospel choirs do warm-ups also, but others don't.  What is the purpose of warming up?  Why does it matter?

  • The phrase “warming up” really means getting the vocal cords ready to be used.
    • The tissues that make up the vocal folds should get a good circulation of blood flowing through them before you start singing in full voice.  One choir director said, “It takes 7 minutes of singing for the vocal folds to fill with blood and literally be 'warmed up' enough for safe singing . . .  Like with any other muscle we intend to use, we must first warm it up and bring blood to the muscle or risk significant injury to the muscle.” (Source:
    • Singing loudly and singing high notes puts more demand on the vocal cords, so that's why warm-ups should start out with singing in an easy, comfortable range and moderate volume.  Gradually work your way up to the more challenging singing.
    • The 7-minute guideline is how long it takes for your vocal cords to warm up if they're completely cold.  They will not be that cold if you have been using your voice (talking, etc.) for most of the day.  So warming up before you sing is only partially about physically preparing the vocal cords.  Usually when you warm up you have other goals as well.
  • One of the things you want to get out of warming up is preparing the rest of your body to sing by reminding yourself of the postures and vocal techniques that you have learned for getting the most out of your voice.
    • Talking will bring circulation to the vocal cords, but when you're talking you don't use the same kind of breathing and projection that you do when you sing.  During warm-up you want to take the time to remember how you want to hold your body, control your air flow, and relax your mouth, face, and throat in order to get the best sound without straining.  Do your choir members ever show up at rehearsal feeling tense and tight after a long working day?  Warm-up is the time to shake that off and get loose.
    • Warming up also helps to prepare the mind for singing.  As the choir begins to sing together during warm-up, they want to focus their minds and their ears on listening to one another and working on blending their voices.
  • How do you know when you are really warmed up?
    • Your goal in warm-up is to be prepared for the singing you have to do.  One voice teacher said, “When you can hit all the notes in your range with no discomfort and your passagio area is smoothed out, you are warmed up and can confidently apply full voice.” (Source: Judy Rodman) .  The passagio is the part of your range where you have to shift from your chest-voice (lower-note) singing to your head-voice (higher-note) singing.
  • How do you warm up a whole group? If the goal of warming up is to get everything running smoothly in the body and the voice, won't it take longer for some people to reach that goal than for others?  How can a director know when every person is ready?
    • The director can listen to the choir as a whole and decide when they're starting to sound the way they ought to sound.  But there could be particular singers who still need more singing time before they're ready to challenge their voices.  Encourage each person to pay attention to how they are sounding and feeling and continue checking their technique.
    • As the director, you may want to plan your rehearsal time so that the order of the songs allows people more “warm-up” time if they need it.  You can start off rehearsing the songs that are in a medium range and at moderate volumes and wait until later in the rehearsal to do the songs where the singers need to “belt it out” or sing a lot of high notes.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Looking at choir directing strategy with a couple of videos

As I mentioned in my post about best practices for conducting, a director should tailor their conducting to the particular needs of a specific song and a specific choir.  Here are a couple of examples of how that works.

These are two videos of a choir that I work with in Orange County.  In each of them you can see some standard choir directing moves that I use all the time, as well as some signaling that is specific to the particular song.

(By the way, this choir has excellent musicians who play on almost all of their songs.  It's just a coincidence that both of these videos are a cappella songs.)

On this song, King Jesus Is A-Listenin', most of the gestures you see are my standard moves.  The way that I'm following the rhythm of the singing and the notes going up and down with my hands, I always do that.

But on the lines where the sopranos say, "He's got power in His hand, and He's taking me away," you'll see a gesture that I improvised for this song.  I hold out one hand in the direction of the sopranos, with my palm facing toward them (the first time it comes is at the 1:24 mark).  The reason for the gesture is that during rehearsals the sopranos were sometimes singing the word as "hands", a plural, when it's supposed to be singular, "hand."  So I started showing them my single hand as they sing that line to remind them not to put an "s" at the end of "hand."

Something else that didn't show up in the video is when they reach the part that says "oh, oh, oh, oh, King Jesus is a-listenin'", I formed "O"s with my hands to let them know we were going to that section of the song.


Now here's another video of the same choir (different day and different person doing the filming, so it's a little rough):

This song is called "Hallelujah Lord."

Here, as we're starting into the song (at the 0:12 mark), you can see me doing the classical-style conducting beat patterns.  That wasn't necessary at the beginning of "King Jesus Is A-Listening" because the beat isn't as strict on that song, you can be flexible with it.  But on "Hallelujah Lord" everyone is singing different rhythmic lines that have to fit together, so it's very important to stay on a steady beat.  The tenors are the ones who anchor the song, and I counted off two measures for them so that they would have a strong sense of the tempo before they started.

When the altos come in (at 0:31), you see me gesture toward them with two fingers outstretched.  This is because they start with a split part, first altos and second altos singing different notes.  They always remembered this anyway, but it doesn't hurt to give a signal that's in sync with them.

At 0:36, there's a phrase where the tenors sing one line while the other parts sing a different one on top of it.  I start the tenors off because they come in first, but then for the rest of the phrase all of my conducting is synced with the other three parts.  That's because the tenors were the most solid on their part.  I knew that I could leave them to carry theirs on their own and focus on the others.  If the tenors had been at all shaky about keeping to their rhythm, then I would have had to practice conducting their line with one hand and the line for the other parts with the other hand (that would have taken a lot of preparation and practice, but it is possible).

At 1:21, they start into another passage where several different lines are going on.  The tenors start off, then the second altos, then the sopranos, then the first altos.  At 1:38, the basses join in.  Once they come in, my conducting is completely focused on the basses.  It had been a challenge for them to hold onto their timing and their notes in this passage during rehearsals, so I give them full attention to help them stay on track.


One of the beautiful things about rehearsal time is that you can observe your choir and see what areas they need the most support in.  A director who knows their choir can work on guiding them through songs in the way that is best for them, a way that a stranger wouldn't be able to do, no matter how skilled the stranger may be.  Sort of like John 10:27.

Best practices when conducting the choir

Conducting, of course, is the way you communicate with your choir during the performance. How do you make that communication the most effective?
  1. Understand what information the choir most needs from you. This will be different from choir to choir and from song to song. On one song, their biggest need may be for you to guide them through twists and turns in a complicated harmony. On another song, they may need you to keep them focused on staying in rhythm together. And in another song, they may be solid on their parts but need reminders on the lyrics. You will know what they need on each song observing their strong and weak points when you're working with them in rehearsal.
  1. Plan your signals. What gestures do you want to use to communicate the needed information? I have a web article about some of my preferred hand signals for choir directing (here's the link: But there will be some situations where you need to come up with a signal that might be unique to that one song and that one choir. Think about what you're going to need and come up with a plan.
  1. Take time alone and practice conducting through the song. Remember that whenever there's a change coming, you want to give your signals enough in advance so that the choir isn't taken by surprise and they can make a smooth transition. Try to practice it enough times that it becomes automatic for you, almost like a dance.
  1. Think of rehearsal time as a time not only for the choir to work on their vocals, but also for you to continue to refine your directing technique for the song. You've already been preparing on your own, but in rehearsal you see if the choir is successfully getting the message that you're trying to give them with your signals. And, as I said, you get an idea of what areas the choir needs the most guidance in, and you can adjust your conducting accordingly.
  1. When the time comes that you're singing the song in service, stay in the moment and stay focused. I try to keep my body language flowing with the feeling of the music at the same time that I'm giving the signals that are required to keep everything together. This serves as an example to the choir also of how to get into the spirit of a song at the same time that they're focused on getting their parts right.
Choir conducting is an art. The director brings both together both the technical skill and the spiritual sensitivity to bring the best out of the choir and the music. Work on developing both and communicating them both to your choir.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

If art is about taking risks . . .

They say all the time that a true artist doesn't stick to doing the same kind of work over and over. All real artists look to break new ground, take on challenges, take risks with their art.

When was the last time you tried something with your craft you’ve never tried before? . . . If your answer . . . is, 'I don’t remember' or 'Never' then I guarantee you are not growing.”

How does that apply to your choir? How do you feel about taking on music that is adventurous, ground-breaking, challenging?

And I believe this really matters when it comes to choir ministry. If a choir only knows a few songs and sings them over and over and over, after a while people are going to tune out (no matter how good a sermon your pastor preaches, you wouldn't want to hear that same sermon twice a month all year long).

And if the choir brings in new songs that sound almost exactly like the old ones, that's just as dangerous. Breaking new ground may be risky, but staying in the same old rut is risky, too. You risk becoming irrelevant.

But of course, there's something we don't like about taking on new challenges. When we challenge ourselves, there is a possibility of failure. The new things we try might work, or they might not. If you make a regular practice of taking risks, it's guaranteed that you're going to fail sometimes.

The only certain way to avoid failure? Say nothing. Do nothing. Be nothing.

So how do we handle the possibility of failure in a choir ministry? We want to be a blessing to every service and not a detriment. Does that mean that failure is not an option?

Here are some ideas for how to balance out the risk:
  • Take your biggest risks during rehearsal times. Bring a new song with the understanding that it may or may not work out well enough to end up being included in a church service. It's OK for a director to try to teach a song and then have to drop it because it's not working. Go ahead and try and maybe fail. And if the song fails, learn from the experience, examine what didn't work, what the choir wasn't ready for. That's a part of growing as an artist. But don't be too quick to scrap a song. Just because you don't get it perfectly doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Waiting for “perfection” can sometimes turn into an excuse for never taking a chance. If you wait until everything is perfect, you'll be waiting forever. Decide when it's good enough and then go forward with it!

  • Then comes the time to sing that challenging song during service. I recommend that if your choir sings two songs during service (the classic “A & B selection”), you can pair the challenging song with a familiar old favorite. Sing the new one first and then the old one.

  • Remember, most of the congregation doesn't know what the song is supposed to sound like.

  • Also remember that the message is more important than the messenger. If you start to feel like you're faltering, tune in with the message of the song. Sing it with focus and with fervor. It will still be a blessing.

So that's the WHY about doing challenging music. For more ideas about HOW to do it, look here: How to teach difficult songs to your choir.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Anybody have a choir sing at their wedding?

Choir is my life, so when I got married in 1998, I knew that I wanted to have a choir sing instead of a soloist.  I put together a choir of friends and family from various churches, chose some songs, and had choir rehearsals in preparation.  On the big day, my brother directed the choir and they did a beautiful job.

These are the songs they sang (in order):
I was looking on YouTube for any videos of gospel choirs singing at weddings and I found a few, but I didn't see a very wide range of song selections.  They were mostly doing gospel songs from movies (Oh Happy Day . . . Joyful Joyful . . . ) or else they were singing pop songs.

What would be some other gospel songs for choir that would be a really good fit for a wedding?

Also, if you have been to a wedding where a choir sang, whether you were a guest, a member of the choir, or the bride/groom, I would love to hear about it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

If you're feeling the calling to direct choirs . . .

I received a comment on my page on choir directing tips.  An aspiring director named KD said:
Hey, I am in prayer about something and hope that someone get this. I am a director, that hasn’t directed in a while, but I got an opportunity to direct about two months ago and God was on fire, but it was only one time, and now I am feeling like I should be doing it more often. Any advice on which direction, I should go in???????????
The thoughts that came to my mind are these:
  1. If you’re a member of a choir, talk to your minister of music and tell them about your interest.  If they agree that you have skills in that direction, they might want to include you as a part of a rotation of directors.
  2. Perhaps start a choir from scratch!  Talk with your pastor.  It could be that there is an interest in the church in establishing a youth or children’s choir, a men’s or women’s choir, or something else.
  3. If your church doesn’t need anything new in terms of choirs or directors, perhaps there is another church in your area that doesn’t have a choir at all.  You could offer to help them start one.  It might take some serious planning to figure out how to schedule your activities at another church and still keep your commitments to your home church, but if you can make it work it would be a great blessing to them and to you as well.
I would love to hear any other suggestions that anyone has on this question.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Learning how to hear choir parts

This is a question that I get asked from time to time -- "How can I learn to pick out the soprano, alto, and tenor parts to choir songs?"

It takes practice, practice, and practice.  And then practice.  The more time you spend at it the more clear it becomes.

People who have been singing harmonies in choirs for a long time start to develop an understanding of how the harmonies work.  Some altos and tenors can get a feeling for what their part will be as soon as they hear a song.  But that is after lots of time spent singing lots of other songs.

I would suggest that people try listening to recordings repeatedly and trying to sing along with the different parts -- sing the soprano part, then the alto, then the tenor.  You may need to listen to one song over and over and over until you can differentiate and sing all the parts.  Doing this with several songs will help you get better at hearing the parts in other songs as well.

Remember that when the different vocal parts sing together, they are making a chord.  If you're a musician, or if you're friends with a musician, you can look at the chord structure of the song and get some idea of what each of the vocal parts should be doing.  The chords that the voices are making may not always be exactly the same as the chords the instruments are playing, but it's a good start.

If you're really serious about learning this skill, something else that could help a lot is going to rehearsals where a director is teaching who knows choir parts really well.  Listen to them teach lots of songs and sing along with each part when they're teaching each one.  The more you do it, the more you'll develop an instinct for hearing the harmonies in other songs.

Does anyone else have suggestions?  How did you learn how to pick out choir parts?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I love singing with you, but can I still sing without you?

This past Sunday I had the good fortune to attend a free concert by the Master's College Chorale.  It's a college choir, all students, very well trained.

One thing that's so impressive about choirs like these is how every individual member of the choir knows their part for themselves for sure.  No one uses anyone else as a crutch.

The video above is from a performance that the Master's College Chorale did in Israel back in 2009.  You can see how they're standing single-file all around the room.  Not only that, every singer is standing between two other singers who sing a different part from theirs.  The song they're doing in this video starts off with a lot of unison, but they break into full harmony at the 2:00 mark.

When I saw this chorale perform in Long Beach, they were not only spread out across the stage and around the walls, but also down the two center aisles.  Right next to my seat was a soprano, behind her was a bass, behind him an alto, behind her a tenor.  And every one was singing with full confidence.

Those of us who direct choirs at small churches sometimes wish that our choir members were all that solid.  Most of us have that alto who has to be sandwiched between two other altos, or else she'll start sliding up to the soprano part.  Or maybe that tenor who will start singing the melody (but an octave lower) if you don't watch him.  Or the soprano who will have a tendency to sing parts that are even higher than she needs to go (until she notices that the other sopranos aren't with her).

One of the beautiful things about choir is the fellowship of working together.  Like the Hezekiah Walker song -- "I need you . . . you need me . . ."  Together, we help each other and strengthen each other.  But there's nothing wrong with wanting to build up each choir member to the point that they can still go forth even if there's no help around.

It's interesting to think about what kind of practice would be needed to get every member of the choir to the point where they could sing their part with no support.  Having them sing one by one in rehearsals?  That could be frightening to some.  I'm going to do some thinking about this.

If any of you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cool video: Church of Apostolicity choir

I was at a Regional Fellowship Service last month and one of our own newsletter readers, Sis. Angela Whitfield, was featured in the service with the choir she directs from the Church of Apostolicity (The Apostolic Doctrine) in Los Angeles.  I wish I had been thinking faster and pulled out my iPad sooner because I missed the opening section of the medley of spirituals they were doing.

Angela started out a few years ago with no choir directing experience.  She was working with people who were new to choir singing and they didn't have a musician.  The results you see here clearly show the time and effort that they have put into their ministry and how Angela has grown as a director.  They still sing all a cappella, and now they're not sure whether they even want a musician. :-)

(By the way, the preacher who comes up after them is my dad.  He was emceeing the Fellowship Service that night.)

Why it's important to space out rehearsals

Remember in school when you would cram all night for an exam that you had the next day? (If you never did this, someone you know did it.) You studied the materials over and over through the night up until the break of day. You took your test in the morning and you passed it! Hooray!

How much of that material did you remember a week later? Probably very little. Here's the reason why. The folks who do brain research say that the evidence shows that rehearsing information over and over on only one occasion is good for getting the information into your short-term memory, but it won't transfer into your long-term memory. To remember it long-term, you have to rehearse it on different separate occasions. Spacing out the learning helps you learn better.

If you want to look at some of the scientific literature, here are a few links:

So what does that mean for us as choir directors? It means that your teaching of any song will be more effective if it's spread out over time than if it's done all together. Have you ever had the experience of learning a song in a rehearsal, feeling like you've learned it really well while the rehearsal is going on, and then barely being able to recall it the next day?  I have.  But if you practice it over a series of weeks, it will stay in your long-term memory much better.  And you won't need as many repetitions!

For example, if you teach a particular part at three rehearsals, and at each rehearsal the choir goes over the part four times, that's a total of 12 repetitions. But the choir will remember what they learned BETTER from those 12 repetitions spread out over three rehearsals than they would if you had them do 20 repetitions all in one rehearsal!  Check out the American Educator article above to read more about these findings.

This is a reminder of how important it is to get an early start on any music that you teach. Give yourself a few weeks at least before you plan to sing a new song and go over the song at several rehearsals. This is the way to get what you're really after, which is for the singers to make the song a part of them and remember it in the long-term.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Good gospel songs for choir competitions

Someone emailed me this month asking for suggestions of gospel choir songs that would be good to sing in choir competitions.

Many school choirs and other choirs sing arrangements of Negro spirituals in competitions, but here are also some regular songs in the gospel choir repertoire that could be used:
  • Anthem of Praise by Richard Smallwood
  • Hallelujah, Lord by Sounds of Blackness
  • Let Everything That Hath Breath by the Florida A&M University Gospel Choir
  • Total Praise by Richard Smallwood
  • Matthew 28 by Donald Lawrence
  • Jesus Is Alive by Michael Mindingall
  • One of the choir pieces from the “Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration” project (such as “Hallelujah!”, “And He Shall Purify”, or “For Unto Us a Child Is Born”)

What other songs might be good for competitions? I'd love to hear any recommendations.

Make sure you're ready to teach!

The most important part of choir directing is the teaching. The congregation sees the director at the end of the process, when the choir sings, but the real work of the director is what happens in rehearsal. Everything the choir sings comes from what they've been taught. When you come before the choir to teach, you want them to feel confident that you're going to share something good and worthwhile with them.

What this means for you is that you need to be fully prepared to teach. The rehearsal is the choir's time for learning and practice. But the director's time for learning and practice is BEFORE the rehearsal.

Spend time alone with the music, getting familiar with the songs you're going to teach. You want to know the words by memory so that you can make eye contact with the choir while you teach. You want to know all of the vocal parts so that you can teach them with confidence.

What's the best way to learn the words and the parts? Practice singing the song! Sing it out loud, over and over and over. Sing the soprano line; sing the alto line; sing the tenor line and the bass line. Singing the song yourself helps you memorize everything. It also helps you recognize which parts of the song are the most challenging so you'll know what parts you might need to spend more time on during rehearsal.

Practice the song over the course of several days. You might work on it one day and feel like you completely know it, but then a couple days later there will be parts that you've forgotten. Your brain does much better at keeping information in long-term memory if you practice at several different times.

When a director is well prepared, the choir members know that the rehearsal is going to be productive and worth their time. If it seems like the teacher is unsure, it can be very discouraging to the choir. No choir member wants to see the director playing the CD during rehearsal trying to figure out how a line is supposed to go!

Now, in some choirs, the choir director is not the one who selects the music. If you have a music director who chooses the songs for the choir to learn, communicate with them about how much advance time you need to prepare songs before you teach them. I work with one choir where a music director picks the music for me. I try to prompt him well in advance about important occasions: “What songs do you have in mind for Easter this year?”; “Did you want to do any special music for Mother's Day?” The sooner I know what we're doing, the better I can be prepared, especially for any difficult music.

The Bible says that studying will make us into a worker that doesn't need to be ashamed. This principle definitely applies to the music ministry. The more we study, the less we'll need to apologize for when we stand up to teach the choir.

Thursday, January 31, 2013 has a newsletter now!

The first issue came out today.  Send me an email if you would like to be added to the mailing list.

What should the choir sing for Valentine's Day?

Well, they don't necessarily have to sing anything special in recognition of V-Day, but some directors might want to do some music that recognizes love.

These are some gospel songs that come to my mind:

About God's love for us:
  • "No Greater Love" by the Gospel Music Workshop of America:
About our love for God:
  • "More than Anything" by Lamar Campbell:
  • "I Love You, Lord" by Walter Hawkins:
About the love we should have for one another:
  • "Charity" by Patrick Henderson:
  • "That's What It's All About" by Andrae Crouch: 

What love songs do you think of?  Leave a comment.

How well do you know your “instrument”?

If you're a singer, your voice is your instrument. If you're a choir director, the voices of all the choir members are your instrument.

To use those voices most effectively, you need to know what they're capable of, what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Listen to yourself sing. How do you sound at quiet volumes? At loud volumes? Some people are good at getting a sweet, gentle sound with their voice; others are good at getting a forceful or brassy sound.

How high can you go before your voice starts straining? Go to a piano and find out the names of the notes that are your top note and your bottom note (there's an online keyboard that you can use for this, too: Be aware also, that with practice you can increase your range, so your top note today doesn't have to be your top note forever.

Directors should know this information about their choir members, too. Know your singers' strengths and weaknesses. Know what their top and bottom notes are. Then arrange your music so that it's a good fit for the singers in your choir.  In the choir at my home church, the tenors can hit an F, but it's a challenge.  Hitting a G is a struggle.  I don't try to take them above that G.

A couple of things to keep in mind about choir music:
  • In *contemporary gospel* choir music, the parts are often written in a way that leaves the tenors singing a lot of high notes, including notes that go above the standard tenor range, AND there are no baritone or bass parts. A lot of songs will also have numerous key changes, sometimes going amazingly (ridiculously?) high.  The gospel artists who make the albums can pick and choose the most exceptional singers to be in their choirs, but in our churches, we're working with regular voices.
    Knowing this, you may want to change the key or rearrange the parts on some songs to make things work better for your choir. And consider adding a baritone or bass part, so that men with bass voices aren't forced to either sing high tenor or leave the choir.
  • In *classical* choral music, the pieces are written for people with trained voices, and trained voices can hit higher notes and hold them longer than untrained voices can. If you work with untrained singers, keep that in mind when selecting music. Try to use music that works with the vocal ranges of your members. With long passages that don't leave room for a breath, make sure your singers know how to work together and do alternate breathing (taking turns pausing for a breath while everyone else continues singing).
The better you know your instrument(s), the better use you can make of them, with beautiful results.

(By the way, will happily do parts on request in whatever key the customer wants. I recently did an order for a song in two different keys, neither of which was the key from the original recording.)