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.