Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Monday, September 1, 2008


Jesus told Peter that He would make him into a "fisher of men" - but nobody told me when I was in music school that I would become a "fisher of choristers"! Being in a larger congregation, I don't have to worry much about getting adult choir members now that I have developed a program, but each year it gets a little harder to bring in the children.

There are many reasons for this. First, I'm getting older. I'm less hip than I used to be. Sure, a parent told me this year that her daughter was rejoining choir so that she could sing "for me" this year - so I guess I still have enough groove on for the 5th graders (!) - but I must admit that I've lost some of the appeal that younger directors have for children. But at the same time, I'm older and wiser, and am more savvy. So I don't think age is a detriment, just something for which I need to adjust and compensate.

And then there are the gazillion things that compete for children's attention these days. That is something one can readily point to, and a lament I've heard from many. But there were about as many soccer-crazed families in the 90's as there are today, and, while I would agree that it is more difficult to START a program in today's environment because of all the competing activities out there, I really don't think the number of options out there for kids today is a reason why fewer are choosing choir. Indeed, parents program more extra-curricular activities for their children today than they used to, and so the odds that one of the things they may choose to do would be choir have actually increased.

So what is it, then? I think the biggest reason it is harder to "fish for choristers" today is the huge amount of professionally recorded music that surrounds people in our culture today. It makes it harder for children to be convinced that they can make good music - especially if there is little music-making in the home, as is sadly the norm today. And the children today are the offspring of those who grew up after the big youth music explosion of the 60's. Those who came of age in the 60's and early 70's had parents who were from a previous era and so were more likely to be encouraged in music making. They were also encouraged by their peers as well. But now we are two generations into being surrounded by sound, and something has happened along the way. Fewer parents value music education. Kids are less interested in listening to each other. It is just so much easier to push a button. And music is seen more as something to be consumed rather than something to be enjoyed.

Couple the above with modern-day parents' inclination to let children themselves decide what they should be doing with their "extracurricular" time, and you really have a problem: most parents don't look at church choir as part of the education of their children, and children have no concept of what they can achieve and what joys they can experience through church choir. So they don't join.

Fortunately, we are blessed with a strong singing congregation at Bethany, and many of our members highly value the art of music. So I still have some parents who put their kids in the children's choir because they are continuing in the tradition of "the singing church", the name by which the Lutheran church used to be known. And I try to arrange trips for the older kids, as that is a motivator for them, and I go out of my way to talk to the kids as well. But even here most of the parents let their children decide whether or not they will sing in the church choir, and so I was pleased to find a new resource to help me with my "chorister fishing" this year: Children Making Music, a DVD Video for Children, Parents, and Congregational Leaders recently released by the LCMS Commission on Worship.

I'll review this resource over the next week, but for now let me just close by saying that I showed the segment for children from this DVD to our 4th & 5th grade day school students this past week, and will show it to the 3rd grade next week. I think it made a good impression on them, and so I'm hoping they had good things to say about making church music this weekend when their parents look into their school bags and get my latest invitation to join choir.

Maybe this time when Millennial Parent asks "Jane, would you like to join Cantor's choir this year?" we'll get few more children saying "Yes!"


Orianna Laun said...

I hope your "fishing expedition" goes well. It's hard to cajole kids into joining choir when all they get to do is sing church stuff--it's a far cry from singing like Hannah Montana. It's sad that choral singing has become like all other organized "sports" and become less of a team effort and more of a self-exaltation.
It seems to me that with singing being so natural (if you can understand inflection you can sing) more children would want to do it, since its something that has a measure of success. I can sing, but I am not good at other organized sports (something about not being agressive enough).

elephantschild said...

...the huge amount of professionally recorded music that surrounds people in our culture today. It makes it harder for children to be convinced that they can make good music.

That may be one reason. But my husband and I both feel that part of the reason is that people just. don't. sing. Children don't sing at home, and they don't (for the most part) sing in school. Gone are the days when every elementary school classroom had a piano, and the teacher could play it.

Our current congregation is a singing church, for which I'm very grateful. But from what I've seen, the music used in the dayschool and for VBS is not good, solid music that will stand the test of time. It's comic-book music, and I fear that we are tacitly teaching our young people that Real Church Music is only for old people. We are in danger of losing our skills as a singing church.

We have the same problem, though. Can't get those of high-school and middle school age to join the choir. There are no college scholarships or letter-jacket letters or pictures on the front page of the local paper for up and coming star church choir members.

The congregation that we were married in was over 40% African Amercian. The children sang all. the. time. While playing, while standing around waiting, and in church. It was lovely.

elephantschild said...

Meant to edit that a bit but hit "publish" by mistake. Sorry it's kind of disjointed, Phil.


Phil said...

Fishing has gone somewhat well so far. I had 18 children (grades 2-5) in my Schola Cantorum yesterday, have commitments from two more boys to join, and expect next week to pick up a couple more third graders. And they sound great! I'd like closer to 30 kids in this group, but our day school is smaller than it used to be and our congregation is attracting more families from farther away in recent years and bringing in fewer folks from the immediate area. This means fewer public school kids can attend after school, due to commute times. So, ironically, one of the hazards of being a "cathedral" church (i.e. drawing from a large geographic area) is that it is harder to have a big cathedral-style children's choir in this day and age, due to commute times (and all the activities!). I had larger children's choirs after school when Bethany was more of a "community" church. That said, I am SO glad we are more of a "cathedral" style congregation these days, because we are more attracting people on the basis of vigorous Lutheranism rather than being just another "Protestant church in the neighborhood" competing to see who can best give people what they think they want.

But now I'm starting to write a different post. Better move on and reply to Elephant's Child!

Phil said...

Regarding the fact that people "just.don't.sing." I agree that people sing less these days and so that is part of the problem. Certainly people sang more 50 and 100 years ago. But I think this is related to the "push a button" syndrome - on so many levels. First, the first generation into all this electronic music still had lots of choir and music lessons becasue their parents were from the older era. So they still sang. Hence, the pop music of the 70's and 80's was more melodious than what happened in the 90's when the grandkids came in. Second, people "just.don't.sing" because they CAN push a button instead. Now sometimes they sing ALONG - and we do have the karaoke phenominum, but typically humans don't sing unless they have a quiet environment out of which to muse. I see this in my children. Which leads to a third observation. People "just.don't.sing" (love your periods, Elephantschild!) because they don't meditate or even have quiet time. (again, the buttons). So they don't muse, and then don't make music. I think this is where this connects to Orianna lament about singing becoming more like an organized sport. Which leads to the fourth point about the buttons: the buttons make kids think that Hannah Montana is where the fun is. Ans since they can't make music like on the record.....But when kids discover how much fun it is to sing Bach or Rutter or, yes, Liturgy Solutions (couldn't resist that one!) then they do keep coming back. But it is so much harder to get kids to that place these days - and the buttons are part and parcel of most every reason.

But when one sticks with the kids in a parish over several years, the culture in a congregation does change. Last year we had seven high school kids in "adult" choir. We also have four members in their twenties, and a couple of the college students always come home and join us for Christmas and Easter. They have discovered the joy of singing the Lord's song with fellow Christians who value the art of choral singing, and so make it a integral part of their lives. We haul in fewer singers when we go "fishing for choristers" these days, but the joy remains, and the song goes on.

elephantschild said...

but typically humans don't sing unless they have a quiet environment out of which to muse

Oh, mercy. YES! I didn't think of it that way, but you're right. Those putzy, manual-labor jobs like splitting wood, washing & hanging laundry, walking... they all lend themselves to singing. But everyone's got an iPod now!

Sometimes I sing in my car -our car radio is broken. :)