One of the many joys I have at Bethany is working with talented young musicians such as Susan Keller, our Associate Cantor, and Mike Vasilie, our day school music teacher and director of our parish brass. Mike is primarily a band director, and so he is grounded in instrumental conducting. Yet, as school music teacher, he now has two children's choirs and so is growing in choral conducting skills. A fundamental principle of choir directing we are working on is listening to the choir sing. This may seem like a "no-brainer", and is certainly "head knowledge" to most of us, but many church choir directors - especially children's choir directors - don't do as much listening to their choirs as they do singing with (and for?) them.
And yet if we really want our choristers to own their music, we can't be singing it for them. Sure, we do need to model phrases during rehearsal, especially to illustrate desired phrasing and articulation, and sometimes even the intonation of a tricky interval, but the choir that needs its leader to sing with them is at best "singing along" with their ears rather than singing with understanding from their hearts and minds.
Directors who listen to their choirs also do a better job as directors. They are free to encourage and evoke sound from the whole choir, instead of "leading" one part. And they are better able to fulfill their teaching role because they are able to give better feedback, evaluate challenges more accurately, and proceed with more productive rehearsals.
Musing about this made me think about our direction of the more important choir on Sunday morning: the congregation. Do we lead the congregation as choir directors or are we falling into the trap of being "song leaders"?
I posit that one doesn't necessarily have to be singing into a microphone to have the same suppressive effect on real singing by the congregation that sing-along choir directors have on their choristers. But certainly mics can hurt as much as they can help. And these two approaches can manifest themselves from the organ bench depending on how the organist makes the pipes "sing" for the congregation. Does the organist expect, encourage, and enable the people to find their voice? Or does the organist sing the hymns for the assembly, with the congregation along for the ride?
Certainly there is discretion here as we go about our craft. Sometimes the choir in the loft needs the director's voice on a key entrance or phrase - perhaps due to insufficient rehearsal time. And sometimes the choir in the nave, the congregation, needs an extra 2' or 4' stop and a simpler accompaniment to get that melody or a stronger, more detached pedal to get in sync with the pulse. But even as we allow ourselves the flexibility to do what is needed in every given situation, we must always remember that the musician leads best who listens most.
Are you listening to your choirs? Are you listening to your congregation? What you hear will tell you what you need to do!
p.s. PASTORS - are you listening to your congregations? Or do you speak their reponses for them? Do you turn your mic off for the Creed and the Lord's Prayer and say it WITH your people, or do you "lead" them through the liturgy like a praise team "leader"? You too should listen to your congregations. What you hear will tell you also what you need to teach your people.