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

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Choir Director or Song Leader?

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.


IggyAntiochus said...

Interesting post. Takes me back to Conducting II.

There aren't a lot of singers in my congregation. If I want there to be more than a 2-part womens choir in my congregation, I have to sing along! If I want something like 4-part mixed choir, I have to recruit a tenor or bass from outside the congregation for that Sunday.

Similarly, if a number of those ladies are out-of-town on a given Sunday, there are no leaders from the pews, so I sing along to assist the congregation (no mic, btw). Sometimes it's just for the first line of each verse, sometimes just for the first line of the hymn (if they know it well) and sometimes for the entire hymn (if it is not known well).

Then there is the occasional a capella hymn verse. This is done both for affect and so I can sing along with the congregation ;)

Yet, I still hear the instructor in Conducting II saying, "Now don't sing along with your choir. Your task is to listen and not to sing along. You can't hear them if you are singing along."

So, I try to strike a balance. And now I will be reevaluating the mix of singing and not singing, and remembering once again the words of that instructor.

Phillip said...

Good thoughts, Iggy. Certainly there are times when we as choir directors or cantors can or even should sing. But we should always remember that because we are generally more musically trained than those we lead that we will always be tempted to move the "balance" in favor of what we want to hear - and the quickest way of doing that is simply doing that ourselves! But when we do that we start performing and stop conducting and teaching.

And performing is fine. We just need to be sure we only perform when we want to perform, and not deceive ourselves into thinking that we are conducting or teaching when we are doing so.

As far as singing with the congregation on Sunday goes, that is a different issue. Just as the choir leads the congregation's singing, so sometimes must the cantor or organist or pastor. For example, we don't have a choir for our Saturday 5pm service. When I'm not the organist, I'll go to the back of the nave and sing the Hymn of the Day in order to help the singing.

There is no reason for us to be silent when we are genuinely helpful. The craft invovles knowing when our silence (either as singers, organists, or pastors) is actually more helpful than our sound.

Thanks for furthering the discussion. It is most welcome!

IggyAntiochus said...

I appreciate the post and feedback. It really is a good time to for me to rethink the way I participate in the worship service, so thanks for triggering some thoughts!

The Rev. BT Ball said...

Kantor M.-
there is nothing more annoying to me than preachers praying along with the congregation's parts. It is like talking to yourself. And with a mic on it is very annoying.

I attempt to listen to the congregation's singing as much as possible, unfortunately for me I enjoy singing too much and am belting things out myself. Some of the most glorious times for this are during the distribution of the Sacrament.

In general, I don't think it is helpful for the pastor to attempt to "lead" the congregation in song, particularly during hymns. I think that is the organ's task, capably played by the organist.

IggyAntiochus said...

I'm with Pastor Ball when it comes to belting out communion hymns! In my last parish, I was strictly the choir director, so I had minimum organ duties. I would sit near the front so I could commune at the first table with the organist and be able to sing all of the hymns!

The pastor, like the organist, can be instrumental in helping the congregation along when they need it. The pastor and the organist or kantor, working together, can strike this balance. This doesn't mean that the pastor should sing with the mic on all the time! Occasionally, though, it helps to have him sing a little louder on an unfamiliar or new hymn.

Phillip said...

Hi Pastor Ball,

Thanks for your comments. I agree that a pastor's speaking the congregations responses is akin to one "talking to oneself".

Just to be clear: my extension of the point to pastors was that pastors should listen to the congregation's SPOKEN parts, rather than saying them. That was the analogy. (i.e. As cantors listen to the assembly sing; so pastors should listen to the assembly speak).

If the people don't say "Thanke be to God" or clearly confess the Creed, then the pastor can hear that and know he has some catechesis to do. Similarly, if the church musician hears the congregation struggling on a hymn tune or part of the sung liturgy, then he needs to consider how he can better equip, encourage, and evoke their song.

As far as pastors leading singing, I'm with you. Let the musicians do that. However, there are situations where the pastor is the best musician - particularly in small congregations. Also, there are times when the pastor's active participation (without mic) gives proper encouragement: at our 5pm & 7:45am services, the psalms go much better when the pastor sings along with the congregation on their parts while the musician sings the leader's parts. However, at 9am & 11:15am that leadership is not necessary due to the larger sizes of the assembly.

IggyAntiochus said...

I am not a fan of microphones at all. That being said, what about the use of a microphone in, say, the Taize "Eat this Bread" or perhaps a Psalm setting where a solo voice is in order?

I do my best not to use the microphone under most circumstances (all of them if I can help it) yet I wonder if this is one instance where a mic is necessary.

Suppose the mic is needed, does the cantor use it both for the solo part as well as the response?

Phillip said...

DEFINITELY use the mic for the cantor parts - just as the pastor does for preaching. Exceptions: just as a pastor preaching to a small group does not need a mic, so would a trained voice singing in an appropriate-sized room to a smaller assembly not need the mic.

But the mic should not be used by the cantor to "lead" the assembly in their refrain.