Here are some thoughts I’ve had about directing church choir. We’ll start with the hardest thing first.
How to get people to come (Hint: it is not by bringing cookies)
This is probably the biggest hurtle for choir directors. After all, why should people come to your choir? It is not a required meeting. Only you and your pianist have to be there, and few are the souls kind enough to sit through three (or more) hours of meetings and cheerfully submit to a tedious choir rehearsal, too. As the choir director you must recognize that you are not doing them a favor by directing the choir, they are doing you a favor by coming. Do not waste their time. You must engage your choir at every moment. And you must be prepared: have sharpened pencils ready for them. Have music for every member with a folder that they can write their name on. Know the music. Know where you want them to breathe, when to swell, when to diminish. If you show them you are dedicated and ready to work, they will come.
Another way to think of it is to imagine you are a sports team trying to recruit all-stars into your program. One blanket email out to the ward does nothing to bring people to choir. Zero. You need to create loyalty. A fan base. A following. You do this the old-fashioned way: by asking them individually if they will come. Calling them on the phone, sending a personal invitation through email telling them how much you need their help, and thanking them individually afterward.
How to keep their attention
More people will come to your choir if your rehearsal is fast-paced and there is some sense of urgency. I always have performance-driven choirs. That means we never rehearse just to rehearse: we have a date set to perform and it is only two weeks away. If you have too many rehearsals people will pick and choose which ones they attend and you’ll never have a full choir till the last rehearsal. You need to have one less rehearsal than you think you need. That way there will be a sense of urgency.
This is so important! I have seen so many directors that rehearse the sopranos for 10 minutes the rest of the choir sits there, vegetating. While you are rehearsing the sopranos, tell everyone else to hum their own part. Or have them sing the soprano line too, that way the sopranos can have more support. Tell the tenors, “watch your music while I rehearse these sopranos so by the time I get to you your part will be perfect” and hold them to it. And if you keep rehearsing a part and it isn’t working, send that section into a room by themselves with a capable musician to plunk out the notes so they don’t take time away from the rest of the choir. Always try to make sure everyone is engaged, somehow.
Most importantly: At least 85% of the time in rehearsal people should be singing, not listening to you talk. They don’t want to hear you talk. They have been listening to people talk all day. They came to sing! So keep your comments and directions to 15% of the rehearsal time. Or less. Also, never let your rehearsal go over an hour, because if you do they will never come back.
How to make them sound good
This takes a college degree. Seriously. People get their college degrees in choral conducting. It is a serious gig, folks. And people who do this know all the techniques to get people to sing as one: dynamics, diction, placement, diphthongs. Most of us don’t know all that stuff and never will. The average ward choir director can help the choir learn their notes and put in a few dynamics and that is about it. So what do you do if you know nothing about directing choirs? Be a leader. Decide how you want the song to sound and tell them what to do. You don’t have to know all the right musical jargon. A choir director who knows little about music but is a good leader is ten times better than a choir director who knows a lot about music and is not a good leader.
One common mistake I see a lot of choir directors make is that they ask their choir for advice. “What do you think we should do here?” “Do you guys want to do it this way or that way?” No. Stop. You decide what you want them to do. You are their leader. Being in a choir with a wishy-washy leader is like following a blind man through a desert. If you are prepared, and you know the song and what you want to do with it, than you will be able to lead with confidence.
Because this is a church choir we don’t exclude anyone based on race, creed, sex or . . . tone deafness. If you have a tone-deaf person come to your choir do not spend a lot of time hashing through notes that they will never be able to match. That will waste the choir’s time and it may make that person feel embarrassed. Welcome tone-deaf people into the choir with open arms, and whenever you hear that low (or high) droning just be glad they are there and they have the heart and willingness to sing.
Last but not least!
Treat your accompanist like a king or queen that he/she is. You would be nowhere without them. Make sure they have the music in advance, make sure they know about the rehearsals. Praise them. Give them credit. And when it is all over make sure you thank them. They are your most loyal ally in this terrifying yet extremely rewarding calling.