NLY THOSE who direct choirs know what a demanding job it is. It involves politics, physical endurance, psychology, inhuman determination, and, of course, musical skill. If you’ve read Catholic Church Music by Paul Hume, you realize being a choirmaster in 2018 is remarkably similar to being one in 1956—which is either encouraging or depressing, depending upon how one considers it.
I direct choirs each week: choral vespers, tons of Masses, and numerous rehearsals. As I direct and play for each Mass, I’m astounded at the sheer number of “obstacles” that must be overcome. I’ve been at this twenty years, yet each Mass brings new challenges. I constantly want to jot down ideas that come to me vis-à-vis “choirmaster tips.” Needless to say, most of them are lost—because I can hardly pull out a writing pad in the middle of Mass.
I hope you find the following seven suggestions helpful:
1. Listen To Yourself
It is essential to make recordings of your choir, and (later on) listen to how you sound. So many musicians avoid this crucial procedure, or they record their choir but fail to go back and listen to it! At the conservatory where I studied, we had a rule: one hour performing in front of a live audience was worth eight hours in the practice room. That’s because performing in front of someone—even a stranger—is quite different than rehearsing in privacy. The same is true of recording one’s choir. Deep down, we don’t want to record ourselves because it might reveal something that needs to be changed…which often requires hard work!
2. Sing Don’t Talk
We choirmasters love our field, and we have a billion anecdotes we consider to be fascinating. We love to explain—in great detail—the history of everything. The problem is, choir members are coming to rehearsal to sing; they are not there to hear us talk. We must constantly guard against talking too much. The singers cannot learn how to sing unless they sing: a whole lot! People are often late to rehearsal, but the choirmaster should never wait for everyone to arrive. Have something simple prepared, e.g. a tricky Psalm Tone from Vespers, and always begin rehearsal on time. Even if only one singer is there, don’t get angry—work with that singer. Explain how psalm tones work, and have that person sing. Sing, sing, sing!
3. Don’t Blame Singers On The Wrong Page
Frequently, a singer will be on the wrong page. Sometimes, a singer will be standing there holding a choir binder when we are supposed be singing from the hymnal. The temptation is to become angry at somebody on the wrong page, but we must resist that temptation. A wise choirmaster—instead of becoming angry—will devise new ways to make it even easier for singers to know which piece is coming up, found in which book. I know it’s hard to swallow our pride and accept blame…but the fact is, it’s always possible to do a better job making clear to the singers which pieces will be sung when. In reality, too often we choirmasters expect the singers to “know” a plan that only exists in our mind; but we must avoid expecting volunteer singers to read minds!
4. Avoid A Harsh, Ugly Tone
Fr. William J. Finn used to say “no choir sounds nice louder than MP or MF.” In other words, when singers produce too much sound, their voices often sound harsh. Moreover, if they sing loudly, they cannot listen to the other singers, so they will probably be singing slightly out of tune. During rehearsal, have your singers work at a slightly softer tone, with a perfect blend. (The overall volume will not be greatly reduced, but the sound will be much more pleasant.)
5. Women And Men
Whenever possible, divide the Gregorian chants. For instance, for CREDO and GLORIA, alternate between Treble Voices [Ladies] and Low Voices [Men]. There is nothing more gorgeous than a bunch of women singing plainsong (without vibrato), especially when such singing is combined with an excellent organ accompaniment. And the alternation keeps the voice from getting tired.
6. Your “Private Mass”
The physical and mental demands made upon a choirmaster are considerable. For example, on Sundays, I am at work from 7:30am until 7:30pm. I run multiple rehearsals, play organ for three Masses, conduct a choir of 35 voices at Mass, move around hundreds of chairs and binders and hymnals, and lead and accompany Sung Vespers. I find it helpful to designate one Mass on Sunday as “My Mass”—during which I pray fervently and do not allow myself to be occupied by anything but prayer. It’s true that during “My Mass” I have to play Murray Interludes during the Offertory and Communion, but that’s not very difficult. I would be interested to learn how other choirmasters approach mental prayer during Masses at which they conduct a choir.
7. Some People Are Evil
As musicians, we want to please everybody; we want everyone to love our music. If someone insults our singing—even a person with zero musical knowledge—our soul is fractured. It is absolutely crucial to remember that we will never please everyone. Some people are evil; some are foolish; and some are jealous. Some people are all three; and these tend to be the “loud mouths” who take it upon themselves to speak “on behalf of everyone.”
The following statement will sound obvious, but must be said: If you come across someone who complains about everything and seems very unhappy…avoid that person! When he tries to give you advice, say “thank you”—and then do the opposite.
It’s true there are serious issues that need to be addressed, such as the general trend among priests to avoid paying musicians a just wage—and one of these days I will discuss such things. But if we spend all our time thinking about negative things, 1 we won’t accomplish much. Let’s focus on the things we can control—and we’ll make great progress.
FRIEND OF MINE, let’s call him “Mr. George,” was asked in 2009 why he spent so much free time as a church music volunteer. I’ll never forget his response: “Because I want Mass to stop sounding so bad; please, make it stop!” Many feel this way. We cannot understand why goofy, poorly-performed music is allowed during the Catholic Mass. We want it to stop.
And there is some truly amazing news! A major catalyst has arrived with the publication of Brébeuf Hymnal. I believe this book will make a huge difference at the parish level. At last, we have a truly Catholic hymnal we can recommend without reservation. Best of all, it doesn’t compete with Renaissance polyphony or plainsong; it complements them.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 I get really angry when I consider how the big publishers have treated parishes. Every few months, under the current arrangement, parishes take all their disposable missalettes and throw them in the garbage. Then they purchase more, with the same basic contents. A few months later, they throw those in the garbage and buy more—again, with the same basic contents. This has been going on for fifty years. Why do parishes tolerate this? How did it become acceptable to sell somebody the same stuff over and over for decades? I don’t understand why the current Pope—who has said we must care for Planet Earth—does not immediately put an end to this disgusting arrangement.