UPPOSE SOMEBODY CAME TO YOU and said: “I want you to agree to let me teach you for five hours each week for the next eleven years.” What would you say to such a proposal? Suppose you don’t even particularly care for that person—how will such a teacher keep your attention for eleven years? And yet … this is precisely what we expect from our choir members. And good directors have choristers who continue studying with them for ten, twenty, or even thirty years! Over the years, I have constantly reminded readers that being a choirmaster is virtually impossible in today’s climate; the obstacles are tremendous. Indeed, earlier today I had a phone conversation with my colleague, Charles Weaver, and we were sharing stories “as only two choir directors could.”
Below I suggest twelve (12) ways we can “keep our choir members coming back”—week after week, year after year, decade after decade.
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Cheating Is Just Fine: Vladimir Horowitz used to say: “Music is already difficult; why make it harder? Better to make it easier.” You know that free rehearsal videos are available for many SATB hymns—for example, Number 724—so send your singers to this website and have them rehearse their pitches and rhythm. Don’t feel bad about doing that—it saves time! Some people object: “But the singers are just listening to the videos and learning their parts by listening and memorizing.” My answer to that is: “How do you think people learned music for 6,000 years?” It’s true that Hymn #724 is in English in the Brébeuf Hymnal, but I have created a version in Latin you’ll want to download if you’re not allowed to sing in English. Singers just love this piece. Here’s a live recording from last Sunday, conducted by Miss Sarah Decker:
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“L.L.L.” Plan: Some of us have been singing Gregorian chant with a high level of proficiency since a very young age. Our parents started us on the piano or violin around the age of 6 or 7, and we were made to practice many hours each week. Therefore, we have a huge advantage over people who have never studied music. But I consider the “L.L.L. plan” to be essential. It stands for Let the Ladies Learn. Don’t just sing the plainsong yourself, or with a few men who can read music. Alternate back and forth between men and women, especially in pieces such as the GLORIA or CREED which contain double bar lines. As Dr. Horst Buchholz asks: “Why do you think those double bar lines are there?” They mean you should be alternating. If you don’t believe female voices sound good singing plainsong, listen to this live recording (ASPERGES) from last Sunday. Until a few weeks ago, many of those ladies had never sung Gregorian chant!
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Perfect? No! Things don’t always have to be “perfect.” Last Sunday, we pulled out a piece some of the choir members had never seen before: viz. Number 711 from the Brébeuf Hymnal. This is a very traditional German hymn called Gott Vater Sei Gepriesen, translated from the German by Father John Ernest Rothensteiner as “God Father, praise and glory.” Father Rothensteiner served as pastor for various parishes in Missouri, and toward the end of his life served as the historian of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. We didn’t have time to rehearse it, so we sang the verses in unison and the refrains SATB. (* Remember, most of my choir members don’t read music!) The powerful and brilliant way the “Choral Supplement” for the Brébeuf Hymnal is formatted—notating each verse—makes things like this possible, even for singers who can’t sightread. Here is a live recording from last Sunday:
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Organ Is Your Friend: Like many of you, I have dedicated my life to singing unaccompanied plainsong and Renaissance polyphony. However, there are ways you can add variety to the singing, so that your choir members will “take delight” in what they are doing—and they should be “taking delight” in singing praises to God. One way is adding organ accompaniment to the Gregorian chant. Here is a live recording (INTROIT) from last Sunday, showing what Gregorian chant sounds like with accompaniment. Try it…you’ll love it! In 2008, we scanned and uploaded more than 3,000 accompaniments from Belgium—and they are waiting for you.
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Solfège Solutions: Please listen to this live recording from last Sunday, which is an excerpt from KYRIE “De Beata Virgine II” by Father Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599). This was literally the very first time several of these singers ever attempted a cappella polyphony. You heard me correctly: this was the first time in their entire lives some of these singers had ever sung polyphony! If you want this piece, you will need Part 1 and Part 2. I strongly recommend Solfège for teaching polyphony, even though I hated Solfège when I was at the conservatory. Back then, I didn’t see the point in Solfège. Now I am wiser.
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Modern Masters: I think choirs appreciate variety. I don’t think they want to sing Renaissance polyphony 100% of the time, or plainsong 100% of the time, and so forth. An excellent modern composer is Kevin Allen, and his music can be found here. Kevin’s music is masterful—and last Sunday my girls sang his marvelous TANTUM ERGO from “Motecta Trium Vocum.” Here is a live recording which allows you to hear an excerpt. Remember, some of those ladies had never sung polyphony before! We learned it in Solfège before adding the words.
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Not Always Complicated: Don’t make your choir sing only complicated music; they also enjoy “easy and peaceful” music that is not incredibly demanding. An example would be the “harmonized plainsong” SANCTUS by Monsignor Jules Vyverman which can be downloaded for free off the internet. Here is a live recording from last Sunday. The men come in about halfway through. I wish the tempo was a little faster, but I will make that adjustment next time.
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Variety Is The Spice Of Choirs: You have probably noticed that I feel variety is very important: accompanied plainsong, a cappella plainsong, females singing plainsong, males singing plainsong, Renaissance polyphony, “Common Practice Era” hymnody in English, hymns in Latin, accompanied hymns, a cappella hymns, modern polyphony, and so forth. Another thing we do is add an “ison” (drone line) to certain chants, and this live excerpt will give you a taste of how that sounds. I believe choristers really appreciate variety.
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Let Them Have Fun: There is an old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” When it comes to choristers, it is not wise to constantly do “heavy” or “serious” music such as five-part canons by Father Cristóbal de Morales. It is important to include “bright” and “joyful” pieces from time to time. An example of a “fun” piece would be Hymn Number 841 from The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal. The SATB parts for that song are a blast, especially the tenor line! I admit that maintaining a mixture of styles takes immense planning and preparation … but choirmasters already know this. They already know that seldom a minute goes by without us thinking about what awesome piece we will next introduce. It truly is a 24-7 job!
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How To Attract Male Singers: Some choirmasters complain that they cannot find enough male singers. I have been directing choirs since the 1990s, and I can share a trick. If you get some young ladies into the choir, the young men will not be far behind. The young men might have ulterior motives for joining choir, and that’s okay! Many of my choristers have ended up getting married, forming strong Catholic families. By the way, if you want males in the choir, avoid S.S.S.S.S. That stands for: “sappy, sugary, sentimental, saccharine songs.” The reason I love the Brébeuf Hymnal is because—unlike many other Catholic hymnals—it avoids S.S.S.S.S.
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Their Opinion Matters: Try to include your choristers in making decisions. For instance, often there is “more than one right way” to perform a piece, and you can let them decide which way they prefer. An example would be Hymn #006 in the Brébeuf Hymnal. Here are the two ways of singing the fermatas—which way do you prefer?
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Secret Weapon: I would like to close by revealing a “secret weapon.” That is the Snippets Index. That tool is stupendous—and it will provide inspiration when you are facing dark moments.
Conclusion: I hope you find some of these tips useful. One thing I forgot: Always pray before choir rehearsals and before Mass. Tell the choristers: “Let us offer to God the work we are about to do.” Or, if Mass will soon be offered: “Let us formulate our Mass intention.”