EING A CHOIR DIRECTOR means subjecting yourself to continual sensory overload. You’re constantly hearing people aim sounds at you. You monitor voices in warmups to determine where the choir is “at” today so you can figure out how to guide them to their best. You must divide your attention between the collective group sound and its individual voices, each of which belongs to a person who’s hungry for your input and affirmation. And you have frequent encounters with parishioners outside your choir, who want to express appreciation, ask questions, or make requests.
In this atmosphere, it’s easy to start feeling backed up. There’s too much input to process in real time. During rehearsal, you’re trying to make music and analyze it all at once—which is impossible, so the analysis will always fall behind and need to happen later. During Mass, as much as you try to remain prayerful, you often get brilliant ideas on how to better lead your choir, but of course, you can’t stop and write them down. And after Mass, you want to recollect yourself and analyze how things went, but you must remain available to choir members who want to chat. Those connections are too valuable to miss.
So, what can you do? You could cruise through rehearsals reacting to everything in the moment, and then go home and forget about it all. Or you could keep a repository for your many choir-related thoughts. I’ve found that the ideal repository is a choir journal.
What is a choir journal?
A choir journal is much like a diary. People keep diaries or journals for many reasons: to brainstorm, to crystallize their thoughts, to help them through tough times, and so on. The choir journal can serve all these purposes. It’s a place where you can write whatever you want. You’re partly trying to get ideas out of your system and partly trying to hold onto them so you won’t forget them.
The legendary American choir director Weston Noble believed in the concept—and he gave brilliant advice about how to implement it. A relentlessly positive man, Noble advised choir directors to write all the good stuff about their choirs in blue ink and the bad stuff in red ink—but to underline the red writing in blue. Why? Because negatives always have the potential to become positives.
Perhaps you’re not a pen-and-paper person. I am, at heart, but these days I’m all about speed and convenience. So I find myself typing notes to myself in an app that I can view on my computer or phone. Choosing the digital, password-protected route also minimizes the chances that someone will ever read how burned-out you felt after your March 11 rehearsal.
Why keep a choir journal?
You’re already busy selecting repertoire, meeting with clergy, planning rehearsals, running rehearsals, singing Masses, practicing singing, practicing organ, and ironing church clothes. Why would you add to your workload by starting a choir journal? I can think of several reasons:
To pick you up when you’re feeling low. Be sure to record every significant compliment you receive in your journal. When someone stops you after Mass and says today’s Offertory motet was one of the most beautiful pieces they’ve ever heard your choir sing, write it down. When a choir member thanks you for all your hard work and says they look forward to rehearsal every week, write it down. You’ll need to read these anecdotes in the future when you’re having a rough week and beginning to question your decision to step on the podium.
To bring you down when you’re getting too sure of yourself. Be sure to record your challenges in your journal, too. I don’t necessarily mean the passing moments of frustration (“The last chord of the Marenzio was pitchy today”). I’m talking about the overarching concerns you have about your choir—the areas that could take months or years to address (“When David is absent, the other tenors are totally unsure of themselves”). It’s easy to sweep problems under the rug just because you had a good Mass or two. Reading through your choir journal will give you a more balanced perspective on the overall direction of your choir.
To unearth the ideas you didn’t even know you had. I have a priest friend who insists he doesn’t really know what he knows about a topic until he tries to speak through it. I’m the same way with writing. If I’m wrestling with a choir-related challenge—or any major challenge in life—I need to write about it to find out what I really think and how I plan to solve it.
To slow down Earth’s rotation. Some cliches are true, such as the one about how time is going by more quickly these days. It’s entirely possible to cruise through an entire choir season and not really notice any of it. You can sing dozens of Masses in a row without stopping to reflect on your choir’s progress—or your own. But when you keep notes along the way and revisit them regularly, you lengthen fleeting moments and begin to construct a true present in which you can do satisfying, meaningful work.
A final thought
In closing, I encourage all choir directors to remember that your choir journal is there to serve you, not the other way around. Don’t feel you have to force yourself to write much—or anything—after every rehearsal or Mass. Write when there are thoughts and feelings you don’t want to lose. Capture your highs and lows and return to them when you’re somewhere in between. You’ll keep the big picture in view even if you sometimes feel as if you’re living Sunday to Sunday.