Dr. Tim Lautenheiser is a renowned motivational speaker for music educators. I’ve heard him speak several times and have always come away feeling energized and renewed. His presentations use humor and story telling to great effect in describing the place where music educators live . He shares a story about a first year choral teacher at their first rehearsal, who discovers that the composition of his/her choir is less than perfect. “25 sopranos, 15 altos, 3 basses and 1 tenor????? What will we sing??? We can’t do the Messiah!'”
The story illustrates what happens when expectation collides with reality. An expectation of choral sound collides with a real live choir. My suggestion: Start with the live choir and revise the expectation until there’s a good match. Who are they? What are their abilities? How regular is their attendance? Those of us who attempt to perform a piece of music while ignoring those details do so at their own peril. A choir is an extension of the faith community that it serves, which is timely, since it takes an enormous amount of faith to surmount the challenges facing such an ensemble. A church choir is expected to provide a changing repertoire of professional quality choral music every Sunday with only 2 hours of rehearsal, sometimes less. While they may have a great deal of experience, most singers in these groups are amateurs. They don’t have music degrees. Some have no musical education beyond high school. Many don’t read musical notation well. However, they uniformly love what they do and realize that singing in a choir is one of life’s great blessings. How do they do it?
Someone once asked me why we don’t use paid professional choristers, so that we can be sure to have great music every week. “If we pay them, they have to show up and we can all rest easy.” I don’t agree. A church music program is an extremely visible mirror of how healthy a faith community is. No one would ever suggest: “Why don’t we hire a professional congregation to sit in the pews with us, and help out with the hymns and prayers. If we pay them, they’ll have to appreciate the sermon and we can all rest easy.” The energy of an all volunteer music group emanates from the community that it serves. I worked at a large church in western New York State for a few years before I was called to St. George’s. I checked attendance records and found that in 1956, there were 1100 people at the principal service on Easter Sunday. They had a large choir, many of whom were paid. The congregation began to shrink during the exodus to the suburbs in the 1960’s, and soon the entire choir was paid. When I arrived on staff, the congregation on Sunday morning numbered 20-30. The previous director had continued to pay the choir until budget constraints. (they had been spending down the endowment fund), forced him to stop. He was convinced that the paid choir was necessary and resigned rather than work without it. Since there had been no visible connection between the choir and the health of the congregation, the remaining members couldn’t see what decline the community was in until is was too late. They had great music every Sunday, and couldn’t understand why the pews were still empty.
A music program, no matter how professional or talented, cannot sustain a community alone. Rather, it draws its energy from the folks in the pews. So enjoy the anthem. We couldn’t do it without you.