Avoiding Choir Burnout
  • bkenney27bkenney27
    Posts: 444
    Okay, friends.
    This is my first Holy Week at the new church, and my first ever in a Catholic Church with an SATB choir. I have a Pastor that supports and sometimes demands (in a good way) quality music. However, I'm following a Director who, though talented (I'm told), wasn't very aware of liturgy or "quality" Catholic music.

    This year, between the changes I made (without knowing I was making changes in some cases) and what the Pastor wants done, there is a nearly impossible amount of music to learn. I can feel the choir burning out and they're struggling with the chant. Just teaching the Hagios responses in the reproaches has taken weeks, and they STILL aren't solid. They have other pieces they are doing well, but the chant is bogging them down.

    Any suggestions on how to avoid a burnout, but still learn the music that needs learning?
  • bkenney27bkenney27
    Posts: 444
    Also, I realize it's late to be asking this but humor me for future reference. :)
  • Ben YankeBen Yanke
    Posts: 3,114
    Time travel.
    Thanked by 2bkenney27 Adam Wood
  • Discuss your concerns openly with your choir. You haven't said that they are rebelling. In your situation I MIGHT sing the chants myself, or with one or two of your more capable choristers. Let them know that you DO have confidence in them, and that next year they can all sing the chants - after having heard how beautifully you sing them. Above all, make it clear that it's not a case of they 'can't', but that they are 'not ready'. I have a feeling that next year these chants will bloom.

    On the other hand, if they really seem anxious to learn, then have extra rehearsals if they are truly willing.
  • MBWMBW
    Posts: 175
    I agree fully with MJO. I would add that it is better to cut and simplify than to let your singers experience bad performances. If you have to simplify your original plan, explain to your pastor and to your choir. Show them (especially your pastor) that, with your new understanding of how big this choral task is, you have a plan for achieving worthy performances of the complete desired repertoire within a set number of years.

    If your pastor wants full Gregorian Holy Week music with polyphony in your first year, I don't blame him, but he is likely unrealistic. Perhaps this becomes a discussion about hiring section leaders.

    bk, I wish you the best for a great Triduum.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,343
    Let me make up a rule of thumb: if the Mass contains more than 20% new music, you're demanding too much.
  • MJO, we actually did that last Lent and it worked well. We sang it this year as a whole.
    All the best for the Triduum!
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,091
    The choir deserves to be able to pray as much as the congregation, of which it is a part. Pay most attention the core music: the Ordinary (including dialogues et cet.) and psalms. Let "special" pieces go (kill your darlings, as writers say) if that will help refocus the choir so that it is not anxious throughout the liturgy.
  • bkenney27bkenney27
    Posts: 444
    NO! No rebellion. Thankfully, my Pastor put it in their heads LAST year that the antiphons for the Mandatum and the Reproaches would be sung this year, so they've seen this coming. They are a good, hard-working group, but there was a LOT to learn, it's my first year, and there were fewer weeks of preparation after Christmas. Perfect storm.

    Chonak - yes, I would agree. I think Good Friday is the only place where that balance is thrown off, but it was somewhat unavoidable this year. To compensate for that, I've reduced their responsibility for the reproaches to the responses, and they've been learning the crucem tuam for some time now. The Hagios responses are REALLY bogging them down. So, that brings me to my next point:

    Yes, I have spoken to the choir about this. With regard to the Reproaches, I provided recordings on our website, asked them to go home this week and work on them and that anyone who is confident enough and willing/eager to sing them can do so, and that I am not going to force anyone who is not confident to stumble through them. I also nixed a choral piece because of my own misjudgement of its difficulty and the amount of rehearsal time.

    Honestly, I'm not worried or stressed about the Triduum music, because they are doing exceptionally well with many things, and I can cover whatever needs extra support. I just don't want THEM to be discouraged. It is taking them a bit longer to learn some of what I thought was simple, but on the other side of things, they are learning some of what I thought would be more, or even TOO difficult rather quickly. (I gave them Pitoni's Cantate Domino right after Christmas to just read through, not thinking we would be ready to sing it before the end of the season. They proved me wrong and it's probably their best piece for Easter!)

    (I also wanted to share on a somewhat unrelated note, that our Children's Choir of 15 will be singing WITH the parish choir on Easter Sunday. The children used to sing the 3pm on Good Friday but I thought this would be a better fit. The children's choir directors taught the children to intone the entire Ordinary, including Kyrie XVI, the responsorial psalm antiphon, the alleluia with its verse, and added them on Soprano II for the anthems and they sound glorious. With any luck, I won't have to sing at all!)
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,354
    Honestly, I'm not worried or stressed about the Triduum music, because they are doing exceptionally well with many things, and I can cover whatever needs extra support. I just don't want THEM to be discouraged.


    This is really important. You don't want choir members to feel like they disappointed you.

    I try to make it a point to mention somewhat frequently that I deliberately program things that are just beyond our reach, and that being free to fail on a piece (that is, to have to pull it from a program, even at the last minute) is part of safety net that lets us push into material we otherwise wouldn't try --- and that most of the time, we end up doing things we didn't think possible.

    You also want to go out of your way to place blame/responsibility on yourself, and not appear frustrated. It's very easy for people to get the message that you think they aren't "good enough" for you or up to your standards or whatever, even if you don't think that at all. And once that message has been received, it can create a lot of under-the-surface resentment.
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    I try to make it a point to mention somewhat frequently that I deliberately program things that are just beyond our reach, and that being free to fail on a piece (that is, to have to pull it from a program, even at the last minute) is part of safety net that lets us push into material we otherwise wouldn't try --- and that most of the time, we end up doing things we didn't think possible.


    One thing I always tell my schola is that this isn't a concert - we'll be able to try it again next week or next year.
  • bkenney27bkenney27
    Posts: 444

    One thing I always tell my schola is that this isn't a concert - we'll be able to try it again next week or next year.


    Stealing.
    Thanked by 1gregp
  • Carl DCarl D
    Posts: 992
    It sounds like you're doing all the right stuff, BK!

    * Make sure the choir understands that you ARE stretching them. It won't be perfect, but you're so inspired and grateful and the progress that's been made in the last year.

    * Despite all the effort you're putting into it, the music and the choir are not the most important thing going on at Mass. So help congregants to focus on advancing their relationship with God, and you've done your job.

    * Extra practices to the degree that people can take advantage of them, but not turning into punishment for "being inadequate." It can be a fine line.

    * Help them to understand and support the idea that using different subsets of the choir for different music is great. So if I don't sing everything myself I'm not going to be insulted that I'm "not good enough" somehow. (A good practice to do ALL year, by the way, and it makes the music more interesting too.)

    * I'm going to have to copyright this: "There's no such thing as too many honest and heartfelt thank-yous." Even a criticism or suggestion for improvement can be combined with an honest thank-you. And should be.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,091
    You can encourage timid choristers with "pecca fortiter" - sin bravely/boldly - showing that you can appreciate errors made with effort even more than those made in timidity or apathy.
  • All great suggestions!

    Our choir will be singing the Reproaches for the eighth year this week. It takes time but it's so worth it. It's one of the most moving chants all year for many of us. And the good news is that it gets easier every year.

    I have some practical tips for you, which you may have tried. When it comes to a chant that's more difficult than you think it probably should be for the singers, and they are psyching themselves out a bit, here's a few ideas:

    1) ask them to sing the melody only on the [u] vowel- helps build a legato line without having to navigate text, only neumes and intervals. (They can still pray the text while singing on a vowel.)
    2) isolate the text on a single note, and/or with the accented syllables raised a half step or whole step (got that one from Dom Saulnier)
    3) ask them to sing it as fast as they can, throwing caution to the wind, just getting through it at their own pace. I call it "speed chant". No notes of length. No expression. Just getting through it. It sounds like cacophony, but the exercise helps free the singers from getting lost in details and most realize they know it better than they thought. It builds confidence. A variation of this exercise can be to "speed chant" but maintain unity in the line, so same speed. It stretches them, but builds ensemble and confidence. And if they feel silly in any way, it can be helpful to remind the singers that it's only an exercise, even an experiment, as it's a sacred text. It's just a way of gaining confidence.


  • Carl DCarl D
    Posts: 992
    Love that third exercise, MaryAnn!
  • bkenney27bkenney27
    Posts: 444
    MaryAnn, thank you! Those are great techniques. I have one rehearsal left and I'm sure even in just that short amount of time, the information you've provided will make a significant difference.