Trouble with building the choir
  • I'm finding it difficult to establish even a basic three-part choir that regularly rehearses and sings in parts.

    The singers that I have are so regularly out of town or float between our three Masses (Saturday evening and two Sunday morning) that there's never more than six singers at once, and in such small numbers they're not strong enough to carry the parts on their own.

    We rehearse once a week for an hour and a half and meet again 45 minutes before Mass starts. I plan out choral pieces in advance only to find out that a key singer or two won't be there and it falls apart. Some in our parish who would normally sing in the choir don't because they are unavailable for rehearsal during the week.

    In short, the available ones aren't very talented and the talented ones aren't very available.

    I didn't ask for paid section leaders in the budget this year, but I don't know what my other options are. Feeling frustrated because I'm doing the best that I can with what seems like an overly complicated situation.
    Thanked by 1Jes
  • I have been in a similar situation... not quite as strapped for singers, but we definitely have issues of commitment in my group. My parish has more people who openly appreciate good music than people who are willing to participate regularly in creating it. Some suggestions that have worked to varying degrees for me:

    -Have some team-building activities. Pick a Friday evening when everyone (or nearly) everyone is available and gather at someone's house for food and fellowship. Give kind of a pep-talk and address the issues you're having directly, but gently. Introduce a word or idea for everyone to focus on in the coming year. My first year I chose "pride" and currently I'm focusing on "commitment."

    -Set a good attendance policy and be consistent with it. Better to have a smaller number of dedicated people than a large number of folks who don't understand commitment.

    -Investigate alternate options: perhaps a second choir that sings at a different Mass but only rehearses before Mass. Build up a larger choir for big feast days that has its own 2 or 3 dedicated rehearsals, and rope in as many parishioners/cantors/choir members/area colleagues as you can for the big events.

    -If you have a parish school, invite some of your strongest youth to participate in the adult group.

    -First establish an excellent unison sound, then worry about parts later. There's plenty of simple music in unison and 2 parts... more complex isn't always better.

    -In the end, do the best you can every Sunday with a given group of people and given music selections. Strive for excellence, not perfection!
  • Also, reach out to people who have just been through RCIA. New converts make excellent choir members because they long for ways to minister their new faith... 2 or more of my best singers are non-cradle-Catholics.
    Thanked by 3JL baritenor stepg
  • Chaswjd
    Posts: 115
    I would perhaps have a discussion with your current members and agree on an attendance policy. Once you have one in place, you may have to fire someone who violates the policy "pour encourager les autres . . ."
    Thanked by 3JL baritenor stepg
  • I absolutely agree with the comments above. One thing I might add is that you will have to be patient - building the expectations, the discipline, the structure, even "selling" the purpose and nature of being part of the choir. These are things that will take time, and will be reinforced every season.

    It is easier to make adjustments to your music schedule if you know far enough in advance about absences. It might be one thing for a member to miss because they are traveling for work. It is completely another if they don't communicate that, or do so at the last moment.

    I keep attendance for each practice and Mass, and I have an 85% minimum attendance policy (which might be pretty liberal in comparison to other choirs). But setting those expectations doesn't happen out of the gate... Everything in time. First, get members to recognize that there is a professional courtesy of advance notification of absences. People who can't be bothered to notify you in advance about absences won't be reliable on any level anyway, and get weeded out. That at least will enable you to adjust your music schedule accordingly to sing a simpler piece that is in your repertoire when required.

    Patient encouragement regarding attendance... until you get to the point of underscoring the nature of what it means to be a member of a liturgical choir - that it requires some degree of commitment (choose what works best for your group and circumstances) - and then implement an attendance policy WITH the buy-in of the group. For me, that's usually at the end-of-year meeting.

    In the meantime, I absolutely agree - unison or 2-part is likely best until you can establish more consistent attendance.
    Thanked by 2GerardH baritenor
  • Best advice I ever got on this site in terms of building a choir - treat them like family. Talk to them about things besides choir. Don't just make music - make friends. Make memories.

    Go to their sports events. Heard a story of one footballer running off the field to meet his choir director; the athlete was discussing matters of dynamics and repertoire as he caught his breath.

    Have social events. Get to know their family. I told one of my choir members we were going to have lunch at his house after practice last Saturday. He was tickled as Zaccheus. He brought everyone over, showed off his lovely 11-acre spread, we ate some homemade chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, and okra, and apple pie made with lard. Me and Mrs. Alto's husband discussed the heat treating business, Everyone discussed how closely related they are to Cole Porter - and our Gracious Host played his antique player-piano as we sat, drinking coffee and fending off his humongous pack of dogs. It was great, because everyone put in a lot of hard work that morning, they knew it, and so we treated ourselves with one whopper of a lunch. Like I said - try to get to know the people you want to spend eternity with.

    (Also, Rossini's Canticum Novum has some nice two part settings of stuff. Worth a look.)
  • JL
    Posts: 158
    I would add that paid section leaders shouldn't be the "big guns", something brought in when the regulars don't seem to be pulling their weight. It makes the volunteers feel a bit miffed, and is extremely awkward for the pros, particularly if they don't know what sort of situation they're walking into. Having staff singers works best when their positions exist from year to year, rather than something that might or might not happen depending on any number of variables.
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • >> It is easier to make adjustments to your music schedule if you know far enough in advance about absences.

    Music schedule for Mass, and practices too. Definitely.

    >> It might be one thing for a member to miss because they are traveling for work. It is completely another if they don't communicate that, or do so at the last moment.
    Agree. It can be viewed as a lack of respect fot the others, and the hard work they put in.

    Commitment is key.
    There may even be times when it becomes necessary to mention the origin of the expression "preachin' to the choir" !!

    Until you get a committed number, maybe you should concentrate on Gregorian chant. It's unison, and there are a lot of additional benefits (to name just one - exposure to Latin - not only the singers but the congregation!)
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,587
    float between our three Masses


    Make one Mass the choir Mass and build up a group dedicated to making it THE PRINCIPAL MASS at the Parish. Make every weekend sound like it's going to be an event they can't miss. Then make every principal Mass an event they don't want to miss.

    Thanked by 1madorganist
  • henry
    Posts: 206
    I had close to 20 people on paper, but very few would attend rehearsals or Masses. They would just show up when they could. I would never say anything, but finally I posted a sign on the choir bulletin board which said "A good choir member sings well and attends rehearsals and Masses". The hardest part was telling the offenders that if they couldn't attend, they couldn't be in the choir (excuses were work schedules, etc). I told them that if their schedules changed, they would be welcome to return. I ended up with a much smaller group, but at least they were there most of the time.
    Thanked by 2baritenor Jes
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,395
    Best advice I ever got on this site in terms of building a choir - treat them like family. Talk to them about things besides choir. Don't just make music - make friends. Make memories.


    Make one Mass the choir Mass and build up a group dedicated to making it THE PRINCIPAL MASS at the Parish. Make every weekend sound like it's going to be an event they can't miss. Then make every principal Mass an event they don't want to miss.


    I think both of these are key. My choristers are friends. They love each other. AND our Mass is the principal Mass at our parish. They don't miss unless they really have to.

    We also have a few new members with little children and I encourage them to bring their children instead of missing. I haven't noticed one problem with that yet. (mind you they don't bring ALL of their kids, generally just one or two, or the gang, after communion.)

    Finally, try advertising on Kijiji or Craigslist. I had a choir member say this worked for a church choir in which he was involved.

    (BTW, my choir would never come a 1/2 before Mass on a Sunday... just saying.)
    Thanked by 2baritenor Jes
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,679
    The most successful parish choir I know had rehearsals only on Sunday, in the hour before the choir Mass. The members never took their music home: it was all kept in well-organized, individually labeled binders, which were updated during the week by the choirmaster. The program consisted of classic hymns (Worship III), Mass ordinary pieces from various settings (Alstott, Proulx, Lee, etc.), and Oxford anthems. The organist/choirmaster was always well prepared. There were about 25 members.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,395
    @chonak: I would suspect this choir had a dedicated choir room? I don't know how else it would be possible if there were other Masses prior to the Choir's Mass.
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • Notes in the diocesan paper about the music you are doing will work...a good music program will draw Catholics from a distance to have a chance to really sing.

    BUT, be sure to assign each one a guide, an existing member fo the choir to help them get acclimated...helps destroy the "them and us" that can get you fired at least three times from the same job!
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,679
    The choir I described above rehearses in the loft. There are two Sunday morning Masses in the schedule, with more than an hour between celebrations. That's not rare: a schedule like 8:30/11 would have enough space.
    Thanked by 1canadash
  • Work schedules are not "an excuse".

    For most Catholics, work is what supports their family - and their first responsibility is to the domestic church, ie their family - not the parish, the choir, the music director, etc.

    God will provide the people you need, at the times when you need them. If you are looking for more than God provides, then the problem is with what you are looking for.
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • Perhaps we shouldn't see "excuse" as a pejorative in this context, but more along the lines of a "reason".

    I let my members know that I have three standards that potential / existing members have to meet in order to be part of my choir.
    __1 They have to want to sing to the greater glory of God (something I usually take for granted if they are expressing interest in being part of the choir, but which - I feel - needs to be stated, none-the-less).
    __2 They have to be able and willing to make the commitment. Sometimes that means people have to go on hiatus for a period of time - so that they can focus on their primary state in life... including, but not limited to, work.
    __3 They have to be able and willing to follow direction - from me when I'm directing, or from others who may lead the group from time to time.

    If they recognize that being part of a liturgical choir involves increasing the honor and glory of God, that it requires commitment to practice and the discipline to follow direction... than we can work with that. But if they can't make the commitment to practice and to the Liturgy, does it matter whether it is because of a legitimate reason vs. wanting to watch ESPN on choir practice night?

    I would definitely agree that one's first priority is to state in life. For that reason, there are times in my life where I've had to drop being part of - even directing - a parish choir for a time. Correspondingly, there are times where I've had to let people realize that they can't meet both obligations simultaneously and that they need to put aside the choir commitment for a time to focus on the more important commitment in their life.
    Thanked by 2JL baritenor
  • I was browsing in the archives and came across a thread called "Where are the Men?" about the seeming rarity of tenors. Included this comment from CHGiffen maybe 2011
    >> The choir I sang in last year had about 10 men and maybe 13 women but it took ten years to build up the group. Some joined because they lived in the parish, while others came from other parishes because the choirmaster had excellent taste and gave the choir worthwhile music to perform. Go ye and do likewise. Also, it helps if your pastor's preaching is worth hearing: that encourages men to stay too.
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,093
    Oh, I just checked, and that comment was by chonak, not me!
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,395
    Speaking of ten years to build up the group... you could have a few children in ten years. Have many and give them quality music lessons. And it's better for your choir if you have boys: trebles when they are younger and the lower voices when they are older (more like 14 years). If properly managed you could have all four parts covered at once and they have to sing for their supper so no absences. :)
  • CHG - apologies.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,093
    It's okay. I could only wish to have had that good fortune!!
  • I’m glad I’m not the only one with this problem. This year I’ve been trying something different. 1. I changed the rehearsal night, and 2. I’m alternating the choir every other week from the 4:00 Saturday Vigil and 11:30 Sunday Mass. The 4:00 is our most well attended Mass, so that’s my reasoning for that. It’s worked pretty well thus far. I’m still having issues getting them all here weekly, but they come together for big events. We had Confirmation this past week and I had 13 strong, which is great, but I want it to sound like that EVERY weekend!!
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • Notes in the diocesan paper about the music you are doing will work...a good music program will draw Catholics from a distance to have a chance to really sing.

    BUT, be sure to assign each one a guide, an existing member fo the choir to help them get acclimated...helps destroy the "them and us" that can get you fired at least three times from the same job!


    @SacredMusicLibrary This is very insightful. For a while it's been a chicken-and-egg problem: I won't program more complicated music until I have enough decent musicians, but I'm not getting decent musicians because maybe the music I've been programming just isn't interesting to them.
    Thanked by 2canadash CHGiffen
  • Baritenor, yes!

    Even singing a 4 part anthem, like Thou Knowest Lord by Purcell with only sopranos and an alto or two with the organ or a keyboard (not a piano - you need sustained tone) has the power to bring both men and women out of the congregation saying, "I sang that in college, could I join the choir?"

    Using live instruments to fill in parts tastefully (bassoon, cello for example) has the same effect. Monteverdi did it, everyone did it, so let's do it!

    Your music program grows with every "!"
    Thanked by 1baritenor
  • BUT, be sure to assign each one a guide, an existing member fo the choir to help them get acclimated...


    This is an excellent suggestion. I have "choir angels" - someone who is assigned to assist new members to get acclimated, kind of a mentor. There are a lot of moving parts, and it is easy for newer members to get lost. I also have an "orientation" within the first three to six months - preferably for multiple new members at the same time. We go out to lunch, I share with them a handout that identifies expectations (on both sides - what they can expect from me as well as what the choir expectation for all members is), logistics of books, etc..
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,891
    I went the 'easy music' route for some years. I found the choir members were bored. Now, we sing more difficult literature and much more of it. The rehearsals are long, the choir works harder, and they seem much happier and don't mind the workload.
  • rogue63
    Posts: 405
    I agree with CharlesW---easy music is a start, but increase the demand and you will find numbers (eventually) settle out and people are happy to work hard for a genuine reward. Singing good music, perfectly timed in the liturgy, is its own reward: a glimpse into the eschaton.