Recruiting for a new choir
  • I'm curious to hear how others of you out there have recruited for a new choir, and one that is more traditional in its style of music? I'm assuming putting an announcement in the bulletin is probably not the best way, so how have others done it?
  • Kimberly, I decided to recruit a diocese-wide schola. In my note to all the music directors (we have an email list) of the diocese, I said that I was starting with men and then would open up the women's group. It seems to have worked pretty well. My women's group doesn't quite have the singers I want yet, but I know that these things can evolve if one keeps a high standard. The guys are sounding pretty good now and are getting quite good a reading new chants.

  • john m
    Posts: 134
    I tend to avoid using the bulletin as a recruiting tool, on the principle of "be careful what you ask for, you might get it". In my experience the best way is to be observant of the congregation and keep your eye on people who seem to sing well. Approach them with a personal invitation to sing in the choir. Appoint some trusted accomplices in the choir as assistant recruiters to observe and point out potential singers to you.

    Our schola is mixed men and women's voices; I am taking the approach that when they have developed their chant skills to a certain level of proficiency I will divide them into men's and women's scholae.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    I'm interested in the plan to develop separate male and female scholae. It isn't the first time I've seen this mentioned. Does it imply an intention to limit the repertoire to chant?
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    It's hopeless. Utterly hopeless. I'm not sure if I'm tongue-in-cheek about that. My experience is that NOTHING works to get people to join. Your church may be (and probably is) different from mine, so I'd suggest the full-on attack of announcements at Mass, bulletin articles, catechesis on what a choir does, and approaching every single person who bothers to lift a hymnal. Even then it's a slim chance of getting anyone.

    I've watched my choir dwindle person by person, all the same stuff: we hate Latin, we hate chant, none of the music is fun, blah blah blah, all with two people joining who left within a month. And finally since Christmas I've been forced to just do what I can with what I have - and THERE'S the success! That's the route you need to take. My choir is reduced down to 3-4 people, but now we're doing some real work. They probably won't grow in membership until I leave, but we're doing all propers and BFW every 2-3 weeks, learning while we do it, and the people there enjoy doing it. This is much better than having 7 people try to sing SAB and fretting about not having sopranos who can sing above a C (thank you very much, transposer knob...) or baritones who can't remember their parts.

    Since you probably don't have a choir and are looking to develop one, here's what you do: approach a cantor with a psalm-tone communion or something and ask them if they'd like to sing it with you. Do this a few times, maybe add a third person. Eventually you can get a small core together, and maybe you can get some more people interested.

    I'll also add that occasional choirs help a lot in getting interest. Put together a group for, say, Easter and teach them some easy music. Get them doing it well and do it again at the next feast day, and so on. Eventually many of them might demand to form a regular choir if they enjoy it!
  • john m
    Posts: 134
    "we hate Latin, we hate chant, none of the music is fun, blah blah blah, all with two people joining who left within a month."

    Indeed, this addresses a point I meant to make earlier. Try to make sure the singers you recruit understand (or seem at least capable of coming to understand) your position on sacred music in the Church. People join choirs with their own expectations and perceptions of what it will mean musically to sing with this group. A lot of grief can be spared if they come into your group knowing your expectations as a director.

    An esteemed colleague and friend of mine directs the choir in a northern Ontario cathedral. She described to me once an occasion when a new singer joined her choir. After 2 hours of rehearsing the likes of Palestrina, Lauridsen and Durufle, the new members asked in front of the whole choir "don't you guys sing any real church music?". The director replied, "We are singing church music. What sort of music are you referring to?" The singer answered "You know, like Be Not Afraid, Peace Is Flowing Like A River, that sort of thing. That's what I'm used to." This singer disappeared after that first rehearsal.

    On the other hand...I have a singer in my choir who tends to favour "happy-clappy" music. She never hesitates to weigh in with her opinion when we pull out a new motet. When she says "I don't like this", I simply respond very kindly with a smile "I don't care." She hasn't quit yet, nor do I want her to. Why does she stay? Possibly because the music we sing is speaking to her although she is not ready to admit it.

    As Winston Churchill said, "Never, never give up." You never know how the music may be touching someone, even if they do not choose to respond to you directly. You are planting an idea.
  • Gavin, your observations ring true.

    just now I typed up the three pieces of advice my father gave me before he died. He was a church musician and he knew. He gave me this advice because he didn't want me to suffer as he did. I've never put them in print before. But this seems like a good occasion.I just typed them up and inadvertently hit some key that wiped out what i wrote. Now i don't feel like reconstructing it! I'll try to do this tomorrow.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    And by all means, although I speak out of frustration (and I am frustrated and eagerly awaiting returning to college to finish my B.Mus) I don't mean to make such remarks to say, "RUN FOR YOUR SANITY!!!!" I rather mean to say that one can't, in my experience, have high hopes for ANY recruitment campaign. What worked for me is to stop thinking about how to get more people and start thinking how to make due with what I have, even if it were to mean recto tono propers. It's a huge load off my back and allows me to more easily get a plan of attack for doing what the Church wants rather than remaking the music program to fit my expectations and desires.
  • Ok, dad's advice, each point of which requires elaboration, which i will do later:

    1. Always be genuinely grateful for all participation, and never put people on guilt trips when they drop out.
    2. Never try to enforce attendance; rather, make people feel like they missed something fabulous when they don't show up.
    3. Never try to build a program; only think about the next liturgy and working with what you have.

    More to say on each point. I think he laid out the basis of an excellent strategy for managing church music without going insane.
  • Cantor
    Posts: 84
    Gavin and Jeffrey,

    An additional concern is the pastor’s receptiveness to “changes” in the music program like constantly dwindling numbers in the choir.

    Gavin, I have followed your posts on NLM and this forum (maybe elsewhere?) and understand your situation to be thus: your pastor is/was interested in fostering a greater presence of traditional liturgical praxis in your NOM parish, possibly including an occasional TLM. In that regard, you and he work very well together and see eye-to-eye on many/most matters of principle concerning liturgical music.

    The situation in which I find myself is that the size of the parish choir is itself seen as a major (the primary?) indicator of the health of the music program. The pastor of my current parish gave me a pretty sharp talking-to less than 3 months after I arrived wherein he expressed dismay at the apparently dwindling numbers of choir members. In some ways, this was completely out of my control; in some cases, I was given very little indication that choir members were unhappy about this/that before they left. (Actually, this trend continues and has been a major source of headache for me this past week.)

    You can’t do Howells well with four people, even if they’re four great pro-quality voices singing one voice per part. And if you’ve only got three, that shoots many plans for choral pieces in the foot.

    Maybe that’s the real reason Gregorian chant is unison – then the monks didn’t have to worry about how many were there that day. :)
  • Thank you all for the advice so far. Gavin, I understand your points, and i am trying to keep my expectations low, in a sense. It is pretty rural parish and so I know that the choir will probably never be that big, but I would rather a small dedicated group to a larger one where only half the people show up for rehearsal. I have given thought as well to having the new choir start out by singing for feast days and maybe their involvment could grow from there. I am planning to take some advice that Jeffrey had written once to really practice and develop a repertoir of music for a few months at least before having them sing for mass. And I may try to develop some other things for them to sing at first, like a lenten meditation night for the parish.
    Jeffrey, I would like to see the elaboration of your three points above, because with points 2 and 3, I would agree somewhat, but I think there's a delicate balance concerning them.
    For example: One of the parishes I will be dealing with has a choir already that sings once a month. They usually just have one rehearsal for it, and only a couple people will show up, and the others just will come on Sunday. I know they need to have more regular rehearsals to work with improving their sound, and I feel like choir attendance needs to be enforced somehow, so they understand the importance of better quality of music for mass. One idea I had was those that won't show up for rehearsals at least half the time could join us in singing some of the hymns, like the entrance and closing, but for the music during mass they could not because they other members have taken the time to rehearse together and make it sound better. I would hope something like this would get the point across that the quality of the music is important, but we still want them involved. However, their level of involvement will depend on their level of commitment. What do you think? (I know such a thing would have to be dealt with in as positive a way as possible)
  • Lawrence
    Posts: 123
    Gavin and Cantor,

    Your posts ring true with me. Cantor, I feel your pain on the so typical passive aggressive technique that many choir members use, whether they're departing or not. To your face they'll say something innocuous; behind your back they're saying what they really think, and you're always the last person to know about it. Oftentimes this information is withheld from the music director until the yearly "job evaluation," which is usually an occasion for thinly veiled insults.

    One of the reasons that choir numbers dwindle under a conscientious music director is that such a leader tends to expect actual effort from the members. This is not very kosher in most Catholic parishes, in my experience. What the "liberals" and the "conservatives" often have in common is that they'll all tolerate mediocrity. Anyone that insists on anything better is automatically considered a "perfectionist" and has his sanity, not to mention his motives, questioned. (I suppose it goes without saying that I'm speaking from experience.)

    Want to have a real rehearsal rather than a social hour? Expect to hear an earful about it.

    Planning to ask the choir to be in church early for Mass--even by a mere fifteen minutes? Expect them to ignore it, and force you either to drive yourself nuts or to give up.

    Want to ask them to look over their music at home--even just a little bit? Just assume they won't do it.

    I used to think that certain clergy with particular mindsets were standing in the way of better church music. How wrong I was! It is not fiat that is doing us in; it is laziness.

    Folks, the emperor has no brocade. Everywhere, whether they're speaking Latin or English, whether the priest is facing the altar or the people, whether the church looks like a bank or a Medieval cathedral, Catholics generally want pious music, not good music. There are precious few exceptions. Gavin, I'm with you: I'm beginning preliminary work on grad school applications and am getting myself into another area of music.
  • I have to say that I've been a bit lucky not to have endured some of what I am hearing. At both of my previous jobs (I left the loft for an academic position) my folks would work very hard at rehearsal and even practice at home with practice tapes. I'm not at all charismatic, and I had folks leave because I didn't program easy OCP stuff as much as my predecessors. I did do two things which I think kept them on board. Along with the chant and occasional real choral work, I programmed the more traditional-sounding OCP (easier ones with nice harmonies) octavos and thanked them profusely for their effort at every rehearsal. I also told them regularly how well they were progressing and reminded them that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir never feels they are good enough and constantly works to get better. I think that made them feel good and perhaps a bit relieved. In the end, I had a smaller choir than when I started, but not by much. I lost the folks who really couldn't read music and had only been in my predecessor's choir because they liked her. Like Jeffery's dad said (words of wisdom indeed!), I always thanked them for their service, told them that they would be missed and let them know they were welcome back any time. Perhaps the only drawback to my work was one day when I asked someone about joining the choir and she said, "I'm not sure. You have to be good to be in that choir!"

  • BTW I don't play organ nor particularly sing well. I'm a brass playing musicologist who loves the Church and prays for its music.

  • incantuincantu
    Posts: 989
    If your choir is already good, people will want to join - if it's not, they won't. Work with what you've got now.
  • Chris
    Posts: 80
    incantu is correct. Good music programs/choirs will attract more people to them in the same way that good liturgy fosters and nurtures faith. Stay true to your passion for quality music that serves the needs of the liturgy and you'll set a great foundation in more ways than one.

    As for building a choir from scratch, whatever your approach is (ie., bulletin inserts, pulpit announcements, posters in the vestibule, begging congregants on your knees after Mass at a coffee hour, etc.) stay positive and never give up hope. It is not hopeless and people will join your choir. Remember that Rome wasn't built in a day and taking babysteps is sometimes not just helpful but absolutely necessary. (Go watch the movie "What About Bob?")

    You must never allow yourself to get discouraged and give up. There will certainly be frustrating moments along the way, but chatting with other colleagues is one thing that will keep you from going out of your mind and over the edge. Take things slowly, and always do the best you can with the resources you have at hand. Ten years ago in my small parish in central NJ, my predecesor was accompanying Mass on a Clavinova and using broadway music that had been suited with semi-liturgical texts. There weren't any choirs at all. Since then, things have change substancially - 45 in the choir, 12 in the schola, 15 in a chamber choir, 30 in the children's choir and correct use of the propers and ordinaries. Hang in there, never lose hope, and best wishes!
  • It's a good point that the decline is a foreshadowing of the increase. But the intuition is right that there will be personnel shifts in the transition. It's too bad but it seems inevitable.
  • Lawrence
    Posts: 123
    It may well be true that the decline is a foreshadowing of the increase, but I know of no parish leadership with the patience to see the whole process through. To too many, "involvement" has become a false god.

    Sorry to be such a wet blanket, but I'm tired of rounding the hard edges off the reality that I see right in front of my face.
  • Chris
    Posts: 80
    Kimberly, it's clear that all of us come from different backgrounds and bring to the table different experiences, especially in the area of choir development. Some are positive and some, negative. All are decidedly true from a certain subjectivity, but I think erring on the hopeful side of the musical coin may be the way to go, lest we fall into the traps of some of our predecessors.

    I wish you all the best successes as you begin to formulate and pull together a new choir program for your church community.
  • G
    Posts: 1,391
    Every situation is different, but...
    Personal engagement and requests work better than bulletins announcements IME.
    Network via any cultural organizations in town, high school music programs, community chorales, community theater.
    Think long term but work short term.
    Always have contingency plans.
    Jeffery's father's 3 rules are excellent.
    Bring donuts.
    Distinguish between what the Church wants and what you want.
    Give people some choices.
    Be extravagant with praise.
    Try to be satisfied with tiny victories. Here's a recent one of mine... I let my choir, (which adored and used to perform under a previous director, such fare as Hosea, Jerusalem My Density, and Change Our Hearts This Time,) vote on something to sing for a Lenten prayer service (I am adamant that music for Liturgy be up to a certain standard, but give more latitude for devotions.)
    The (attributed to Palestrina?) O Bone Jesu won in a landslide.
    I could have cried.
    Simple and well done is better than tarted up and mediocre.
    Organize musical/cultural/liturgical outings as a group, (road trip!) if a church in a city near you, even of another denomination has a beautiful Vespers service , for instance drive in together.
    Or have everyone over for coffee and to listen to the latest CD by the Westminster Cathedral choir.

    Pray a lot.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)
  • RobertRobert
    Posts: 343
    The comments of Gavin and others are on the mark. I'm becoming more and more convinced--based on my own experience and observations--that garage scholas are the future, as opposed to attempting to reform existing music programs.

    I suspect that in the 1960s the revolution in church music did not generally occur according to the following pattern: longstanding group of singers in choir loft suddenly/gradually abandon their repertoire from the Missa de Angelis, Rossini propers and selections from the St. Gregory Hymnal when the new director brings in some hot-off-the Gestetner copies of new compositions by friend-of-a-friend Dan Schutte.

    No, more than likely a group of likeminded individuals familiar with and enthusiastic about the folk style got together and rehearsed the new stuff in their living room, tried it out at the new evening "Hootenany Mass", and were ready to take over the 11 a.m. spot when the old choir disappeared for whatever reason.

    This is how it will happen again. It won't occur overnight. I think in the past groups of singers may have been brusquely shoved aside or had beloved repertoire rudely taken away from them, and it may not be fair or advisable for a parish music director to attempt to repeat this history.

    That doesn't really answer the original poster's question about how to find people for such a choir; G's suggestion of praying a lot is probably the best.