Keeping choir practice enjoyable even when they hate the music?
  • I'm working with a small choir who are enthusiastic but, with a couple of strong exceptions, not particularly talented. They've been through 3 choir directors in 5 years, the last (and apparently the best) one only being here about 6 months (for personal reasons - the priest is very supportive and well-educated on sacred music). The music program here was built on a foundation of sand - we have an entire closet of Haas, Haugen, and Co. The problem is, that's ALL this congregation heard, for 40 years, essentially. And the choir is pretty equally divided between "I love Latin! I love chant!" and "I HATE Latin! I HATE chant!" I've made a Triduum schedule that I think does a pretty good mix of "old favorites" that are still halfway acceptable, and new stuff. The only Latin we're doing is the Ravanello Vidi Aquam and my SAB 2-page arrangement of Sicut Cervus.

    My problem is, we're getting really tight on time, and the Vidi Aquam and Sicut Cervus need the most work, so we're spending most of our practice on those. This has resulted in the choir feeling like we're doing ALL Latin - because we don't NEED to look that much at the "old favorites," because they know them already.

    Any suggestions for both getting the music learned while still keeping it feeling like all we do is music that half of them hate?
  • marajoymarajoy
    Posts: 781
    No matter how good they sound, start and end the rehearsal with an "old favorite." They're more likely to remember those. If you're trying to drill the 2 latin pieces, then even in the transition from one to the other, pull out another "old favorite." Even if it only takes 5 minutes (shouldnt take longer!) do a little "rehearsing" on it. That will help remind them that they are doing a lot of pieces that they like.
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • Ally
    Posts: 227
    Yellow Rose,
    I have almost the EXACT same situation at my parish!!! Not that I am wishing this on anybody else, but it was great to read this when I got into the office this morning - after a long rehearsal last night. I am looking forward to other responses!

    Let us know what you try at the next rehearsal and what works!
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I agree with Mara - rehearse the other stuff, if only to run through it. Also, break up the Latin pieces so that you're not rehearsing each for 30 minutes solid, but maybe 15 here and 15 there.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,487
    Sigh... I hear you... Break it up, break it up. And know that once the new becomes the familiar, they will love that too... sigh...
  • francis
    Posts: 10,345
    yep... canadash is right. break it up. unfortunately, it's very hard to change people's mind after 40 years of nonsense, so you gotta live with it and make the best of educating them over the months and years. change slow, be charitable. believe it or not, i listen to their requests and try to program them if it is at all acceptable. even half acceptable as you say.
  • tomboysuzetomboysuze
    Posts: 289
    Yellowrose - ugh! I don't envy you, but I'm about to walk into a similar situation and I've been contemplating how I'm going to nurture the good stuff, while gently prying the bad stuff from their grasps.

    I have two suggestions: 1. is it possible to hold a short "class" -- totally separate from choir rehearsals - every week or every other week - where you just teach ear training and sight singing in small doses? I've found that often people don't "like" more complex and interesting music because they either can't manage the energy to master the long - ish rehearsals it requires or it intimidates them to the point where they just won't give it a chance. Don't know if that's possible or helpful.

    2. and this is a little devious - but I'd pick the most vocal "hater" of this music and pull them aside after rehearsal and (forgive me, Lord) tell them that their voice is particularly suited to this genre - and you'd like to spend 10 minutes or so just with them before or after rehearsal to tweak their skills so that they can be more comfortable with this music.
    Then depending on how desperate you are, I'd even go so far as giving them a simple line of chant (that they can handle) to solo out at some discreet moment in the liturgy.
    See how that goes, and if it's successful, repeat with the next dissenter.
    But pick something obviously beautiful - that everyone would like to sing - and bestow it as a gift to this person. (maybe they could cantor a beautiful psalm refrain at communion - when there is a lot of getting up and rustling around so that they would feel a bit 'covered' by the noise.)

    I've used this "technique" with great success in middle schools where several kids where spoiling class after class. (One boy - who all the teachers dreaded working with due to uncontrollable bad behavior - actually had great talent for acting as well as a decent voice - and this served as an introduction to the "arts" for him and literally turned his behavior around 180 degrees.)

    If you can "re-program" the mindset and get just one of them to open up to something truly beautiful and transformational - you're 'in'. The beauty and order of the music will - hopefully - do the heavy lifting of conversion, if the heart can be softened....unless there is true 'invincible ignorance" at work.

    Note: all voices are actually "somewhat suited" to singing chant - so it's not a falsehood to say that as encouragement.

    Do you open the rehearsals with a prayer? You probably do, but that's probably the best advice, actually.

    I'd plunge right in and have everyone pray to the Holy Spirit to open their minds and hearts to give themselves over to the service of the liturgy and "overcome whatever is keeping us from giving ourselves to one another tonight at rehearsal."

    AND - you will probably need to start a novena and offer your suffering in this situation up to God in prayer. Lastly, I'd email all my friends/family/fellow musicians and ask them to pray for your choir members and the success of your choir.

    What you need here, is conversion.

    That's my best shot. Best of luck.
    (p.s. I'll pray for you.)
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,487
    Another thing I can suggest is having a small group, who is excited and interested in latin or chant, learn what it is you need sometimes. This takes some of the pressure off, allows the music to become familiar and they can become the leaders when you want to teach the group.
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • I agree with several points of advice above:
    -shake up rehearsal bits
    -engage the dissenter(s) with extra kindness and out of reh attention
    -pray with the choir
    -offer your own sufferings, etc., for conversion in your choir

    two things I'd add
    1) mix in chant hymns- a lot of people fall in love with chant and overcome barriers with 'Adoro te devote', 'Ave verum corpus', 'Ave Maria', etc. They're easy to learn, and things that bind Catholics in devotion everywhere.
    2) ask the pastor to become more involved as his schedule permits. The choir needs to see and hear his leadership to fully trust that this change in rep isn't about you as choir director. The pastor can pop into rehearsals, sing along with chant he knows. Another really great thing would be a Lenten talk to encourage the choir. It could be about their role in the sacred liturgy or somesuch that would serve to help form them in their purpose as a choir.

    Suze said it best- this is about conversion. Pray, get creative about leading, and enlist your pastor.
  • tomboysuzetomboysuze
    Posts: 289
    Those are excellent suggestions by MaryAnn - especially the thought about the Pastor giving encouragement. Occasionally one of the priests will just sit in and listen to a rehearsal at a parish where I sometimes sing - and it's a great boost to the choir that he's so interested and enjoys even the rehearsals.

    One other thing - is, perhaps have a colleague come in and give an evening's presentation on a certain chant - or piece of sacred polyphony - even if it's one they aren't singing as yet - just to create interest and give them a sense of historical importance. Something like Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli -which has an interesting legend (not sure what's true and what's not as scholars disagree) OR the Allegri Miserere has a really fascinating history in terms of having to be sung in the Sistine Chapel and not being allowed to be sung anywhere else on pain of excommunication.

    Just something to encourage their "ownership" of the Great Treasury Of Sacred Music that is our heritage as Catholics. You might also point that out - this music is part of our history, hence their heritage as Catholics. Just some thoughts.
  • Here's my advice as a long time chorister and a some time DM.
    1. Don't dwell on hard pieces for more than 15 minutes MAX, for simple, well-known hymns, 5 minutes MAX.
    2. Provide all possible methods of help outside of rehearsals. This means make CDs or online mp3s of their choral parts available to them. Be willing to meet with them individually for a limited, but dedicated time to practice. Help them organize their folder. Show them how to mark their music. If they can't read, then hilight their part and show them at least how to follow the contour of their line. Give them voice lessons or recommend someone for them to go to. This shows you care. It might win you some support.
    3. Avoid spoonfeeding the notes through the piano. It would be better if you actually sang their part. This shows you think they are capable of achieving more.
    4. I think it is extremely important (though admittedly overlooked in some professional settings) to discuss the meaning and some history of the work you are performing. This works for me. I enjoy storytelling, and I can do it decently if I know what I'm talking about. Don't try to mesmerize, but for 5 minutes out of every other rehearsal tell a cute story about Haydn or Mozart, the special status of Palestrina in the history of chant revision, the biblical origin of prayers like the Gloria, etc. If they start to ask questions, ANSWER THEM. Also, it helps immensely if the music you practice has words worth analyzing and composers worth talking about. ;D This shows you have an interest in the ministry side, not just showing off musical skill.
    5. Treat your choir members they way they should be treated. If they are volunteers, don't treat them as if you're paying them. If they are children, don't expect them to know all the terms and conductor's gestures. If they are adults, do not talk to them like they are teenagers. If they are older than you, treat them with the respect befitting their age and experiences. You may not be acknowledged for treating them well, but you won't be accused of treating them poorly.
    6. Let your pastor present and defend your case for you. He can do this in a choir rehearsal, as part of a homily, during a visit to RCIA, or even CCD. Don't bog him down with little details, but explaining the reason and need for good sacred music is his job, not just yours. If your pastor doesn't want to know about, doesn't care about, or is against sacred music, your efforts to reform the music program might be in vain.
    7. Pray. A lot.
    Thanked by 1Claire H
  • Avoid spoonfeeding the notes through the piano. It would be better if you actually sang their part. This shows you think they are capable of achieving more.

    I would say to do both. If at all possible, sing their part while playing all of them from the piano. Hearing the parts in context is critical to learning the music in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Thank you all for a lot of great suggestions. I've got some more ideas, and I'm also encouraged because I'm actually doing a number of these things already!

    Fortunately, my pastor is extremely supportive, and also about half of my choir is rapidly falling in love with the music I'm giving them (a 17-year-old girl who's never encountered chant before says "YAY!" when we start learning the SEP Introit!), although that doesn't make them learn it any faster than the ones who hate it!

    And on Wed. I gave them all practice CD's of the Vidi Aquam and the Sicut Cervus. They were really excited about it, and hopefully that'll help! :)
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,487
    I'm planning a retreat for my choir. A day where they can attend adoration, pray, sing and ask a lot of questions to someone who is knowledgable (not me and not the pastor - only because I think they need to hear the same message from different people).
  • Felicity
    Posts: 77
    "NEVER become discouraged."
    A quote from St. Therese of Liseux. (Capitalization is mine.)

    Remember that every little pebble that we drop in the pond will create waves that will travel a great distance both in space and time.

    Deo gratias.
  • Hugh
    Posts: 197
    There are some excellent suggestions here - I'm going to help myself to some!

    Here's one that hasn't been made above (I think). More in the line of disposing them to chant and polyphony: We open with a choir prayer. We chant the Pater Noster (antiphonally - either me, or men, or women up to 'et in terra', all from then on, or just the others replying, with all joining in on 'Amen', whatever you like) the Ave Maria (also antiphonally), and then invoke sancta Caecilia, sancte Gregori, sancte Benedicte, sancte Ephraim and sancte Romanus, (as per the Litany of Saints) all patron saints of music/chant. When I have my act together, I also try to add the Collect of the/a particular Mass we're practising for (also sung by a cantor) just to make us conscious of the liturgical orientation of our office as choir members.

    It's surprising how quickly these items become rote learnt, and the antiphonal singing I find adds that extra dollop of dramatic variety that appeals (take it in turns, so that all can have a go at the cantor role). Now, we don't do anything polyphonic in our prayer but you could add some simple, attractive polyphonic version of a prayer - eg the Arcadelt 'Ave Maria', that would again be known by heart after only couple of months.

    Oh, and another one: what's the accoustic like where you practice? Chant and polyphony really comes alive when there's a warm accoustic. So if it's dead in your practice room, look around for something better as an occasional treat. It could be a nearby tunnel, or stairwell - anything that works (We used a school toilet block successfully once - after hours, of course!). When the choir's got a bit of the chant or polyphony down pat - it only has to be a bit, but the whole lot is better - take them to this space and have them sing there. I think that to some of them at least the chant/polyphony will reveal its true beauty for the first time. When they get back to the practice room they'll have that memory as encouragement. And it's great fun and morale boosting to do something zany like singing in a stairwell.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw ServiamScores
  • that is a fantastically hilarious idea, Hugh. I'm totally going to do it. Our church has a HORRIBLE dead acoustic and the room in which we practice is also pretty bad.

    I also really like the "choral workshop" idea.

    And yesterday I had another thought, on which I'd like feedback. What if I were to ask for volunteers to become a "schola" to do the chants? I could have anyone who was interested come 10-15 min earlier than practice now starts, and start practice 10-15 min later. That way those who like it could sing it, those who didn't wouldn't feel they were being forced into it, and we could focus more on motets (which tend to be more accessible to the modern ear) in the rest of practice. Any thoughts on this idea?
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,487
    I think a schola is a great idea. I do a similar thing, but my two sons (boy sopranos) are my "schola". They don't have a choice, but they do like it. Another capable soprano joins us. We know everything ahead of time, so rehearsal does not have to be long. This way the rest of the choir can learn through osmosis.
    Thanked by 1Jeffrey Quick
  • Protasius
    Posts: 468
    I can assure that singing in better acoustics helps a lot; sometimes our choir master takes us out of the practise room (the former chapter hall) to the cloister (our church is a former abbey church that was converted to a parochial church in 1803 following the secularization); the reverb is awesome and gives a totally new feeling. However its cold there, as it also is in the church (heated to 14°C=57°F, quite cold), so we return to the chapter hall rather quickly.
  • Hugh
    Posts: 197
    "Our church has a HORRIBLE dead acoustic and the room in which we practice is also pretty bad."

    Ah ha, that's where, I'll wager, a significant proportion of the resistance in half your choir is coming from. Chant and polyphony in a dead accoustic is like a Renoir in greyscale. In a way, your recalcitrants are on to something!

    [The morning after I become Pope, I will promulgate my very first encyclical, "Qui Cantat", which will require all carpet to be expelled from every cathedral, church, oratory, or chapel, to be replaced by hard, shiny surfaces - preferably marble - before the Feast of St Caecilia of that year.]

    A further suggestion: see if you can get one or two of the leading chant-despisers (and lovers, too) to go with you to the 2012 Colloquium, where I'm sure they'll be bathed in beautifully produced chant and polyphony over a few days.

    And one last thought: what's the shape of the choir at practice? Are they sitting/standing in rows? If you can, avoid this. Have them in an almost complete circle, one layer deep only, with you the director occupying the last point (making sure all can see you of course). Bunch them up quite tightly. For polyphony, mix up the parts as much as possible so you have, say an alto between a sop and a tenor/bass, etc all the way round. (Of course some less confident singers will have to be next to someone more confident in their own part). This way they all get to experience the full polyphonic richness of the piece in "surround sound", which helps things even when there's an unforgiving accoustic.

    And for chant, see if you can divide the material between men and women, with them coming together at certain dramatic points such as the end of a piece. Eg, with a chant hymn (say, Ave Maris Stella), 1v All, 2nd v Women 3rd V men etc till final v All. It's only when men or women sing together on the same pitch that it's true monophony, and there's an extra dimension in that - while the coming together of both lifts things in another way.

    Another way into chant is via Organum.

    Cheers & all the best.


  • tomboysuzetomboysuze
    Posts: 289
    good one - Renoir in true. (But alas, Pope Hugh - please amend your encyclical to include wooden surfaces. I actually like a 'wood/marble/old plaster walls' mix best for acoustics.)

    I concur with Hugh - standing in a circle is a lovely way to tighten the vibrations. It helps with blending and conforming vocal texture as well. And if you have some novice singers that are having a hard time mastering the art of "holding their part against another part" you can use separate circles by section. (This is how I got my 6-7-8 graders to sing in parts after only a few weeks...and it works equally well with the average adult parishioner...but you do need a little space.)

    And, yes, a schola is always a nice addition - as long as you can stack the deck and make sure a few of your more sensitive members will be volunteering. Just be careful that you don't allow the dynamic of a "elite" group to develop in the choir. That will quickly lead to a lack of harmony in terms of inter-personal relationships. You'll have to have your antennae up to navigate potential pitfalls with that. Also, I'd be tempted to wait a bit and not jump to that idea right away. You might want to give the entire choir some time to "develop a taste" for chant. For many people it's an "acquired taste" and needs a little curing to settle in.

    I always go with the "lasagna theory" of vocal music.
    It's an obscure treatise that was handed down from my italian grandmother; "music is like lasagna, it's much better if it sits for a day or so."
    Happy trails, Rose...

  • I've got them in a semi-circle one layer deep with me at the piano closing the gap. (And now that they know their parts better I usually give the note, then move to the other side of the piano to conduct.)

    So I'm doing a lot of things right - now I'll hang onto the Lasagna Theory and wait for it to settle in ;)
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • tomboysuzetomboysuze
    Posts: 289
    You're probably making more progress than you think, as well. Sounds to me like you are already in good shape with your process...but a little encouragement is really key. Feel free to email me if you need to rant.... :)
  • Hugh
    Posts: 197
    I agree, tomboysuze: YR, you seem to have the best attitude for getting the maximum out of your singers - your openness to suggestions betokens that. God bless your efforts & keep us informed - we're all in this together!

    Tomboysuze, yes, you can sleep nights knowing that "Qui Cantat" will allow polished wood surfaces as a magnanimous concession. Perhaps We'll run a draft by you immediately after the final vote of the conclave?
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • Last night I took the choir in the bathroom and had them sing through "Vidi Aquam." (that's the one they know best.) First of all, they sounded awesome - and they could tell. Second, it was just so zany and funny that I think it lightened up everyone's attitude considerably :)

    Thanks for the offer, tomboysuze. I may take you up on that at some point!
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • Hugh
    Posts: 197
    Excellent choice for that particular venue, YR :)
    Thanked by 1canadash
  • tomboysuzetomboysuze
    Posts: 289
    Excellent! Love the bathroom idea. A mini-retreat from choir practice.
    Humor, humor, humor....getting goofy at choir practice is such a nice respite for everyone, especially the director. Being a serious professional for two hours during rehearsal is rather boring. I like to be a silly professional for a bit - then everyone's vocal tension relaxes and they sing better. (funny story - a friend took a "big" DM job in another state at a v. German parish. He was perplexed when the whole choir got up during the homily and went into the filing room right off the choir loft. So, he told them not to do that anymore. A few weeks later, he picked up on some really bad vibes from his new choir during the homily and asked them why? The whole choir was mad at him because for years they would go into the filing room during the homily and do shots of whisky and they were ticked that now they had to sit through the whole mass without a buzz!) True story. You can use it at your next rehearsal for a laugh.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Chris Allen
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,487
    Oh, don't think it's only the Germans. I've seen this in other parts of Europe! I'll be mum about where though!
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • oh my gosh. wow. that's....really crazy...I'm really happy with my non-drunk non-breaking-Communion-fast choir now!

    Although, the whiskey probably really helped relax their vocal cords....
  • Schnapps sometimes gets passed around during the Christmas Eve masses. Not everyone drinks, of course. Definitely relaxes the vocal chords.
    Like tomboysuze said, you're probably making more progress than you realize. Keep up the good work.
    Thanked by 1tomboysuze
  • RedPop4
    Posts: 49
    I apologize for this bit of thread necromancy, topping up a long defunct thread. Since Sicut Cervus appears in the N.O. in four weeks as the communio, I thought I would ask. Yellow Rose, are you still here on this forum? If so, might I get a copy of your SAB version?

    Secondly, one of us, we are three consistent singers, me the organist, my paid cantrice, and this other one. He works for Total Wine. There is not a rehearsal without him coming with two different wines, discussing the wines, THEN we sing, and drink. Anytime we accomplish something really noteworthy, he will bring sparkling for AFTER Mass.