Choir loft size and layout
  • donr
    Posts: 971
    What is your current layout, shape, size and how would your perfect area look like if starting from scratch.

    Our new church is in design phase and I would like to make suggestions.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,951
    Building is gothic with 1/2 city block between the choir loft and altar. The loft is in the rear, approximately 20 feet above the main floor. Thirty people and the organ console take up all available space. The loft is a bit too small and with no elevator, the steep, winding stairs take a toll on older people. Anyone with any kind of walking disability could not sing in this loft. Windows give a good amount of light on sunny days, but less so when overcast. As I have discovered, the lighting is less than adequate for an after dark service. With a near century old building, not much can be done other than removing the digital piano left by my predecessor. That would gain some space, but it gets used for the numerous weddings, so I left it alone. Acoustics are fantastic and about anything would sound good in this reverberant space. It is all hard surfaces - plaster, wood, ceramic tile and stone.
  • donr
    Posts: 971
    Thanks Charles, how deep and wide would you say the loft is, and is your console in the center, on one of the sides, and what is its orientation (organist facing front, rear, or sides).

    Most lofts I've been have less than adequate lighting. Obviously it can not be overly brighter than the space below but it should be bright enough so the choir does not need to bring in flash lights.
  • BenBen
    Posts: 3,114
    One loft I sing in has a multi-segmented octopus lamp to add lots of light from behind, which works well.
  • PaixGioiaAmorPaixGioiaAmor
    Posts: 1,473
    You don't necessarily need a loft ... just so your not in front, by or in the sanctuary. There are merits to not having a loft though personally I prefer one.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,451
    One loft I work in has a multi-segmented octopus. Which is just terrifying.
    Thanked by 1ServiamScores
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,177
    Our loft is typical of parish churches of the early 20th century:

    Size: small
    Layout: cramped


    Somehow in the early days they managed to fit 50 people up there at High Mass every Sunday. How, I haven't the faintest idea.
  • expeditus1
    Posts: 483
    donr, I am awed by the expanse of the semi-circular choir loft at the Basilica of St. Stanislaus in Winona, MN. It was elevated to this status in 2012. I am sorry that I don't have any dimensions to give you, but if you look at a couple of the pictures included in the following 2 links, you can perhaps get a sense of the height and breadth of this space. One of the loft pictures gives a view of the left-hand side; it stretches equally far on the right side. Another picture in the other link is of the two stacked balconies. I have stood in both of these balconies, and the view of the church floor is amazing. I have envisioned the number of singers that could be placed in these 2 balconies! (It should be mentioned that the lower, larger loft could be much deeper, but for some reason, the cry room (you can see the window behind the singers in the picture) was placed up there. No mother would have designed that, because the hike to the loft, with little children in tow, is cumbersome.

    http://ssk-sjn.weconnect.com/photos/view/id/151
    http://ssk-sjn.weconnect.com/photos/view/id/1462

    "..the present Romanesque style church was built and dedicated in 1895. Its seating capacity at that time was 1800 and it included two balconies, one above the other. The upper balcony became the choir loft. This building was to be the pride of the Polish community for decades to come.... Father Cieminski apparently had an interest in music and was responsible for the purchase and installation of a three-manual pipe organ thought to be built originally by the Skinner Pipe Organ Company. Dedicated in 1935, it has since been rebuilt but retains the original design. Its three divisions, one on either side of the lower balcony and one on the upper balcony where the console was originally located, remains an impressive site and sound to the present day.... The organ, as pipe organs often do, fell into bad times and was badly abused by an organ builder during the 1960’s. About 1980, the Lurth Organ Company of Mankato, Minnesota rebuilt the instrument and further developed its tonal capacities. It remains in working condition and is an important part of the musical heritage of this parish."
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,951
    I will have to measure this weekend, because my estimate could be really off. Recently, I had two 500-watt halogens placed in the arch over the console, bringing the illumination up to 3,500 watts for the loft. It helped, but it can be hard to light a high-ceiling space like that. I am 20 feet higher than the main floor, and the ceiling is a good 25-30 above the loft in the center. My back is to the rail and I watch the front with a mirror. The choir is directly in front of me and I play and also conduct from the organ.
  • daniel
    Posts: 75
    The Romanesque building where I serve is over 100 years old. The pipe organ is in the loft, facing the rear of the church. The choir is seated in a semicircle around the console with the pipes above and behind. Seated there is room for about 24. Chairs removed would gain considerable space.
  • The co-cathedral in Houston has what has got to be the nicest loft I've ever seen. Seating for a gazillion, a separate level for instrumentalists--so big. It would be a great work environment. Of course, the organ is fabulous to play also.

    If you're building a new building, I think a site visit to Houston would be in order.
    Thanked by 1Adam Wood
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,912
    Our church is small, so the choir loft is too. Our loft can handle probably 15-20 people (if you really squeeze them in), plus the Leslie 122 in one corner and the Hammond BV console in the other (at the front of the loft). The Leslie sits on a small two-shelf cabinet that also houses TONS of old music that cannot be used any longer since the new translation of the Roman Missal happened. We have two tiers of chairs for the choir, although nobody sits in the upper tier because we don't have that many in the choir, and I suspect we never did. The loft mainly serves as extra seating for parishioners as our congregations are steadily increasing in size, pushing the limits of what our small mission church can hold. There is one large, stained glass window in the center of the outside wall at the back of the loft (which is located at the back of the church), with an image of St. Peter that provides the most beautiful light when the sun shines. There is a small music library attached (about a 6 X 6 room with storage cabinets), but the light in there is on a timer and is not reliable (interesting how nobody knows how to neither reset it nor disable it): during night services, you can't see in the music library. The loft itself has two lights on the wall, which provide more than enough light to see when they are turned on. Issue is that if you're up there and the last person out doesn't know it, you're in the dark until you can get downstairs to turn them on again. There is also a floor lamp in the loft, just in case.

    We're looking into building a new church, but we're at least 5 years away from even breaking ground. When we do build, I'm pushing for a proper pipe organ.
  • How large is your church going to be? What sort of music do you do or envision? I should think that an ideal choir gallery would first of all have ample space for the organ and console that you have or will have; in addition, it would seat (comfortably!) at least 30-40 (or more, if you have them) choir members; and then it would have space left over to accomodate any instruments (brass, tympani, orchestral groups) that you may use on special occasions. This, of course, is a dream gallery which you may pare down or magnify to accomodate the reality of your situation. As may be known, I do prefer the choir down front, Anglican-style in a chancel, but most here, I realise, do not share this vision.
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  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,451
    I do prefer the choir down front, Anglican-style in a chancel, but most here, I realise, do not share this vision.


    If I could design a church building from scratch, I would seat the entire congregation antiphonally, with a slight curve inward at the West end, where I would seat the choir, on either side- splitting the difference between Western loft/gallery and Anglican chancel.
    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn
  • donr
    Posts: 971
    We will initially build a church for a little over 500 PIPs. Then we will expand past 1k PIPs in the future
    The design will be gothic and the loft will be in the back in a mezzanine style. With two stair cases and possibly an elevator.

  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,951
    Good that you will have an elevator. I needed to get symphony players in the loft for the pastor's 50th anniversary celebration two years ago. No elevator, and the door was not wide enough for kettle type drums to fit through. I had to put the drums in the landing outside the door, which gave the drums a distant quality. Maybe a good idea to think about access.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,500
    Our loft was an afterthought, when the founding pastor was offered a pipe organ.

    The organ takes up too much space. It would be nice to compress it. The organ pipes are in the middle along with the console.

    The choir members congregate around the organ with (as I face them) the sops on the left, altos behind the console through the middle, tenors in the back on the right and basses in front of them. We have risers and can comfortably house about 25 people. I just direct the choir so I stand in front of the basses. This is not ideal because the sopranos are too far away and the men too close to me, so sometimes I run downstairs to get a better idea of the sound. There is one set of stairs and no elevator which does make it difficult for older members.

    We have a tiny room which houses all our music up there. We also have shelving for all of our music, which makes the space a bit messy, but we don't have another room, so it is what it is.

    I would say the entire space is about 30 feet by 60 feet. That is just a guess though.
  • donr
    Posts: 971
    We will not get an organ right away but I know the pastor is in agreement that we will get one someday. I told him to make sure they plan for it structurally and spacially. I have to combat people who just want to save money (although important) and have no idea what choirs need is. They all think that a 10' x 30' space is enough for the choir because that is what we have now. They are not looking at future needs or the fact that an organ will not fit in the space with a choir.
    I want to plan for a 40 - 50 member choir, be able to direct them all easilly have an organ, pipes, and room for at least a string quartet and maybe timpani (the pastor is anti drums of any sort). it will be cheaper now rather then to add on later.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,500
    Think about where the organ console is situated. If you are conducting, it should be in the middle (the organist prior to me directed too, that's why the organ is in the middle), but if the accompanist is not the director, then the console can be on the side. If you need risers I would get movable risers too, because it would be nice to move them around if you have a string quartet and timpani up there.

    The downside to a deep loft is that there is a good amount of space covered by the loft in the church, unless the loft is built over the foyer like this: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2008/10/solemn-mass-from-toronto-oratory-holy.html

    This is Holy Family Parish in Toronto. It was recently built by the Oratorians because their church burned down. It is a wonderful space. I think the console is in the middle as is the organ, further back and the choir is on either side facing one another, so the issue of depth is not really there. It is a good compromise. I'm sure you could contact the organist there for his opinions.
  • SkirpRSkirpR
    Posts: 854
    Even though you're not getting an organ console now, I would suggest that all reading this keep in mind a console which can be moved around.

    Built-in risers and a non-movable organ console lock you in to one particular arrangement. Think about what might happen if you or a successor was conducting with maybe some strings and/or brass - you'd want to turn the console around and maybe move the choir back. Maybe none of that's in the cards for a while, but, if there's a chance it might before the lifespan of the church building is exhausted, it's worth it to think about building in that flexibility.
  • A movable console may be an asset. Just don't get one of these theatrical types that can be rolled in front of the altar for recitals, complete with cameras, screens and mirrors so that everyone can watch the organist's feet instead of listen to the music. These are all the rage now in certain circles. Hopefully, there are no Catholic churches in those certain circles. Unfortunately, I know of two prominent Episcopal churches in Houston that just couldn't resist getting on this 'band wagon'.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    "Hopefully, there are no Catholic churches in those certain circles."

    I know of one in Detroit. The organ is in a loft, then video cameras and projection systems are set up so the audience may watch the organist.

    I find such systems tasteless aesthetically. Also, I personally hate to have people watch me play.
  • I'm also for a moveable console. My previous church had a small loft that could accommodate 20-25 people MAX plus a movable organ console and an Everett studio piano. The organ (25 rank, originally Wangerin, with additions and rennovations by a local builder in 2003) actually has a second console up in front near the sanctuary, which also has a Yamaha grand piano. This is where the choir does most of their singing these days (they do use the loft on occasion, though.

    The church I grew up in, in rural south-central Wisconsin, built in 1899, has a huge loft that is probably capable--by my estimation--of comfortably accommodating a sizeable choir, as well as organ, piano, music/choir storage, and a small orchestra. The front half of the loft (which runs the entire width of the church) has a sloped floor, by design, and so the choir risers and organ platform were built in. The rest of the space was overflow seating. Musicians (meaning the organ and occasionally a small 6-8 person choir, and even more rarely a cantor) were down in front beginning in the mid-late 70's because the loft was deemed "unsafe;" likely scenario is that the pastor just didn't want people up there, and used "unsafe" as the excuse, which stuck for 30 years through several different priests. A new pastor in 2007 had the loft inspected and it was all of a sudden perfectly safe again....like magic! The musicians have been back up there ever since, although some modifications have been made like added lighting, the old built-in risers removed, and a larger platform built over part of the sloped portion, and the railing was heightened.

    Current parish church (built in 1963) has a "loft" that is little more than the ceiling over the vestibule, and is not structurally capable of sustaining much of a load. There is no access to it, and its only current residents are one set of organ speakers and the 3 flood lights that backlight the 3-story tall stained glass window at night. We currently play and sing from a modified area at the front left of the nave, in front of the marble communion rail. They used to play the organ and sing from a choir room at the front to the left of the Sanctuary, opposite the sacristy. It had screened off openings so the choir could be heard but not well seen. My guess is that sometime in the 90s the current arrangement was done, and the screen openings were permanently closed off and the space converted to a parish library. I'm satisfied with the current location, but would like to redesign it eventually.
  • donr
    Posts: 971
    How do movable consoles communicate to the rest of the organ?
  • Most modern systems just have 1 Ethernet cable and a power cable.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,164
    Old electric/electro-pneumatic consoles had a bundle of cables, typically one cable of about 75 wires for each manual (to allow for repairing wires that break), cabling (40 wire) for the pedalboard, and cabling for the various stops, presets, and shades/expression, etc. If I recall (from the mid 1950s) the cable bundle for a four manual 70+ rank organ at the First Methodist Church in Bedford, Indiana was about 2.5 inches in diameter. It was an electro-pneumatic reinstallation from a church in St. Louis, and, as a teenager, I helped with the releathering of all the pallets, wiring the pin-boards, implementing a few novelties, and helping with the tuning and voicing ... at the time having (pipe)dreams of becoming an organ builder/technician, which evaporated when we moved from there to northern Minnesota during the 9th grade.
    Thanked by 2SkirpR donr
  • BenBen
    Posts: 3,114
    It never ceases to amaze me what a cat5 cable can carry.
    Thanked by 2Adam Wood Gavin
  • Although I never played it, I saw the console up close at St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral in La Crosse, WI, a few times. This was the old 1962 Moller, 4m, 70-something ranks (replaced in 2010 by two new instruments by Noack). The cables were encased inside a dryer tube.
  • Bumping this valuable thread, hoping for additional comments/recommendations about choir loft size, layout, accessibility. Many thanks!
  • Be careful about bannisters, especially if you don't have much of an acoustic. I really believe in fluted banisters (and if you can't do that down to the floor, then at least from knee height on up) so that there is better tonal egress. We have a solid wall that goes up to my waist line, and it really keeps a lot of the choir's sound from flowing down into the room.

    I echo the preference for movable consoles. If it's a tracker, then I'm a big fan of moving the console out to the front of the loft, with trackers running under the floor, assuming you have a decent action to accommodate it. It's nice to be able to sit back from the instrument so you can better balance the registrations, as well as to be able to put a choir between you and the instrument if you need to both play and conduct. Consoles "en fenetre" (built right into the case facing the instrument) might be lovely for sensitive actions, but are terrible if you have to play and conduct.

    Another thing: lighting. There should be lots of it, and it should be independently controllable from the loft. I've played at churches where the only want to turn on the loft lights was in a panel locked inside the sacristy. No. just... no. Light-switch right there, 10' away on the wall, please. (Dimmable might be a nice luxury, too, to help with special occasions like vespers or the Easter Vigil. Trying to sing 7 psalms by candlelight is a laughable affair, and I'm not a fan.)
  • ServiamScores - what a great point about the controls for the lighting - i would never have thought about that. thank you !!
    Thanked by 2ServiamScores tomjaw
  • If you have the luxury: have the bell tower be in front of the church (that is to say, protruding from the facade) rather than integrated behind the facade and part of the loft structure itself. Our tower pierces right through our loft and so I have 4 big pillars and it's a pain in the you-know-what. They are in the way, they destroy sight lines, and they can never be moved.

    I've also dealt with churches where the tower bifurcates the loft. There's a little space in the middle (right where you want to be!) and then huge wings, but those back corners are useless. They are dead zones acoustically, and they are too far from the organ / conductor to be useful...
  • Get two staircases if you can. We have two and it is helpful. Old churches with a single, deathspiral staircase is very difficult. Older singers have difficulty navigating them and they are a fire-hazard.

    Another thing: doors. You should be able to lock the loft. Keep people out of there who have no business being up there. My current church has two big, modern staircases, and no way to keep people out. I hate it. People who are late to Mass try to come sit up in the loft and they have no business being there. Also, others have gotten up to shenanigans up there when I'm not around because I cannot prevent them from going up there. Everything has to be locked up, rather than just locking the loft door when we leave. It's a real pain. One church around here just has an iron gate, so it's not truly "closed" off in the sense of a solid door, but it is still inaccessible. I think this is a nice option if doors are an issue for some reason.

    And ANOTHER thing! (lol)

    If the access to the loft is via the vestibule, then real doors are a GOOD thing. Our loft access is from the vestibule, and they are straight stairwells up to each far corner. The problem is that parents take their screaming kids out to the vestibule, and then not into the cry room. Those stairwells act just like tone chutes, and so they might as well not have even left the church. But now the sound is directed and focused right at the musicians since it is coming up focused right behind their backs. If we had doors, that tonal egress would be totally prevented (or nearly so).
  • You'll want places to plug in mics around the sides. One friend of mine has conduit run to a few places at the front of the loft, so he has multiple options on where to plug things in. This is great, because you don't have to run a mic cable up between your choir's legs to get to the cantor stand or something. So have multiple outlets, and multiple places to plug in mics, if you need it.

    I also suggest having at least one monitor for the choir to hear the sermon more clearly. If you're all the way in the back in a lively space, it can be really difficult to understand, even for younger ears, let alone your choir members in their 70's. Modern systems can control what signals go where, so you could just get the ambo, for instance, and nothing else, if configured correctly.

    And if you're given enough space, have room for a central aisle, as well as ample space around the sides and/or back of the choir, so it's easy for people in the middle to get in and out. Nothing is more frustrating than having to climb over 8 people to get out. You can always have people condense into the central aisle when you sing.
  • If you have pews on the sides (like the traditional bifurcated lofts that I mentioned earlier) perhaps keep the first row or 2's worth of space open, so you have somewhere to put a brass ensemble for special occasions (this is presupposing you have some form of permanent seating in the middle of the loft).
  • And if the organ console is shoved to the front of the loft, make sure there will be enough space behind your back for people to walk past without bumping you, if you can. This might also leave space for a conductor to stand in the center, too. Few things are worse than when there is only one staircase in the corner, and the people on the far side have to shimmy around the organist during the postlude to get out, because the other pathways are blocked, and then they are bumping into you because there's only 18" of width for them to get through. Been there. Not a fan. It's not as much of an issue if you have a back on your organ bench, but if it's tight, and you don't, you'll be bumped.