HOW TO TRAIN CHURCH CHOIRS (2) – Recruiting choir members

– Aurelio Porfiri

I am certain that once you have understood the importance of choral music in the liturgy of the Church, you will feel the urge to do something to improve your local church choir. However, this is not always an easy task because there are definitely some problems that may arise once in a while. Let us look at these one by one in this chapter and in the following ones. I would say that the primary problem is the recruitment of choir members. Perhaps your church has a very small choir or no choir at all, so recruiting members is of primary importance. Now, let us reflect on one simple question: recruiting members for what kind of choir? Yes, we need to answer this first.

It is possible that in the church there would be several kinds of choirs: the schola cantorum, made of more trained singers who can sing more challenging pieces of music; and the “leading choir”, a group of people not exceptionally skilled but can help the congregation with the answers or with some hymns. There are also those they call the “youth choir, funeral choirs, weddings choir and so on,” but personally, I don’t really think that it is good to have all these. I may understand that young people may like to be among themselves, but I think it is more pedagogically sound to educate them in being in a congregation as Catholic singers, instead of being forced into an age category. Also, when we force young people in these kinds of categories, we let them sing repertoires of music that lack the necessary conditions to be musically liturgical, as the ones heavily influenced by commercial music. We (priests) think that they are favoring participation of people, but indeed it only favors their bad liturgical education. The issue of “participation” is at the core of some of the Council decisions, but this participation is not absolute; it is not good for itself but it is good only for what is participated in. We cannot pretend that the goal of liturgy is to make people participate at all costs. I know it is not easy on one side, but my experience is that when young people discover the true beauty of authentic liturgical music, they are the more enthusiastic. They only need someone to teach them.

Returning to the previous divisions, a rough one, into schola cantorum and leading choir, we also need to say that the schola can also take the responsibility to lead the congregation and not being confined to its own repertoire. I may think that in a Cathedral, it is good to have more choral forces, but in a little parish you may stick to one choir only. So, how many people do you need? That is a tricky question. It depends on the side of the church, but it also depends on the fervor of the liturgical life in that parish. If there are more Masses and you think music is very relevant for the liturgy (as you should), then you may have more people taking turns. But should not be that you have the A choir and the B choir? Should the same choir function when divided according to necessities? It all depends on your particular situation.

With that in mind, how do you actually convince people to sing in your church choir? Announcements in the church bulletin may work, but only up to a certain point. People are shy to sing because singing is expressing oneself and this self expression is not always encouraged in all cultures. So, the important thing would be to have some “evangelists” in your choir. Yes, people who are enthusiastic about the role of the choir and  want to involve people they know and also allow them to be part of this beautiful activity. Yes, we are talking of the old “word of mouth” system that, at the end, is very important and one of the most effective means of recruiting choir members. The person who leads the choir (we will talk about him or her later on) has to make the people so taken by the experience they are having that getting new members, who want to be part of that atmosphere, should not be difficult at all. Always remember a very important principle: we don’t have to sing music in the liturgy because we like it, but we should like to sing certain music in the liturgy for its liturgical qualities. It is not our taste that matters; our taste should be educated to what is refined liturgical music and what is not. This is the message the choir leader should pass on to the “evangelizers”: we need people who want to make the experience of liturgical prayer throughout music in the way the Church wants us to pray, who respect the objective nature of the liturgy, that is not something that we create but something that we receive. The message has to be clear from the beginning, and so has to be clear also in the understanding of the choir leader, something that is not always a given.

What about vocal ability? Now, we may be blunt about this giving a bad news and a very good news. The bad news is that a person who is tone deaf should not be part of the choir, in the same way that a person who cannot speak Chinese should not teach Chinese language or in the same way that a man should not be called to ask about the experience of being pregnant. Ok, that is the bad news, but the very good news is that real tone deaf people are almost non existing or are extremely rare. Tone deaf is almost a medical condition that has to do with some dysfunction in the brain or in the auditory system.  Most of the people who think they are tone deaf are only not educated. I remember having a young boy in my choir many years ago, and he really sounded as tone deaf, but I wanted to try. So, I spent some painful weeks with him trying to educate his ears to recognize pitch. At the end, I succeeded. Thus, a choir leader should allow people like this to be trained before singing with the choir. Maybe for this kind of people, with bigger problems in singing, it is better not to aim for their participation in the schola cantorum, but to let them sing some liturgical songs, when they are OK.

When the choir leader meets with potential singers, it is good to talk with them, listen to their motivations and expectations, and clarify that singing in church is to please God and give Him the worship that is due and appropriate. We are not in church to spend time together or to enjoy ourselves. Then the choir leader should ask the candidates to sing a song of their choice and also to make simple exercises for intonation. One that I often do is to make aspirants sing a tune they are very familiar with such as “Happy birthday,” changing the tonality at each section of the piece, to see if the singer can recognize the change of harmonies and adapt the voice with the new pitches. Some can, some cannot. What is important is to see  the musical skills of the candidates.

Lastly, everyone who professes the Catholic faith should be good and morally upright. Often this is not the case because we know very well that we are sinners. So in the choir, there are people who may not be in good standing with some of the teachings of the Church, like being divorced and so on. What should be our attitude towards these people? I would say that only God can see the hearts of people. I know a lot of people with the above problems, but have the honesty to seek God. So I may here introduce the traditional concept of “public scandal.” If people openly advocate and promote lifestyles that are in contrast with the teachings of the Church (giving public scandal), then they should not be allowed to have a role in liturgical ministries, like being part of the church choir. However, if they live their situation with sufferance and privacy, then I would openly consider them and admit them as part of the choir. The problem is not being sinners (we all are), but trying to make right what was wrong. I think, this “pastoral attitude” is not only saving the respect for the moral norms and doctrines, but is also  giving an opportunity for people struggling with their faith to return and be close to the Lord through their participation in the liturgy.

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