HOW TO TRAIN CHURCH CHOIRS (10) – The narrow gate

– Aurelio Porfiri

In our previous chapters, I could only give sparse information about Church choirs. Many books will have to be written to explain in detail, and that is not possible here. But I know that choir conductors sometimes need pointers about specific situations that arise in the common choral daily practice and so here, before ending this fast excursus, I want to outline a few problems and their solutions, based on my almost 40 years of experience in this field.

Sometimes choral conductors say that even if they apply all the good recommendations, the choir does not progress as expected. If you are doing what is right, you also need to cultivate the virtue of patience. It is like when someone has to learns to walk again after using a walking stick. At the beginning it seems worse, because you are not used to walk correctly, but then, when you do it right, you walk faster. It takes time, you need to give people time to grow. But the responsibility is also big, because if one gives the wrong directions the choir will end up worse.

As mentioned previously, one needs to understand first what is the purpose of what he is doing with the choir. Don’t just say that you want “praise God, worship God, celebrate God.” This is true but you need to understand why you are doing this. A medical doctor needs to know the reason why certain medicines have a specific effect on the body, even if the patient is not necessarily informed about it. We need to be very flexible because different people may suggest slightly different approaches. A few weeks ago I was talking with a surgeon, and she told me at a certain point “”you know medicine is not an exact science” – there are many unpredictable things. So you can imagine how true is this for art and music. But at least we may be sure that we are doing the right thing and then leaving the rest to God.

The conductor should be firm about certain things that seem obvious: singers have to start together and end together! You may think this is a given but it is not. In the rule of Saint Benedict for his monks he has said: “Every age and degree of understanding should have its proper measure of discipline. With regard to boys and adolescents, therefore, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, whenever such as these are delinquent let them be subjected to severe fasts or brought to terms by harsh beatings, that they may be cured.”

Now, of course I am not suggesting any form of discipline that uses violence, but there is a way to reward those who make efforts to discipline themselves, I think is important. In the choir of the Pope, the Sistine Chapel Choir, there was always a member of the choir in charge of pointing out the mistakes of the singers and after a certain number of them they were fined. This has to be done not for the sake of punishing, but as a pedagogical tool.

In his Discourse on Method, the famous philosopher Descartes has said: “My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, to accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power. … This single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented. … But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.”

In this observation by Descartes there is a great lesson for us: all progress starts from attention to people, when you are able to understand their strengths and weaknesses, when you are able to fight with them in their effort to improve their skills. There is no “choir improvemen” per se, but only an improvement that starts when you are able to look everyone in the eye knowing that they trust your work with them and they are willing to follow you.

When you are starting to “reform” your choir, you need to tell your singers that at the beginning, things may be worse: you need to change certain habits, certain attitudes, certain ways of doing things that were simply not effective but that somehow work (badly) for that group. At the beginning it is unavoidable that you pay a price, but then the outcome of the effort will repay the initial humiliation. It is here that the work of conductors is fundamental. There are no bad choirs, there are bad conductors. If a conductor is good, he can make every group shine with the best of its abilities.

Talking about the personal relationship between conductor and singers, we also need to emphasize that this will help in solving other problems that often arise in choirs, as for example the one of not singing in tune or singing too loud or too soft. You may be surprised to know that most of the time, these problems have a psychological origin and you can understand them only when you are able to listen to your singers on a much deeper level than hearing the result of sound waves vibrating in the air. There is certainly a mechanical side in choral activity and so you need to know a lot about that, but there is most of all a psychological, let us say spiritual dimension in everything you are doing. Sometimes people singing with you are deeply troubled human beings, coming from dysfunctional families, from personal problems, from solitude… “no man is an island,” but sometimes they behave as they are islands, so the choir conductor should know how to approach this “barren land” and make it fertile. It is not easy, but this is a great part of the work a conductor does.

Someone may say: but are also the conductor troubled, dysfunctional, full of problems? Yes, we all are. Being a conductor is a self discipline, it is being able to help others and in the meantime also helping yourself. If you want to enlighten others, you have to burn yourself. To bring joy to others you need to sacrifice self. This does not mean that you cannot have joy for yourself, but the path is not an easy one. Jesus has said (Mt 7:13-14): “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” This beautiful teaching can certainly be applied to the lives of many people that work with choirs in many churches around the world: look for the narrow gate and at the end you will receive everything tenfold.

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