Should we sing the choral classics in church? Aren’t they too hard for the average church choir? And besides the technical difficulty and the rehearsal time it takes, will my church choir sing this well?
Here’s my thesis: the worship of a great and unfathomable God deserves the performance of the best of the choral art that composers have created over the centuries.
Let’s assume you agree that worshipers should hear and singers should sing what we call the choral classics.
But how can we do this when Sunday is always just around the corner? Many church choirs are made up of faithful, amateur singers. Only in unique situations do you find a core of professionals. And what if the people who worship here are not that fond of classical music? (While it is fair to say people have different preferences and I’m not trying to set up an inflexible standard of excellence, I’ve long believed that many people claim they dislike classical music because they’ve never heard it performed with energy and expressiveness!)
“If you can teach it, they can sing it”. R.G. Huff, a retired colleague, told me he once heard a teacher say this. And this idea shaped his approach with church choirs for decades.
I once spent a week with Eric Nelson shadowing him as he rehearsed with the Emory University Choir, the Atlanta Sacred Chorale (now Atlanta Master Chorale) and the adult choir of Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. What I saw in every setting, regardless of the musical proficiency of the group, was Eric nudging and nurturing the singers to sing freely and in tune. The repertoire was appropriate to the ability of the group but Eric shaped the sound of every group. Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves to learn new skills in vocal pedagogy or rehearsal techniques so we become master teachers also.
But does this kind of music really speak to the person in the pew? No, not always.. One must choose wisely. But let me make the case that great choral music speaks to both the left and the right brain, to the mind and the heart. The message of choral music in worship is often carried by words or text; fair enough. But there is an emotional and spiritual factor that transcends the text, that is, the evocative power of the music itself –– when and if the singers can sing with energy and expressiveness.
But I just don’t have time to teach more challenging music when Sunday comes around so often! While much of the music we choose for worship must be prepared in two-six weeks, what if you considered teaching a piece of music over six months in very small steps?
In my last year at Wilshire I wanted the Wilshire choir to learn Ryan Murphy’s “Music in the Air,” a wonderful a cappella piece that is rhythmically complex. I introduced it one summer, just a section or two, set it aside in the fall, and brought it back to the folders at the first of the year working on it until we sang it in April. Teaching challenging music requires working smart and rehearsing strategically.
Now, as much as I am an advocate for singing the classics in worship or in a church concert setting, we must know our limits. I confess that I never attempted to teach or perform Brahms' Requiem with a church choir because it is so demanding of a group musically and vocally. (This says as much about my own limits as those of my singers!) However, I did conduct a choir in “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.”
Do what you can do well. Sing what is meaningful to your choir and congregation. Stretch your singers from time to time but always help them sing with confidence so they experience the joy of singing with heart and art.