Ideally, the choir needs 8 weeks

by vernsanders on November 9, 2010

It has been my experience that most amateur church choirs need 8 weeks to prepare a typical anthem.  There are exceptions, of course, especially when you are returning to something that the choir has done before, or if the choir is “better” than average, but 8 weeks is a good rule of thumb (for sample forms to assist the planning process, click here).

It has also been my experience that most churches, and church leadership, desire music in worship that supports, or otherwise relates to the lectionary or other Scripture, or the pastor’s message. If the church uses the lectionary to plan worship, the choir director can usually find something that relates to one of the Scriptures, or to the sermon.

But it has been my experience that many pastors simply can’t plan 8 weeks ahead, particularly if the church does not use the lectionary to plan worship. <full disclosure: I am not bashing pastors here, but in my personal experience, the more “evangelical” the pastor is, the less forward planning I have gotten.>

So many musicians are caught by the practical problem of wanting…or needing…to relate the choir’s music to the rest of the service, but not having enough time to adequately prepare the choir to do their best. The solutions to this problem tend to be twofold:

  • Keep a number of “generic” and/or “seasonal” choral anthems in the choir’s folder at all times

It is almost always appropriate to do a choral “Praise the Lord” call to worship, or to have the choir sing a communion anthem during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve served during a couple of Christmas or Easter seasons, it should be possible to pick some pieces for that season (or Epiphany, or Pentecost, or Lent…) that will fit in somewhere.

  • Turn the planning process on its head

Instead of waiting to hear from the preaching pastor just exactly what the music needs to relate, try this: plan the music and let the pastor know what the choir will be singing.

It has been my experience that many pastors (eventually…although some get it right away) appreciate having the music planned first. In my personal experience, it is almost a liberating thing for a pastor, and I’ve found that, when the music list is presented in the proper context, and with the proper respect, pastors often end up preaching about something that relates to the text in the music.

It has been my experience that this makes everybody happy.

Try it and see if it works for you.

Are you already doing this? Please leave a comment and let me know how it works for you.

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November 9, 2010 at 6:06 pm

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Allen Simon November 22, 2010 at 11:23 am

I’m curious how you arrived at your assertion that a church choir needs 8 weeks to learn a new anthem. Assuming they sing every Sunday, does that mean they sing repeats 7 out of 8 weeks?

Or maybe you have 8 anthems in the pipeline at all times, and spend a tiny amount of rehearsal time each week on each one. But that’s a rehearsal planning choice you’ve made, not an inherent characteristic of the choir. You could choose to devote more intensive rehearsal to a smaller number of anthems, and so learn the anthems in a shorter time. (That’s assuming that all the singers show up every week, but that’s a separate topic…)

The church choir I sing in typically sings two anthems every Sunday, as well as a chanted psalm and occasional introits, hymn descants, and the like. We also do bigger works with orchestra for Easter and Christmas and Lessons and Carols services and so on. To be sure, it’s a more skilled choir than most, but I have trouble believing it’s 16 times as skilled.

I agree, however, that it’s wise of you to plan eight weeks ahead, so your main point is still solid.

vernsanders November 23, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Thanks for the comment Allen, and you are correct: my main point was that ideally you plan 8 weeks ahead. I tried to communicate that every situation is different, depending upon the level of the choir’s abilities and the difficulty quotient of the piece, but I could have been clearer. (Ironically, I once took over a program at a church where my predecessor, in the 3 years that she had been there, had done 4 anthems…that’s right…every 4 weeks the anthem repeated, whether it was Christmas or Easter, or…well…you get the idea…so, although that was 40 years ago, it does happen, and I should have been clear on that as well)

I also think that 8 weeks is a good “seasoning” time so that an amateur choir can live with a piece and, ideally again, get beyond the notes to communicate text and subtext. That is not always possible, I know, and I have done and will continue to do a small percentage of anthems with the implicit understanding that the first time it appears in worship it is a “work in progress,” acceptable to be sure, but perhaps not finished to the extent that it might be when we come back to it 2 or 5 years later.

One more qualifier, if you don’t mind…I have had long-tenured service in “larger” churches with progressively more well-trained choirs that could do two difficult anthems per week without too much trouble, again given adequate (for them) prep time. But over the last 10 years I have chosen to serve in small(er) churches in more rural areas which typically don’t have the same access to resources, both people and otherwise, that I had in the Bay Area, for instance. Eventually they will get to the point where 3 weeks might be just fine for a Stanford motet from scratch. Not now, because there are a lot of stylistic/vocabulary things to teach along the way.

All that having been said…my direct experience from years of talking with church musicians in my capacity of being a music publisher, and now a church music magazine publisher, gives me confidence to say that “most” (that’s 50% plus 1 if we want to be precise about it) amateur church choirs need 8 weeks to prepare a “typical” anthem…particularly if, as you point out, that same choir is in the midst of preparing a Mozart Requiem or a St. John Passion, for instance. For statistical purposes here, I include the (in my estimation, again based upon experience) higher than acceptable number of church choir directors who do not read music, and yet serve in that leadership capacity nonetheless.

Your results may vary…

But that’s not why you called…

The main point I was trying make, in the context of pastor/musician relationships, was that being proactive around the planning process, in the right context, can be not just beneficial, but, in my experience, liberating for both parties. There is a certain amount of trust that goes into the process I describe, but in the specific case of the (as it frequently happens) internal conflict on the musician’s part due to differing planning patterns, it has been, in my experience (more than once) an elegant solution.



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