The Conductor and the Choir in Modern Worship

by vernsanders on September 14, 2009

In the last issue of Creator magazine, I wrote an extended article about the choir in modern worship. Because of space limitations, there were aspects of this very large topic that I was not able to address. Today, I’d like to talk about one of them, and it is prompted by seeing this video (I hope this works…it’s the first time I’ve tried to embed a video…if it doesn’t, you can find it here):

Riccardo Muti on conducting

In essence, Muti says that the conductor is becoming (or already has become), in essence, obsolete.

<thumbnail historical aside (do not use this answer on an exam, students): conducting, as a profession is a relatively recent phenomenon in music history…one which was not fully established until the 19th century. Today’s concert goers tend to forget that for centuries, the “leader” was part of the band, much as you might see in a rock band (I’m ignoring the puppeteers of the “boy bands” for purposes of this short illustration, but you get the point). It was only when/as the performing forces got larger, and the music got more complicated, and the aesthetic of the “star” became prevalent that conductors began to be “necessary.”>

I’ve come to the same conclusion as Muti, but from a different path.

In his case, he works with such excellent musicians, and, as those of you who have been fortunate to be in that situation know, the conductor’s role becomes one of communication…primarily about the conductor’s conception of the score, but also about “on the fly” assistance during a rehearsal or concert (again…gross oversimplification, but this is a blog post, not an encyclopedic wiki…). The better the musicians, essentially, the more you can trust them, and the less you have to worry about…in theory, at least.

I’ve worked with fabulous musicians, and that has helped me get to the same place as Muti with absolutely untrained musicians. In the process, I learned that for an ensemble–any ensemble–to make great music, you need at least three things to be in place:

1. the members must have developed their technique to the best of their abilities

2. the members must trust that every other member of the ensemble will do their job, so that any individual doesn’t need to worry about whether or not they’ll get stranded by someone else’s incompetence…and that includes the “leader” picking repertoire that allows everyone to succeed, and grow

3. the members must have a clear understanding of what the end result is supposed to sound like: Steven Covey’s “know the end before you begin”

What do those three things have in common? Education

As Muti does not say, the role of the conductor/leader has become more of an educational one, not one of control.

How does that relate to the choir in modern worship? The standard north american model of the church choir is descended from the “golden age” of choral music: the 1940s and 1950s. During that time, the role of a conductor, whether choral or instrumental, was that of a god, and, generally a dictatorial one at that. Choirs were taught to memorize music, not because it would help them make music, but because it meant that they could “always look at the conductor for your cues.”

Choirs became vocal sheep during this time, from whence the classic “musicians and singers” epithetical comments derive. I hasten to say not ALL choirs, but we’ve already established that I’m talking in generalities for my own purposes here.

The byproduct of this choral shepherd/sheep relationship is the one that has caused a lot of difficulty in the so-called “worship wars.” Choir directors of that generation, and their students, firmly believed that no one was better able to produce anything from their choirs than them, and that they were the sole arbiters of not just taste, but “standards.” Not a particularly flexible attitude, right?

When that immovable attitude met the irresistable object of the modern pastor’s desire for “more relevant” music, the results became pretty much of a train wreck.

OK…that’s the problem…what’s the solution, Vern?


Only in this case it involves a paradigm shift in how the church choir is prepared to lead modern worship.

Imagine this scenario: you lead the choir, and they are totally dependent upon your “cues” to sing their anthem(s). Between your rehearsal and Sunday morning, you are incapacitated for some reason. What happens?

Does the choir go on without you? CAN they go on without you?

Ultimately, when you define “incapacitated” to include your retirement or death, the answer is critical to the survival of “your” choir as an institution in a particular congregation.

I believe that the time has come to teach church choirs to, as Muti says, sing without a conductor, at least some of the time. I would argue that the goal is most of the time–I do understand that if your choir is doing the Mozart Requiem or the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, there is a lot more at stake, and a conductor is not only highly desirable, but probably necessary. But, for the moment, I am talking about the week-to-week anthem requirements. If they understand the style of the anthem in question, and have a baseline of technique to accomplish it, and they trust that everyone else in the ensemble will do their job, it becomes, among other things, a source of pride to the members, that they can “do it” on their own. Perhaps more importantly, it also becomes a way to remove the “intermediary” between the choir as worship leadership and the congregation. The conductor is no longer the visual focus, or emotive interpreter. The choir communicates with the congregation better, and understands more clearly the role of worship leadership rather than “sacred concert artist.”

I know this is possible. I have spent the last +/- 10 years implementing this process and practice at three different churches in two widely separated geographic locations. When the time has come for me to “move on” to another call, or even to be away on vacation for a week, the choir’s participation–and leadership–in worship goes on quite nicely…and the institution of the choir in those congregations is not in question, because the ego of the conductor is not the issue.

Please, please, please leave me a comment about this. I would really like to hear what you think, and whether or not you’ve tried to do this.

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Janice Timm September 16, 2009 at 2:51 am

Ah Vern, you have said it so well! I am not sure that choral independence was my goal in the beginning. However, as time progressed, and I am both the accompanist and director/leader, the education and vocal development for that independence took place and the choir has gone on in my absence of the past year. I think some self confidence has to be thrown in – the singers do sometimes become dependent on you for cues, etc.

Another barrier we removed between the choir and congregation: they do not sit in the choir loft and wear robes. They wear stoles only – and come to the front of the chancel from out of the congregation in order to sing the anthem. If there is other choir-led service music, then they all sit in close proximity on what is the organ/piano side of the sanctuary and sing from there.

It has worked for that situation. I hope I can continue to train and educate choir singers as worship leaders in their own right when i return home.

vernsanders September 16, 2009 at 9:36 am

I never thought of the stole idea, but I’ve been directing choirs without robes for almost 10 years now. The other thing that independence has done for them is that I can place them in all sorts of different configurations in the worship space, and that can smooth worship flow, provide dramatic impact, or allow certain advantageous groupings of singers in different types of repertoire.


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