Music in the small church

You-or whoever is in charge of the music at your church-can build a choir and find other sources of music that will give your church a good musical program even if it is small.

Eleanor Zoellner is the organist and choir director for La Casa de Christo Lutheran Church, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Yours is a small church. It has a tiny choir loft, an inexpensive electronic organ, no professional musicians in the congregation, and a music budget so minute you are lucky to find it mentioned in the annual report.

Sound familiar? Yes! Sound hopeless? No!

If your choir director and organist get along well, you are in luck. If your choir director has a sense of humor, you are doubly blessed. If the organist (or pianist) and choir director are one and the same, don't worry. They have probably learned to get along!

Any director with more than six months' experience is used to the problems associated with volunteer choirs. This saint quickly learns to roll with the punches—and there will be plenty. Here are some suggestions you can share with your music director.

Recruitment is usually the first (but not last) problem. Don't frighten people off by demanding tryouts. You are not directing the Robert Shaw Chorale. Take the prospective members into a room with a typewriter, a guitar, and a piano. If they can identify the piano, let them join the choir!

Don't insist that everyone who joins the choir be able to read music you'll scare away some of the most devoted singers. Take the time necessary to teach the parts. Bring those who are learning a particular part close to the piano and let the rest visit quietly or just relax.

To keep your choir members, make the choir fun. After a full day of work, nobody wants to spend several hours in humorless, deadening drudgery. Start rehearsals with a beverage or light snack—it is always easier to get acquainted over food. If yours is a young congregation, provide a baby-sitting service. Have the teenagers in your church take turns baby-sitting; they might as well be gin learning now to become active church members.

Start rehearsals at a reasonable hour, and end when you say you are going to end. One hour of good hard work is more profitable than two hours of poorly organized singing. And next morning the alarm rings pretty early for most of us!

Does the man who makes the biggest pledge like Bach? Don't feel you must cater exclusively to him. The choir gets weary of always struggling with difficult music. Give everybody a break by picking a unison number with an interesting accompaniment or a simple hymn with a descant.

There is no money for new music and you are tired of what you have? Why not set up a cooperative with other churches in your area? Their music departments may have the same budgetary problems you do. Plan your selections far enough ahead, especially for holidays and other special occasions, so you will have a better opportunity to borrow music.

Go to a local nursing home and sing for the guests. Try Easter caroling at the hospital. Stand outside and sing Resurrection hymns and see what the response is. (Our choir tried it once, and the newspaper was flooded with thank-you letters from patients to the "unknown choir.")

What about the shut-ins who see only the pastor? Send with the pastor a tape of several of your best anthems, or take the whole choir for an evening of singing. It will be a toss-up as to who has the most fun—the choir or the shut-ins.

Does your choir enjoy being together? Have a social hour once a month to celebrate birthdays. Have a bang-up Christ mas party, and before the choir shuts down for the summer have a swim party or a picnic, or go to a good musical pro gram together. Include the spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends of the regular choir members. Remember, they also serve who only sit and listen!

Other sources of music

Don't work your choir to death. Let your organist know in advance that you would like him or her to have something on tap for emergencies, as well as for planned musical meditations. Then if some weekend there is an appalling absence because of chicken pox racing through the primary department, or the flu has taken its toll of the choir members, have an organ solo. Your organist will be delighted to show off a little with a number she or he has been practicing.

Spruce up your music program with some instrumental numbers. How about that community college or the local high school that has the outstanding marching band? Those students love to play, and many would be happy to work with you on some special number requiring brass or woodwinds.

Generally, the local music teachers are quite eager to give their students some exposure, and the teachers are usu ally more than willing to work with you so that their students will give a polished performance. Many of these students will perform just for the experience. Be thoughtful enough to at least put their names in the bulletin.

If your young people are too busy with school and related activities during the winter months to participate in the choir, why not try a folk group during the summer? Almost every congregation has a few aspiring guitar players. If not, call the local music store for names of guitar teachers, or try the parks and recreation department, to see whether in their classes they have somebody moderately accomplished who would like to play a few weekends during the summer.

How about starting a bell choir? It can add a totally new dimension to your church's musical life. Quite a camaraderie exists among bell choirs. They even have conventions!

If there are several musically talented people in your church who are not in the choir because of other commitments, try to get them to form a barbershop quartet. This will give you built-in entertainment at your next family potluck.

And don't forget the children. Start them out young—kindergarten or preschool—and have them memorize their music. Use the Autoharp for a change of pace. You can really liven things up by using rhythm instruments from time to time. Simple, inexpensive robes can be made for the children. Enlist mothers to help with making robes and lining children up for the processional.

To keep the children's interest, use an award system. Keep rehearsals short and sweet—after a day of school they can't sit still for long! Plan parties to coincide with holidays. Keep the parents well in formed of what you are doing and why, and of any changes in the schedule. Have the children sing frequently. Expect good behavior and regular attendance. The children will enjoy doing a good job, and the congregation will be enchanted.

If you or someone in your congregation will put a little effort into it, before you know it you will have the best musical program in town. In fact, it will prob ably be so fantastic that people will flock to your church! Don't panic. Keep smiling. Your name will be written in heaven, and it will shine like gold.


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Eleanor Zoellner is the organist and choir director for La Casa de Christo Lutheran Church, Scottsdale, Arizona.

September 1988

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