Rebuilding Church Choirs after a Pandemic
By Diana Sanchez-Bushong
We’ve just come through one of the most challenging periods in modern church history, and, honestly, we are not yet all the way through it. For almost fifteen months, the world has been in different phases of quarantine and—as I’m writing this article—there will be more phases in the future because of variants and the still large number of unvaccinated people of all ages. Last March, churches had to decide in an instant how they were going to “do church” while not gathering in person. Online worship became the normative way communities of faith gathered, along with Zoom Bible studies and Sunday school. Church musicians had to quickly shifts gears from getting ready for the Easter cantata and Holy Week services to finding ways of streaming hymns and service music and producing virtual choirs.
The good news is that the church never closed; it simply reimagined how it did ministry and discipleship. Now, as churches are reopening and restarting programs, it is time to think about how we will welcome our choirs—adult, children, and youth—back to a more familiar routine for learning and sharing music in worship. The pressing question now is how to start rebuilding a music program for in-person rehearsals using what was learned during the quarantine. What are some steps for welcoming folks back, while also looking forward to providing new ways of learning music and gathering for fellowship? While we all want to return to where we were fifteen months ago, we must acknowledge that we are not the same people we were fifteen months ago. We’ve been through a very difficult time. And, while we all want the familiar pew or choir seat to be ready to receive our choir members, maybe as we begin planning, we intentionally make some space for people to share their grief and pain from the fifteen months of isolation – a safe place to begin healing. This article, with guests who will share from their own experience, will endeavor to help you discern some of these topics.
By Kevin McBeth
Those two words carry so much in them, now sixteen months after most of our choirs were silenced. As I visit with other directors, there is a unanimous feeling of anxiety in getting started with our choirs again. Not only do we have health concerns connected to the pandemic, but we also feel a sense of uneasiness as we try to pick up where we left off.
One way that could be helpful is to start slowly and give yourselves plenty of grace. Beginning with a few “Rally Night” rehearsals can be an excellent way to begin. These evenings can be casual and “chill,” with no real agenda but to sing and have fellowship. These could even happen outside the context of preparing for worship. If you’re not ready to fully resume, just gather and sing. I believe that’s what our singers want most.
While planning these special nights (and fully restarting, for that matter), repertoire is one of the most important components. Choose music that your singers love, and make sure you include your “greatest hits!” Songs of comfort and anthems of celebration and community will boost their spirits and re-energize them. Be sure to build in time for community. While you probably shouldn’t promote group hugs, do give people time to open up about what the quarantine has meant. Choose specific people, choir officers for example, to share some thoughts. You will find that many will resonate with feelings shared.
Service of Remembrance
One special opportunity might be a Service of Remembrance and Healing. A candle-lit evening of contemplative music, prayers, scripture, and silence to reflect on all the loss and hurt that we still carry from this time would be appropriate. Many people lost loved ones during the pandemic, and in some situations, there was never an opportunity to say goodbye and grieve the loss. Having a time where people can just say names out loud can be healing. Even more elaborate services of formal recognition and lighting candles would be a beautiful expression, but the goal is to acknowledge our common loss.
When you do feel it’s time to resume your choir ministry, planning and communication will be very important. After choosing your restart date, share information well in advance and plan some time to “just be,” as emotions could be tender. At our church, we are blessed with multiple clergy, so I’ve invited each of them to offer a prayer at the beginning of our rehearsals for the first several weeks. If you have only one pastor, invite other key staff members to pray. Reconnecting with the church leadership will be important as well.
The Rehearsal: What Needs to be Different?
By Rebecca Garrett Pace
As we resume and rebuild our choirs in this next phase of the pandemic, I believe that vocal technique will take center stage. Even though your choir members may have been singing at home for the past year and even recording themselves for virtual choir anthems, it is still not the same as singing in a group with immediate feedback from you, their trusted director. Vocal fatigue, hoarseness, loss of range, and even vocal atrophy is normal and expected after long stints without intentional group singing. Your singers didn’t do anything wrong if they are experiencing any of these! Longer warm-ups are helpful (not just vocalizing, but also pre-singing check-ins, such as checking posture, doing breathing exercises, and lip trills). Also, consider adding a cool-down vocalization or favorite song that has an easy, limited range to enable choir members to transition from speaking voice to singing voice and back more easily.
Speaking of easy, don’t be afraid to choose easier repertoire this fall and Advent! It is not failure or defeat to go from SATB to SAB or from two-part to unison! Beautiful music comes in all difficulty levels, and the last thing your singers (and you!) need is to feel stressed about notes and rhythms as they are trying to rebuild the choir and your church.
Remember: perfection is highly overrated. You are the best voice teacher and the best minister that many of your singers will ever have. Go slowly, encourage constantly, sing old favorites, and understand that it is a process of readjustment. Whatever you sing, however easy or difficult, however many folks you have, will be a gift lovingly given to God and graciously received by God. Your music heals the world. Keep singing.
In summary, plan for:
- Longer warm-up – rebuilding the vocal muscles.
- Easier repertoire that ensures success!
- Music that is irresistible, such as choir favorites.
- Longer cool down with cooling vocalizations, fellowship, games, listening to a piece of music.
- Going slowly and creating a safe space for your singers.
Children’s Choir and Youth Choir Ideas
By James Wells
Whether you are in a small-church setting with only a few children or a larger congregation that is crawling with many younger families and kids of all ages, we are all really in the same situation.
I strongly suggest we accept where we are and embrace the opportunity to move forward in a positive way, whatever that looks like. It may mean simply identifying a child or a few children who can musically offer a small response song in worship. If you are in a larger church setting with an already established program for children, you may choose to take a calculated risk and restructure the ages or grades that rehearse together. This may be dictated by the number of children you have joining you, or it may simply be a better way to meet the needs of the children post-pandemic.
When meeting with the children, here are some things to include when you gather:
- Playful vocal explorations
- A welcome song (often using echo)
- Use of movement. Constant engagement will help with managing the children. Keep it fun and positive.
- Fun, energetic, but quick ways to incorporate music literacy into your time with the children.
- Pace is vital. It's better to move on from an activity and leave children wanting more. You can always come back to an activity.
- Appropriate vocal range for their development.
- Scripture memory songs, song games, songs for worship, songs for special events/concerts.
- A traditional way of closing – prayer, a benediction song, perhaps a way to use older children as leaders.
- "Body, mind, spirit, voice. It takes the whole person to sing and rejoice" - Helen Kemp
At this point, churches will likely follow what the schools are doing related to safety protocols since children are still unvaccinated. If cases remain low in the community, this should be fine. If the cases were to rise among children, church leaders would need to reconsider. Regardless, children’s choir leaders need to go forward with new habits of creating more distance between singers and reducing the amount of time spent in small rehearsal spaces.
Recently, our youth spent a week together locally since out-of-town travel was not something that could have been planned. The week began with three afternoons of rehearsals on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.
On Wednesday, we helped prepare meals for the "Loaves and Fishes" ministry, then traveled as a group to each meal drop-off. The recipients of the meals were mostly homebound church members who could no longer prepare meals or go to the grocery store.
At each drop-off, the students sang a hymn or a cappella choir anthem followed by a prayer and benediction.
On Thursday, we sang for two groups of children:
- Franktown is a faith-based nonprofit afterschool program like Boys & Girls Clubs that focuses on the spiritual, social, and emotional needs of lower income children in the community. Our youth choir members were asked to collaborate with the Franktown Kids this fall. We plan to prepare some music and perform for their fundraising banquet.
- Project Transformation is a summer program sponsored through The United Methodist Church for children with working parents in lower income areas. We sang outdoors under a pavilion for about thirty minutes. We shared a few engaging choir anthems, performed some highlights of our summer musical, and taught some Bible songs and music from our recent vacation Bible school.
On Friday, we visited two senior-living communities where many church members live.
Saturday was spent at a waterpark, and Sunday worship engaged the youth in morning worship and in a closing concert.
A choir exists for several reasons, but one of the main reasons is to enliven the singing of the congregation. During the youth concert, we invited the congregation to participate. We used only song lyrics on the screen, but in the future, we plan to move toward including notation on the screen so that everyone can read a melody line.
In youth choir, try to live out the four pillars from YouthCue: serving our students musically, spiritually, emotionally, and socially.
Choir Retreats and Workshops
By Amy Martin
A choir retreat or workshop may be a good way to restart your choir routine. We’ve done this regularly to kick off the Christmas cantata or other seasonal repertoire. It’s a great way to introduce the music, accomplish some intensive rehearsal, and build enthusiasm for the project. Your singers will benefit from a similar approach in this season of resumed singing.
You may choose to meet on a Saturday morning after breakfast (morning routines are so different among our choir members) and set to work on group building, learning new repertoire, singing favorites from the past, discussing vocal health, and getting reacquainted. Plan for some movement during the morning and times for vocal rest. Singers will likely be out of shape vocally and will benefit from some breaks. You might want to conclude the retreat with a potluck lunch. You might want to invite non-choir spouses and family members to join you.
Another model for a retreat is to “divide and conquer” with sectional rehearsals, which would be especially beneficial for larger choirs, but could also work with smaller ensembles. Before the full choir meets together for the first time, conduct separate workshops for your SA section and your TB section (or another division that works for your group). You can focus on some of the same activities mentioned above while giving specific attention to parts and techniques to help each section. This can help build solidarity within the section and give the director the chance to attend to fewer singers at one time. Then when the full choir gets together, each section will have experience and learning to bring to the work of the larger group.
- Begin rebuilding with a choir retreat or workshop
- Choose a Saturday morning or other extended time (approximately three hours)
- Include group building, singing together, teaching vocal health
- Conclude with potluck lunch
- Plan for a full choir retreat or sectional workshops
Rebuilding the Choir: One Relationship at a Time
By Keum Hwang
In the year 2020, the world had a common problem. This problem didn’t see any class, gender, color, age, money, power, religion, potential, politics, or country. We were all in it together, but all of us dealt with this problem very differently. Even among Christ believers, there was a divide about how to approach life as we know it. Instead of unifying us, this problem divided churches, friends, and families. Still, some of us thrived as it presented a new problem and, with God’s wisdom and creativity, a new solution: connecting digitally, inviting, welcoming, and connecting with God’s creation globally. Our community/world became smaller and bigger at the same time. I’m sure many great writers of all subjects will leave mounds of literature on why, when, how, what, and who on this historical year, and perhaps there will be Chicken Soup book based on the challenges of 2020. Many have lost loved ones, and that’s something we can relate to globally. The pandemic not only gave us tragedies, but also gave us an opportunity to reach out to human beings in a different way. God never stopped working in the wide midst of six feet of social distancing with our masks on.
Without a doubt, churches have gone through and will be going through some growing and creative pains in the months and years to come. Let us not forget, meaningful relationships happen not only in classrooms, choir settings, and social gatherings, but also when we pray for one another, when we talk to one another, when we look into each other’s eyes and feel the sincere connection between one human being to another. I don’t think I’ve ever spent as many hours talking to individuals from our choir on the phone, getting to know each person, one person at a time, as I did in 2020. I’ve learned that everyone wanted to connect as much or more than I did, and we all desired to have relationship. We realized how precious time is as we saw friends and family suffering from the pandemic or other illnesses. The fact is that as we were told not to meet our friends and families in person, we wanted to “see” them more . . . even if we would never make the time to go see them if we were not in a pandemic time. I wonder how we can use reverse psychology to ramp up choir members!
So, even if it’s just ten to fifteen minutes (or even less), taking initiative and calling your choir members and potential church/choir members can be beneficial, not only to recruit but more important, to build up relationships. I spent hundreds of hours playing video games in 2020, trying to escape reality; and in those games, just saying “hi” to another player or character gave me relationship points. If only reality were that simple . . . and it is. I’ve called choir members and left messages saying, “Hi, this is Keum from FUMC Heath, your choir director. Just called to say, ‘Hi. Hope you have a wonderful day or week! Have a blessed day.’” This was more meaningful than an hour on Zoom.
I hope you are encouraged to make those calls. I am as introverted as they come, and calling people frightens me; but every time I do make the call, after a short prayer, the call has always been “good” . . . even when there is bad news to share. I think it’s because God is in the conversation.
- Ideas to build relationships with your choir members:
- Call and check in with them as mentioned earlier. Even leaving a message or sending a text is meaningful.
- Leave a choir “goodie bag” at choir members’ doorsteps. This can include a new pencil, a new nametag to wear at the rehearsal, a mint or cough drop and an inspirational Bible verse or quote about singing.
- Ask members to fill out a “getting to know you” form that gives information you can share at rehearsal or put on a bulletin board in the choir room.
- Make your own choir bingo card game: https://bingobaker.com/view/1268047
- Remember birthdays and anniversaries with cards and on social media.
- Schedule a hangout at the backyard.
Repertoire for Success!
As we begin planning for our choir’s return to rehearsal, finding the right arrangement and the right music for our particular group is key. Here are a few suggestions from our writers of songs that have worked for them. These pieces are intentionally two and three parts – as many of us are looking to start there and build success in the choral rehearsal before moving on to more difficult pieces that require more singers and more time singing together.
General/World Communion (welcome back, gifts, mission, ministry)
”Bwana Asifiwe,” arr. Mark Burrows, Choristers Guild CGA1311
“Child of God,” Mark A. Miller, Choristers Guild CGA1425
“Ubuntu,” Mark Hayes, Heritage Music Press, several voicings available
“Praise the Lord, Proclaim His Glory” by Joseph Martin
“Lord, Be My Rock” by Jill Gallina (incorporates "Jesus Loves Me" - children/youth can join with adults with this)
“The Blessing Riddle “by Pepper Choplin (based on John 14:27 & John 17:1-3)
“Praise, Praise! You Are My Rock” arr. D. Miller (fun, easy, piece. We just shortened all the 'rock' with hard 'K' to make things easier and consistent) SAB
“Down to the River to Pray,” arr. Mary McDonald, Hope Publishing, various voicings available
“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” arr. Mark Hayes, Jubilate Music Group, various voicings available
“Inside Your Kingdom,” Tim Bushong, Hinshaw
“Bonse Aba,” arr. Victor Johnson, Heritage Music Press
“Who at My Door Is Standing,” K.Lee Scott
“I Believe,” Mark A. Miller, Choristers Guild, several voicings available
“Breath of Heaven,” arr. Lloyd Larson, Hope Publishing, several voicings available
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” arr. John A. Behnke, MorningStar 10999904
“An Advent Yearning,” Michael Barrett, SAB, Shawnee Press 35030275