Basketball coaching and choir directing

From May 2011 to May 2012 Worship the Lord newsletter (WTL) featured a series on choir directing (#s 48-54).

The focus on choirs was encouraged by a parish pastor who laments the decline – even death – of choirs in some congregations.

The series didn’t turn out quite like I expected. It included far more technical details than I anticipated – things that might seem esoteric and arcane. It featured expectations of solid directing technique that, let’s face it, many choir directors do not follow.

Lip buzz. Kinesthetic movement. Meticulously planned rehearsals. Warm ups before every rehearsal and singing date. How many directors actually do this?

But if they would….

If directors would adopt only 20% of the practical and technical improvements mentioned, the sound of their choirs would increase significantly.

Here’s the basketball analogy. Churches blessed with a LES provide sports opportunities for students. Basketball coaches are typically volunteers who know quite a bit about coaching. Most played high school or college ball. It’s fair to say that we wouldn’t let just anyone coach. We (parents, students, boards of ed) expect that coaches will have knowledge and experience at least in the basics of the art of coaching. You’d wonder about basic competence if you mention certain things and get a puzzled look: 5 Man Weave, Mikan Drill, Tip Drill.

One pastor wrote to ask permission to share WTL articles: “I was wondering if I could make copies of WTL for my choir members. That would let them do those vocal exercises at home.”

I appreciate the initiative. But, as with basketball drills, amateur singers might benefit from a coach who can make sure their on the right track.

No choir? The ideas encouraged here also apply to working with soloists. Consider that bass who has a rich, pleasing sound in the lower range. But he begins to sound a bit strained at middle “C.” A coach with modest competence can help him.

Writer Jon Laabs suggested that choir directors take voice lessons: “The best way to provide sound vocal training for your choir is to take lessons yourself!” (#53, page 4).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to conduct a choir of singers with trained voices? The possibilities for repertoire and performance would be endless, and the singers would sing with a beautiful, resonant, rich sound. The reality is that the closest most singers in your choir will ever get to a voice lesson is your rehearsal. While this fact might create a significant amount of pressure, it also provides a wonderful opportunity for all choir directors. Why not allow your choir to attend voice lessons vicariously through you?

We’ve heard the growing emphasis on blessings from the pursuit of excellence and continuing education by those who serve us in the church. Let’s include parish musicians in this – and count on God’s blessings as the impact of their work honors God to the best of our ability and touches the hearts of members and guests in worship.

This blog post is more for choir directors than pastors, so please forward a link if you feel it appropriate. Back issues of WTL are available online.

See also a video presentation in which Kate Tiefel models choir rehearsal skills for a national worship conference workshop, “Great Sound from Average Singers.”

If you also direct children, see Josh Pedde’s “Beautiful Sound from Average Children”: both his handout and several mp3 files. Some of his ideas are also helpful for working with adults.

Choir directors, summer is a good time before your first fall rehearsal to study some of the ideas and plan for using them. Remember, implementing just 20% will bring noticeable improvements! Then next year, aim for the next 20%. Your singers will thank you, and worshipers will notice the difference.

One other point: choir directors are invited to ask questions about any of the articles at this link. If you post a question, a notice will automatically be sent to the writers. They’ve agreed to give of their time to offer practical advice on your question.

Thanks, again, to Kate Tiefel and Jon Bauer for planning the series and working with the writers. They have done a fine service to the Church…if only congregations and choir directors will capitalize on the many insights shared by the writers. (Congregations can capitalize by paying for the voice lessons mentioned above!)

Disclosure statement: I couldn’t tell you how to do a 5 Man Weave. Nor could I give voice lessons. But I did once take a few voice lessons so that I could be a better choir director. Give it a try!

Rev. Bryan Gerlach

Bryan Gerlach serves as the Director of the WELS Commission on Worship. His parish ministry experience includes congregations in Texas and California. Gerlach has a Master of Church Music degree and continues to serve as a regular pianist and organist at two WELS churches in the Milwaukee area.

Full biography »