Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

How To Choir

Sunday morning, as I led the “Prelude Hymn Sing” prior to my church‘s Sunday worship service, I paused to note: recently I overheard a couple of conversations in which people were saying they’d thought about joining our church choir, but were reticent because they weren’t sure they read music well enough, or perhaps at all. And my (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) response to that, yesterday morning, was: “don’t even worry about it! Singers can get away with not reading music!”

I suspect that the volunteer choir that I conduct is no different from any other: the majority of singers are not conservatory-trained. In fact, the majority of singers, if asked “are you a singer?”, would answer, “no, not me … but I’m in the choir.” In fact, there are probably four sorts of choir members: people who went to school to study music; people who didn’t study music in college but read music reasonably well; people who learned to read music (well enough to get by) while singing in the choir; and people who don’t read music but have perfectly nice voices and fake it very elegantly.

Our choir has at least one of each! If you were to sit in with our choir and try us on for size, you’d probably fit into one of those four groups … and there are lots of people in each of those groups who would be happy to welcome you aboard and help you out (or throw you a life preserver!).

For our church’s weekly newsletter this week, I wrote a brief article that continued thusly:

Also – our choir often sings (I’m happy to say) in a way that makes it sound as if it must be very hard to do. I don’t mean to say they sound like they’re struggling to make it work. I mean they often make the music sound harder or more sophisticated than it really is, or very polished – in a way that may make listeners think, ‘wow, I could never do that.’ Sure you can. Give it a shot! We each of us don’t do it alone, and that’s the point – we sing and make those sounds together. There is, after all, safety in numbers.

And any choir directors who don’t think of themselves as music teachers … are basically kidding themselves. What does that mean for new choir members, or any choir members, for that matter? It means that one of my big jobs, maybe my most important one … is to help you!

Tell you what: let’s make the month of May ‘SUMC Choir Open Rehearsal Month.’ The door is always open for people to try us out; but specifically during May, we’ll prepare some items that newcomers may be familiar with. You can come to Thursday evening (7:30-9pm) rehearsals and you don’t even have to sing on Sunday mornings (unless you’d like to). We’ll bring snacks (‘choir treats’) too!

Starred Thought: Choir is a place for everyone.”

And I invited people to visit this very blog post, where I pledged to include a couple of concepts that might ease potential newcomers’ worries about this music-reading thing.  So here you go!:

With due respect to some very skilled and knowledgeable choral music educator friends of mine, I think there are a few crucial differences between the making of choral music and the making of instrumental music that might make joining a choir a less threatening idea.

When instrumentalists (flutes or trumpets or violinists or guitarists or pianists) read music in a band or orchestra, they have to know what note they’re looking at (A? B flat? C sharp?) and translate that into the correct combination of fingers depressing keys or valves, or pressing down on frets or fingerboards on top of the correct strings. There are very specific physical requirements that depend on the music-reader knowing whether that note is an F-sharp or a regular ol’ F, for instance.

In contrast, when singers look at a note, if it’s high-up on the staff they sing high; if it’s low-down on the staff they sing low. If the splotches of ink go up, the sounds go higher; if they go down, the sounds descend. Ideally we’d love our singers to be able to look at those notes and know things like, “oh, that’s a whole step up followed by another whole step up followed by a half step up followed by a perfect fourth down” – and know what that sounds like and how to produce that sound all by themselves. A University chorale full of music majors will operate that way. But realistically, in our volunteer choir, if people can follow along as our learned accompanist plays the voice parts and everyone sings along with him, we’re pretty happy.

Yes, this is perilously close to being “dumbed down.” Again, I apologize to the choral educators I know, who will cringe at just how simplified I just got. But if I’m going to convince prospective choir members that this activity is really “not scary! not scary!”, it’s not in my best interest to get too complicated too soon, is it?

Here’s a graphic (which I can’t get my blog technology to show in a reasonable size; it’s either too tiny or much too big … ARGH!! … so you may wish to open it in a new tab or window on your browser, or better still save the foolish thing to your hard drive) … which describes a few ideas that are helpful to understand in order to properly pretend to read choir music:









Most importantly, we have plenty of people in the choir who at one time were in the very same boat as potential newcomers – and who, rather than snicker at them (“silly non-music-readers!”), are happy to lean over, point to a thing or two, whisper helpful things, and smile non-threateningly. We’re not scary. We want you to stay! We want you to enjoy singing as much as we do.

Come on in. Everybody in the pool. The water’s fine.


March 25, 2012 - Posted by | choir, music, Starred Thoughts, SUMC, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Don’t forget those who studied music but still can’t read it very well… or have forgotten much of what they learned a bazillion years ago. :o)

    Comment by Holly B. Anderson | March 26, 2012 | Reply

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