The Church Choir
By Bob Barber, Michael Pilat, and John Ressetar
(A composite article written by three choir directors, Bob Barber, Michael Pilat and John D. Ressetar.)
What is it that causes those individuals who come together to serve the function of “Church Choir” to become a dedicated, faithful, musically proficient group? Three choir directors were asked this question in the hope that their answers would offer insight and some helpful hints.
Bob Barber, Choir Director of St. Mark Orthodox Church, Bethesda, Md. offers the following thoughts:
Although there are probably many elements which contribute to “success”, in order for today’s choir to function to its fullest potential, the choir members must first of all sense their place within the Church as a “high-calling” or “vocation” to be taken seriously. The group must realize that from the earliest days of the Church, music was an integral part of Christian worship and therefore the place of the choir was looked upon as an order of clergy. Today’s choir members must see their role as equally important.
The task of being a choir member can be most demanding. The choir is responsible for not only singing the Sunday Liturgy, but Vespers, Matins, Feasts, and all the services of their Church. There are hundreds of hymns in the Church’s services with many different musical versions for each. The sheer volume of Orthodox hymns within a given service would send most non-Orthodox choirs into flight. Vocal techniques involved in singing chants can be difficult to master, and there are no instruments to hide behind. In order to persevere there must be a strong commitment and desire to serve the Church. The choir must be committed to the Faith and to sharing that faith through the music they sing.
UNDERSTANDING CHURCH HYMNS
Properly performed church hymns are the result of understanding the music and text technically and spiritually. The choir and, most importantly, the choir director should have a clear understanding of the purpose of each hymn, be it a dogmatic hymn, song of praise, processional, or whatever. The hymns should be sung with attention to the purpose, never carelessly or devoid of feeling. The ideal is found by singing from the heart! The Orthodox Church is blessed with a treasury of hymns textually rich, poetically and musically unequaled. With musical preparation and spiritual understanding the choir can present the songs of the Church as the treasure they are.
To present the hymns in this manner is no easy task and the point at which “esprit de corps” must enter the picture. The choir must take pride in the job it is doing. With regular rehearsals and faithful attendance, the choir will feel its success and be motivated onward. As with any organization, there will be group dynamics working to pull the group together. In Orthodox choirs there will automatically be some strong common bonds between members. First of all, the members are Orthodox Christians and dedicated to the Church. They all have some musical interests and abilities. Close friendships and spiritual fellowships are prone to develop within a group that spends considerable time together.
Even though the group can become tight-knit, it must see itself as a growing organization within the parish. New members should always be sought and made welcome with much enthusiasm. The members must always pray that the binding force in the group which sustains their “esprit de corps” be the Holy Spirit! And most importantly, they must pray that the whole congregation be filled with the Holy Spirit through the songs they sing.
QUESTIONS OF A PRACTICAL NATURE
Michael Pilat, Choir Director at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Parma, Ohio and John Ressetar, Choir Director at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, Broadview Hts., Ohio responded to particular questions of a practical nature:
How does your choir get new members?
Michael Pilat - At least once a year a message is printed in the church bulletin stating the need for church singers and inviting singers to join the choir. The following is a recent message:
THE MINISTRY OF MUSIC: Many people in the congregation are blessed with beautiful voices. You may stand near one of them in your pew; perhaps you yourself are one such person. Would you like to do more than just follow along with the choir in the singing of our worship? Are you concerned that there will be a choir to lead the singing? Are you willing to spend one evening of the week with the choir in preparation so that our spiritual celebrations go smoothly and beautifully? Are you willing to share your musical talent and offer it back to the Lord just as He granted it to you? You are welcome to be a part of the Holy Trinity Choir if the answer is Yes. Rehearsals are on Thursdays from 7:30 until 9:00 PM.
Such an announcement, while calling out for new choir members, also draws the attention of all parishioners to the choir and its needs. My best source of new members, however, comes from my work with the church school children.
John Ressetar - I get my members from personal contact. Also through my Pre-Teen and Youth Choirs.
What are rehearsals like? How do you get members to come to rehearsals?
Michael Pilat - Rehearsals are weekly except during the summer months. A typical rehearsal begins with a warm-up where singers can “tune-up” their voices. Part of the rehearsal is devoted to previously learned music and problem areas. Other time is spent learning new music. The singer learns to listen to others as he sings and learns the value of being an integral part of the ensemble. The choir learns that at times they are leaders of the assembly in song, and at other times they are a choral unit whose function it is to create a spiritual mood.
How do I get members to come to rehearsals? For awhile I resisted taking attendance. But the “work horses” of the choir finally convinced me that there were people not paying their duesattending rehearsals. And when rehearsals are attended by only the same 50 percent of its Sunday membership, discouragement soon sets in. After keeping attendance records both on Sunday and at rehearsals, I have zeroed in on those not attending. With friendly concern, I try to find out why and express to them that they are missed at rehearsals by others. In most cases, that personal approach has had positive results.
John Ressetar - I try to make it interesting and informal, unless something very important is coming up. We often mix in some contemporary music. We sing in both languages.
Besides singing for the services, does the choir perform at other functions?
Michael Pilat - The choir has performed programs of contemporary music at church social events. They have sung at community events and have made a few recordings of Christmas and Easter music. All of these activities have given the singers an incentive to sharpen their musical skills.
John Ressetar - At Christmas we perform on Public Square in downtown Cleveland and go out to dinner afterward. During Great Lent we sing at various churches of other denominations. We also sing as part of the Inter-Orthodox Choir of Greater Cleveland, particularly for the Sunday of Orthodoxy. We participate as well in ethnic festivals.
Do you involve the children in singing?
Michael Pilat - Oh my, yes! Without the children there would be no future. I spend a part of church school time once a month with the children in singing. Though not enough, to my regret, even this tiny capsule of time is cherished by the children, as a favorite learning experience. These same children are encouraged to stand with the adults at each service as part of the choir.
John Ressetar - Yes! Definitely! I have both a Pre-Teen Choir and a Youth Choir. The Pre-Teens meet each Friday night for activities, one of which is choir practice. They learn some of the basic church hymns, and at Christmas we practice carols for the Christmas program. The Youth Choir is made up of our teens and the oldest pre-teens. They sing part of the Liturgy on the first and third Sundays of the month. Right now we do our rehearsing on Sundays as well.
Do young people - both boys and girls - participate in reading for the services?
Michael Pilat - Readers at our parish do include boys and girls as well as men and women. We are fortunate to have several adults who volunteer to serve as readers’ coaches. At first a youngster will learn the Hours before the Liturgy. When they become fluent and can project their voice, they are then taught to read the Epistle and/or Communion Prayers. If necessary, a sound system is used to aid the young reader.
John Ressetar - Boys and men of all ages read the Epistle. Boys usually read on the Sunday that they serve as an altar boy. Both boys and girls read the Hours. I go to their homes in the evening to train them.
Does the choir have social events where members get to know each other better?
Michael Pilat - From time to time refreshments will be served following rehearsals. Also, our choir has instituted a tradition of beginning the new church year in September with a potluck cook-out.
John Ressetar - During the summer we have a choir outing at one of the nearby parksalso some cook-out rehearsals behind the church. We frequently invite other nearby Orthodox choirs to join us at some of these social gatherings.
A final thought from Michael Pilat: Not long ago my Bishop related to me a story about the demise of a mission parish because the people there could not sing in harmony. How important it is that the harmony of music be the vehicle of our worship in the Orthodox Church? And it is just as vital that we adults pass on this tradition to our young people in the formative years of their lives.
1. Reflect on some of the ways that you can help your church choir to grow both spiritually and numerically.
2. How important do you feel it is to include children in the church choir? In what ways can they be encouraged to sing, given your particular parish circumstances?