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The Choir Director and His Work.

BY CLIFFORD DEMAREST. 

This is not a new theme; in treating it many points must necessarily seem hackneyed; yet we all need suggestions for our work, and even in going over old ground sometimes a new way will appear which may lead us to a desired point.

First let us consider the director. He must be courteous, patient, tactful and firm; a musician in every sense, and able to command the respect of his singers. I assume that he is also the organist, for I believe this to be the best plan. Two heads in the choir loft are sure to bring trouble sooner or later.

In his book, “Musical Ministries in the Church,” Dr. Waldo S. Pratt says, “The musical leader is an assistant pastor. All his functions are parts of the general pastoral function. They are all features of the administration of public worship as a church exercise. Certainly the pastor and the musical leader must manage somehow to get together in sympathy and effort. It not only means much trying friction and discomfort when these two church officers do not understand each other or stand in antagonism, but it positively prevents the proper working of all the liturgical machinery. Each may have to make concessions as to opinions and tastes, and both may have to take care lest occasions of stumbling come, but something is radically wrong when they cannot strike hands cordially on fundamental purposes and desires. Certainly the office of musical leader would less often be assumed lightly and unadvisedly, or be cheaply regarded by congregations, if its essentially pastoral character and its connection with the work of the pastor-in-chief were more widely considered. It is curious that, while this principle is assumed as a matter of course in churches like the Roman Catholic and in most cases the Episcopalian, it is still not fully accepted and adopted in other denominations. Peace and prosperity in the musical department are hardly possible until the principle is frankly admitted as a basis of action everywhere.

“Having said this, we do not need to spend time in insisting on the importance of a clear personal character and of definite religious consecration on the leader’s part.”

ORGANIZING A CHOIR.

In the selection of a choir many points have to be considered, such as the style of music desired, size of the building, funds available, etc. Perhaps the most popular form of choir is the quartet of soloists. This choir is capable of many fine effects, especially if the voices blend and are well balanced.

A common error is to select one or two fine voices, using most of the available funds; then in order to fill out the quartet the remaining ones must necessarily be mediocre. The result is every much like a good horse and a mule hitched together.

Of course, any singer having a tendency to sing off pitch should never be considered for quartet work. It sometimes happens that the finest individual voices do not blend. This point should receive careful attention. Often I have heard quartets in which the individual voices were quite mediocre, when singing together produced a splendid ensemble. Beware of the voice that has that peculiar quality which makes it stick out and become prominent on all occasions. It will spoil every attempt at good ensemble. This unfortunate quality is often found among tenors and altos.

As to balance of tone, nothing but actual trial will determine this. Usually a high soprano should require a mezzo-contralto, a lyric tenor and a baritone. On the other hand, if heavier voices are desired, a good combination would likely be a full mezzo-soprano, a deep contralto, a tenor robusto and a low bass.

The great drawbacks to a quartet choir are the limited amount of music available and the lack of power necessary to promote good congregational singing.

THE DOUBLE QUARTET.

Next to the quartet in usefulness is the double quartet. When a careful selection of voices is made, having one quartet of high voices and the other of heavy, full voices, this form of choir is capable of giving sufficient volume for the interpretation of most of the large chorus anthems and to be an efficient leader of congregational singing.

The ideal choir is one composed of a chorus of from twenty to forty voices and a solo quartet. With such a combination of well-trained singers the choir is capable of rendering the finest compositions in the literature of church music.

As in the other forms of choir, balance of tone and blending should have its influence in the selection of voices.

A lack of tone in the tenor part can often be supplied by using a few altos to assist the tenors. In a large chorus it is very desirable to have a solid bass; for this purpose several low basses are needed.

THE VOLUNTEER CHOIR.

Fortunate is the director who has a paid choir. Where he is expected to organize a volunteer chorus the problem is often a difficult one. The writer being placed in this position some years ago found that a class in sight-singing proved to be a great help in attracting material for the choir.

If one can show the singers that they are receiving practical benefit, it is not always so difficult to organize and maintain a volunteer chorus, provided the material is at hand. Generally, the young people’s society and the Sunday- school provide a good field for obtaining material. Here we find fresh voices among the young men and women, a willingness to learn, and, if the director is the right kind, he can usually obtain quick results under these conditions. In any choir it is desirable that all the singers should have good voices; however, in a large chorus a few poor ones can be tolerated; for sometimes a certain voice is needed on a part, such as a low bass, and even if crude will add weight, while its roughness will be lost in the mass of tone.

CLEAR ENUNCIATION.

One of the most important things to strive for in choir training is clear enunciation of words. The effect of otherwise beautiful singing is lost when the text is unintelligible.

I place this point first, because it is very important, but the last to be considered by many directors. Some unaccompanied singing should be done at each rehearsal. It gives the choir confidence and the director a chance to hear his singers at a distance, as well as to judge the effect better. I have often set a combination on the organ and had one of the choir play, while I listened from the other end of the church. If directors would do this occasionally they would often discover some startling things.

Try to bring an atmosphere into the choir work. Sometimes this can be created by suggestion. During the rehearsal of an anthem, stop to read the words; tell the choir to think of them as a prayer, a song of praise or a longing for better things, as the case may be. This helps to put that vital something into the music which reaches the heart. Good hymn singing demands preparation, in spite of many who think the contrary. I always rehearse a new hymn entirely through, and at least a stanza of the others, unless it be a very familiar one. Chants and responses, when sung every Sunday, should be rehearsed occasionally; singers get careless and if not drilled on these from time to time they become ragged.

THE VALUE OF GOOD HUMOR.

By all means keep your choir in good humor; a laugh is a valuable asset. When everything is at sixes and sevens, the director is losing his patience and the choir ready to quit, a little anecdote or funny incident will often clear away the trouble; the mind takes a fresh start and all goes smoothly. Don’t forget this little point; it has saved many a rehearsal for me.

In the foregoing I have touched on a few points obtained in personal experience. If I have given any suggestions which will be a help to others then this humble effort is not in vain.

 

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