Over the past few weeks, CHURCH MUSIC TODAY has featured some blog articles by guest authors. Authors have included Rev. Tim Hooper, Minister of Music at Stithton Baptist Church in Radcliff, KY, Rev. Mark Williams, Pastor of Hawesville Baptist Church in Hawesville, KY. Today, we are honored to present, Rev. John Cashion, Minister of Music at Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Beaver Dam, KY. John has served at Beaver Dam Baptist over 25 years. Today, John brings us the third “guest blogger” post called, “Working with the Volunteer Choir”.
When Dennis asked me to share some thoughts on the “volunteer choir”, it reminded me of a scene from an old television movie, “A Christmas Without Snow”. In this 1980 release, the various stories and struggles of the characters are interwoven with the ongoing preparation of a “volunteer choir” for a Christmas presentation of Messiah. The scene I will never forget is of a rehearsal in which a recently recruited, somewhat prima-donna soprano (go figure) has a run-in with the curmudgeonly director (played by John Houseman). Resisting the director’s efforts to blend her voice with the other singers, she angrily stomps out and dismisses the rest of the choir as bunch of “amateurs”. The director’s response is to affirm to the choir the truth of her statement by reminding them that the true meaning of the word amateur is not an indication of quality. He explains an amateur is one who does what they do purely for the love of it–and he honors them for that motivation and commitment.
That scene always reminds me that the volunteers we serve with are a great gift from God that we need to celebrate and affirm continually. And understanding the love that motivates them is a key to knowing how to bring out their best. So we will frame our thoughts about working with them around the simple question: “What is it they love that brings them to choir rehearsal?”
The Sunday School answer to that question is that they love God, and want to praise Him. And if all of us–directors included–were always motivated by such a high calling, then many of the issues of commitment, enthusiasm, ego, discipline, musical growth, etc., would be moot. But human nature being what it is, an understanding of the other loves of our lives will help us enrich the choir experience, and bring all of us closer to the ideal of being motivated primarily by our love for God.
So again I ask, “What do they love that brings them to rehearsal?”
For one thing, they love fellowship. So one key to working with this group is to not fight that desire for socialization, but to use it as a tool for building unity of spirit and of sound. Laughter both relaxes and energizes us, and those conditions are key to making great music. Intensive, detailed rehearsal; corrective exercises; necessary repetitive singing;–all these medicinal elements go down more easily, and more effectively, when accompanied by liberal doses of the sugar of humor and a light spirit. And when that humor emerges from the choir itself, consider that a gift of joy rather than a hindrance or an interruption. If our typical rehearsal is conducted with a sense of pressure and desperation that precludes such moments, we’d better reconsider the demands being made on the choir, or at least examine our planning process (see below).
Spiritual fellowship is of course a deeper concept than just laughter and conviviality. If the choir is to sing as one, they must understand that biblical image of the church (and those subgroups within a congregation) as a body–a body in which each member has value, and values each member. Times for sharing and praying together in rehearsal will build that level of fellowship and deepen the choir’s ministry.
I can hear you saying–because I’ve said it to myself–“but we have so little time and so much to do”. Which brings me to something else choir members love. They love meaningful activity. If the time they invest in rehearsal has purpose and direction, they will come back. I believe people long to invest time doing something that matters. The gift of an hour or longer that choir members give to rehearsal is a treasure that deserves the greatest consideration. The gift we can give back is a well-planned, thought-out, balanced rehearsal that has direction and mutually understood goals. Rehearsal planning is a blog topic unto itself–but a good plan has pace, variety of style, a sense of what is immediately necessary and what is long-term, attacks challenging elements in manageable chunks, and is fast-paced but with ample breathing room. A plan with obvious forethought, written down, followed with flexibility–this kind of plan communicates to the choir that rehearsal is an important time, and that their time is important. And since our time is also important, we remember that the ounces of time we invest in planning save pounds of anxiety in the long run.
Choir members love music. (Duh!) But most people love music–the difference is that choir members love creating musical excellence for themselves and for others. And in this context, musical excellence is not defined by what we can hear on a CD, but by the continued improvement that the choir enjoys because of their time together. So we challenge them, coerce them, coax them down paths they might not choose on their own. Not every song, or every week . . . but enough that we allow them to catch glimpses of what they are capable of. We stretch them (and ourselves) stylistically, so we can model the great diversity of the Creator of music. We stretch them (and ourselves) technically so they can enjoy the satisfaction of offering a sacrifice of praise that truly is a sacrifice. We stretch them vocally so that those bodies which are God’s temple can be used to their maximum potential. We purse excellence not for its own sake, but for the sake of One who gave His all for us.
Choir members love affirmation. The Bible speaks of our calling to “build up” the church; sincere encouragement is vital for that ministry. Rehearsal is primarily about correction, so we must look for any opportunity to catch them doing something well, and to generally affirm their ministry. We must cultivate in ourselves an attitude of thankfulness even for those persons who are difficult to deal with or who bring little or no musical skills to the equation. Easier said than done, for sure . . . but ministry is about taking people where they are and by God’s grace finding ways for all of us to grow. The standard for love, for forgiveness, for acceptance, is to treat others as Christ treats us. That is a transforming theology and methodology for human relationships, and a choir and it’s director should be the ultimate model of such. Choral singing is all about deference, harmonizing, listening, and how the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. And the director’s positive spirit is essential in teaching those spiritual and musical concepts.
Finally, choir members love to impact the lives of other people–it gives them a sense of God’s purpose in their lives. We do not make music in a vacuum, but in the context of fellow worshippers who in any given service need to be comforted or challenged or encouraged or uplifted or convicted–or most likely, all of the above. Understanding our worship leadership to have that potential can transform the ministry of the choir. We express our love for God by expressing love for and with His people, and the more that concept drives our rehearsing and our worship, the greater our joy. So we spend time with the texts, we energize our singing, we teach the communication value of expressive faces and active bodies, not merely to elevate our art, but to elevate the truth we share and to elevate the people who share it with us. And above all, we ask God to provide the energy that comes from not from mere performance skills but from the power of His Spirit.
I have not written about rehearsal techniques, vocalizing, score marking, etc. I suppose that is because when I heard the phrase “volunteer choir”, my mind latched on to the word volunteer as the distinctive attribute to address. Actually “working” with the choir–those directing techniques and teaching tools are much the same whether the choir is volunteer or professional, untrained or trained. It’s just that with the latter categories you can skip some elementary steps. And they learn faster–sometimes. So I have majored on what it means to work with people who do what they do exclusively for love–amateurs in the best sense of that word. And I truly believe that touching the spirit of our singers will enable us to mold the music of our singers–and as we mold their music, we touch their spirit. My college choral conducting teacher spoke often about how singing is so personal and emotional. All my experiences since then have reinforced that conviction in me. So working with a volunteer choir means to love those glorious amateurs, and to join with them in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength . . . and with every song.
Rev. John Cashion is a guest blogger for CHURCH MUSIC TODAY. He has currently served at Beaver Dam Baptist for over 25 years as Minister of Music, in Beaver Dam, KY. John masterfully leads ministries of adult, youth, and children’s choirs, as well as handbell choirs and drama ministries. John has had several choral anthems and drama pieces published with various companies (exhibit A, exhibit B).
As a side note, John was my children’s and youth choir director. He has been an example to me for since 1986 (when I joined Beaver Dam Baptist Church). He was influential in my salvation, love for music, and also, my calling to the ministry. John’s example extends today while I am now full-time in the ministry. John still is “my” music minister and also a friend. I am thankful to serve with John in this glorious calling.
John is married to his wife, Jerre and has two children. Visit the Beaver Dam Baptist Church website here.