How to Select Music for Your Choir

(Church Music Today welcomes new contributor, John Cashion.  Here is his first article with us as contributor)

Maybe this has happened to you:  (If it hasn’t, you should stop reading now, write your own article, and send it to me).  You spent way too many of those precious music budget dollars to purchase that choir piece that sounded so great on the sample recording, passed it out with anticipation to your eager singers, struggled through a couple of rehearsals that seemed to go nowhere, and then reluctantly pulled the piece out of the folders, telling yourself that someday you would bring it out again.   But in your heart, you know that isn’t likely–and the piece will join those other misfires that are stored in the dusty reaches of a basement closet with the Vacation Bible School filmstrips.

Disclaimer-This article will not prevent that from happening again.

Now that I’ve lowered your expectations, I will propose that a careful approach to choosing music that can minimize those misfires and maximize our resources in providing appropriate and effective music for our choirs to use in worship.   And music being a very subjective art, that careful approach will need to be accompanied by a spirit-led sense of intuition on our part as directors.  The better we know the Lord, our people, and ourselves, the better will be our success rate in this aspect of our ministry leadership.

So with those disclaimers, let me share what approach has been helpful to me, hoping that with adaptation to your circumstances, it will be helpful to you.

The first question to answer is pretty basic—where do I start to look?   Even as church music evolves toward more contemporary and popular styles, there still seems to be a huge amount of new choir music published each year.    (Begs the question–if church choirs are fading away, who’s buying all this music?)   For the full time worship leader it can be overwhelming–for the part-time minister it might seem impossible.   We must find ways to make the task manageable.    Some enjoy music conferences with multi-publisher reading sessions–but I find these a time-consuming approach that offers few rewards.   On the other hand, those reading sessions (or conversations) where colleagues offer “winners” can be more helpful, especially if the colleagues are in comparable situations.   Even in those cases, the differences in taste can diminish the usefulness of the recommendations.   Most publishers now make available online full recordings and at least partial sheet music images of their new releases.    This can help us find those one or two tunes in a given release group that we might want to investigate further.    A few publishers still send out score booklets and CD’s for free, and those mailing lists are worth joining.    With a quick finger on the skip button and a ten second limit per song, you can zip through a CD pretty quickly to find those pieces worth a second look.  And if there is a publisher whose stylistic niche is close to yours, joining their sample music club might be cost-efficient.   (The danger here is the “I’ll get to that later syndrome”–and the later comes you discover behind the file cabinet that unopened 1993 Word Choral Club packet which despite being in it’s original box has no value on the Antiques Roadshow, and you have nothing on which to play the cassette anyway.)

Assuming you now have some sources for music, we’ll get to the crux of the matter—separating the wheat from the chaff.   And if we make those choices based on the following criteria, in the following order, I think we can offer our singers some great opportunities to grow as believers, lead others in worship, and bring honor to Christ.

I believe the first consideration is the text.   So after the tune catches our ear, I think it’s important to read the text, and to read it looking for some specific qualities:

1. Theological soundness and substance, because music in worship is a primary tool for teaching our congregations.

2. Honest expression of faith, mirroring the Psalms in their revelation both of the faithfulness of God and the struggles of fallen humanity.    Confession and assurance, doubt and faith, despair and joy–these are all relevant aspects of our communication with God.

3. Freshness and creativity in language, because the truth is too important to be expressed in boring phrases or trite clichés.

4. Emotional impact–because while the emotion generated by music may change our mood, the emotion generated by truth can change our life.

Once we conclude the text is worthy and will help our choirs and congregations grow in the faith, we can take a second look at the music:

The first musical consideration is practical–can your choir sing this piece?     Are the range, melodic shape, voice leading, and rhythmic complexity within their capabilities?   We want and need to stretch our choirs technically, but there is no virtue in discouraging them with music that is simply beyond their ability to sing confidently.

Second, does this piece come close to that area of style where the congregation’s taste, your choir’s taste, and your taste intersect?    We hope that area is ever broadening–and believe that both choir and congregation need to be patiently stretched in this regard.    But a continuing diet of music that does not speak the heart language of the listeners and performers is a recipe for diminished effectiveness as a worship and choir leader.   A choir piece in worship is not a performance to display talent or musical sensibilities, but an integral part of worship leadership.    We sing to God–but He is God who is present in His people and not just “up” in heaven.   He is the God who was willing to set aside His glory and become one of us.   We are not shortchanging Him by shaping our musical worship to reflect His incarnation as well as His majesty.  And speaking of style, are we also stretching our own parameters in that regard?   The temptation to only pick music that greatly appeals to us is one we must fight as we seek to model servant leadership and personal growth in our ministry.

In regard both to style and to technical demands, balance is the key principle.   In rehearsal, and over the long haul of worship planning, there are times to stretch and demand, and there are times to kick back and enjoy.   When a stylistically edgy and/or technically demanding piece becomes one of those most-requested favorites, we know we are fulfilling the teaching part of our worship leader role.

And finally, does the piece have staying power?    Most of evangelical church music is practical, designed for the moment, need-oriented, and not necessarily intended to “live for the ages”.   Out of the hundreds of anthems published each year, very few will still be in the catalogs 20 or 30 years from now.    But we should look for quality choir pieces that are worth the investment of time and money required to prepare and present them, and can and will be used more than once.    My experience has been that both choir and congregation benefit greatly from that second or third hearing of the text and music.   One way to judge this is to live with that sample copy for a while before ordering the piece.   Some songs will lose their appeal, while others will be confirmed in their value.   And in some cases, a piece you were unsure about grabs your interest on the second or third hearing and becomes a valuable addition to the library.

The unspoken truth in all the counsel offered here is that choosing music takes time, and for those who serve bivocationally or as volunteers, time is usually in short supply.   Even as a full-time minister, I can usually think of several more urgent matters to attend to than picking out new choir music.   It can be easier just to pull out their favorites in endless rotation, but we are shortchanging ourselves and our singers if we do that.   I urge you to invest the time—and be creative!    Sometimes I bring a stack of CD’s home, watch a football game with the sound off, and shuffle through the samples to pick out the one or two out of twenty that deserve a second look.  Perhaps their are similar moments in your schedule when you can fold in some looking and listening time.  The principle that applies to so much of our ministry, our work, even our lives, holds true in this endeavor as well:  an ounce of preparation is worth tons of rehearsal.  

So as the Guardian of the Holy Grail said to Indiana Jones . . . choose wisely!


John Cashion is a contributor to Church Music Today.  Visit our homepage and our Facebook page.


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