I have primarily dealt with three choral music publishing companies in my time in ministry: Lillenas, Word, and Brentwood-Benson. I have also purchased items from other companies but I have found these three the most beneficial for my situation. I tend to approach choir largely from a part-time / volunteer mindset. My father is a part-time music minister and I have learned a lot of what I know about choral leading from him. I often find a disconnect between what I learned in school and what you can actually do with a volunteer choir. The churches I have served in are not doing John Rutter’s Gloria or a rousing rendition of Handel’s Messiah! No offense, it’s just not happening! Isn’t this the case in the majority of churches? Most people in our choirs are common folks who simply love to sing and worship God. They largely don’t know how to read music. Sure, I try to teach them about music and improve their technical skill but ultimately I see my goal is to help them do what they do in the most excellent way possible. I want them be free to worship and have fun praising the Lord!
My transition to full-time music ministry has been much of the same. The church may be a little larger but in large part the choir is still too small to perform much of the music that comes through mainstream choral publishing companies. Here are my impressions and observations of three choral clubs I have been a part of.
Brentwood-Benson Choral Club
I am not currently a Brentwood-Benson subscriber, but I was for most of my ministry. This club is particularly useful because of the simplicity of their music. They frequently offer musicals with recognizable songs, sing-able arrangements, and most importantly they provide a good message. I also found the ‘Ready to Sing’ series very helpful for doing new songs on a limited budget. Most of these collections contain 12-15 popular songs that the choir enjoys singing. While the initial cost of the accompaniment track and choir books appear to be high, it is cheaper in the long run than buying individual songs. Plus, as most clubs, you receive a voucher equal to the membership fees (around $80). Brentwood-Benson is a good club and is very helpful for the small volunteer choir or the larger choir with limited rehearsal time. In my opinion, the one drawback to the Brentwood-Benson Choral Club is that their accompaniment tracks are not always at the same level as other publishers. They are not bad; they just sound more midi than the others. If you have a proficient choir accompanist, this may not matter.
***UPDATE – I just re-subscribed with Brentwood-Benson. They have made a lot of improvements over the last couple years. My article was largely written from past experience with only the Brentwood-Benson club. I decided to go with the easier club overall, but the discounts are available for the more moderate club (Benson) as well. I noticed that they had the Travis Cottrell /Jesus Saves Live project and I think it will be really good for our choir. Very worshipful and combines both modern and traditional songs. Can’t wait to get the choir started on it in the fall!
Word Music Choral Club
I am currently subscribed to Word and have been on two different occasions. I view Word as riskier than Brentwood. You pretty much know what you are going to get when you get a box from Brentwood-Benson, but Word may put out a couple of terrible boxes in a row before publishing a gold mine. When I say ‘terrible’ boxes I mean they just don’t fit the smaller / volunteer choir. Every now and then, though they’ll come up with a gem. In 2003, they produced a Christmas musical entitled “A Thrill of Hope.” I have led this musical three times and now at three different churches. It has a great message and has been awesome each time. It pushed each choir to their respective musical limits, but turned out wonderful! One of my issues with Word is that they seem to be a little more open to secular music. From my perspective, if I was looking for secular arrangements of Christmas classics…I would…look for secular arrangements of Christmas classics! This is not true of Word every year, but some years it does seem to be the case. Word is my all or nothing club. Right now, it is worth the risk for me.
Lillenas Choral Club (Nazerene Publishing)
Lillenas is my favorite choral club. They routinely have a good combination of children’s musicals, adult and senior adult musicals, and octavos. They typically stay ahead of the curve and provide fresh arrangements of modern worship songs. This isn’t the easiest thing to do! One of my pet peeves is when church choirs sing modern worship songs in an “overly proper” sort of way. In large part, Lillenas does a good job at not allowing their arrangements to sound that way. I really like how they recently arranged Casting Crown’s “Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me)”. I plan on ordering it soon! This Easter, our choir did a combo-choir presentation of Lillenas’ 2008 Dove Award Winning Musical “Amazing Grace – My Chains Are Gone.” I really liked this musical. The arrangers effectively weaved the testimonies of John Newton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer into the narration while remaining Gospel-centered. The music was sing-able and invited congregational worship. It wasn’t the classic Easter presentation, but was a really nice change of pace.
If I could offer my opinion to publishers, I would tell them to always keep the Gospel message at the center of their writing. The Bible provides a timeless storyline. Remember to think about the 10-30 member church choirs. The majority of churches are not mega-churches with mega-choirs. Most are made up of common, working folks who love Jesus and want to sing about Him! Provide these people a way to worship Jesus in an excellent, but reasonable way.
My Favorite Easter Musical I have led is…“The Risen Christ” (from Clear Call Music). It is all Getty songs, all the time! Gospel-centered. Loved it!
My Favorite Christmas Musical I have led is…“A Thrill of Hope” (Word Music). I have led it on 3 occasions at 3 different churches. Combo choir and solo. Good stuff!