Volunteer Choirs - Part 1

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Some readers may know I've directed a choir at a parish in northern Virginia for over 12 years. It's been a real joy for me: it's how I met my wife, it keeps me involved in music-making on a weekly basis and gives me plenty of opportunities to revive the use of chant and motets at our Mass.

Our parish has over 100 volunteers in the music program spread over four Masses. The parish repertoire ranges from some common latin chants and latin motets to guitars & banjos. My response to folks that have asked why we don't have guitars at our Mass at 10am on Sunday is - pick the one before or after if that's what you want. Or drive another 5 minutes to another parish where every Mass has "contemporary" music.

Enough bits have been recorded related to the problems with contemporary music, and the fact chant and polyphonic choral music needs a revival. I'm going to start posting some practical advice for choir directors who want to work toward making chant and motets common practice in their parishes - even if for the one Mass that has a choir.

First - you don't need paid soloists and/or section leaders to do more advanced music. I've had only a few paid section leaders over the years and while they helped alot, they aren't crucial to learning and performing the treasures of the Church.

The minimum requirements are - 1) you need an excellent accompanist who can play through parts with confidence and clarify. 2) You need at least one or two singers in each section who are strong music readers and can help the rest of the section learn their parts. They don't need loud voices - they need to be able to sing in tune and have the confidence to help lead the section.

Next item is: start simple. There are plenty of four part motets that have lots of step-wise motion and common intervals. Here are a couple of collections that are a good place to start:

Four-part Palestrina Motets This has the classic "O Rex Gloriae" for Ascension Sunday, "Benedicta Sit Sancta Trinitas" for Trinity Sunday. The parts are pretty straight forward and the score includes a piano reduction. The only drawback with the score is the printing is a little small.

A few other options for starters:
Christmas is incomplete with the Victoria "O Magnum Mysterium"
The Aichinger "Regina Caeli" is a relatively easy four part motet that's perfect for Easter.
Victoria's "Miserere Mei" is a very straight forward motet for Lent.

Now some might say those pieces are too difficult. I'd love to hear about motets that you think are easier since I'm sure my knowledge of the repertiore is incomplete. But - even in the world of four part motets you could do much worse.

Examples: this Easter season my choir is learning the Mouton "Alleluia, Confitemini Domino." It looked relatively straight forward on the Internet. But the parts aren't as clear as in some of the other motets I referenced. The voices cross in many places. The intervals aren't as common as other motets of the period. And the rhythms are pretty adventurous and are harder to count. No piano reduction meant we had to make one for our accompanist - which is not only a drag but didn't help much because of the part crossing. Even the piano score is harder to play.

One last thought on learning music like this:
Make the choir sight read the piece all the way through without stopping at least 3 times. Obviously the accompanist needs to play along and needs to be confident. It's a terrible thing to just start pounding separate parts without giving choir members a chance to read them. Divided sectionals can come later if needed (and we still need them from time to time.) Part pounding with the full choir is a recipe for slow learning and boredom. The time you have the basses learning one part is time the tenors, altos and sopranos are getting bored and frustrated. Give folks a chance to try to learn by reading and over time they will get better and better at reading.

Next up: overcoming singing problems in volunteer choirs.

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John Schultz

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This page contains a single entry by John Schultz published on May 5, 2007 9:33 AM.

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