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April 6, 2023

The small parish: Developing your volunteer-run church choir

The small parish: Developing your volunteer-run church choir


“I am in charge of the choir! Now what?” As sometimes happens in small church choirs, a generous volunteer, though lacking in traditional musical training, has responded to the call of service and has stepped up to help lead their parish choir. This blog is for that person.

Maybe you inherited a music ministry in a sudden way. Perhaps the music director at your community moved away, and you are newly in charge of selecting music for the small church choirs at your parish. This advice is not just geared particularly toward someone who is starting a Catholic music ministry, but also people who are looking for the best ways to engage their singers and church musicians and grow and run and efficient choir practice and music program.

All tips and instruction come from Dr. Carlos M. Vázquez-Ramos, who has served as director of music and liturgy at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, Fla., since 2005.

Who are we in the Church?

Before forming or assuming the responsibility of the choir or any other ministry in the Church, it is important to understand the vision and mission of the parish, especially the vision of the pastor. As director of music in my parish, I try to be in tune with the needs and activities of the community and not be isolated within my ministry. To be disconnected results in unnecessary frustrations. This may seem irrelevant to our musical task, but it’s fundamental for the success of the group.

First of all, the music director must be a spokesperson for the pastor in all parish affairs. Who are we? We are branches of the great tree that is our parish community. As music directors, when we keep our choir and other groups informed and connected, we send a message of unity. We let our group know that we’re working together. For example, if there’s a prayer chain in the larger parish for all who’ve lost house or job, it’s important that the choir take part for the good of the entire community. Similarly, if the choir rehearsal is scheduled at the same time as the parish Lenten mission, it’s important to move the rehearsal so the choir can participate in the mission. The foundation of our ministry should be solidly established, centered in the larger community, and rooted in Christ.

Discipline and rehearsal

Like some sports, music involves a team (in this case the choir) and a place and time to prepare the plan of action. That place and time is the rehearsal, and it should be taken very seriously.

We all need structure, in ministry as in school. Remaining firm in everything that has been agreed upon strengthens the group. It seems absurd for someone to ask what time the 8 p.m. rehearsal starts. But it could be due to inconsistent start times in the past. If the rehearsal starts at 7 p.m. and it’s necessary to set up microphones and music stands, I recommend that the director arrive at least 45 minutes early: to anticipate the unexpected and make sure rehearsal starts on time. Otherwise, a change in rehearsal time should be seriously considered. Being late produces discomfort and frustration in the group and is one of the most common reasons people leave the choir.

As far as the length of the rehearsal, if the group has agreed on a 1.5 hours, that’s exactly how long it should last. If more time is needed, the choir should be informed so they can prepare. Never wait until everybody arrives in order to begin. This sends the erroneous message that the director will always wait, and it’s not fair to those who arrive on time. Ambivalence on the starting time translates into a lack of interest in the rehearsal. Time is gold.

The choir’s dress, once established, should be respected. What the choir wears helps define the group as a single entity. It’s the responsibility of each member to wear the agreed-upon clothing and make the necessary arrangements if he or she has an appointment before or after Mass.

There are many situations music directors will encounter. But the role of the choir is clear: to convey the message of the word of God through music. Nothing should interfere with that mission.

Planning the rehearsal

Your first rehearsal with a new choir has arrived and so many questions run through your mind. How will I start? Have I chosen the right songs? How many songs are we going to be able to rehearse? When are we going to sing at Mass? I have to confess that I have always treated the rehearsal like a rite in which Jesus takes an essential part. I approach each rehearsal as if it were the first one. It is normal to feel some anxiety about how things are going to flow. However, the most important thing is to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The planning of a rehearsal has to be flexible; we always have to be ready for the unexpected. After all, when the group has a spiritual need at any time, everything else should be secondary. The format you choose should simplify and help, not hinder, the objective, implementation and flow of the rehearsal. Here is an outline with suggested times for each section:

  1. Reading of the Sunday Gospel, reflection, and prayer. (15 minutes)
  2. Sing and rehearse something familiar, taking advantage of the opportunity to work with more technical aspects of the music. For example: “Pescador de Hombres/Lord, You Have Come” (20 minutes)
  3. Introduction of new songs and/or Mass parts: (45 minutes)
    • The Psalm
    • New Selection
    • New Selection
    • Mass Parts
  4. Discuss issues related to the group. (10 minutes)

Reflection and prayer

It is important to mention that though I am thinking specifically about the choir, the principles in this section apply to any type of ensemble. Every rehearsal needs structure in order to be effective. I have said that prayer is fundamental to the spiritual growth of the group. By reading the Gospel, we get in tune with the liturgy to be celebrated and we see the message of the word of God reflected in the chosen songs. When I started giving my groups the opportunity to reflect on the Gospel, it seemed that I was wasting time. Few people participated and when they did it seemed to be out of obligation.

However, as time went on, participation improved and little by little we have been transforming into small communities of faith. The members are eager to participate and the reflections are more profound. When the reflections are finished, we offer an Our Father for the needs of the group and the community in general. The 15 minutes invested in prayer are without a doubt the most important part of the entire rehearsal.

Working with known material

Why is it important to begin the rehearsal by singing something that is well known or at least familiar to the group? Simply because as directors of the ministry we have the responsibility of creating a relaxed atmosphere before the real work begins. Many choir members work all day long, confront difficult situations at work and home, and, even so, take time to be at rehearsal. After all, they want to be part of the group because they want to sing and/or play, and to pray by offering God their time and talent. We should go out of our way to accommodate them.

Through familiar material we can work with technical aspects of the music such as tempo, dynamics, intonation and interpretation, among others. I suggest that you rehearse each detail in the form of a spiral. In other words, we have to let our group rehearse a section of the song before stopping and making corrections. For example, if each time we sing, “Lord, you have come to the seashore,” we stop and do not get past that phrase, we can be certain that the concentration and interest of the group will be lost. On the contrary, if we allow the choir to sing one verse and the refrain, we will have a more concrete idea of what we want to improve. The technique of rehearsing in a spiral pattern is very effective because the group can clearly see the progress from one repetition to the other. As directors, we have to focus on progress more than perfection and, above all, we cannot forget to let the group know when we notice progress. We all appreciate when our effort is noticed.

When considering the time (tempo) of the song, we can ask ourselves the following questions: Are we singing too slow or too fast? How can we know? There are many ways of knowing, but the text is our best guide. If we pay attention to the message behind the music, immediately we will know if the song is dragging or if it is so fast that it’s impossible to sing. We should guard the character of each song like a treasure. Problems of rhythm and tempo separate us from the composer’s intention.

Dynamics give life to the composition. Through loud (forte) and soft (piano) dynamics, among others, we make certain parts of the text stand out. The interpretation of the text is closely connected with dynamics. For example, if we think about “Pescador de Hombres/Lord, You Have Come,” it is impossible to sing the refrain with the same intensity as the verses. Verses provide the story’s narration; in many songs they contain profound theology. The refrains usually proclaim and confirm the central message of the story. In the refrain, “O Lord, with your eyes set upon me, gently smiling, you have spoken my name …,” we reaffirm our trust in God and our promise to be his disciples. This gives us a guide as to the song’s interpretation. As a general rule, the verses should not sound the same because each has its own distinct message.

Introducing new material

The time devoted to prayer at the beginning of the rehearsal takes on a new dimension when you begin to introduce the new material. If the new songs are for the following Sunday, the choir has to be able to recognize the relationship between the songs you’ve selected and the readings. My experience has been that if the directer is excited about the new material, the choir will be too. So we have the power to affect the motivation of the group and make this part of the rehearsal smooth and productive.

In a rehearsal lasting approximately 1.5 to 2 hours, I recommend that you not present more than two new songs. It is a good strategy to start with the psalm since it helps us to synthesize the Liturgy of the Word. If the psalm has a musical setting, we can concentrate more on the sound and the vocal aspects. When the psalm is not set to music and we want to sing it (it should always be sung, at least the refrain), we should have a detailed plan for teaching it.

How do we present a song? First of all, we should talk about the text and its relation to the readings. If we have the recording, we can play it for the group. It is important to know how the piece sounds before it gets the individual touch of the ensemble. If we are using a hymnal, like Glory & Praise or Flor y Canto, we can share with the group another song written by the same composer and talk about his or her compositional style. Also, we can share some biographical information if we have it. Then we can introduce the song in the following manner:

Melody: The entire ensemble, including the instrumentalists, should sing the melody. Harmonies can be added later if there is room for them. Not all songs have to have parts (harmonies). The music itself and the composer’s intention will determine that. On many occasions, I have heard choirs that, by adding harmonies, totally overwhelm the melodic line or the first voice.

Rhythm: By listening to the melody we notice the places where the choir is not following the right rhythm. This happens primarily when the choir hasn’t learned the melody well and is trying to force the text into a different melody. A good technique for resolving rhythmic problems is to play the melody on the keyboard and let the choir clap the rhythm. This technique, in a funny but effective way, reveals to us immediately where the problem is and who has it.

Text: Reciting the text and rhythm of the song without singing is a good way of working through diction and enunciation problems. If the text gets lost in the melody, we are in trouble.

Dynamics: Does it need to be louder or softer? We will understand this as we continue to get more familiar with the text. The more we rehearse, the better our interpretation.

Instrumentation: Instrumentation is something that depends on the group. Some groups can add instruments easily because their musicians can read music, improvise, or find the chords along with the rhythm. In other groups, additional rehearsals with instrumentalists must be held so they can learn their parts. Collaboration with more advanced musicians is crucial in this case. Some advanced musicians may find it challenging to help others.

Rehearsing Mass parts

The Mass parts should be rehearsed or, as I say to my groups, they should be refreshed. You may not need to sing through them in every rehearsal, but practice them at least once a month if you rehearse weekly. Since Mass parts often have repeats, the text can get lost and the melodies become weak. Recently I asked the choir why we sing the Gloria. The answers I received were interesting and quite creative. We should talk about the Mass parts more frequently.

Ending the rehearsal

We should end each rehearsal by paying attention to the issues that pertain to the social life of the group. Birthdays, anniversaries, the arrival of a new baby, a new job, and special events, among others, are occasions to celebrate that can enrich the spiritual life of the group.

Once we take control of the planning and pacing of the rehearsal, then we are prepared to start working with more technical issues. Let us exercise passion, calm, and patience in all that we do as directors of the ministry. Our musical ensembles are branches of the great tree that is the Church.

Using Glory & Praise with your small church choir

In the video below, we feature St. Mary Parish in Kodiak, Alaska. Nestled among the rugged forest, mountains and glaciers of Kodiak Island, St. Mary’s is faith home to some 500 families. Many are migrants who come from around the world to work in the bustling fishing and canning industry, and every weekend they unite to give thanks to God.

The all-volunteer choir at this small parish is run by Alice Coen, who is also a volunteer. Over the past few years, St. Mary’s 20-year-old hymnals had deteriorated and needed to be replaced. Ultimately, Alice chose Glory & Praise, Third Edition because within one hymnal she found familiar songs, music in Filipino and Spanish, and variety of Mass settings to keep her small, diverse parish engaged.


Contact one of our parish services associate to learn more about how to select a resource for your small parish.

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