6 Reasons Most New Church Choir Repertoire Sounds the Same

Sing it Over Again...

One of the things I enjoyed about my position as publisher of Creator magazine is that I g0t to see most of the new church choral anthems that were published each year in the process of assembling the Select 20 anthem reviews for each issue of the magazine and, of course, on the website. It is a love/hate enjoyment, because, while I look at thousands of pieces in a year, it is a time consuming job, and sometimes not a lot of fun...among other things, our recycle bin is often overflowing.

I've been doing this since I purchased the magazine in 1997, and it has been interesting to see the changes that have taken place in the last 17 years. Here are a few general observations:

The influence of the "worship choir" movement has changed how publishers think about what a "choral" anthem is exactly.
The perceived erosion in the number (and "worth"-iness) of "choirs" in churches means that more companies are competing for fewer and fewer dollars.
The erosion in the number of "full service" independent print music stores, and the consolidation of those that remain in the hands of just a few owners, mean that fewer and fewer people control what is "acceptable" to sell.
The erosion in the number of "bankable" composers, and the fact that they see each other (and each other's tunes) on a regular basis at reading sessions, mean that fewer and fewer people understand what is "acceptable" to write for maximum sales. (See the two bullet points above to understand the endless circle of incestuous-ness that prevails in the industry right now.)
The now standard practice of marketing new choral music through the production of demo recordings means that most choir directors now pick music on the basis of what they "hear" (especially production values) rather than what is on the printed page, or what is relevant to their particular situation.
The increasingly standard practice of using the demo recordings as models and teaching tools in lieu of rehearsal means that most choir directors now treat the recording as the "sacred" end rather than teaching musicality and musicianship and making independent artistic decisions. (See the last bullet point to understand the endless circle of mediocrity that prevails in worship music right now.)

What's your experience?

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14 Replies to “6 Reasons Most New Church Choir Repertoire Sounds the Same”

  1. I cried when musical instruments became mere commodities and began showing up at Sears, Wall Mart, Target and the like. Mom and Pop music stores have all but gone away because of the new business model that favors the big chains who have huge buying power and command steep discounts.
    I doubt we will ever see the mom and pops come back. The bottom line power brokers are entrenched and the manufacturers are giddy with volume sales and record profits.

    Much the same thing has happened in the sheet music/publishing industry.
    The “mom and pop” equivalent has bowed down and bowed out.

    You can tell a man (or woman) by the shoes he wears, the car he drives and the dominant publishers in the music library. I personally find sparse jewels in almost all publishers and I hope that the remaining variety will be able to stay in business.
    All publishers need to “sell” to exist. I have a feeling that there is a struggle on all the publishing staffs related to the end-user tastes and appetites that are trending today vs. the “real” choral music they personally want to arrange and sell.

    Serious, well trained and skilled musicians with a commanding faith in Jesus Christ and a solid theological background are needed on both ends of the spectrum and this is where I see the great need. If the director can’t read it or doesn’t like it, the choir can’t sing it. If the accompanist can’t play it–no sale.

    When a church music leader knows 4 chords on the guitar and cannot tell you who Hinshaw, Oxford and Beckenhorst are, you know that he or she will probably be singing and leading unison praise songs off a screen with Pro Presenter. Enough of these as a preference or necessity (I’m not saying this is wrong or bad) and music publishers (hymnals) must shift their model of business.

    We must see to it that our schools and churches teach our children to sing and to sing as a group. We must put our best leaders in charge of our children and give them all the finest training in piano, voice and other instruments. We must do it consistently and with passion. If there is to be a future for youth and adult choirs, it is here with these precious ones. They will publish with the quality we teach.Does not our Lord and worship deserve at least this much? Let the children lead. They don’t care about profit and loss sheets.

    PS. Yes, church choral music across the board has taken on the same effect as the European car designers on all cars. They pretty much look the same/sound too much alike. It reminds me too of the “publish or perish” found in many other disciplines. The feel is that a composer is forced and contrived–cranking out cookies instead of a cake for the Queen.

    What I find much more disturbing on a grand scale, however, is the sorrowful void in texts. Where have our theological poets gone? I’m sure the royalties are much higher if the text is your own, but please, composers, this has gone too far. I say, find a scripture, quote it and accept that you will not improve on it at any price.

    Publishers, we need at least this much. Thank you for your work. We know your challenges are great and you have my prayers. My son is joining you soon. You will get a good one.

    1. Eileen Sharp says:

      Well said! Amen!

    2. You’ve covered a lot here Glenn…thanks for your comments…

  2. Kenneth Wold says:

    I agree with the article and the comments above. I have served in church music for over 60 years and have watched the quality diminish. Although even back in the 1960’s and ’70’s there were certain publishers which I avoided because their music was sub-standard and cheap. Have I never purchased a “sub-standard or cheap” piece of music? Unfortunately I have some which I should have tossed years ago. I am also guilty! But I try to be discerning and select quality music which is in the skill level of my singers.

    Many years ago when Music Minnesota was holding annual “read-though” gatherings in Minneapolis, I attended even though I live 200 miles away. The Creator magazine presentation was superb with several selections which I could use in my teaching and church work. Most of the other sessions featuring publications of a single publishing house used the recorded orchestration to make their piece sound better than it was. People around me were exclaiming about music which was not worth the time to learn. The next year I was unable to attend, so I phoned the company and inquired if I could purchase just the Creator Magazine packet from that year’s presentation. I was told that Creator was not presenting that year because so little had sold from their presentation the preceding year. I was astounded! The well thought out music with depth and musicality was rejected in favor of easy to learn, but shallow music. It was what sold, not the really fine selections which Creator Magazine had presented. Sad commentary on both the publishers and the music leaders making the purchases.

    I believe there are some very quality composers and publishers willing to take the risk, but one has to search to find this music. I need to offer to God only the best I can produce. In my situation, It must be also able to be accessed by not so skilled singers, but if it takes 3 months to learn the piece, it will be appreciated more intensely. Let’s ask our composers to step out of the familiar and write good music to strong texts.

    1. Thanks for your comments Kenneth, and your kind words about Creator. I don’t think there is anything I can add…

  3. Janet Finke says:

    Anybody out there seeing the pendulum swinging the other way?

  4. marla maertin says:

    Yes in my area (western NY) we have several music stores which are mom -and -pop types that are thriving. I teach at one and there are over 300 students there. We host 3 recitals, a classical recital at our local theater, a rock band camp and a Broadway song and dance camp each year. Also, even though our congregation is slowly declining, our music program is still strong. I saw how things were changing 10 years ago and began children’s choirs and handbell groups to bring the kids “up through the ranks ” and have new members for the adult bell group and choir. When the number of adults available for these groups started agony and younger members went away to college, I started “ensembles ” of 6-8 people to play once and have minimal rehearsals (3-4). This idea has really taken off and has brought back many ringers and singers who could not devote full time to either group. Sometimes we have to compromise and yes, do “worship choir ” music, but at least we still have a choir and bells and have a reason to bring the next generation into an involvement with music!

    1. Concentrating effort on children’s music has a beneficial effect on every congregation for which I’ve seen it tried. Thanks for reminding us Marla…

  5. Dan Wagner says:

    Church music and worship leaders who came from Evangelical backgrounds had to function on a continuum of a few options. Some immediately succumbed to pastoral and envy-based pressures and immediately adopt to the new way (typically until their churches decided they no longer fit the profile.) Others stayed for a while, changing little, and that usually didn’t last. Still others would prove they could do what was good and true AND fully embrace the new ways and means. A few would survive for some decades, living in tension with pastors and superficial cultural commentary. Some would eventually realize that they would have to find churches that really never picked up on the trends, and never stopped wanting fine choral music. Many found other careers, or retired.

  6. Duane Toole says:

    There is good music out there, still. But, like many part-time church musicians, I have a day job. I have no time to find the perfect fit for my choir.

    The big publishers print so much junk, I’ve stopped getting the previews. I’ve come to depend on specific composers that turn out music I can use of quality (Paul Halley, Bryan Greer and David Cherwein come to mind), and on reading sessions from clinicians whose tastes I trust. (I have discovered which clinicians to avoid, too!) Even in the reading sessions I do attend (usually at the Montreat or Junaluska conferences), I usually only come away with one piece from any reading session, so I’ve also developed a group of church musician friends who can suggest good music.

    I’m thankful my small church has a library of good standard anthems that I can work from, and that I have a budget that can add good anthems each year.

    I still feel it important to teach good choral technique and musicianship, so that music that is performed becomes the best that we can offer to God. Thankfully, I’m not alone with that attitude here in Richmond, Va.

    1. One more reason to stay in contact with your colleagues Duane. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Wes Scott says:

    The decline in the number of choral reading sessions (at least my personal knowledge of them) is having a similar impact as the demo cds. Reading sessions give us both a view of the text in addition to hearing and singing live the anthem…a very important step in ascertaining whether or not a particular anthem will work with our choir and church.

    1. Absolutely true, Wes…and the corollary is that fewer people are leading those reading sessions, so you get the same POV in their selections from year to year.

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