Conductors as Educators

National Association of Church Musicians

We periodically ask members of the National Association of Church Musiciansto provide content for Monday Morning Email. This month's guest contributor isColleen Cronin, who has been directing School, Community, and Church Choirs since the 1970's. She has spent the last 27 years as Director of Music at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Westchester, California, where she conducts the Adult Sanctuary Choir, the Youth Choir, the Children's Choir, the Orchestra, and Praise Band. She also teaches Elementary vocal music for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and coaches fellow music teachers. Colleen's topic this month is conductors as educators, and includes a personal story:

Good teachers know this: Don’t lecture; offer experiences. We learn best by doing and while having fun. Adults, like children, don’t enjoy much passive listening. They want to be active learners. The choir rehearsal is just the place for such action! I do all of my teaching in the context of learning the anthem.

Rehearsal time is precious. Every minute needs to be used wisely, with most of those minutes being spent in singing, NOT talking. Professional conductors know this: Don’t say it; show it. Strive to show what you want as often as possible without saying anything. When you do stop, be sure it is for a good reason that you have made very clear to the singers. At that point, I insert my 5 – 10 seconds of teaching something which is related to my reason for stopping. I ensure that everyone knows why we stopped, what we need to fix and how learning the new concept will immediately help. In so-doing, they will retain information that will continue to assist them in future rehearsals.

The following is a true story. My husband, who never sang a note most of his life after being told in 3rd grade to stand in back and just “mouth the words” (Yes, such horror stories still exist), finally decided to join my Adult choir in his mid-50’s! He was at first glance what you might ignorantly label as “tone deaf.” Actually he was just intimidated, not finding his support to match pitch because he was frightened to sound “bad” and worried he might be loud enough to throw others off. Yet, he was led by the Spirit to summon up the courage to face years of not singing, and showed up unannounced at my choir rehearsal one night!

Like others, he desired to be part of a group and to unlock the “mysterious code” of reading music. As a director, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this challenge!

What could I do? I kept my rehearsal fast-paced as usual, since I certainly didn’t want to irritate my stronger singers. Yet, as he sat there in rehearsal, I became more cognizant of all the advanced terminology I used as a matter of course, and how much I assumed my singers already knew.

My husband is a great sport, so I used the guise of “helping him to catch up,” as an excuse to get back to my roots as an educator. I paused more often to explain a few things at every rehearsal. The rest of the singers responded surprisingly well! Although they knew much more than my “beginner” husband, their knowledge was not consistent, nor complete in all concepts. Inevitably I would hit upon something they never really quite understood, but were afraid to ask.

In less than a year of being placed next to a very strong sight-reader who was willing to answer all my husband’s whispered questions, my husband began to match pitch and follow the written score. Two years into it, he has now become a competent leader in my bass section. I would never have thought this possible! Over the years, my husband was always my stage manager, my “roadie” (equipment guy), my videographer and invaluable helper at concerts, but NEVER one of my singers! Now I need to find another “roadie”….

Teaching your choir should not be limited to the obvious need to teach notation and healthy vocal production. If your minister has made a special request that the music for a particular service fit a stewardship message, have you shared that plan with your choir? They need to know how important they are as partners in worship. They get so much more out of their singing in worship when you teach a bit more of the “why” along with the “how.”

I spend many hours planning worship services around liturgical seasons and the themes of each Sunday. If your church follows the Lectionary you also try to align your music to specific scripture readings. The search for good anthems that will be a full participant in meaningful worship is a major part of the director’s job.

Only fellow music directors likely know the huge amount of work entailed in worship planning and repertoire search. Why not share your vision of worship with your choir? Do they know why you choose that particular anthem to sing on Trinity Sunday? Music choices for major seasons like Christmas and Easter are obvious, but what about the week after Epiphany, when we just celebrated “The Baptism of the Lord?”

This year I scheduled a beautiful arrangement of ”Come To the Water” to honor a renewal of baptism ceremony, along with “Jesus Remember Me” (with flute obbligato) from the Taize tradition for celebrating Communion on that day.  I let my choir know the reasons for singing those pieces on that particular Sunday, and they approached it with inspiration and dedication. I know the congregation felt their spirit-led singing. Singers will be motivated to continue their hard work to achieve such worship experiences. Adults enjoy doing things at which they are successful. Teaching gives them the tools to be successful.

The heart and soul of the church’s life is worship. The music is an integral part of worship and I believe God calls us to use our gifts to do to it well. Out of respect and pastoral care for our singers, we directors need to include teaching them what they need to know to be successful musicians in the church setting. Teaching isn’t a time taker or a chore…it is a mindset and a passion that equates to pastoral care of your choir.

Final Thoughts

couldn't have said it better. I had a similar experience at a church that I served, only this time it was the spouse of a "lifetime singer" who decided that it would be good to take part in something his wife enjoyed. It was a struggle (particularly for the bass I "assigned" to help him) for about a year, but the end result was that he became one of my choir's most beloved (and respected) members. Blessings.

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