Summer Choir: Or, Improvising on a Shoe String

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Peter Stickney, DSM
President, Maine ACDA

I want to share several thoughts on “Summer Choir” as a tool for recruitment and a positive way to enable congregants to participate in music ministry in a choral setting. When I was first approached several years ago about creating a summer choir, I must admit that I was more than a little reluctant. I called my friends and colleagues in UCCMA, AGO and ACDA. There was little positive energy around creating such an ensemble. I heard phrases like this, “Let the senior citizens sing once”, “Have the men sing one Sunday and women sing one Sunday”, and finally “Refuse to do it”.

After much prayer and soul-searching I decided that I would yield to the music and arts committee suggestion. However, we would have guidelines. Further, if the idea fell flat its head would not be raised for a good long time. We added more prayer and asked for some guidance. The following guidelines (not rules) emerged and have worked for me. I am sharing them with you in hopes that your music program will benefit.

First of all: ALL singers of ALL ages are welcome to participate in summer choir. The result has created an intergenerational group of singers with various sundry skills. It really is fun to have an energetic 5 year old making music with our wonderful 90 year old bass.

Second of all: Come one Sunday or come all Sundays. Summer choir has worked for me the Sunday after the fourth of July through labor day. The long term commitment is omitted and people feel so very happy to come and sing. The only requirement for singing is be present at 9:15 am to learn the song and how we are going to present it for the 10am liturgy.

Third: NO CHOIR ROBES or formality–we put the choral anthem towards the beginning of the service. After singing the choir disperses into the congregation. This has worked wonderfully for us. Notably, because very few want to wear a hot choir robe in the good old summer time, and many people want to sit with their families rather that the choir loft during worship.

The most important part of success of a pick-up summer choir is the adaptability of the music and the creativity of the music director. This minister of music works diligently to match choral literature with the lectionary reading or sermon title of the day. The literature itself is generally gleaned from simple choral arrangements and from the rich plethora of hymns that is part of our collective tradition. Often times I will take a hymn that will fit with the day and create a mini anthem out of it.

Initially I create an introduction, generally borrowed from my organ literature. Next, I work to add some type of pitched instrument for a recorder player to play the alto up an octave or percussion instrument for a non-verbal child or very young child who cannot read. Frequently I incorporate three or four hand-bells or hand-chimes to add a flourish to part of a refrain or paint the text. Please be aware, you can plan until the cows come home, however, your recipe for the anthem depends on the souls who show up. Sometimes we have all unison, sometimes six part harmony. In addition, if I see that we have a singer capable of a solo I have a solo verse with the choir humming under them. Frequently we do the gender verse thing with men on a certain verse and women on another. Parts are optional–My goal is excellent intonation and sometimes that means that almost everyone sings unison. I also incorporate a tiny little postludium in the same key as the singers slip into the congregation to sit with their family. All-in-all, the anthem is tailored to the singers who come to offer there talents and by what the music director is able to co-create with them.

It is my hope that the gift of music offered by a prayerful intergenerational ensemble is worthy and acceptable to our creator. I highly recommend stepping out of the traditional setting of full choir, full choir rehearsal, choir rules and regulations and step into what might be dubbed “improvising on a shoe-string”. Make sure that YOU as the leader have done your homework, have mastery of the literature and are willing to be flexible. If you are well prepared and skillful in your leadership, your singers will follow you! Most importantly bathe the situation in your most powerful magic/medicine/prayer, and have fun!

ps-bet you will get one or two new committed members from this endeavor!