What is a Choir?

Featuring Vern Sanders Posted on March 30, 2010

What comes to mind? Is it a line of men in monk’s habits processing down a long, dimly lit aisle to take their places in choir stalls for the celebration of the hours?  Is it the men and boys of St. Thomas, singing their weekly cantata under the guidance of Bach? Is it the large forces assembled to do Messiah every year at
a Christmas sing-along? Is it a fairly homogenous group of robed middle class people standing in unison to sing a mid-20th century anthem or standing at the back of the sanctuary to sing The Lord Bless You and Keep You? Is it rainbow hued robes and people clapping and dancing with joy? Is it a group of children
providing their own inimitable version of Away in a Manger during the Christmas
pageant, all dressed in bathrobes? Whether one of these came to mind, or perhaps some other memory from your past – or present – the term choir is, as I hope you’ll agree, many things to many people. For some, it is that group of people that brand a worship service as “old fashioned.”  For some, it is the only thing to look
forward to when entering the sanctuary.

The Bad News...

A generation of reduced or eliminated school music programs, and the corresponding drop in youth choirs in churches has thinned, if not eliminated, the pipeline of singers that used to just magically appear
almost like flowers coming up in the spring. The upshot of this is that a high percentage of choirs are not just grey, they are often pure white, at least when it comes to hair color.

At the same time, the choir leadership is also getting older. Most traditional choirshave directors that are at least 40, and many are in their 60s or older, and often volunteer or underpaid. So the stereotypical church choir does often look small and old. It also, stereotypically, sings music that is simpler, depends upon the skill of the accompanist, and takes longer to learn the music than might be desired, as comparedwith choirs of the a generation or more ago.

The Good News...

Many, if not most, children’s choir program ssurvived, albeit at reduced levels,the purge of youth choir programs. The children’s choir directors, often mothers of children who were singing, felt strongly enough to underwrite children’s choirs almost single-handedly when churches lost professional leadership, financial wherewithal, or emotional investment into these programs.

The school choir programs that survived were, in Darwinian terms, the strongest.Where you find a high school choir now, be it in a school or church situation, they tend to be very good, have strong leadership,and a long tradition that includes high standards. Parents who expect that their children are college bound want their sons and daughters to participate in arts and cultural activities, in part because it looks good on a child’s resume. And parent swho have the ability will provide significant support to any program for children and youth that is perceived to add value to their lives.  There is more good news in that college choirs have not lost their attractiveness. What has changed is that college choir singing is no longer solely under the control of the campus music department.

Singing at a university is no longer (if it ever was) confined to the select concertchoir. There are gospel choirs, multicultural ensembles, early music groups, the long-standing fraternity and sorority “sings,” and more. In fact one of the hottest things going on many college campuses is the a cappella group. The road to the Harmony Finals each year is hard fought and filled with friendly combatants. Barbershop choruses and Sweet Adeline groups continue to fl ourish, and draw those who love to sing and dance to their ranks. Show and jazz choirs have become an accepted part of college curricula across the US. Senior Adult choirs are common in churches and in retirement communities. The world has not lost its love of the "first art" by any means.


Well, that turns out to be somewhat of an urban legend. In fact, in many large evangelical churches, choirs previously banned from the worship platform – are now being welcomed with open arms. Choirs are not dying...but in many churches they are fading away. The combination of lack of support (whether perceived
or actual), the visual evidence that singing in a church choir is for “old folks,” and the flight of competent leadership mean that choirs are no longer a de facto destination group in the church.


Universities are still producing talented choir directors and singers, even if the majority of them don’t feel called to serve in the church. Music publishers still find choral music to be a signifi cant enough market
that they continue to release thousands of new anthems each year. The advent of the electronic keyboard has reduced the “bleed off ” to the guitar by young musicians.

This means that the supply of players ensures that the possibility exists that accompanists will not become extinct. But we were talking about choirs specifically.
Choirs, as organizations, function best when they look beyond a purely musical agenda and develop the whole person. Helen Kemp, in her little mantra for children’s choirs, has said it well for years:
Body, Mind, Spirit, Voice – It takes a whole person to sing and rejoice. I want to highlight three areas where
successful choirs have evolved over the past decade or so: social, spiritual, and musical.

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