FOR CHOIR DIRECTORS
Jennifer Kerr Budziak We love to quote St. Augustine saying, “Who sings prays twice,” or more accurately, “well-sung is twice-prayed.” I would submit that we as humans at prayer and song have a much harder time with this than we would like to admit. When we simply pray, whether by tasting the words to beloved and well-known prayers on our lips or by opening our spirits and speaking (whether in our voices or our hearts) whatever words come to our mind, our prayer has the luxury of being pure and uncomplicated; we can speak to God, and listen for God’s response, however or whenever that response comes.
What changes when we sing our prayer? What is different?
“Singing is for one who loves.” Tough the earlier quote seems to have been misattributed to St. Augustine, this one is authentically his. We love, and our love comes out in song. But in our world and culture in this moment, singing is no longer something everyone does, freely and naturally and openly. TV shows whittle down groups of singers till they come to the “best” of the group. In a world of technology and amplification, where the singers we are meant to listen to get microphones, the rest of us may sing, but our voices do not matter as much—if we stopped, no one would notice, because the amplified voice would sing on. Singing is deeply personal, and intimate; and when we start to question whether we are good enough, when we worry about getting it right, about not making a mistake, it becomes harder for the love and the prayer behind the music to reach through to our spirits.
Of course we want to sing the right notes at the right time to the right words with a healthy and beautiful
vocal sound. But in far too many choirs I have known in my years of ministry, the overwhelming desire to “get it right” can become the primary or even sole focus—of directors as well as singers.
“ Humans are experiential beings. We can talk about something until we are blue in the face, but it is experience that truly teaches.”
How can we frame this beautiful challenge as an opportunity for growth and formation? More importantly, how can we teach it to our singers, and give them the experience of song that can truly and openly be in the context of prayer— song that is challenging, beautiful, well-sung, and intimately open and free?
Humans are experiential beings. We can talk about something until we are blue in the face, but it is experience that truly teaches. As directors, we can integrate moments of this kind of prayer-singing into choir rehearsals starting simply and becoming more complex over time as singers begin to embrace the process.
A cappella chanting together is a beautiful way to find comfort and delight in the sound of one another’s voices. Simply chanting together the Lord’s Prayer, without a conductor, relying on the sound of the group and one another’s breath to move the sound forward, is an excellent first step. Everyone knows this chant (or if they do not, it is a good one to learn!), and the fact that it is a prayer will immediately help make this prayer-to-singing connection.
Simple canonic singing can be a wonderful entry to a freer mode of singing. In the earliest stages, use a slow major scale up and down as part of your warmup, and then expand to singing the
scale in canon, with a new voice entering every 2 notes at an interval of a third. As you move forward, teach an easy and seasonally appropriate three- or four- voice canon to the choir, and repeat it gently several times, inviting them to put down their music by the final statement. Once they can sing from memory, introduce the canon: first in two parts, with high voices starting and low voices following. In a later rehearsal, add a third statement to the canon, and then a fourth, by section or more randomly blended. Stress again and again that the object is not to “be right,” but to hold onto your own part while listening to those around you; if you get lost, tell them, just come back in on any part that feels comfortable. Make this an exercise not in correctness, but in listening and singing and enjoying. Introduce each new element only when they seem to be ready for it, and with each new challenge, focus on finding delight in enjoying one another’s voice and song.
Consider having a few “by heart” pieces of music that your choir can sing without any rehearsal or preparation: Taizé ostinatos and short pieces of world music are wonderful to pull out whenever additional music is needed to extend a ritual moment, and the experience of learning and singing such songs can help a choir sink into the experience of singing for the sake of singing, rather than approaching specific pieces as something to be specifically worked for. In my experience, the gently accepting headspace and heartspace this kind of singing evokes in music ministers is a great gift, and once it has been experienced, it becomes much easier to transfer to all our singing.
Of course we want to sing well, and we want to get it “right.” But ultimately, as St. Augustine tells us—singing is for those who love. We sing for love, love of God and love of one another and love of ministry. It’s worth taking the time to learn not just the music, but how to let go of our uncertainties and our need to be in control, and let our love shine through.
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