How To Think About Choirs In Modern Worship

Episode #10

Jason and Dan discuss the difference between "Totes" and "Parsh" "Chrish" and Ryan King surprises Jason by having a very interesting and informative discussion about choirs in modern worship.

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From The Chat Room

What if a Choir is full of great talent, compared to Choirs that are just people who want to be apart of something?

Ryan: You want to set the precedent up front. What is the standard, what is the expectation?  You want to set expectations up up front because you’ll get to a situation where someone wants to join the choir but then they come to realize you’re only doing a worship choir that is basically only singing the melody and a part and they’re thinking, “we’re going to do Brooklyn Tab stuff” when that’s not what your church needs.  Then they get all bent out of shape and that can cause dissention and end up leaving the church.  It’s important to set the expectations up front.  That’s the reason for auditioning people.  So that you can get to know then, they can get to know you, and not only audition from a musical standpoint, but you get to, in a short amount of time, figure out who they are as a person, find out a little bit about them, find out a little bit about their story, about their spiritual walk.  You want to make sure they are meant to be on stage because a stage isn’t just a stage, it’s a platform.  Being given a platform, just like political candidates have a platform, they have influence, and that’s one of the biggest things.  When choir members stand on stage, they’re not just in the background, but they’re people who have a platform.  Auditioning the choir members is a huge must, not just musically, but also letting them know what the expectation is, saying “we’re going to have rehearsal every single Wednesday night and you’re expected to be there.  Can you commit to doing that, can you commit to being at three of the four Wednesday nights per month?”

Jason:  That’s just great leadership with anything, not just choir, not thinking about choir as this whole other thing. What I’ve found interesting in this discussion is that so many of the same principles that apply to how you would work with a four- or five-piece band, those same principles apply to a choir.  If you keep your value system in place, like you do with everything else, you’ll be just fine with a choir, as long as you’ve got the talent there to do it.

Ryan:  I think one of the biggest mistakes that can be made is the idea that a choir is a “come one, come all” situation.  Because that sets you up for some definite possible headaches both from a quality standpoint, from an interpersonal, relationship standpoint, definitely making sure it’s auditioned, that you’ve got the right people in the right places. That’s when you might have to make some hard decisions too.  You might have to have some hard conversations to say, “this may not be the ministry for you but let’s help you find the right ministry.”

Is it recommended to audition members for a choir? if so, what's the standard audition for your choir?

Ryan: I definitely think it’s important to audition just like you would audition your guitar player your drummer, you wouldn’t just throw anyone up there you know who says, “I can play drums!”  You need to audition choir members too.  A lot of times there’s a mentality in the choir world that says,  “I’ve got a heart for Jesus and I want to sing!”  That is a recipe for disaster sometimes. Just because you’ve got a big heart for Jesus doesn’t mean you’re not sorta sharp. The vocalists need to be able to sing, just like you would have anybody else sing on stage.  My litmus test for auditioning singers is they have to match pitch. If they can’t match pitch, then this really isn’t the ministry for them. I’ll have them match about a dozen pitches and if they do well on that at then I think that’s a good baseline for being able to bring people into a choir.  The idea behind a choir, it is numbers in some way.  I’ve heard great choirs that are 40 people and they sound like a hundred-voice choir because they have a lot of singers. You don’t have to have phenomenal vocalists to have a choir because as you can have people who are lead instruments, just like you can have a lead guitar, or a rhythm guitar, you can have a lead vocalist and background vocalists and people who can carry pitch and carry tone but they may not have a lot of diction or whole lot of presence to their voice so they can blend well with other voices. So you start with your people and then you start to listen to music.


Do you require choir members to read music and do you sight read at the audition?

Ryan: I’ll ask them if they know how to read music, some people do and some people don’t.  If they say they do then I’ll have them sightread and see how well they do.  Is it a requirement? No.  It’s not a requirement.  For instance, Brooklyn Tab, a bulk of their singers can’t read music.  They do it by rote, where they’ll have an alto stand in front of the alto section, a tenor stand in front of the tenor section,… basically they just use their hands to move up and down to give a visual cue as to where they’re supposed to go.  Then they just memorize the part while it’s being played.  The other thing you can do is give part CDs or tracks where you have the entire choir singing but you have the alto part turned up for the altos or the tenor part turned up for the tenors,…  That way they can go and listen to that over and over again.

Jason: Besides matching pitch, what else do you look for?  What if somebody’s a really great lead singer?  Are you listening for their timbre, their rhythm, do you think, “the sound of your voice is going to fit here best,” or is it all just vocal range?

Ryan: It’s not just range.  It’s the whole package.  I’ll ask them, “what’s a familiar song that you’d like to sing?”  You can either have a prerequisite for an audition that they have to come with a prepared piece you have given to them, that’s one way of doing it.  Or, you can have them come in with a song or two ready to sing for us.  They may either sing with a track or I ask, “what’s a song that you sing a lot that’s really comfortable for you?”  It may even be Amazing Grace.  I’ll ask, “are you alto, soprano?” and we’ll sing that song in a really comfortable key.  Once I find a key that’s comfortable for them, I’ll even lower it one more step just to make it really comfortable.  We’ll sing through it once or twice and I’m listening to the overall quality of their voice.  What’s their timbre, is it shrilly or big-sounding, is it small, can they hold out long notes, what’s their breath support like?  We’ll do the song again and I’ll adjust the key to find out where their range lands.  I’ll find out where to place them: alto, soprano, mezzosoprano.  With the guys, are they a tenor, bass, baritone?  Then, listening to overall quality, I find out whether someone might be a soloist or a lead vocalist.  That helps you know where to place people in the choir because you really want to place strong singers by weaker singers.

As a keyboard player, how do you play differently between worship leading and choir accompaniment?

Ryan: If it’s just the choir and a piano, keyboard player, the idea is that the keyboard player is just the accompaniment. It’s not the featured instrument; the choir is the featured instrument.  So you’re doing whatever you can to help accentuate the choir.  It’s just like a rhythm section playing for singers.  The drummer is the backbone to the rhythm side of things.  He’s the tempo keeper.  The keyboard player for a choir is everything.  It’s the sense of tonality, it’s the sense of rhythm, tempo and everything.  You have to make sure you’re very confident when you play and you’re playing exactly what’s needed.  A lot of times you need to play just what’s on the page.  Avoid overplaying.  That can really get in the way because the point is to let the choir shine out.  There can be other times when there is a piano solo in the middle of that but you definitely want the choir to shine out.  Make sure you’re playing what’s needed, that you’re keeping a good, steady tempo. 

Jason:  I’ve seen accompanists play the melody in their right hand, are you suggesting to avoid that and stick more with a rhythmic piece?

Ryan: If it is an amateur choir, playing the melody at times can definitely help, even playing a harmony to help out with that.  But you don’t want to overdo it, play the melody the entire time.  There has to be a balance between playing a more rhythmic accompaniment as well as playing the melody in order to help re-emphasize what’s being sung.  It’s a balance there.  I don’t know if there’s really a hard and fast rule for when you should and when you shouldn’t.  I had a professor in college tell me, “when all else fails, let the music tell you what to do.” 

Ryan is currently the Worship Director at The Church at Wills Creek in North Alabama. He has been the keyboardist for many Christian artists and has served with several churches including Christ Fellowship and Church of the Highlands. Ryan is the keyboard instructor for and also works as a producer, music educator, and studio musician. Ryan has two children, Josiah and Vivy, and they love spending time on their 100 acre farm.

How To Think About Choirs In Modern Worship

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