Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Taking Your Pulse: Choir Section Leaders

About two months ago our choir director came up to me after church and said, with some extreme agitation, that he was hoping we could hire some section leaders for the church choir.

The choir is composed mostly of older members of the congregation... who still have lovely voices, I hasten to add. But an illness here or an injury there can decimate a section. We have three men total, one bass and two tenors. The bass is married to a lovely soprano who is slipping into dementia, and who requires the assistance of two other sopranos to get through rehearsals and services: the way in which all these women care for one another is stunning, and very moving. There are three sopranos, four altos, and that's it. Our best soprano has been out for about two months with a serious back injury (she is having surgery even as I type this).

Our choir director feels that it is increasingly difficult to do good music with the resources he has available. He is looking for (what in my opinion is) and extremely modest amount of money to accomplish this, through the hiring of four section leaders.

Session approved a trail period of this plan two months ago. Due to the holidays, he hasn't been able to find anyone (or perhaps due to that modest amount?) so far. Last night session voted to extend the trial period, but not before a significant debate, lasting nearly a half hour. The first issue raised was the choir: how would they feel about it? Is this embarrassing, or do they feel like they're being replaced or shoved to the side? Testimony from a session member who is an alto put this concern to rest. The choir is grateful.

Concern number two took me by surprise. It goes something like this: When I hear the choir, I value knowing that they are members of this community. If we are paying section leaders, there will be folks up there who are not members of this community. What if someone up there is an atheist, just there for the paycheck?

I hardly know where to begin to address this concern. (One session member suggested, well, we might be in a position to, you know, have an affect on the person's atheism.) And I was surprised by the vehemence with which it was raised. There was heat behind this concern. There was anger. And a promise that it "will be raised at the annual meeting."

The session members, in their debate, offered many good arguments in favor of having the section leaders, including the importance of a strong music program for attracting new members. I intend to ask them to be present front and center when and if questions are raised at the annual meeting, to give their own answers as to why the session voted unanimously to approve this. Twice.

So... anyone out there with any experience in this area? Do you serve a church that made this decision? How did the congregation respond? How did it work for the choir? And, finally, any good suggestions on delicate and community building theological arguments in favor? (Only kind of kidding.)

I await your wisdom.


steve said...

Hmm...if I were to guess, I'd say the vehemence you describe suggests some deeper issue at play. Perhaps they feel that finances are tight and resent what they view as an unnecessary expenditure?

Alex said...

I have no advice. Big Church is in the midst of a different Choir Controversy and I know how passionate people can be. Folks outside the church would be quite surprised to know how much heartache is involved in the church choir! Blessings to you.

Wyldth1ng said...

I don't have a opinion on the singing, sorry.
I always preferred brass(instrument) accompaniment to the singing, just my opinion.

gordbrown said...

This is close to home for me. I am an elder in a small PC in Toronto. The church was close to the end and actually came back from the dead when an amazing Choir Director and Minister came at once. After the Minister left, we got a new younger minister and he hit the ground running. Our Music Director became internationally reknowned in Church Music circles and amazing musicians walked off the street (well not really but it seemed that way) to participate. Then the Music Director asked for more money.

The fecal matter met the oscillator in short order. Session was split down the middle and after a year of hard feelings and debate about where we were at as a congregation, the Music Director left (and about 33% of our annual offerings). This was four years ago and our current minister has given his notice and is moving on.

I felt at the time and still do that the whole issue (or at least the people on the other side of the issue) defined being penny wise and pound foolish. But it really brought up all kinds of things about how people live together in community and what they value about worship (which after all is the the flip side of social justice and very important for a progressive Christian Community).

During the time my brother-in-law (an Aglican/Episcopal priest) said he was told "if the devil gets into your church he will probably come through the choir."

On a happier note, you seem to have a good perspective on this and have handled it well to date. I'm sure God will go with you because of your love for the members of your existing choir (and God might well convert the atheist singer, I've seen it happen and the Lord works in mysterious ways).

Anyway, thank you for letting me vent.

P.S. My father is coming to the end of his life and I'd appreciate any prayers/good thoughts from this community. I come here often and love it.

Magdalene6127 said...

Accck! Gord... I love the quote: If the devil is going to come into your church...

Praying for your father, and you, and all affected by his coming to the end of his life.



juniper68 said...

Hi Mags,

RE the underlying the reason for resistance: I have found small church folk are often suspicious of things that are "too good" and dont like things that are inordinately polished or fancy or professional. Maybe this is just in teh kind of churches I am drawn to. But "will there be a place for me here if things get too nice?" might be udner some of it.

RE: A good idea I've wanted to try.
One time I read (was it on a revgal blog somewhere?) the idea of offering music scholarships to college students in exchange for singing. I've been thinking of trying this at my place sometime, esp for men, as I think we could shake loose some endowment monies for "scholarships" (whcih we would not be able to access so easily for "that greedy choir director.")

Not sure if this helps in your case, but that's the thought I have just now.

I haven't been much of a blogger or commenter lately, but I do so often think of us and our parallel journeys. Hope things are going well for you mostly, four months in.

Anonymous said...

Maybe my suggestion is way too simplistic.

To the people who raise this concern ("When I hear the choir, I value knowing that they are members of this community. If we are paying section leaders, there will be folks up there who are not members of this community. What if someone up there is an atheist, just there for the paycheck?") what about saying: why don't we try this, but pray about it, leave it in God's hands that the right people whose gifts are needed here, and/or who need US, will be sent to fill these positions. And then see what happens? Would the people raising these concerns be able to do such a thing? Or even, do it as an experiment in faith?

Anonymous said...

i am one of those singers, having sung in choirs since i was 5. I have sung all my life in choirs - was brought up Presbyterian by my Catholic mother (go figure!) and have sung exclusively in Catholic choirs for the past 15 years. My Bass voice is becoming dominant, but have done a lot of Baritone and Tenor over the years and surprisingly still have my Soprano and Alto voices at age 64. It just takes practice to keep them up.
i have done some paid choir gigs, most notably in Pittsburgh while at PITT and in my early career as an engineer. Now I am readying for retirement and will look for a choir section leader position located somewhere between Pittsburgh and Madison. My wife and I want to be closer to family. I will be up at the NPM convention in Chicago in July with my antenna out for a position. Its hard to retire from a full time career of 42 years without doing something serious. So choir is my thing. I am also a trombonist on the side in a large City Band and am taking up tuba and guitar (and maybe cello or string bass) in retirment. i would like to settle in near a college or university with a decent music program and go to school at the same time. I do think that more serious musicians and vocalists need more serious and challenging assignments or they will lose interest. Does that sound unusual?

Anonymous said...

No atheists spend much of their life singing in choirs. That would be an oxymoron if you think about it.