An end-of-year challenge to gospel choral directors

For two evenings in a row, I have been doing rehearsals with a composite group of singers from an incredibly wide array of backgrounds and personalities (but all from within the African-Caribbean racial/cultural bandwidth). We’re preparing for an end-of-year service at church.

One of the most important things I was taught as a ‘classical’ choral conductor was that it was essential to be ‘useful to your singers.’ However, this is much more clearly defined in classical music where for starters, everyone sings from the same score that the conductor has. In addition, there are obvious issues and protocols that define what singers expect of a conductor.

However, in gospel music, there is no such standardisation of ‘best practice.’

I have had the privilege of working with groups who were so unpromising at the start that almost no-one thought they would amount to anything. And I’ve worked with some extremely gifted singers who make their living from it. And all points in between. And the biggest challenge in gospel music – particularly in the black community (and that includes the church community)?

CONCENTRATION.

It was very nicely suggested to me that I used too many words last night. Now, upon reflection, I fully accept that as a valid criticism. Whatever genre of music and makeup of the ensemble, conductors and musical directors are usually prone to talking too much – and physically doing too much.

However, the REASONS for each conductor/MD who talks too much are never the same. Right now, much as I would love to give you a detailed breakdown what it is that I am trying to achieve when I talk to the singers I am leading, that subject (also) needs a separate blog post. What I will do, however, is highlight the fact that as a choral director, you may one day find yourself in front of a group of singers who simply do not share your musicianship values. They may not care about singing in tune. They may not care about singing in time. They may not be bothered about knowing the words, or even about the notes in their part.

They may not like the same type of choral sound that you favour.

They may not care one little bit about communication values in choral singing – as long as they get to do their thing individually. There is a real selfishness in the mindsets of many gospel choral singers – which is ‘anti-musical.’

These are serious challenges in a choral context where it is all about ‘music and singing’ in and of itself. But they are hugely magnified when one is in a church context where God is supposed to be the primary source of worship. And when the whole ensemble is not mentally ready to make music, how on earth is one supposed to lead them in praise – never mind worship?

Something has to change. And the bad news is that it usually needs to be the choral director. With that position goes far more personal musical and spiritual responsibility than many of us care to think about. Sometimes the skills that work so well for those of us who conduct professionally are simply wasted in local church settings. Nevertheless, I have my conducting teachers to thank for ensuring that I did not take a decision to stop conducting amateur choral groups at the lower end of the talent spectrum. Regardless of genre, I was taught that whoever my singers needed me to be, that is who I needed to be.

My singers in this group cannot deal with all the things I want to make happen. And no amount of well-crafted explanations using words will get them to that place if their capacity to deal with me and my use of words is not as developed as other ways of taking in information. So I have to accept this, and either throw my teddy in the corner – or humble myself and find another way through and re-think my aspirations for this group.

NOTHING in music challenges the self-identity (and self-pride) more than having to deal with the fact that as a choral director, one is not only a servant of the music – one is a servant of the singers. This is not about power-wielding, or alpha musicianship ideals, or about best choral practice. This is about finding different ways to help ordinary people do that most extraordinary thing of praising God.

Last night, I concluded once again that I cannot help most of the choir members in this group to connect to a way of thinking in music that is more than they can deal with. Only God Himself can help these people offer Him the best praise in song of which they are capable. Only He can help me to help them do their best.

As a choral director, it is never about you. It is always about the music – the message – and about others. However, eradicating self from anything is always hard. The singers do not ‘belong’ to you. The music does not ‘belong’ to you.

How can all of us be what our singers need us to be without compromising the most important things?

The answer to that will never be found between the pages of a book, or the notes from a course…

…but on our knees.

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