I have served as a Ward Choir director in several wards over the years and I would like to share some of the things I have learned. It is not my intent to provide instruction on the basics of conducting music. The LDS hymnal has some excellent instruction for beginning conductors and there is lots of content that can be found online. What I will try to do here is to share some of the things I have learned that may help you be successful and face the challenges that are unique to fulfilling your calling as Ward Choir Director. Do you have a question or a suggestion for this Director Help page? Feel free to send me an email me by visiting the Contact page of this site.
Just like anything else, all the knowledge and experience you can achieve will be beneficial in directing the choir. And the more you know, the more you can teach your choir members. Before you begin rehearsing a new piece, do a little research so you can explain the history of that piece to the choir members. Take advantage of conducting instruction or other music seminars provided by your stake or other sources. Listen to recordings of the Tabernacle Choir and pay special attention to what they are doing. Listen to their dynamics, tempo changes, how they pronounce their words, where they breath and where they don’t, etc. Watch more experienced conductors when you have a chance to observe them. You will see people conducting choirs in Stake Conferences, at General Conference, and at school and community events. Watch them and take note of how they do things. You can learn a lot by watching others.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have a question about how to do something, find someone that knows the answer and ask. Resources may include your ward and stake music chairpersons, people in your extended family or friends with musical experience, the conductors of your children’s school music classes (if you know them), and even your older children (if they study music). Take a moment to think, and you will come up with several resources that would be glad to help you.
Learn about your calling. Read the Church publications and speak regularly with your ward music chairperson. And study the material provided in the hymnal. There is some great information concerning worship through music in general as well as things specific for music directors. Ask for and attend Stake music training. The more you understand your duty, the better you will be able to fulfill it.
Remember that it was the Lord that extended this calling to you. When you were set apart for the calling, you became eligible for the Lord’s help. Many times, that help is available through His other servants, but help can also come directly from Him. Remember the old saying about praying like everything depends on the Lord and then working like everything depends on you. Apply that principle, have fun, and make the calling your own. You will discover a spiritual satisfaction from working with the choir members through music that you may not have known was available. Put yourself into it and I promise that when the time comes, you won’t want to be released.
- Let everyone know that they are invited, and that there are no auditions. Many people feel that they would not be welcome in the Ward Choir because they lack prior experience or they can’t read music. All you really need are people that are available to rehearse and perform, and that can carry a tune. Almost any other obstacle can be overcome. Put regular messages in your ward bulletins inviting people to participate in the Ward Choir. And there is no substitute for a personal invitation from you directly to an individual that you would like to have. Sometimes the answer will be no but many times that invitation reveals the fear that keeps that person from coming which, when overcome, can earn you another choir member. Encourage the choir members to invite their friends as well.
- Have a lot of fun in rehearsals. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. When people enjoy themselves they will come back. And when they really enjoy themselves they may even bring their friends with them. I have seen choir directors try and encourage participation by doing things that have nothing to do with singing (like providing food at rehearsals), but that’s not what you want. You want people to come to choir because they want to sing. So make it fun to sing.
- Provide an uplifting experience for the ward when they hear the choir perform. When ward members that like to sing hear something from the choir that stirs them, they will often approach you and ask if they can participate. Perform inspiring music with help from the Spirit and you will touch the hearts of your listeners.
- Overcome the obstacles. For example, some people don’t come because they have small children to look after. In one of my prior wards there were a number of people with this obstacle. I worked with my very supportive bishop who suggested organizing a choir nursery as a service project for the youth in the ward. With some creativity and support from your leaders, most obstacles can be overcome.
In my way of thinking, the minimum number of people required in a choir is 10: one director, one accompanist, and two choir members on each of the four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). The optimal size is about five people per part, but it can be more or less than five. It is best to try and achieve a balance in the sound by having the same number of people on each part, but that can prove difficult to do. And there will be other challenges. Unless your ward is comprised of all trained vocalists, you will never get the right number of perfect voices in a volunteer choir. Women often outnumber the men, many people can’t read music, some voices are too loud or too soft, others too shrill, etc. So in your efforts to better the sound made by the choir should you ever hold auditions or un-invite certain people that are less skilled than others? In my opinion, the answer is no. The Church is not like the world. Generally, I believe that everyone that wants to participate in the Ward Choir should be allowed to do so. There may be some very infrequent exceptions to that rule. If a person is being disruptive in some way or if they prevent the choir from providing uplifting music because they simply cannot carry a tune you may want to prayerfully consider politely un-inviting that individual in a loving way, but only after trying to resolve the problem first. I don’t think you ever un-invite people who want to come due to a lack of musical training, a foreign accent, a shrill voice, or reasons like that. We are not looking for a perfect sound in a Ward Choir. Remember, the goal of the Ward Choir is to invite the Spirit in Sacrament Meeting and that can be done with a less than perfect sound. That goal is never achieved by causing offense.
- As far as location, rehearsals can be held in the chapel or other rooms in the church building, in someone’s home, or any convenient and appropriate place with a piano or other keyboard. The church building is nice because it usually has several rooms equipped with pianos which will allow you to occasionally split for sectional rehearsals. Homes are also good places, provided there is sufficient space. Any place with a piano will do, as long as it is conducive to the Spirit. Most often, choir rehearsals are held at church.
- I suggest weekly rehearsals of an hour or less. I have found this to be sufficient for a monthly performance of one number. This will vary from choir to choir and be affected by such things as the musical skill level of the choir members, the difficulty of the piece, and the availability of the rehearsal location. I have also found that some flexibility is needed. Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day, etc. can be good times to take the day off from rehearsing, so be sensitive to the needs and desires of your choir members.
- The time of rehearsal seems to be the thing that varies most from ward to ward. I have seen choir rehearsals held on every day of the week. It is very common to see rehearsals being held on Sunday either right before or right after church because everyone is already together. The problem with that is that many ward members often have other responsibilities during those times. Evening Sunday rehearsals are also common in wards where everyone lives within close proximity of the church building. What you need to do is to try and pick a day and time that will allow for the most participation.
- The hymnal itself contains a wealth of material. It also contains suggestions for Ward Choirs on how to vary the hymns and make them more interesting.
- Check what may already exist in your ward and stake libraries and re-use what has already been purchased. No one wants to hear the same piece every month, but there is a lot to be said for building up a repertoire that you can fall back on.
- There are many web sites you can visit that offer hymn arrangements and new compositions for free. MarkNewmanMusic.com is one example but there are others. Another example is FreeLdsSheetMusic.org. Do some Internet searches on such keywords as hymn arrangements of free choir music and see what you can find. New sites appear periodically.
- An occasional purchase of a new piece can certainly be refreshing at times, if your budget allows. As you look, consider books of music containing several pieces. LDS bookstores can be good sources of music if you live near one. If you know the piece you want (title, composer, publisher, etc.) you can usually order it from your local sheet music dealer. If all else fails, look online.
Part of making choir rehearsals fun is to do something that challenges the choir. Don’t just pick easy pieces that your choir can pull off with little to no rehearsal. Make them do something hard once in awhile. Don’t do anything so hard that you are over your head yourself or that will sink your accompanist. But don’t be afraid to really challenge the choir members. A choir member once made the mistake of saying that he could never do anything as hard as Hallelujah from Handel’s Messiah. In a couple of weeks, guess what we started rehearsing? Most of the choir members were stunned, especially since the choir director of the other ward we share our building with said that she had tried it with her choir before and had to give it up because it was too hard. But I had done it in my high school choir and we had a solid accompanist, so I knew we could do it. I allowed three or four times more than the usual rehearsal time and told them we were doing it for Christmas. And we did. Did it go perfectly? No. Was the performance stellar for them, and were the ward members thoroughly impressed, and did we invite the Spirit? Yes. Did it give the choir members the confidence to tackle anything after that? Yes. And did we have a lot of fun getting it ready? YES! It was truly one of that choir’s highlights. Making the Ward Choir rise to a real challenge can be a very satisfying experience for everyone. Now if anyone ever expresses a concern that a piece is difficult, all I have to do is say, Hey! This is the choir that performed Handel’s Hallelujah, and they all nod their heads and get to work.
Prepare for the rehearsal. If you have access to a recording of what you are rehearsing, listen to it and get it into your head what you want the music to sound like. Look through the music and plan for what you want to accomplish in the rehearsal. Speak with the accompanist about things you will want from them. If your accompanist is not a good sight-reader, be sure to give them any new music a week in advance of the first rehearsal so they can get familiar with it.
I recommend following a basic format each time you rehearse. This builds a sense of unity and familiarity among the choir members as well as helps you get certain things done. I have had success with a rehearsal format that goes like this:
- Begin on time. When choir members are late to rehearsal, you may be tempted to wait until they arrive before you begin. I recommend not doing this. Your rehearsal time is limited. If you wait for latecomers before beginning, you are sending a message to everyone that being late is OK. When you begin on time and people arrive while rehearsal is already underway, they will usually figure out pretty quickly that they are expected to be on time without you having to say anything.
- Begin each rehearsal with prayer. Since the goal of the choir is to invite the Spirit in Sacrament Meeting, you will want the guidance of the Spirit in rehearsal. It is better to ask different people (including the accompanist and yourself) to offer the prayer than to ask for a volunteer. I used to ask for a volunteer but I found that it can start your rehearsal with a tense moment while everyone sits and waits for someone else to volunteer. Asking individuals to pray is another opportunity to help everyone feel like a part of the choir.
- Take care of business, but make it short. Take just a moment to thank everyone for coming, remind everyone of the next performance, and any other business that needs to be transacted. But keep it short! Remember, they have come to sing, not to listen to you talk.
- Warm up for five minutes or so. Experienced vocalists know all kinds of warm up techniques that are very beneficial, but many choir directors do not. In a Ward Choir, you don’t need a whole lot of technique, but you do want to accomplish a few things in your warm ups:
- Get the choir breathing deeply with good posture.
- Warm up their vocal muscles by gently singing something simple: scales, a simple hymn, your favorite exercise, etc.
- Get them listening to each other and teach them about making their sound beautiful.
- Help them learn to watch and follow you. This can be a lot of fun. Surprise them by holding the second-to-last note in the exercise and see who doesn’t follow you. Speed up and slow down in odd places and see who follows. Indicate to sing more loudly or softly at random and see who follows. Do your own thing. Make it fun.
- Use the warm up time to practice any special style or technique you may want while rehearsing the piece that day. If your piece has staccato sections (where the notes are short and detached) have them sing the warm up both legato (smooth and connected) and then contrast the staccato. Have them sing the warm up at the tempo, the dynamics, the everything else of your piece for the day.
- Sing the piece all the way through, no matter how badly it goes, even if they have never seen it before. This will give you the opportunity to show them how much they have progressed at the end of the rehearsal. Besides, totally bombing the thing can make everyone laugh. Remember, have fun!
- Break the piece up into small sections and practice them. Get each little section sounding the way you want it. This will be far more productive than singing the whole thing all the way through repeatedly. You may want to consider practicing the last section first and work your way backward through the piece. That way, every time they learn a new section, everything that follows is familiar.
- Be very demanding, but have fun doing it. Interrupt the choir often to make corrections. Make them do it the way you want it and praise them when they improve. And inspire confidence. Explain that you would much rather have a choir full of people that make mistakes but that sing out than people that sing timidly because they are afraid of making mistakes. Teach them the old adage, ‘’If you are going to make a mistake, make a big one!’’ And when someone does make a big mistake, celebrate it!
- As you progress through your rehearsals, you can begin demanding different things from the choir members. It is OK to concentrate on just learning the notes at first, especially if you have a choir full of non-sight-readers. Once they have the notes down reasonably well, they will have the confidence to move on to dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. Once they have practiced something you have asked them to do (articulate consonants better, more contrast between piano and forte, etc.) send someone to the back of the room and have them critique it. When the person reports little difference, have the choir really exaggerate it and have the critique done again. They will usually be surprised to find that the person doing the critiquing didn’t realize they were exaggerating. Remember, make it fun! Also remember that the members of the ward will be watching their faces as they sing. Encourage them to smile and have the looks on their faces critiqued as well. Make faces to get them to smile. Have fun!
- As you get nearer the performance, have them practice standing and sitting as part of the run-through. Those things are part of the performance as well and should be done in unison at your direction. Have some fun with this! Try to trip them up by verbally telling them to stand before giving a hand motion and see how many of them mess up by doing it. Before the singing starts, motion for them to stand and sit two or three times until it is perfect. Have fun!
- Keep it fun! When they do things right, praise them for it, and really mean it. It’s fun to please a demanding director. When they totally mess something up that you have been working on, do something crazy. Pretend to fall over in anguish or something like that. If it’s fun when they do it right and it’s fun when they do it wrong, they can’t be having anything but fun.
- When rehearsal time is over, thank them for their hard work and end the rehearsal with a prayer. Try to avoid going overtime. Anything longer than an hour just causes burn-out.
Another thing you can do to make rehearsals more interesting for the choir members is to always be rehearsing two pieces. For example, let’s say that you perform the last Sunday of every month. During the month of January, work on both the January and the February pieces. During February, continue with the February piece and begin working on the March piece. Doing it this way gives you the chance to add variety to the rehearsal while extending the time for them to become familiar with each piece. I also recommend that the new selection be quite different from the previous one. If your January piece is quiet and pensive, choose a piece for February that is more energetic. That will add even more variety to your rehearsal time.
- Have good posture. Sit up straight with the shoulders relaxed.
- Breathe deeply. It takes a full pair of lungs to make a good sound.
- Open their mouths. Explain that vowels should be sung nice and open and round. Quote the vocal coach from Singing in the Rain (Round tones, my dear, round tones) while exaggerating your open mouth. Have them warm up on varying vowel sounds with two fingers, one on top of the other, inserted between their teeth. The long ‘’e’’ sound can be particularly challenging to sing this way.
- Practice singing diphthongs. A diphthong is a vowel sound that is made of two vowel sounds. For example, the vowel in the word ‘’joy’’ is really two sounds: ‘’O’’ followed by ‘’E.’’ It could be pronounced as a two-syllable word: ‘’jo-ee.’’ In speech, we tend to give equal time to each sub-vowel sound, but in singing we need to consciously decide when the first sound stops and the second sound begins. The rule-of-thumb is to sing almost the entire note on the first sound and then toss the second sound in at the very end of the note so that it gets almost no time at all. You can practice this by having the choir members not sing the second sound at all. So if you are singing Joy to the World, practice singing Jo to the World. Once they have that down, have them put the second sound back in its right place.
Avoid straining. Teach the choir members to keep their jaw, neck, and shoulders relaxed, even when singing loudly and on high notes. The energy needs to come from the deep breath of air and the good body posture, not from straining.
- Be sensitive to the fact that some choir members may be offended if you tell them that they are singing flat. Explain that this is a natural tendency caused by relaxation of the vocal chords and other muscles used in singing.
- Use some kind of mental image, such as touching the top of your head, and explaining to the choir members that they should always try to sing on top of the note. Have them practice doing that.
- Explain that when the notes in their part go up you need to take big steps up and that when the notes go down you need to take baby steps going down. Have them practice doing that.
- Choose a hand motion that means, ‘’You are going flat.’’ Use this motion as a cue to indicate when they are going flat so that they can correct it early.
Using all the above, have the choir members practice trying to go sharp. Have them sing through their piece without the piano trying their best to go sharp. At the end, have the accompanist play the ending pitches and see how well they did.
- Ask the accompanist to play the part (the soprano part, for example) while no one sings. Ask the choir members to listen carefully to the pitches. Then ask the section to sing their part while the accompanist plays only their part with them.
- Split up into sectional rehearsals. This can be a good way for all the sections to practice the above suggestion without making everyone else sit and wait.
Have the choir members practice listening to each other. Have them all stand around the piano and look into each other’s faces while they sing.
- The choir members are not watching you. Demand that they watch you. Of course, this makes it incumbent on you to direct clearly so that they have something to follow. Have some fun with this. Make them watch you by speeding up, slowing down, stopping in odd places, etc. Have them hold their music up high enough that they can see you over the top of it.
- The choir members are not listening to each other. Have them practice by singing without you so that they are forced to listen to each other. It may surprise you how well they can do this.
- The choir members are ending their words at different times. For example, if you are singing Sweet is the Work, the “t” at the end of “sweet,” the “s” at the end of “is,” and the “k” at the end of “work” all may be landing in twenty different places. A good remedy for this is to have the choir members practice placing the final consonant of each word onto the beginning of the following word. So, “Sweet is the work my God my King” will be sung as, “Swee ti sthe wor kmy Go dmy King.” It seems crazy, but you may be amazed at how well this cleans things up.
- Obviously, the first remedy is to try to get close to the same number of choir members in each section. Recruiting new members is one way to do that, but be careful that your recruiting doesn’t produce more members in sections that already have enough people. In other words, if you already have too many sopranos and not enough basses, don’t just put a note in the bulletin asking for more choir members or you might just get more sopranos. Identify some people who could potentially sing in the sections where you need help and invite them personally.
- Another obvious remedy is to ask the stronger section to sing a little more softly and ask the weaker section to sing a little more loudly. A lot of balance problems can be solved as simply as that.
- Try moving people into other sections. I have moved altos to the tenor section, sopranos to the alto section, etc. This only works if the person you have asked to move can sing in the new range without hurting their voice. Before you assign someone to change sections, ask for volunteers. You may be surprised at which people can make the transition.
Position the weaker section to the front or the outside edge of the choir. If you are lacking in tenors, don’t surround them with basses. While it may be considered a bit unusual, there are no rules against putting the tenors in front of the sopranos. Move sections around and see what happens.
- Have the choir members practice the contrast very exaggerated and then back off on the exaggeration until you have the sound you want. Avoid exaggerated conducting. Flamboyant conducting can be very distracting to your ward when the Ward Choir is performing.
- Have the choir members practice the contrasting places without accompaniment. Sometimes they tend to rely heavily on what they are hearing from the piano instead of what they are supposed to be concentrating on doing themselves.
Sometimes the choir members just get nervous at performance time and become more timid about doing what they have been practicing. Just do your best to inspire confidence and keep it fun.
Another technique used in phrasing is to follow the text. Often, as with hymns, text set to music is poetic in nature and the words are already grouped into phrases for you. And watch the commas. Try taking a short breath where there is a comma in the text and avoiding taking a breath where there is not. Last, but not least, look at the words. You can place musical emphasis on certain key words in the text and produce a very nice effect. In All Creatures of Our God and King, make a big deal out of the word, ‘’Alleluia.’’ Sometimes you can musically do what the words are saying. In God of Our Fathers Known of Old, one of the verses begins with the phrase, ‘’Far flung our navies melt away.’’ A text phrase like that is a goldmine of opportunity. Try having the choir ‘’melt away’’ by having them decrescendo until they can no longer be heard at the end of the phrase. Watch for opportunities like that and take advantage of them. Be prepared for positive comments from those that hear your performance.
The director needs to do a little preparation in order to help the choir members do this. Study the text, look up associated scriptures, and find out about the history of the piece. When you start on a new piece, consider introducing it by having a choir member read a scripture, or explain the history behind the composition, etc. The better you and the choir members understand the piece, the better they will be able to communicate its message. You may want to consider asking a choir member (in advance) to relate an experience they have had in relation to the message. As you rehearse, remind the choir members about the message and ask them to bring out certain key words to help emphasize its meaning.
This is the spiritual side of rehearsing and performing, and I would recommend not treating it lightly by having fun with it. Spiritual things are uplifting by themselves and don’t require any fun to be added. A truly successful choir experience for you and the choir members will incorporate both fun and spirituality. If you feel so prompted by the Spirit, bear your testimony of those things communicated in the message to the choir members.
It is preferable for the choir members to sit together on the stand as a choir for the duration of the meeting rather than come to the front when it is time to sing and return to their seats afterward. All that motion in the middle of Sacrament Meeting can be very distracting and does not serve the goal of inviting the Spirit well. Having said that, I realize that there will be exceptions. A mother with a small child may feel the need to attend to the child through the sacrament, leave the child with someone for the performance, and then return to her seat. An Aaronic Priesthood holder may have sacramental duties that prevent him from sitting with the choir. The accompanist is seldom required to sit on a piano bench during the entire meeting. (How would YOU like to do that?) But in general, try to avoid a lot of motion.
When it is time to perform, confidently take your place in front of the choir and ensure that everyone (including the accompanist) is seated and ready before you stand them up. Have them stand and conduct the piece exactly as you have been rehearsing. This is no time to try some new gesture or take the music at a different tempo. At the conclusion of the performance you smile your appreciation, seat the choir, and sit down. Afterwards, be sure to express your thanks and appreciation for the good job they did, but avoid doing it on the stand after the meeting. Your smile at the conclusion of the performance will say a lot, but do say something at the next rehearsal, or send them all a congratulatory email message, or something. They need to be assured that their demanding director was happy and satisfied with their performance.
And what if they bomb the performance? All kinds of things can go wrong during a performance, so be prepared for that as well. Remember, people’s feelings are much more important than anything else, so never seem angry or upset. If a choir member makes an obvious mistake, give a big smile and continue without missing a beat and be sure to have fun later by congratulating them on their courage to make a big mistake. If the accompanist gets lost, just keep on going to give them the chance to find their place. If the whole choir or the accompanist gets hopelessly lost, don’t get upset. Give the choir your biggest smile and stop the performance. Either restart the piece in a convenient spot, or just start over. Be sure to laugh about the whole thing later. Remember, sometimes the one who makes the big mistake will be the choir director, so keep it light and never get upset by people’s mistakes. Keep it fun.
Christmas can be a big deal for the Ward Choir. In some wards, the choir is expected to take the balance of the time following the sacrament by performing an entire cantata. In other wards, nothing special is expected. Sometimes a choir may be asked to provide prelude music on a special occasion, or simply because the bishop feels that the ward will benefit. In any case, the important thing to remember is to be supportive, to yield your expectations to the bishop’s, and to endeavor to ascertain his desires in advance.