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Working with a choir of beginners

Updated on February 20, 2015
Photo of me directing a choir of young people. Most of them have never been in a choir before.
Photo of me directing a choir of young people. Most of them have never been in a choir before.

Tips for directing a less-experienced gospel choir

Often it takes a while for beginners to learn how to sing in a choir. Learning to sing harmony takes practice and exposure over time. Usually, the more experienced members of the choir will be role models and influences to the newer members as they learn how it all works.

But in some cases, such as a brand new church ministry or when working with a youth group, you might not have any experienced members. What is the best approach for those situations?

This page takes a look at strategies for working with a beginning choir and also has some suggestions of the type of songs that work best for a choir that's just starting out.

Prepare them to work

Get a feeling for where the choir members are mentally and spiritually. If they are excited and earnest about ministering in the choir, they will be ready to do the work that it will take to become an effective choir.

If they're more casual about it and think of it only as a fun activity or something to do with their friends, set them straight. From the very beginning, impress on them that they are working for God and God wants their very best. Make sure they understand that a choir is not the same as a glee club.

As the choir director, your demeanor during rehearsals will help them understand what is expected. Even if you're not a preacher, take a little time to talk about the spiritual impact that gospel music can have both on the hearers and on the performers. When they see how seriously you take your work, they should get the message.

Let your choir know when they're doing well

Even beginners can be excellent at their own level

You're not expecting them to sound like Hezekiah Walker's choir when they first start out. So make sure that they don't fall into discouragement comparing themselves to choirs they hear on the radio and elsewhere. When they are working to their best ability and reaching the level of accomplishment that you are looking for, make sure you let them know. "Excellent! That was really good."

At the same time, you don't have to put up with sloppy efforts. If you're doing arrangements that are appropriate for their level of skill, you can expect them to do a good job on them. Practice them on it until they're getting it right. This helps them understand that singing in the choir is not a casual activity.

Musical strategies

Some ideas for choir directors who need to teach music to an inexperienced choir

  • Look at songs that are primarily done in unison. There are a lot of gospel choir songs that have little, if any, harmony singing.
  • Some songs that are written in harmony might sound fine even if you do them in unison. Try to judge how important the harmony is to the song. Some songs would sound bland and empty if you took away the harmonies. But other songs have enough interesting features going on in the words, the melody, or the rhythm that they will still be strong without the harmonies.
  • Choose melodies that flow pretty easily.
    • In music instruction, they talk about lyrical melodies and angular melodies. An angular melody is one that includes wide jumps from one note to the next, like this tune: Great Things

      A melody like that can be difficult to navigate. That's angular.

      A lyrical melody is one where each note is only a small interval away from the note that was before it and the note that comes after it. So it's an easy, gentle path getting through the melody. Like this tune: Speak to my Heart

      Easy and gentle. That tune will be much easier to sing. When you're working with a choir of beginners, choose songs with lyrical melodies that will be easy to sing.

      (There is an Amazon download link for Speak to my Heart further down this page.)

  • Change the key! If the key the song is usually in is not suited to your choir, change it. A lot of songs that are written in harmony give the main tune to the sopranos, so if you're changing a song from harmony to unison you will probably need to change the key (otherwise, the whole choir would have to sing soprano notes).

Examples of good choir songs for beginners

Below are examples of gospel choir songs that use a lot of unison and would adapt easily to a choir of beginners. They have some harmony parts as well, but in my opinion, these harmony parts could be redone as unison and the song would still be strong.

I hope these examples are a springboard for you to think of other songs you know that have the same advantages for a new choir.

I'm Available to You by the Thompson Community Singers

The fancy part in the middle (the "ah ah ah" part) can easily be left out, and you still have plenty of great song.

Shabach - by Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago

Along with the vocal version of "Shabach", the "Growing Up" album by Walt Whitman also includes an instrumental-only version of "Shabach", which means that your choir would be able to sing the song even if you don't have a musician.

Speak To My Heart - by Donnie McClurkin and the New York Restoration Choir

This is the song that I talked about earlier on the page, the one that is an example of a lyrical melody.

My Life Is In Your Hands - by Kirk Franklin and God's Property

There is another Kirk Franklin song "Why We Sing" that is also very popular and mostly in unison.

Also, both of those songs have pauses after each line, which would give the director time to mouth the words of the next line in case anybody forgets.

Adding more complexity

When your choir is ready to bring it up a level

As they get more experience, start to introduce more challenging music. Here are some ideas:

  • Consider starting with two-part harmony before you go to three-part. If you assign a part to the high voices that is clearly out of range for the lower voices, it will be easier for the lower voices to keep to their harmony part.

It's often easier for different sections to stay on their parts if the parts are not mirroring each other.

Try a song that has a section where the sopranos, altos, and tenors are each singing different words or different rhythms. The video to the right is an example: Say the Word by Rodnie Bryant

The opening section has two things going for it. First, each part is singing a different rhythm. Second, the soprano part is high enough that only the sopranos would want to sing it. It's unlikely that the altos would start sliding up to the soprano note.

Source

If possible, it could help greatly to give them practice CDs where they can hear their part all by itself and drill it over and over. I have a whole page about making practice CDs for your choir. It takes some work, but if you have the resources it could be very valuable. There are also practice tracks for some songs that you can download from ChoirParts.com.

Start rehearsing a song well in advance of when you intend to sing it. The more time the choir has to get familiar with the music, the better.

"For who hath despised the day of small things?" (Zechariah 4:10)

A beginning choir is a beautiful thing. Seeing new converts or young people singing about the goodness of God with sincerity and fervor can touch the heart in a unique way. Encourage your choir members to put themselves into their singing and you will be a treasure to everyone who hears you. God bless.

Video: Children's choir singing in parts

This is not gospel, but it is a great example of working with a children's choir. Getting children to sing in parts is a challenge. The approach here is doing just two parts instead of three. The result is very nice. This must have taken a LOT of work.

Drop a note!

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Hi from the Philippines. Six new believers from my church's Bible Basketball ministry will be singing in a choir for the first time on Sunday. Their first practice with the rest of the choir is on Saturday. Thank you for these very helpful tips! God bless you!

    • cutethings profile image

      cutethings 4 years ago

      Very useful tips for beginners. Thank you.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thank you for your honesty, patience, and knowledge in taking the time to enhace and educate those who are looking to improve their music ministry. Your time and effort is greatly appreciated.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Hello from Australia. I've recently moved out of my part time church office job to work in our community and have been putting out feelers about what kind of things we could do. Other groups have started things that have had a short life because of lack of interest. As one of the guys said "we have people with mental illness or on drugs and pensions or low income - what do we want with a bike repair workshop?" (i.e first you need to have a bike). But I'd been wondering about a choir and a City worker mentioned it at the Drop In last week so... On that day 3 out of 10 people present said they were interested. Finding your website has inspired me further. No musicians/instruments/music as yet but I trust if this is God's will then we'll have whatever we need. God bless you for this.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      god bless you for this

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      more power to your elbows joan...!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Nervous and excited to begin my work with a youth choir; I am so grateful to you for providing all of this helpful information! Facing many of my fears head-on to release the power of love My ambition is to nurture young voices and souls!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thank you so much for this page. I have been so nervous about starting a choir. I know it is a need, but fear held me back. The words on this page have encouraged me to go do it! May God Bless you

    • efriedman profile image

      efriedman 6 years ago

      I loved this lens, enjoyed the video, and hearing what goes into being a choir director for beginners.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 6 years ago

      You must be amazing at this!

    • bbsoulful2 profile image

      bbsoulful2 6 years ago

      What an uplifting lens! Thank you, friend...

    • lizziehumphreys1 profile image

      lizziehumphreys1 6 years ago

      as someone who has sung in a few choirs myself and been to a music school, this lens is really beautiful :) starting up a choir is something i would love to do in the future.

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 6 years ago

      I sang in the school choir for many years- I really miss it!

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 6 years ago from Virginia

      Definitely intend to share this great choir resource. Thanks for all the wonderful lens'. CountryLuthier/MISSISSIPPI2020

    • aliciamaggie54 profile image

      aliciamaggie54 6 years ago

      Nice to see a lense about novice choir members.

    • profile image

      Justjanices 6 years ago

      This must be quite challenging at first!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Blessed by a September angel.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      God Bless you! Thank you for this. It really is a great help!!!!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 7 years ago

      Oh my goodness ... It surely is heartwarming to think that a choir of beginners can make beautiful music ... some day.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I work with a lot of singers who are musically illiterate. Thank goodness, it's easier to help them than it used to be. My chorus had a web page where I posted not just pdfs of the music (eliminating the "i lost it" excuse) but midis of the arrangements, one each for SATB with the singers' part loud and centered and the other parts quieter and panned off to the sides. That way they could sing along at home, and I emphasized: work on this at home. Also constantly reminded them: "You have to know either the tune or the words by heart."

    • AlishaV profile image

      Alisha Vargas 8 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      This is going to be such a wonderful lens for helping choir masters out there! Don't forget to mention it to your pastor so he can share it, and some of your others, with his friends! I'm sure it will be very helpful for them and their churches.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 8 years ago from United States

      Excellent lens Joan! I like the fact that you put encouragement at the top of your list. I have a really good friend who had never sung publicly before she joined a choir in college. She is one of my favorite soloists today. Not only because she has a lovely voice, but because she radiates God's love when she sings. It would have been a great loss to our church if she had not been encouraged..