Updated: Nov 11, 2019
By Dr. Barry C. Johnson
his will be an ongoing set of observations in a series that will examine the church choir. We will present several installments, where I will examine categories or specific choirs, such as the youth choir, mass or adult choir, and male chorus. I will also explore the types of devotional services, and the components of the choir’s contribution to the worship service.
I love church choirs. From choirs that are classical to those that are liturgical, gospel, or contemporary, I love the choral contributions and music that have graced the church throughout the centuries. As a professional musician and student of music history, I have studied the development of choral music from its inception in the Catholic Church to its further development through the Protestant, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Church of God in Christ movements. Whether magnificently robed or in uniformed polo shirts, choir members make a grand statement, even before they perform. Audiences anticipate the readiness of the choir through its manner of dress, discipline, and attention to detail.
I love the great, now-ageless choral works of the church, such as Mass in B Minor and the many organ and instrumental works Bach gave to the church. Who does not enjoy the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah? Consider also the great hymns of Dr. Isaac Watts, Fannie Crosby (Pass Me Not), Charles Albert Tinley, and Thomas Dorsey (Precious Lord). This musical movement continued through the Golden Age of Gospel, the Traditional Age (the 60s), and the beginning of the Contemporary Gospel Movement; and all such contributions have blessed and uplifted the church service.
However, there existed a period when church choir members could perform anthems and difficult hymns. One church in particular had the talent to perform such works as Handel’s Messiah. This church continues the tradition today but relies on guests to supply the level of musical excellence once performed by her own members. Previously, the average choir could easily perform gospel selections found on the radio. Its choir sections (soprano, alto, and tenor) were full and resplendent, capable of complimenting a skilled soloist. However, we are today experiencing a lack of resources, i.e., talented personnel, to fill the rosters of the choir.
Have you noticed that many choirs of some of the most traditionally established and active churches do not have the participation that once swelled their ranks of just twenty years ago? Mega churches are one possible exception, outside the realm of today’s norm. The majority of contemporary churches are experiencing a decline in membership, with the choir a victim of collateral damage. There exists a myriad of reasons for this recession; however, my observations are quite simple.
Today, many church choirs struggle with adequate numbers to power selections and harmonies taken for granted in times past. In the average choir, there may be 10-15 people and of that group, only two men. This scenario alters the harmonic balance of the three gospel choir sections because most men are tenors. A saving grace can sometimes be found in females who can sing the tenor parts which, when placed in the tenor section, adjusts the balance and saves the music from faltering.
Something in these contemporary times has gone amiss. In a recent assessment of the state of the traditional church choir, I have noticed some interesting observations that are ominous. People do not seem to be as interested in church or in singing with the choir. It stands to reason that if there is a lack of interest in the church, the same lack of interest would affect the choirs. What will happen to the church choir if the numbers reach such a low that even radio songs cannot be adequately performed? Choir songs will simply be sung in unison with everyone singing the melody, void of harmony. Surprisingly, this is not some aspect of the future; it is happening now!
I do not believe that the church choir’s importance has waned. The congregation still loves listening to the choir, soloists, and musicians; however, the quality is not there. The role of the choir has not diminished; however, the songs that can be adequately performed are not there. With these issues, the scope of the choir’s repertoire is limited. I pray that we continue to assess the causes of that which appears to be the decline of the church choir, for it is a valuable asset of the church that we need to save. Next month, we will examine the traditional deacon-led devotional period versus the praise teams of this contemporary period.