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Volume 15, Issue 3: Musica

Thoughts on Children's Choirs

Duck Schuler

One of the most satisfying ministries I have as a church music director is teaching children's choirs at Christ Church. A major objective is to teach children how to read music and to use the voice properly. Performance in the worship service is only a secondary purpose. As a result of this, each of the children's choirs may sing only two or three times per year in worship. The choristers spend much of the rehearsal time learning scales, solfeggio exercises, rhythmic exercises, and ear training. If their participation is consistent over a period of years, they develop the skills that allow them to read music. It is much less frightening to learn a new piece if the music notation does not look like hieroglyphics.

Reading music is a skill that takes years of consistent and systematic study. Even when children do learn music by rote and imitation—and much of the music they learn is done this way—they begin to make the connections between the printed page and the exercises and scales that they have learned. I see the fruits of this process in young teenagers who "suddenly" begin to learn their parts more quickly because of years of work at reading.
I prefer to have my children's choirs segregated. I have a boys' choir that meets twice per week and two girls' choirs, one for ages seven through ten and the other for eleven and up. The girls each meet once per week. It allows for more efficient use of rehearsal time because the voices and the thinking of each of the sexes is different. If you mix the groups, quite often the ensemble will end up being made up mostly of girls with a handful of boys thrown in. Boys are one kind of "beast," girls are another. I would never treat the girls the way I do the boys, otherwise the tears would flow profusely. The girls are more tender-hearted and focused on the director than boys. Boys thrive on discipline and achieving the "goal" whatever it may be. If there is a prize to be had for learning something first or doing something better than everyone else, boys will compete almost to the man. And boys are more willing to sing out without girls present.
The instruments of boys and girls are also quite different, and the training of each should be treated that way as well. The attention that needs to be paid to the boy's voice is much greater because of the change that it eventually will undergo. Boys on the whole are much less able to sing on pitch than girls. But I have found with patient work in matching pitches, those boys (and girls) who have difficulty in this area are able to develop this skill. This often requires working individually or with a small group until they can fit into the ensemble without missing pitches. I have had no failure yet in this.
It is important that boys don't sing too low. I prefer to keep them above middle C as much as possible. I try to keep both boys and girls from singing in the chest register—the gamey-sounding lower range of the voice. Unfortunately many choir directors, especially those who have no voice training or music training, equate loud singing with good singing. In children this is too often achieved by having them sing loudly and low. This kind of singing can destroy these delicate young voices. Although high pitches are harder to sing for those who are not trained, if the voice is built up gradually, singing high is fun and healthy for the voice. I often have the children sing up to C two octaves above middle C. High singing is like doing push-ups or any other physical exercise. Stamina is built up gradually and with consistent practice. Singing high strengthens the whole range.
One of the things that troubles me is the attitude that many people have toward choir. It is not a hostile attitude but rather indifference. Most people consider singing (and as a result, participation in choir) as something that is extracurricular. This seems miles away from the view expressed by the Bible. The commands to sing are many. Singing was so important in the temple worship that David established the Levitical choir, a "command from the Lord through His prophets" (2 Chronicles 29:25). An attitude of indifference manifests itself in various ways among different people. The most common is that of parents who see choir as just one more offering in the smorgasbord of extra things that are available to their children. Imagine this short conversation (and I have had all these at some time).
Asaph: Hey, Nethaniah, what's up?
Nethaniah: Asaph, I've been meaning to talk to you. I have decided to drop out of the choir. I'm on the sling-shot team and they practice everyday. If I don't go to practice, the coach won't let me compete.
Asaph: But you are a Levite. God has established our choir and you have been chosen to sing in it.
Nethaniah: Hey, I'm only one guy, and I don't add that much to the sound. My voice isn't all that good anyway.
Asaph: Don't you like being in the choir?
Nethaniah: I love singing in the choir, but I only have so much time and choir is the lowest on my priority list.
(This last part is never said but the implications are clear.)
In glory, one of the few things we know that we will be doing is singing in the heavenly choir. Why would we not want to participate as part of the royal priesthood in choirs now? Why aren't our priorities more in line with heavenly priorities? What does this kind of attitude say about our theology of worship?

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