Composing for the small church choir

Copyright © 1991 Dean Crocker All Rights Reserved

Many young composers have problems finding a market for their works. This is a shame, for there is a very large, profitable market available to them if they would only take advantage of it. I refer of course to the thousands of small church choirs, which are in desperate need of literature suited to their peculiar abilities.

One of the biggest problems faced by young composers in writing for the small church choir is their lack of understanding of the standard vocal types and their function.

Standard Vocal Types

The Soprano.

Church choir sopranos are difficult for the trained composer to comprehend. It must be assumed that no soprano can ever read music, therefore their part must not be complicated by having them sing anything other than the melody. This cannot be emphasized strongly enough! If you write something other than the melody for the sopranos, they will sing the melody anyway.

Soprano RangeAs the typical church choir soprano has no vocal training whatsoever, you must avoid a vocal line that would force a change of register. The range indicated in the diagram is a general rule. Notes lower than this will usually be inaudible; this is sometimes recommended. If the line must go higher than this, I would recommend using a divisi technique, as there are always too many sopranos anyway.

The high part may be given to the young voices if you desire a pinched sound that is always above the correct pitch, but I tend to give the high part to the older voices, so that pitch is no longer a matter of consideration. The so-called “second soprano” part created in this instance is of no importance, as the lower voices will either sing the melody an octave lower, or, thinking the high part is some sort of descant, sing the same thing as the altos.

The Alto.

This term is a misnomer, and should be avoided in your scores. The traditional church choir alto section is composed of two distinct voices, which have nothing to do with one another. [They rarely even speak at rehearsal.] Again, there is a differentiation based on age.

Mezzo RangeThe younger altos, which I will refer to as mezzos, are always trained musicians, having had extensive piano lessons as a child, and frequently lengthy experience on the clarinet. They are the only voices in the choir to whom you may ever give any notes other than root, third, and fifth of the chord. They continually complain about having the “difficult” parts, but this opportunity to whine is frequently the only reason they bother to be in the choir at all, so it is important to give them vocal lines that no operatic star would even consider attempting. It is also important to consider that their tone generally resembles an oboe being played by a saxophonist.

Contralto RangeThe older altos present a problem in terminology. The accurate term, “whiskey tenor,” is only allowable in certain Episcopal venues. Acceptable alternatives are “bellowing elephants,” “the old broads in the back,” or, the tern that should appear on your score, contralto. As an experienced composer, you will realize that these voices have nothing to do with a true contralto, but the term will increase the ladies’ self-awareness, esteem, and with any luck will get them to contribute to the handbell fund. The indicated range is absolutely to be adhered to, although the particular notes are unimportant, as they will be performed with so much vibrato and clearing of the throat as to be unrecognizable.

The Tenor.

Tenor RangeTenors do not exist in the small church choir. The vocal part called “tenor” is performed by gentle men that may have the range of a baritone. Although higher pitches are possible, they should be reserved for depictions of the Passion of Christ. If you are foolhardy enough to attempt a work that contains a mildly contrapuntal passage, the “tenors” should always go first, as they do not know how to count the rests. Their numbers are always quite small, but their highly individual tone quality always allows them to be heard. Their line should always be written in the treble clef. Although sounding an octave lower than written, this convention gives them a feeling that they are actually singing high notes and won’ be confused with the basses.

The Bass.

“Basses” are men who sing the baritone part in the small church choir. They provide the harmonic foundation upon which the work’s entire performance is based. This is a pity. While the restrictions of the baritone line are many, the opportunities of artistic expression are few. Basses will only sing notes they feel are comfortable and, faced with a pitch they find “high,” will quickly drop down at least one octave. This is characteristic of the Russian Orthodox school of choral writing, but is a fact too often ignored in the composition of American church music.

Basses are capable of hearing only the root of a chord. Any attempt to use first- or second-inversion triads will require extensive rehearsal time. The young composer is strongly advised against taking any such artistic license that would make their works less marketable. If these advanced ideas are necessary to the religious integrity of the work, make sure the line is double on the organ pedals. The sound of the organ pedal is the only pitch basses can perceive, and it is physically impossible for them to sing any other pitch.

Basses are especially useful in providing an exciting portamento effect whenever the notes reach the upper limits of their “comfortable” range. This range is not given here, for it is entirely dependent on how much coffee is available in the rehearsal room before the worship service.

The Problem of Style

Many young composers are tempted to imitate the advanced choral techniques of the modern school, typified by such contemporary writers as Ron Harris, Jane Marshall, and Ralph Vaughn Williams. These cluttered scores lack the simplicity that the small church choir requires. Frequent use of passing tones, dissonance, and complex harmonic structure (chords using notes beyond the fifth scale tone) all contribute to a total lack of profit and market share for these admittedly sincere attempts.

The beauty of the religious choral number is in its simplicity. Avoid anything that will require the congregation to listen carefully or learn something new. This would put the choral anthem in serious conflict with the sermon, prayers, and hymns. A pretty melody that strongly resembles something you once heard as a child, a text full of comforting thoughts, and a simple harmonic rhythm are the only things you need to write successful church music.

If the number is lengthy (over two minutes), an attempt is sometimes made to introduce a contrapuntal section to relieve the monotony. Consider this course carefully! This presents a danger of catastrophe that will haunt the choir constantly. If after due consideration you are still intent on counterpoint, keep it simple, short, and be sure the tenors come in first (see above).

Never use any meter but four-quarter time. Three-quarter time will remind the congregation of a waltz, and other time signatures are too complicated to be taught in one rehearsal per week. Never use any rhythmic figure more complicated than eighth-notes. Any page with notes quicker than this will look to “black” and never be willingly learned. If your ideas demand sixteenth-notes, change the time signature to cut time (alla breve). This will look just like four-quarter time, and present no problems to anyone but the mezzos (see above), and we have already covered that matter.

Basic Performance Practices

Any a cappella piece published with a piano part marked “for rehearsal only” will always be performed with organ.

If scores are not in keys the organist finds easy to play, the “transposer” found on many organs today will be used, frequently without the knowledge of the singers. This will lead to much confusion in the choir, and, when the organist forgets to change it back before the Doxology, will give the congregation the uncomfortable feeling that someone is trying to mess around with the only hymn they know all the words to without having to open the hymnal.

If the particular translation of the text being used varies at all from that to which the particular congregation is accustomed, the piece will probably never be performed. Provide alternatives from several denominational prayer books and modern versions of scripture. Unlike these current texts, the King James Version is not under copyright and is available without permission.

Church choirs operate under embarrassingly small budgets. This may initially cause you to charge very little for your work. Nothing could be more wrong. Since most choir directors will either borrow copies from a friend at another church or, at best, purchase five copies and Photostat the remainder needed, you should gig them for every penny you can. I mean, they don’t have to pay sales tax, you know.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

The small church choir is an amateur organization solely devoted to glorifying God and fulfilling the egos of a lot of singers who could never make it anywhere else. The only consideration of quality is that they perform openly, cheerfully, and with a religious frame of mind. Nowhere is it written that the small church choir is supposed to be good.