A “Choral Ecology” in Worship Music Planning

Within our congregations and personal lives, we have increasingly clear understanding of the ways our personal decisions around our use of resources matter. How can we carry this sense of stewardship into the planning and care we exhibit for resources of wisdom, people, talent, time, and connection in our worship services? Over recent years I have grown to plan anthems, service music, and other choir roles with a much clearer view of the “ecosystem” volunteer church choirs exist in. Intentional planning with this awareness has helped to provide increased comfort and musical consistency in the growth and leadership of my choirs, it has broadened our choral and congregational repertoire without (much) resistance, and it has helped to deepen theological and liturgical connections in an era of widely varied attendance patterns. Others have articulated well the introduction of new hymns into a congregation’s repertoire, so I will not repeat that process here but focus directly on choral leadership.

Planning with a “Choir Ecology” in mind includes carefully planned repetition of works to build a repertoire and increase the familiarity so the choir can grow in musicianship and focus on more nuanced and artistic goals. It includes opportunities to use hymn-based settings as true choral anthems, but once learned to pull individual introductions, verses, transitions, or descants from them with congregational singing. Finally, and the hardest for me, it means that I must confess and let go of my desire for the “perfect” anthem for a service when the “perfect” anthems for three weeks in one month would stretch my singers to (or beyond) their limits. Instead, I find an excellent or good fit for text and music that will give time to the stretch anthems of nearby weeks and have singers feeling good about their abilities and their leadership in rehearsal and worship. Meaningful worship leadership is more than getting most of the notes right!

An example of these tensions in practice this year will show some of these priorities in action. This winter, our adult choir is in transition with an interim organist through Lent and Easter. Long-range planning (completed before personnel and start dates could be confirmed) required a more reserved plan for coordination in some weeks, and a sermon series departing from the RCL encouraged reflection on new connections between Lenten, Holy Week, and Easter Liturgies.

Good volunteer adult choir winter plan

(about 25 singers on a Sunday, about 35 “members”)

1/7 K. Nystedt, This is My Beloved Son, SAB (Concordia): very short

1/14 R. Hobby, God Has Called Us, SATB (MorningStar): repeated from an Installation last summer

1/21 E. Hovland, The Glory of the Father, SSATB a cappella (GIA): hard for us to do well

1/28 Z. Highben, O God of Light, SATB (Augsburg): hymn concertato

2/4 Two selections: 1.) J. Campbell, God Heals the Brokenhearted, SATB (Augsburg): Psalm text setting; 2.) Scripture chanting with percussion guest

2/11 Two selections: 1.) K. Nystedt, This is My Beloved Son: returns to bookend the Sundays after the Epiphany with its parallel text; 2.) Christiansen, My God, How Wonderful Thou Art, SSATB a cappella (Augsburg, 1968): a good challenge

2/18 R. Hillert, God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending, SATB (Hope): familiar hymn concertato repeated from last year (congregation will sing this hymn in March, connecting a Lenten series on the Cross)

2/25 T. Noble, Go To Dark Gethsemane, SATB a cappella (Alfred): not as hard as it looks

3/4 J. Ferguson, Ah, Holy Jesus (from St. John Passion), SATB (Augsburg): hymn concertato, familiar

3/11 J. Ferguson, When We Are Tempted to Deny Your Son (from St. John Passion), SATB (Augsburg): new to us

3/18 Two selections: 1.) J. Ireland, Greater Love Hath No Man, SATB (ECS/MorningStar): big English organ-anthem; 2.) P. Christiansen, Wondrous Love, SATB (Augsburg): used only in part as transition in service (congregation will sing this hymn March 25)

3/25 G. Martin, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, SATB (Presser): a choir favorite we have not sung in several years

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John Sall

John Sall’s life-long connection to music in the church was nurtured in the rich resources of a strong Lutheran Church, public school, and private music study in Holdrege, Nebraska, and through the Lutheran Summer Music program. A graduate of St. Olaf College, John majored in Church Music and Organ with John Ferguson. Graduate conducting studies with Alan Harler attended the Master of Music at Temple University where John was honored with the Elaine Brown Tribute Award, presented each year for work in “relating music to broader issues of community-building and human expression.” John serves as Director of Music Ministries at Abington Presbyterian Church (Abington, PA), founded in 1714, where he leads youth and adult choirs and the Abington Symphony Orchestra and oversees congregational music programs and the Music at Abington concert series.

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