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Building a Children's Choir

The children filed out of their seats and stood in two squirming rows in front of the congregation. As the pianist pounded out the introductory notes, the choir director, equipped with giant white word cards, took her place in front of the group.

The director gave the signal, and mothers and fathers listened expectantly. But as the first bars of the complicated anthem filled the church, all the congregation could hear were nervous giggles and the trilling voice of the choir director. With downcast eyes and embarrassed grins the children stumbled as quietly as possible through a song that they were unprepared, and perhaps unable, to sing…

On the following pages Diane McMurrin, director of children's choirs in Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gives some guidelines that may help directors of children's choirs avoid similar disasters. She offers advice about setting up children's choirs, choosing songs that are appropriate to and meaningful for children, and helping children grow through their experience in a church choir.

A children's choir program doesn't "just happen." It takes a lot of careful thought and planning.It takes studying what children are like and what they're capable of. It takes a director who loves children and music—and parents who are willing to support his or her efforts.

So whether you're starting a new program or continuing to build on an older one, it's important to think through your purposes and goals, to remain fresh and vibrant in your planning. It's important to get to know the children you're working with and to understand what they enjoy. The questions and suggestions that follow may help you in that process.

Why should a children's choir program be an integral part of congregational worship and of church life?

Before beginning a children's choir program, spend some time discussing the purpose of the program with your church leaders. They should understand the ministry that such a program can offer to the children and their families as well as to the congregation. You may want to stress some of the following benefits:

First of all, children's choirs give children an opportunity to serve their church. Sunday school, Vacation Bible school, and other activities minister to children, but joining a choir gives children a chance to minister to others through music.

Second, participation in a choir gives children an opportunity to take a leadership role in the service. It gives them a sense of responsibility for the ministry of the church and helps them identify with the traditional form of worship as they grow to adulthood.Third, children's choirs provide opportunities to build Christian character. A choir is a team with a common goal; the qualities of promptness, self-control, cooperation, and commitment must be developed in choir members if the group is to accomplish its purpose of praising the Lord.

Fourth, children's choirs are part of the education process. When children sing Scripture, they remember it for a lifetime. Reflecting on the message of the song as they sing instills understanding of spiritual truths and knowledge of God.

Finally, unchurched families can be drawn to the church through their children's involvement in the worship services. Sometimes 20 percent of my choir has been made up of unchurched children—and half of their families have joined our church before the end of the year.

How does one begin a children's choir program?

First of all, decide which ages will be included in your choir or choirs. Larger churches may want to divide the children into several smaller choirs. The following ages work well together: preschool (with an emphasis on musical activities rather than performance); kindergarten through grade 1; grades 2-3; grades 4—6. Smaller churches may choose either to keep all the children together or to divide them into just two groups—grades 1-3 and 4—6. No matter how you choose to organize, be sure to remember that reading ability between, and even within, grades varies widely; choose songs that are compatible with the reading level of your group.

Once group size and makeup have been determined, plan a recruitment campaign with posters and brochures. Visit church school classes if possible. Place announcements in the bulletin about a special time for registration. Make sure everyone knows that "the big event" is coming up and that it will include refreshments, pictures, or whatever you have planned (use your imagination!). Ask a few committed parents to help you both with advertising and with the registration event.

On the day of registration meet the children personally. Use this time to measure them for their choir robes (if you plan on using robes). You may also wish to take a picture of each child; explain that you will be attaching the pictures to a choir attendance chart.

Encourage parents to sign up for robing, phoning, bringing refreshments to rehearsal, organizing mailings, arranging parties, taking attendance at rehearsal, and so on. If you make thejobs small, you will get greater response from busy parents who are hesitant to take on major responsibilities. However, you may want to find at least two parents who'll take on the larger duty of organizing the volunteers.

Recruitment does not end with registration. Announce in your church bulletin and elsewhere (for at least four weeks) that there is still time to join the choir. Encourage your new choir members to bring their friends from school. Ideal choir size is Reformed Worship I Twoanywhere from twelve to thirty children, depending on age level.

Also be sure to plan to join a children's choir organization such as Choristers Guild (RO. Box 38188, Dallas, Texas 75238; phone 214-271-1521). The guild will send you a monthly periodical filled with sample music, useful information on planning rehearsals and teaching music concepts, and other practical ideas shared by children's choir directors around the country. The guild also sponsors national seminars featuring top leaders in children's choir work.

How does one plan a choir curriculum?

The key to a successful children's choir rehearsal is the music you select. Consider the following guidelines:

  • The text must be theologically sound.
  • The vocal range should fit the age range for which it is chosen. (Stay away from songs that gravitate at Middle C.)
  • The melody should be well written and in good form, with a balance of repetition, contrast, and variation.
  • The song should have an interesting accompaniment.
  • You should feel personally enthusiastic about teaching this song. Unless you enjoy it, the children won't either.
  • The song should have lasting value. (Will your choirs enjoy singing it five years from now? Will it transfer to their adulthood?)

Plan a recruitment campaign with posters and brochures

In planning my rehearsal, I sit at the piano with the anthem in front of me and ask myself questions like these: What can I teach from this anthem musically to build upon what the children know or to reinforce what they have already learned (rhythm, intervals, phrasing, tone, dynamics, etc.)?

The key to a successful children's choir rehearsal is the music you select.

What spiritual concept does the text reveal, and how can I help the children understand its message?

Once I have decided what I will teach, I chart a variety of learning activities from an acrostic that I call "MaC'S PLaN": Movement, Creating, Singing, Playing (instruments), Listening, and Notation. I try to use at least five of these activities in every rehearsal, and I support them with plenty of visuals, color-coded materials, and enthusiasm.

Though I want to offer the children a variety of styles, I also am very concerned that the music have lasting value. I want the children to know and love the great hymns of the church. In fact, 30 to 50 percent of my repertoire is made up of arrangements of great hymns. Even preschoolers can learn portions of hymns or "hymnlets." My preschool choir once learned "Children of the Heavenly Father," and it soon became their favorite. Perhaps they did not comprehend all of the words, but they will grow into an understanding of the hymn's meaning—-just as they do with Scripture, the Lord's Prayer, and so on.

I also want the children to become independent musicians who can read and write music. Fortunately, the age when they learn to read books is also the best time for them to learn to read music. Once they have even a partial knowledge of this skill, it opens a whole new realm that they can enjoy throughout their adulthood.

Finally, I want the choir experience to help the children grow in their knowledge of God and in their responsibility as leaders of his church. When they leave our group, they should feel that they have been accepted and loved as they served in God's house.

Music Repertoire Recommended by Diane McMurrin

For young choirs:

The Lord Is My Strength and My Song, by Hal Hopson. Choristers Guild, 1971. 3 pages. 20 cents. Unison. A-101 (optional bells, tambourine, and drum).

We Are the Church, by Avery and Marsh, arr. Carlton Young. Agape, 1972. 6 pages. 50 cents. Two-part or unison. AG 7182 (optional C and B^ instruments and drums).

Come on Down, Zacchaeus, arr. Robert Leaf. Augsburg, 1972. 4 pages. 25 cents. Unison. 11-1654 (with optional autoharp and tambourine).

God Loves a Cheerful Giver from I Know the Secret by the Medical Mission Sisters. Vanguard Music, 1966.43 pages. $2.95. Unison. V-538.

For general choirs:

I Will Give Thanks, by Michael Jothen. Beckenhorst Press, 1980. 7 pages. 60 cents. Unison. BP1101 (optional flute).

Consider the Lillies, by Natalie Sleeth. Choristers Guild, 1978. 9 pages. 55 cents. Unison. A-195 (optional flute or violin).

The Good Samaritan, by John D. Horman. Choristers Guild, 1983.8 pages. 80 cents. Two-part. A-281 (with narration).

God Made Me, by Michael Jothen. Beckenhorst Press, 1975. 7 pages. 50 cents. Unison.

BP1016 (optional flute).

Every Morning's Sun, by Sue Ellen Page. Choristers Guild, 1977. 7 pages. 50 cents. Unison. A-193 (optional two glockenspiels).

Little Grey Donkey, by Natalie Sleeth. Choristers Guild, 1970. 5 pages. 25 cents. Unison. A-84 (oboe and sand-block); for Palm Sunday.

He Is Coming, by Pauline Del-monte. Choristers Guild, 1973. 3 pages. 35 cents. Unison. A-142 (finger cymbals); for Palm Sunday.

Now Let the Heavens Be Joyful, from Hymns Plus, arrangements of Helen Kemp. Hinshaw Music, 1980. 56 pages. $3.95. Unison. HMB-128; for Easter Sunday.

For advanced choirs:

All Things Bright and Beautiful, by John Rutter. Hinshaw Music, 1983. 8 pages. 70 cents. Two-part. HMC-663.

We Will Sing for Joy, by Scarlatti, arr. Helenclair Lowe. Choristers Guild, 1978. 4 pages. 75 cents. Unison. CGA-202.

Who Shall Ascend? by Hank Beebe. Carl Fischer, 1972. 10 pages. 45 cents. Two-part. CM7863.

Like as a Father, by Luigi Cher-ubini. Summy-Birchard Company, 1959. 6 pages. (Price not listed.) Canon for three equal voices. 5297.

A Canon of Praise, by Natalie Sleeth. Choristers Guild, 1969. 10 pages. (Price not listed.) Three treble voices. A-79.