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Choosing and Using Choral Music

Choosing the right choral music has got to be the single most challenging task I have faced in the 35 years I have directed church choirs. I dread the idea of buying sixty copies of something that will not work well in the service; and I don’t want to spend even twenty minutes rehearsing an anthem that will not be edifying for the body of believers.

Clifton Baptist Church is a congregation of about 250 adults (and lots of children). We have a large concentration of seminary students and faculty; and, because we are two blocks from the Kentucky School for the Blind, we have about fifteen active members who are braille readers.

Our un-auditioned choir consists of about forty regular participants, but rarely do we have more than thirty at any one time. Perhaps half the singers are well-trained choral musicians. Five of our choir members are blind and learn the music from brailled copies of the texts. The choir sings an anthem about four out of five Sundays, with an eighty-minute rehearsal mid-week and a ten-minute brush up on Sunday morning. We take a six-week summer break and a week or two off after Christmas. We usually use the piano for accompaniment and on occasion the organ. If we are doing something that calls for it, we will add obbligato instruments (flutes, violins and violas, and trumpets) and a rhythm section of electric bass and drum kit. Three or four times a year, our choir anthem is completely unaccompanied.

We use a variety of musical styles—from Messiah excerpts to arrangements by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Somehow, with the Lord’s help, we are able to avoid the idea that choral participation is a form of entertainment. I strive to select texts and musical settings that will help our people connect to the truth of God. The texts must be understandable and consonant with the emphases of the Scriptures; and the music must elevate the text in an interesting, delightful, and beautiful way. Our congregation’s heart language includes things that are simple, but never simplistic—child-like faith, yes; childish expression, no.

Choosing Functional Choral Music

I must confess that it is very rare that I choose choral selections to go specifically with the morning’s sermon. I have a very high view of preaching, but I don’t think that the best role for the choir is in punctuating or emphasizing the preached Word. I am much more likely to use the choir as a leading voice in the congregation’s other acts of worship. Most of our choir selections fall into one of these categories:

  • General praise, psalmic adoration, or thanks—usually toward the beginning of the service (Psalms 96, 98, or 100).
  • Preparation for prayer—to remind us of the Lord’s care for his people and his desire for us to “pour out our hearts before him” (Ps. 62:8).
  • Preparation for confession of sin—texts that communicate that we are desperate sinners in need of a Savior. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.”
  • Acknowledgement and celebration of God's amazing forgiveness—highlighting the fact that “no condemnation now I dread. Jesus and all in him is mine.”
  • Introducing a hymn or song to the congregation—a choral selection that ends with the congregation singing the last stanza, or with the congregation singing refrains throughout. This is a fabulous way to use the choir as the facilitator of vibrant congregational songs of faith.
  • Contemplation on the cross of Christ or preparation for the Lord's Supper—often, our preparation for the Table is a choral meditation.
Sources for New (and Old) Music
  • Sample packets—It is almost impossible for me to make good selections when I stare at a sample pack of music. The boxes and packets pile up in the corner or next to the piano. My wife, however, loves to sort through stacks of choral music. She will sift through a hundred anthems and pull out six or eight that she thinks will work for our church. Then I have the luxury of looking at the short list, ordering four or five of those that I think will work nicely. I love Doris Stam.
  • Conferences and reading sessions—I can actually hear the anthems being sung by real people.
  • Trusted colleagues—The vast majority of the choral pieces that I select are ones that were suggested to me by friends, colleagues, choir members, and former students who know me and know our church.



Excerpt

Choir Anthems used 2003 through March 2007

This list does not include our choir's important role in teaching new hymns and worship songs. We do that regularly. 

  • All Good Gifts (David Schwoebel, Hinshaw)
  • All the Way My Savior Leads Me (Crosby/Tune: Abbotts Leah, manuscript)
  • All Things Are Yours, My God (Vajda/Schalk, MorningStar, with congregation)
  • Behold the Lamb: Communion Hymn (Townend/Getty, GettyMusic.com)
  • Bring to the Lord a Glad New Song (Perry/Parry/Jerusalem, Jubilate Hymns/Hope)
  • By the Gentle Waters (Berry, Church Street)
  • Canticle of Fellowship (Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • Canticle of Praise (Phillips, Glory Sound)
  • Come, Christians, Join to Sing (Hayes, Glory Sound)
  • Come Down, O Love Divine (Vaughan Williams/Down Ampney/White, Selah)
  • Come to the Waters (Boice/Jones/arr. Kaiser, Hymns for a Modern Reformation)
  • Consider It Joy (Kendrick, Make Way Music)
  • Fairest Lord Jesus (Gil Martin, Hinshaw)
  • Festival Canticle (Hillert, Concordia, with congregation)
  • Give Me Jesus (Traditional/Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • Go Ye into All the World (Harlan, Shawnee)
  • God Is Able (Machen/Cymbala, Word)
  • Hallelujah (Boice/Jones/Kaiser, Hymns for a Modern Reformation)
  • Hark, I Hear the Harp Eternal (Early American, manuscript)
  • Have You Not Known (Scott, Concordia, with congregation)
  • He Was Wounded (Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • Holy Is the Lord (Schubert/Bock, Gentry)
  • Holy Is He (Holy, Holy, Holy) (Cloninger/Clydesdale, Word, with congregation)
  • How Can I Keep from Singing? (Lowry/Arr. Nelson, Augsburg)
  • How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (Townend/arr. Shackley, Hope)
  • How Lovely Is Your Dwelling (Pote, GIA)
  • I Need Thee Every Hour (Dean, Smyth & Helwys)
  • I Surrender All (Potts, Daybreak)
  • I Will Glorify Your Name (Berry, Van Ness)
  • I Will Joyfully Sing (McDonald, Purifoy)
  • Idyll of Praise ("This Is My Father's World"/Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Bach/arr. Carl Stam, with congregation)
  • Jesus, I Adore Thee (Thomas Aquinas/Caracciolo, Roger Dean)
  • Jesus, Our Soul’s Delightful Choice (Watts/Ward, ReformedPraise.org)
  • Jesus Paid It All (Sterling, Shawnee)
  • Jubilee (Card/arr. Williams, manuscript)
  • Lamb of God, What Wondrous Love (Pedtker/Fauré, Gentry)
  • Let All the People Praise Thee (Sleeth, Lorenz, with congregation)
  • Let Everything That Has Breath (Gomez/Brooks, Word)
  • Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Burroughs, Carl Fischer)
  • Lord, It Belongs Not to My Care (Baxter/Schalk, Augsburg)
  • Majesty and Glory of Your Name (Fettke, Word)
  • Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord (Harlan, Shawnee)
  • Mercy’s Free (Jukes/Shute, Concordia)
  • My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (Wilberg, Hinshaw)
  • Not for Tongues of Heaven's Angels (Dudley-Smith/Jonas, GIA, with congregation)
  • Not unto Us (Eggert/Cherwien, Concordia, with congregation)
  • O God Beyond All Praising (Holst/Proulx, GIA)
  • O God, We Kneel before Your Throne (Hopp, GIA, with congregation)
  • O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus (Francis/Litton, Harold Flammer)
  • O Wondrous Love (Cook/arr. Greer, LifeWay)
  • Of Whom Shall I Be Afraid? (Pote, Harold Flanner)
  • Offertory (Ness Beck, Beckenhorst)
  • Order My Steps (Burleigh, Hope)
  • Praise His Holy Name (Hampton, Earthsongs)
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (Hill, Hal Leonard)
  • Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty (Distler) 2/5/06
  • Praise the Lord, Ye heavens Adore Him! (Althouse, Bock)
  • Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester (White, Oxford)
  • Psalm 139 (Pote, Chorister's Guild)
  • Psalm of Comfort (Harlan, Brookfield)
  • Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart (Schwoebel, Beckenhorst, with congregation)
  • Shepherd Me, O God (Haugen, GIA, with congregation)
  • Shouts of Joy (Bray, Alliance)
  • Sometimes a Light Surprises (SBTS)
  • Song of Celebration, (Pote, Hope)
  • Take and Eat (Joncas, GIA, with congregation)
  • Taste and See (Moore, GIA, with congregation)
  • Thanks (McGruder/Cymbala, Word)
  • They Who Wait upon the Lord (Nygard, Hal Leonard)
  • Think on These Things (Childs, Santa Barbara)
  • This Little Light of Mine (Turner, St. James Music Press)
  • Thy Will Be Done (Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • To Thee I Die (Scott. Hinshaw)
  • Turn My Heart, O God (Haugen, GIA, with congregation)
  • View the Present through the Promise (Trooeger/Hopp, GIA
  • What Is the World to Me? (Bach, manuscript)
  • Wings of the Dawn (Spencer, Shawnee)
  • Worthy to Be Praised (Smith, Lawson Gould)
  • You Are the Light (Steele/Fettke, Lillenas) 
Advent and Christmas Anthems
  • And the Glory of the Lord (Handel, MESSIAH)
  • Before the Marvel of This Night (Vajda/Schalk, Augsburg)
  • Children, Run Joyfully (Comooser, OCP, with congregation)
  • Come and See (LeBlanc/Greer, Word)
  • Come as a Child (Clininger/Hayes, Word)
  • Creator of the Stars of Night (Cox, MorningStar)
  • Emmanuel (Manion, OCP)
  • Gloria in excelsis Deo (Pote, Hope)
  • Glorious Light (Getty/Hannah, ThankYou Music)
  • Glory, Glory, Glory (Williams/Barrett, Glory Sound)
  • How Beautiful upon the Mountains (Carter, Hinshaw)
  • Immanuel (Card/arr. Williams, manuscript)
  • Jesus Came to Dwell Among Us (Harlan, Brookfield)
  • Lo, How a Rose (Distler)
  • Lord, You Were Rich (Houghton/arr. Bergs, ReformedWorship)
  • O Come to Bethlehem (Schram, Carl Fischer)
  • Rejoice, Rejoice the Savior Comes (Doddridge/St. Martin's/Burkhardt, MorningStar)
  • There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob (Mendelssohn, Schirmer)
  • Wake from Your Sleep (Schutte, OCP)
  • Who Is This? (Dunstan/Ferguson, MorningStar) 
Passion and Easter Anthems
  • All Shall Be Well (Dudley-Smith/Foley, OCP, with congregation)
  • But Thanks Be to God (Handel, MESSIAH)
  • Easter Hodie (Dudley-Smith/Hustad, Hope)
  • Hallelujah (Handel, MESSIAH)
  • He Is Arisen! (Liebergen, Carl Fischer)
  • He Is Risen, He Is Lord (Berry, Hal Leonard)
  • He Was Wounded (Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • I Know That My Redeemer Lives (Medley/Duke Street/Hopson, GIA, with congregation)
  • Lenten Song (Wesley/Hayes, Hinshaw)
  • Since by Man (Handel, MESSIAH)
  • This Is the Day (Leavitt, Concordia)
  • Thy Will Be Done (Courtney, Beckenhorst)
  • Who Will Call Him King of Kings? (Ferell/Helvering, Word)