Forty Fearless Teens: Learning What Worked for the Youth Choir

It is 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning. About forty teenagers have assembled in the choir rehearsal room at Islington United Church in west Toronto. Most of them look sleepy; many look as though they just stepped out of the shower. But they’re here, and as they warm up their voices and begin to sing, I’m reminded of newborn butterflies drying their wings and getting ready for flight. A parent checks attendance and solves last-minute problems. By 9:25, the Islington United Church Youth Choir (IUCYC) is on its way to the sanctuary, prepared to lead a full congregation in a hymn of praise. The congregation at the 9:30 service responds to the choir’s leadership with enthusiasm.

This scene has repeated itself almost every Sunday morning for about seven years. In that time, the choir has grown from a tiny group of four fearless kids singing in unison to a four-part choir of about forty teens.

In the Beginning

The members of Islington United would say that music has always been an important part of the church’s life. When I arrived to take a position as minister of music seven years ago, I found Islington parishioners open and receptive to all kinds of music. Their fairly traditional worship moved easily between formality and improvisation. The warm, inclusive spirit and the compelling preaching at Islington immediately engaged me, and I resolved to build on these strengths. It was clear to me that I needed to provide the widest possible variety of music-making for this congregation.

I came to Islington with no youth choir experience, full of apprehension about this part of the job. I assumed that successful youth choir leaders had to be young, good-looking, and popular with the kids. I’m not particularly young or good-looking, and I don’t find being “one of the gang” easy or comfortable. Fortunately, with the encouragement of parishioners who became my close friends, I soon disabused myself of these notions.

But I faced other challenges. At first I thought that I should maintain the structures as I found them. That was clearly a mistake. And it took me a while to get a feeling for the kinds of music that would engage teens. There were other issues too. The choir had more boys than girls, and many of them had changing voices. How does a choir director care for and encourage young male singers through this transition? I have since learned that much of the information that I learned the hard way is readily available from excellent organizations such as the Choristers Guild. I have also found other youth choir leaders wonderfully helpful and generous with ideas.

Even while I was feeling my way forward, however, I had a strong sense of what the choir’s focus ought to be. From the beginning, I brought my own passion for meaningful worship to our rehearsals. Sometimes I prayed with the kids. We pulled texts apart, and I showed the choir how our music would function and interact with other parts of the service. We learned hymns and tried to figure out what they meant.

I spent the first year rehearsing teenage choristers in my office. In the course of our meetings we became good friends, and they learned about sight-singing and vocal production. At the end of the first year, our number was up to seven.

Year Two

The following year, the church embarked on a comprehensive visioning exercise. It became clear that the congregation highly valued the youth choir, and I caught a new vision of what might be possible with this group. That spring, I programmed a musical with the choir, and more kids were attracted to join. We performed downtown at Knox College where I teach and then did a series of performances at the church. This project got parents involved in all sorts of ways—costumes, tickets, food, advertising, and transportation.

Year Three

With such a high level of parental support, I thought we could mount a really big project, and so the following year we organized a trip to the West Coast. The parents did such an effective job of fundraising and the church community was so supportive that we had a surplus in the bank before we left. Expenses for all thirty-six choristers, together with their chaperones and leaders, were completely paid. Our program centered on the parables of Jesus, presented in a varied program of choral music, dance, mime, and drama. A fine choreographer and dramatist from within the congregation created a dramatic narrative structure with some original music into which all of these individual parts found their places. The kids presented a memorable program and came back confident and joyful.

Year Five

Two years later, we flew to Newfoundland, where we participated in a number of concerts with other youth choirs. By this time, we had established a handbell program at Islington United, and that group’s contribution added variety and texture to our program. Again, we raised more than enough money for the forty-eight choristers and their leaders and chaperones. And again, singers returned with a renewed sense of commitment to the group and with new friendships formed.

Many benefits flowed from these projects. They proved to be an irresistible recruiting tool, as they were intended to be. Furthermore, in the course of preparing for these trips, parents got to know each other and became more involved with the church. Parental support translated directly into kids getting to choir functions, rehearsals, and services regularly and on time. Throughout all of these special activities, the choir maintained its focus—choristers appeared every week for rehearsals and the 9:30 Sunday service. The activities functioned to support the choir’s central role of worship leadership.

Discoveries About Repertoire

In the course of developing a program of worship leadership, I discovered that these young singers would respond to many kinds of music. They sang arrangements of baroque and classical music with enjoyment and success. But the first real “hit” was Donald Moore’s arrangement of an African “Alleluia,” and I discovered how strongly choir members were attracted to world music. We explored some of that repertory, and we did quite a few things in a ballad-rock style. Initially I looked for fairly general texts that would harmonize with our lectionary-based worship.

One Sunday the lectionary called for a text with warm personal commitment, and I brought out Jack Schrader’s arrangement of “I Love You, Lord.” I had some trepidation about programming a piece with a text expressing such personal commitment because I didn’t want to embarrass my choristers or let them sing texts with which they weren’t comfortable. I simply wasn’t prepared for the intensity and passion with which they sang that piece. Since then we have sung others like it, such as Daniel Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord” and Allen Pote’s setting of Psalm 139. These experiences propelled us into exploring gospel music, for which the choir has shown great enthusiasm. Their favorite piece on the Newfoundland trip was Mark Hayes’s arrangement of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

A Sense of Belonging

One of the many advantages of having the youth choir sing every Sunday is that its members know that they are needed and that they belong. As a result, they feel comfortable in the church building, and they volunteer for other kinds of church ministry as well. They frequently come by the church to meet their friends or to play basketball. Some of them volunteer to serve as ushers in the second service. Others help with church school classes or nursery supervision. A few choristers come to our monthly Taizé services and sing or play an instrument. Others sing and play instruments in the band that serves our fledgling “alternative” service the first Sunday of every month. Occasionally, the whole choir cheerfully serves at congregational dinners.

Reflections

As I write this, the choir has entered another phase in its development, and we are trying to meet the new challenges with flexibility and imagination. In the last two years, several of our key singers have graduated and new singers have joined. We are concentrating on adapting to our new identity and incorporating new members securely as soon as possible. Since this is an ongoing challenge, we are seeking a structure that will accommodate the increased size of the choir while maintaining a friendly, personal atmosphere. We continue to look for imaginative and meaningful ways to harness the energy and the goodwill of parents, since we believe that their involvement on many fronts is crucial to the choir’s well-being.

Seven years ago, I couldn’t have predicted the impact these teens would have on my life. Along the way they have given me great joy, and they have helped clarify my understanding of music ministry in the church. These young people and I trust and respect each other. Best of all, we see our own faith reflected back to us when we praise God together in worship.

 

Excerpt
A Profile of Islington United Church

Islington United Church is a 160-year-old congregation of about 1,800 members. To accommodate the large number of worshipers, two services are offered each Sunday morning. The church is usually filled to 80 percent capacity or higher (around 300 people) for each service. Except for the music, the services are identical; the youth choir sings at 9:30, and the adult choir at 11:15. When the junior choir sings, their contribution is heard at both services. Occasionally, at times like Christmas and Easter, the choirs sing together in various combinations. The church chancel provides divided seating for about forty choristers. Although it is quite beautiful, it is not a flexible space. When the choirs sing together, we group them at the front of the chancel, on the chancel steps, and on the main floor. In the past seven years, we have become progressively less formal about the seating and placement of singers.

 

Excerpt
Tips for Youth Choir Directors

  • Treat each individual chorister with respect. Be sure that each one gets some recognition from you—a smile, a handshake, a conversation, a greeting—every week.
  • Keep listening and be observant.
  • Cultivate attitudes of acceptance and encouragement within the choir, and encourage those same attitudes in the congregation. Encourage the congregation to value teens’ gifts.
  • Help choristers understand their role in the service. Talk about texts.
  • Be honest. Have kids regularly provide feedback on any issue. Treat that feedback seriously.
  • Keep challenging the choir to sing well. Take the long view, but keep pushing the edges. Kids respond positively to accomplishment.
  • Be open to new ways of doing things.
  • Respond to change. When the choir grows, invent new structures to keep things going smoothly.
  • Keep your eye out for gifted people who can help. You don’t have to do it all by yourself.
  • Recruit strategically. Interest kids who are natural leaders, and others will follow.
  • Join organizations such as the Choristers Guild and get to know other youth choir directors. Trade ideas and information (www.choristersguild.org).

 

Excerpt
Repertory List for September 1999-June 2000

Note: The choir’s favorites are marked with an asterisk. Some items were repeated.
*“Sing Jubilate Deo,” Estes (Alfred 4796)
*“I Love You, Lord,” Klein, arr. Schrader (Hope GC 985)
“Thy Word Is a Lamp unto My Feet,” Smith, arr. Schrader (Hope C 5059)
“Amazing Grace,” arr. Moore (Belwin-Mills BSC 9604)
“All That I Am,” William Himes (Hope GC 963)
*“I Was Glad,” Hallquist (GlorySound A 7317)
“Taste and See,” Jeremy Young (Gladsong 11-10895)
“All in the Morning,” W. H. Parry (OUP U158)
“Come to Us Now, Emmanuel,” Price/Besig (Alfred 16065)
“Our Gift for You,” Estes (Alfred 11364)
*“Christmas Samba,” Curry (Daybreak 08741215)
*“Africa Noel,” arr. Harlan (Brookfield Press 08741128)
*“Here I Am, Lord,” Schutte, arr. Schrader (Hope A 687)
“Follow Me!” John Carter (Alfred 5875)
“On Eagle’s Wings,” Joncas, arr. Hayes (Alfred 16104)
“Alleluia!” Telemann, arr. Liebergren (Carl Fischer CM 8451)
“Jesu, Joy of Loving Hearts,” J. S. Bach, arr. Hoekstra (Sacred Music Press S-7452)
*“Praise, Praise the Lord!” trad. Cameroon, arr. Johnson (earthsongs); RW 51, p. 35
“Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ,” arr. Ellingboe (Kjos Ed. 8833)
“I Will Joyfully Sing in the Morning,” Mary McDonald (Purifoy 479-09080)
*“Psalm 139,” Pote (Choristers Guild CGA-610)
“Lord of the Dance,” Pote (Hope A 712)
“Many Gifts, One Spirit,” Pote (Coronet 392-41417)
“The Gift of Love,” Hopson (Hope CF 148)
“Let Heavenly Music Fill This Place,” G. Young (Flammer A-5679)

John Derksen (john@islingtonunited.org) is minister of music and memberat Islington United Church of Canada, Islington, Ontario, and professor of church music at Knox College, University of Toronto.