Caring for the Wonderful Menagerie

Caring for the Wonderful Menagerie

BY Michael Silhavy

This article appears in Issue 35.1 of the GIA Quarterly.

We recently received the following story from a reader. (We love receiving suggestions for topics of articles, as well as feedback on what has been published, so please keep writing.) The scenario went something like this.

“Near the time of the profession of faith and universal prayers, a woman came to the choir loft and sat down. I mentioned to her that this was the choir area. The woman said that she had been thinking of joining the choir, and furthermore, the pastor had encouraged her to do so. Wanting to be hospitable to a prospective new member, and not wanting to cause a scene, I let her stay. She was a strong singer, and in fact, so strong that she led others astray. She was also obviously unaware of the markings we had made concerning which sections of the choir would sing what verses of the communion song. Needless to say, it was a little unnerving for me to deal with this unexpected voice. After Mass, she mentioned to me that her schedule may not allow her to attend rehearsals, but she would still like to be part of the choir. I hate to lose a singer, but I’m not comfortable having different attendance policies for certain singers.”

In a previous edition of the GIA Quarterly (volume 30, number 2), I shared some thoughts about the responsibilities of choir membership—things that need to be expected of both the singers and director. Expectations for music ministers are easily shared with those already in the group, but the writer’s scenario gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we communicate with prospective new members and the parish at large, including the pastor.

To summarize the article mentioned above:

  • It’s not sufficient just to be a volunteer for parish ministry, like music ministry. One needs to commit to regular attendance and formation. Volunteers can come and go as they wish; committed ministers need a more consistent presence.
  • The director and members of the music ministry need to enter into a “covenant of notification.” Directors should provide a schedule, with plenty of advance notice, indicating when choir members and instrumentalists need to be present. Members of the music ministry need to communicate their absences to the director. I suggest a sign-out book, rather than a sign-in book, in which singers and instrumentalists can mark their known upcoming absences.
  • Directors need to construct a realistic schedule and understanding of expectations. No choir should rehearse 52 Wednesdays a year and sing 52 Sundays a year. Build in time off.

As I mentioned, those things are easy enough to explain to those already in the choir or ensemble. But how do we communicate in advance to those who may wander unexpectedly into your music area?

Let’s start with some basic recruitment strategies to keep before us and constantly refine. Some of us may feel we are “on the other side of COVID,” and I venture to say that most of us lost some membership during those awkward years. We need to do our best to welcome people back and reach out to new members.

Personal contact

It has been said that no one has ever joined a choir through a bulletin or pulpit announcement. It’s the personal contact with individuals that most effectively brings them into a group.
Do you encourage your choir members to welcome new singers and instrumentalists to music ministry?
When was the last time you did so?
Have you coached your music ministry members on what to tell prospective new members when inviting them?
I would hope words like “fun” and “joy” are used. New members may want to know that there is an aspect of formation and spirituality imbued in every rehearsal and liturgy. Let people know there are social gatherings that are part of being a member of the music ministry.

A school for singers

While the woman in our story above may have had some previous choral experience, it’s good to remind prospective new members that choir is where one learns to sing. In my recruiting at the parish level, I don’t ask for singers to join the choir. I simply mention that a pleasant voice and commitment to regular attendance are all that are required of being a choir member. I also remind those who are unsure of their readiness for choir by telling them that dentists don’t go to dental school; those who want to be a dentist go to dental school. Similarly, lawyers don’t go to law school, priests don’t go to the seminary, and so on. These places are where an individual can discern their interest and gain information and formation. The same holds true for singers and choir.

A worthy brochure

If there’s one song I never tire of singing to staff and council members at the parish, it’s the one that reminds them our first priority as a parish is the celebration of liturgy and the sacraments. I’m just not willing to hear otherwise! With that pride of place comes the responsibility to pay for whatever it takes to ensure the best liturgy and music possible.

If the topic at hand in this article is building awareness among the whole parish about the responsibilities and requirements of participation in music ministry, it seems to me that once a year a parish can provide an informative, attractive, professionally produced brochure or pamphlet about music ministry. Think of all the other brochures or pamphlets stuffed into bulletins, found on tables in the entryways, or crushed in the bottom of the pew hymnal rack. What’s one more?

A brochure like this is not only helpful for prospective new members but also educative for the whole parish. Do your parishioners know that choir members gather on a weeknight for rehearsal in addition to weekend liturgies? Do they know there are additional rehearsals for cantors and instruments?

The brochure can also let new members and the parish know something about you and the other leaders. For those of you with degrees in music or liturgy, do your parishioners know that you have this academic and pastoral experience? Others may want to talk about their years of service, teachers, previous positions, and hopes and dreams for the parish music program.

Talk with your pastor

Hats off to the pastor in our story above for steering a new member to choir. I can’t imagine the pastor imagined this new singer simply showing up mid-Mass with no advance notice. Have you ever had a talk with your pastor concerning your requirements for choir membership? Does he know what you expect of others? The pastor-musician relationship runs the gamut from mutual lack of respect to a close partnership. Where are you and your pastor on the scale? Claim your place as a skilled, competent minister who supports the pastor in his principal role in the parish, that of presider at liturgies and sacraments. Talk to him. Let him know what you expect of your choir members. Let him know you support him and in turn ask for his support.

The creatures’ choir

In addition to my regular work at GIA, I have always had parish responsibilities. I’ve been in four or five parishes as a music director. I try to honor a choir’s established way of praying before rehearsing. But when I get the chance, I bring one of my favorite little books to the loft for prayer. It’s entitled Prayers from the Ark by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold, translated by Rumer Godden, and it’s a collection of fanciful prayers that the animals on the ark make to the Creator.

The mountain goat longs for the high mountain grasses, the donkey is hungry for a juicy thistle, the cat wants a mouse, the goldfish longs to be freed from its glass prison, and so on. As I choose a different animal every week, it’s always a delight to watch the faces of people, especially in the first few weeks, as they wonder what I am reading!

In short, our choirs are a wonderful menagerie. Some members require almost too much care and feeding, some plod along, some soar, some simply need to be in the ark with others. It’s easy for the director to feel like the mother hen, whose prayer in the book is that she have the ability to keep track of all her little chicks. Maybe that’s you. Or maybe you’re old Noah, trying to take this assemblage of voices to solid, sturdy ground. You’ll get there with God’s help—and with clear expectations about what it means to be a choir member.

Michael Silhavy is GIA’s Senior Project Editor. His work at GIA centers around choral and congregational music, hymnals, and working with composers and authors to create musical and liturgical resources for both Roman Catholic congregations and the wider ecumenical community.