How to Choose Music for Your Choir: An Inside Look at My Process

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It's that time of the year again - the time when choir directors everywhere begin choosing music for next year!

From conferences to reading sessions to the seasonal reading packets in your mailbox, the stack of anthems, catalogs, and listening CDs on your desk at any given time can get overwhelming.

Where to begin? Is there a method to this madness?

As a quintessential Type A individual, I believe there is a method for every madness, anthem selection included! Today, I'm sharing an inside look at my process - my selection criteria, the things I take into consideration, and questions I ask myself along the way.

Whether you're choosing music for an adult choir, youth choir, or children's choir, I hope you find this insight useful and beneficial to your ministry.

Let's get started!

Text

Contrary to popular opinion, the first thing I look at in a new anthem is text.

I look for texts that mean something, texts that say something; words that are Scripture-based or a creative, fresh perspective on our faith. I look for text that is well-written and supported by the music (rather than competing with it). I look for good declamation, repetition, and simplicity.

It doesn't matter how good the music might be or how beautiful the melody - if the text is meaningless or "fluffy" or cheesy in any way, it goes in the reject pile.

Music

Next, I consider the music.

I look for singable, beautiful lines without too many leaps. I look for clear, natural structure. I look for consistent phrasing and listen for fresh, interesting harmonies. I look for music that is inspiring, authentic, and captivating.

If the anthem is disjointed or has an awkward modulation (or three) or has an odd, unpredictable melody, you guessed it - reject pile.

Worship Context

When choosing music for a church choir of any kind, it's important to think about how the piece will fit in the context of your worship service. Is it a good length? Is the style appropriate? Does it have a liturgical connection that will tie in with the rest of the service?

Think about the Sundays when the choir will sing:

1. Read through the Scripture readings of the day and look for common themes.
2. Think about other elements in the service that day - baptism, communion, commissioning, etc.
3. Think about placement in the service - will the choir sing right after a Scripture reading, or right before welcoming new members?
4. Think about an anthem that can help link things together and support the message and tone of the service.

Remember, some sacred-themed anthems may be geared more toward a concert setting than a worship service. Use your best judgment.

Accessibility

Okay. By now, you should have a slightly smaller stack of beautiful anthems with great text that would be perfect for an upcoming worship service. But, will it really work for your choir? Is it accessible?

Look at the range - does it go too high or too low? Does it stay in those extended ranges for any length of time? Are there a lot of dotted or syncopated rhythms that might be challenging for your group? Are there a lot of leaps in the melody or is it mostly stepwise motion?

Is there are lot of divisi or part-singing? Do you have enough men to carry a tenor and bass part or would they be more comfortable singing together in an SAB anthem? For younger choirs, are the parts in parallel 3rds or 6ths (harder to sing) or is it imitative or independent (ostinato, descant, countermelody)?

These are all things to keep in mind as you make your decisions.

Relevancy

In addition to being accessible, the music you choose should also be relevant to your choir. Can your singers connect with the text and music in ways that are personally relevant and meaningful?

This doesn't mean do they like it. We all know that people have different tastes and not everyone in your choir will like every anthem you sing!

But, the issue of relevancy and meaning is an important criteria when selecting music for your choir. If it's not relevant to them in some way, it's just ink on a page. And if it doesn't mean something to your choir, chances are it won't mean much to the congregation either.

As Dennis C. Cook wrote: "A continuing diet of music that does not speak the heart language of the listeners and performers is a recipe for diminished effectiveness as a worship and choir leader" (source).

Accompaniment

As a pianist, I'm naturally drawn to anthems with interesting accompaniments (you, too?). But, it's important to make sure that the accompaniment supports the voices and doesn't compete with them. Young singers especially need simple, light accompaniments that won't overpower them.

Do you have instrumentalists in your choir or congregation? Look for anthems that have an optional obbligato part for flute, violin, cello, trumpet, etc. This is a great opportunity to feature student, amateur, or professional musicians in your congregation! Plus, it's a great learning opportunity for your singers:

"Every time a new accompanying instrument is introduced, children [and adults!] expand their knowledge of timbre and refine their tuning skills.” (source)

Another option (if you have the resources) is to look for anthems with bell parts or a second choir part, giving your choir the chance to sing with the handbell choir, youth choir, or adult choir for an intergenerational worship experience.

Variety

As choir directors and music educators, it is our responsibility to introduce a variety of musical styles to our choirs. This not only expands our horizons as a group and keeps rehearsals fresh and interesting, it also creates a balance of music in worship (some upbeat, joyful pieces; some slow, lyrical, reflective pieces) and provides more opportunities for people (in the choir and in the congregation) to connect and engage with the music.

As you know, some people in your choir will prefer to sing only more contemporary-sounding anthems. Others will ask to sing the same traditional hymn arrangements over and over again. Some will love the joyful "shouts of praise" anthems; others will prefer the quieter, more lyrical anthems.

It's important to have a balance - something for everyone - and honor the numerous ways in which God's people come to worship.

Opportunity for Growth

Once I've narrowed down a stack of potential anthems using the criteria above, I look for "teachable moments" - new challenges and opportunities to introduce a new musical symbol or concept or skill.

I believe there is a lot of music education in church choir rehearsals and it's important to challenge our choirs and help them grow, both spiritually and musically.

Let's talk about deceptive cadences or phrase-shaping or the energy it takes to sing softly or breath control or diction or sequences. You get the idea. The possibilities are endless.

A few more considerations:

In closing, I thought I'd include a few helpful tips from the experts:

"Find pieces that balance the lower register and the higher registers. If young singers are performing 2 -or 3-part music, choristers should alternate between alto and soprano lines on various songs.” (source)

Look for anthems with clear form: "phrases of regular length . . . large, clearly delineated sections . . . exact repetition, not slight variation.” (source)

"Good part singing can only occur when students have developed their ability to sing independently.” - Linda Swears, Teaching the Elementary School Chorus (source)

If your choir is new to part-singing, steer clear of parts that move in parallel 3rds or 6ths! Instead, look for anthems that are mostly unison, or feature canons, ostinato patterns, descants, or countermelodies.

"Traditional harmony parts with the same contour, rhythm, and text as the melody are usually more difficult to master.” - nafme, part 2. "Two-part singing should be imitative, as it’s easier for kids when they exactly imitate the melody.” (source)

Do you have a tried-and-true process for choosing music for your choir? Any other criteria you'd add to this list?

Read more:
50 (More!) Favorite Anthems for the Small Church Choir
How to Select Music for Your Choir
25 Church Choir Anthems for Ordinary Time
Top 50 Favorite Anthems for Children's Choir + Top 50 for Youth Choir
Choosing Choir Music for Children (Part I, Part II, Part III)
Choosing Repertoire for Youth Choir with Tom Shelton [podcast]