Best Tips and Resources for Small Church Choirs
Kai Ton Chau is well acquainted with unique challenges faced by small church choirs. He has gathered a wealth of tips and resources to help choirs nurture worship in small congregations.
Kai Ton Chau is a resource development specialist for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and associate editor of Reformed Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has degrees in choral conducting, international business, and worship. Chau networks with and develops resources for Chinese congregations across North America, and he has led choirs at conference, college, and congregation levels.
Find repertoire that fits
“Small church choirs need pieces that they can do well—yet that are challenging enough to motivate singers. While the choral sheet music industry publishes hundreds of new titles each year, a small church choir director needs to be very selective,” Chau says.
- graded music, often labeled as easy, medium, or difficult
- music for a two-part or three-part choir
- anthems based on familiar hymn tunes
- new anthems with hymn-like melodies that the congregation may sing along with
“Try multicultural titles. They are fun to work with and effective for smaller choirs,” Chau says. Liturgist and song leader Alison Adam explains how short global songs can deepen participation in worship. She and John Bell have arranged music from around the world that is easy to sing and sold by GIA. GIA’s DVD “Christian Music from Asia for the World,” features songs sung by the Kuyper College choir; interviews with Kai Ton Chau and others; and downloadable scores for study purposes.
“Attend choral reading sessions provided by music publishers or church music associations. Some reading sessions are free, and you get to meet other choir directors who may have similar needs and challenges,” Chau says. GIA, JW Pepper, Lorenz, and the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship all offer choral reading sessions.
Chau says that singing hymns in duet or in four-part harmony achieves several results. These simple songs build confidence in small church choirs and help singers develop listening ears. “Hymns sung by small church choirs promote congregational participation as worshipers listen attentively and sing silently in their minds,” he says.
Church musician Ashley Danyew explains how small church choirs can use hymns as “no-fuss, instant anthems.”
You can search for thousands of choral anthems, instrumental arrangements, and transposable scores from several Christian music publishers at the online Hymnary.org store. It lets you search for music based on a hymn, scripture reference, topic, or musical arranger. You can filter by type, difficulty, format, instrumentation, and liturgical season.
Chau notes that, when musicians aren’t available, choirs and congregations can use recorded piano and organ recordings for many traditional hymns. These are available for free in Hymnary’s SmallChurchMusic section. Clyde McLennan, a Baptist pastor in Australia, started recording accompaniment-style hymns (multiple verses with a short introduction and a little slow down at the end) online in 2006. McLennan’s collection became accessible through Hymnary.org in 2015. Every day, people all over the world use SmallChurchMusic, according to this real-time map.
“The recordings are helpful for private gatherings or small church worship services where no musician is available to play along with hymn singing. Convenience has its limitation, however. Users will have to rely on software if they want to cut out a verse or two or prefer to sing in a different key. With careful planning, the recordings may also be used to accompany a choir in its practice or at a worship service—but it requires a smooth collaboration with the audio person,” Chau says.
Print public domain songs for free
Small churches don’t often have large budgets to buy choral sheet music. Ashley Danyew has gathered a list of websites that offer free choral music that is no longer under copyright. Scroll down to find her recommendations for easier choir anthems.
Explore your choir’s potential in many parts of worship
In many smaller churches, the choir director also serves as the worship planner or worship director. Reformed Worship magazine provides practical ideas for song selection, liturgies, worship themes, and visual arts. Chau says that choirs or choir members can creatively apply many of these ideas by:
- Having one or more choir members light candles
- Saying words often said by a worship leader, such as “in between words”
- Doing a scripture reading as enacted scripture or choral reading
- Singing a psalm setting or scripture-based song instead of having someone read it, perhaps using Psalms for All Seasons or Singing the New Testament
- Occasionally singing familiar hymns in place of the prelude or during offertory
- Providing small group vocal harmony for the worship band
Use YouTube wisely
“YouTube and other media sharing resources can help singers learn their parts quicker and do it at their own leisure,” Chau says. Paul Ryan, the associate chaplain for worship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers helpful advice on learning new worship songs through YouTube.
He and Chau both caution against trying to copy or imitate how others perform the piece. “Imitation often strangles our creativity and hinders the liveliness of a small choir,” Chau says.
Keep learning and networking
“As choir directors at small congregations, we need to grow musically and spiritually. We need to grow in our love for God and the people. There are worship and music conferences at the national and regional levels. Some larger denominations have their own musician associations. Attending these conferences often provides inspiration and renewal that many small church choir directors and singers need. After all, serving at a smaller congregation can be lonely and isolating,” Chau says.
Because singing with a larger group is fun and motivational, he suggests inviting two or three small congregations in the same geographic area to help organize a hymn festival. You can watch videos and read articles about hymn festivals and Psalmfests to see how other congregations have done it.