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Children's Choirs Shape Worship Habits

Many adults find that their children's choir experience instilled a homing instinct that brings them back to church. A feature story exploring the importance of Children's Choirs for spiritual formation.

Years ago, when she was director of Christian education at a large Presbyterian church, Carolyn C. Brown and the children's choir director both wanted the same time and space one Sunday.

"The choir director said, 'Carolyn, let's get real. Many children fall away from the church during college. But if they've been in one of my choirs, then when they do go back to church, they will feel comfortable being in a sanctuary. And they can join a choir. They can't get that same feeling of being part of a worshiping community by joining a class,' " says Brown, now an author and worship consultant.

That endorsement of children's choir makes perfect sense to Jim Rightmyer, organist and choirmaster at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in metro Louisville, Kentucky.

"Choir shapes a child's entire spiritual life. Time after time I hear of choristers who go on to sing in adult choirs or are active in worship. A predominant number of priests and other church workers come out of children's choirs. They know scripture, because they sing it.

"We spend a lot of time teaching kids about the meaning of worship elements. Choristers who go into 8th grade confirmation classes are always way ahead of the others," Rightmyer says.

Range of repertoires can shape spiritual lives

When Rightmyer began directing in 1983, he chose mainly children's anthems for his children's choirs. He credits two groups-the Association of Anglican Musicians and the Royal School of Church Music-with helping him understand that children can sing the literature of the great church masters, from William Byrd to Benjamin Britten.

"What they are capable of continues to blow my mind. Kids matter in worship. They absolutely do. They sing the liturgy with the adult choir, and their leadership helps the congregation sing better," he says. Choir members in third through eighth grades are the trebles for the liturgy and one or two anthems at the 9 a.m. service, the best-attended of three Sunday morning services. They also sing once a month for evensong.

Rightmyer's young choristers rehearse twice a week. They're steeped in St. Francis in the Fields' deep, rich heritage of singing God's praise and proclaiming God's greatness through a classically based repertoire.

Of course, simpler music can also shape a child's life, as it does at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in East Baltimore, Maryland. Drugs, violence, and crime dwell among these blocks of century-old row houses, many abandoned. "Families are mobile, and kids are vulnerable," says Kati Kluckman-Ault, who describes herself as "the parish nurse and Jill-of-all-deaconess-trades." She's also project director for the youth choir, now in its second year.

Amazing Grace is economically and geographically mixed, with black and white members in each category. This year its fledgling choir has six members-a third grader and high schooler who are cousins and four others between them in age. They meet weekly to sing for 45 to 60 minutes.

Rather than sing traditional children's anthems, Elizabeth Sherman often chooses songs from This Far by Faith, an African-American hymnal that includes Lutheran liturgical elements. "Elizabeth can rearrange a song and make it sound really good. She also adds motion. We clap, move, or sing back and forth," Kluckman-Ault says.

The key to shaping lives through repertoires is assessing where you are and working from there. As Helen Kemp, often described as "the mother of the children's church choir movement," says, "Never make it so high minded that we miss the seeds being planted."

Leading in worship, not performance

Choir directors sometimes report that congregations regard their singing as performances. John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, loves to retell a story he heard years ago from a workshop participant in Dallas, Texas.

As they did every month, the children's choir sang a song. The congregation applauded, which made the children beam-but the choir director went home wondering, "How can I help people see the children's choir as part of the worship, not a performance?"

So the next month, the director asked to have his choir sing in place of the prayer. Before the song, a child stepped up to the mike and said, "Would you please join us in thought as we sing this prayer?"

"Just with that simple twist, the choir director reframed the choir's role in worship," Witvliet says.

The Amazing Grace choir sings twice a month. "The gift of Lutheran liturgy is that there's a form in the order of worship that's easy to plug into. The gift of children is their joy, energy, and willingness to try new things," says Kluckman-Ault, who does most of the congregation's worship planning.

She loves 16th century chorales and made sure the kids understood why Martin Luther called God "a mighty fortress" before they sang the song on Reformation Sunday. But her main goal is to plan "gathering-meal-sending liturgical patterns" that are hospitable to the congregation and neighborhood. Youth choir members wear dashikis, not robes, and sit together in the front row.

To avoid the performance perception, they rarely sing at the classic choir time, the offering. Instead they've called people to worship, singing "Come All You People" as they marched-in a stomp, clap, clap, stomp, clap rhythm-behind the processional cross. The kids have sung "This Is the Day" back and forth to each other and then invited the congregation to join in.

They often sing when it's time to stand and greet the gospel or during communion distribution. "When the kids sang the old favorite 'Wade in the Water,' it was really moving for our older members. That song touches everyone. We sometimes take a verse or two of a new hymn to teach and stretch the congregation," Kluckman-Ault says.

Body, mind, spirit, voice

Anyone who has sung for Helen Kemp, seen her instructional video, or attended one of her workshops has heard the famous children's choir director say, "Body, mind, spirit, voice. It takes a whole person to rejoice."

The phrase sums up the approach she's developed from decades of leading children's church choirs, beginning with 20 years at First Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

In workshops and seminars across the nation, she demonstrates her techniques with local choirs for a live audience of choir directors. Before a typical demonstration, elementary school-age kids with smooth skin, clear eyes, and random cowlicks file into choir risers. Some wear freshly-pressed shirts and blouses, but most kids look slightly rumpled. They stand in the easy slump of youngsters not yet worried about weight or appearance.

Helen Kemp walks in and begins connecting in her magic way. She gives the children a pitch and asks them to hum it quietly while she prays. Kemp thanks God for the children, their parents, the music, artists, and "all the things that help us praise God with our lives."

Kemp uses simple games, visuals, and body movements to capture children's interest and drive text and music into their muscle memory. She'll say, "Your body posture and breathing give you space for air. Your spine is in charge of your body. Think tall!"

Or she'll compare learning to sing with learning athletic skill. Kids eagerly volunteer to pantomime going up to bat, shooting a basket, playing a violin or jive bass, or being a singer. Kemp turns to her adult audience. "See? Show them you're working on skills wider than just choir," she advises.

To help young choristers "activate and focus the mind," Kemp asks them to snap their fingers along with the rhythm or match their volume changes to a flowing shape she makes with a measuring tape.

Establish trusting relationships

Many children singing under Kemp's direction look totally absorbed in the wonder of words and music. Still, Kemp acknowledges, "When you have a choir at ages when all children should be included, you will have a variety pack-voices too high or low, children who get too distracted."

That's why she emphasizes accepting children where they're at. In churches as different as St. Francis in the Fields and Amazing Grace, relationships are what encourage kids to stick with choir.

"In high school, those who continue become members of the adult choir. Amazing friendships develop. My son, Robin, is a high school junior. He comes home excited about the close relationships he's developing with other tenors," says Jim Rightmyer.

After a difficult first year at Amazing Grace, with too many kids and behavior problems, the leaders clarified their expectations. Now everyone in choir wants to be there, and the adult-to-kid ratio is better. Each week community organizer Lola Willis makes supper, which the choristers and adults share after choir practice.

"It seems like the kids are feeling more connected. The ones who don't come from church families are getting more involved. One boy recently brought in six of his friends just to get a drink of water and ask if they could hang out," Kati Kluckman-Ault says.

Helen Kemp takes care never to embarrass anyone. She compliments kids as much as possible, for effort as well as results.

"Some children come in having heard singing from the day of birth. Some come in having never heard anyone sing to them. They have no idea how to open their mouth to sing, no idea of pitch.

"Any of us who work with children's choirs wants them to sound good. But it's most important to establish trust. I try very hard to help children learn to rejoice with each other in success-not to think everyone has to be perfect.

"Start where children are and lead them up-vocally, presentationally, and spiritually. And, remember, even Jesus wasn't able to teach the disciples everything he wanted to," she says.

Kemp sums up the bottom line for herself and other dedicated directors of children's church choirs: "If through this adventure of singing, a boy or girl has felt nurtured or uplifted, then this practice has been worth it. And those children in our choirs will be our next generation of leaders in church."

Helen Kemp on How to Capture Choristers' Attention

The Choristers Guild is an excellent source of curriculum, simple games, and instructional videos. Several of the following suggestions for capturing choristers' attention come from Helen Kemp's workshops and instructional video.  

Focus on children's eyes. Take your cue from the prepared environment of a Montessori classroom and make simple—not cutesy—visuals with lots of color. You might mount a poster that says: Listen LOUDER than you sing.

Establish a pattern for beginning each session. Start with a theme song or ritual of claps. Teach kids a sequence of posture to help them sit up straight. Zero is slumped. One is a straight back. Two is alertness. Show the numbers with your fingers. “Kids enjoy it, because it seems like a secret language. I tell them, ‘When I say two, listen very carefully. Don't move your chair, but move yourself so your feet are on the floor and your shoulders are up tall. Three is stand up. The magic comes at two-and-a-half —the magic that makes you able to sing,' ” Kemp says.

Help children visualize the concept of voices full of beautiful energy.
Kemp uses a Slinky and asks kids to make hand motions to help them sing octaves. Manipulating a squishy hair band, she asks them to sing “go and sit down” with their mouths approximating a horizontal oval (“That doesn't sound as good, does it?') and a vertical oval (“If you sing like this, we'll get something good today.”).

Create a feeling of drama and excitement. “You will be the first to sing this piece of music.” “This is an angel chorus, and you get to do an echo effect.” “This music has really fun movements we can do together.” “Okay, so you have a little bit of the melody already in your body.”

Make a plan for every rehearsal. Kemp likes to make the plan visible to the children. She'll direct them to page 4, system 2, measure 4—so they focus on finding that place in the music instead of poking their neighbor. Key your session purpose to the children's level. Kemp believes children usually need to be in at least third grade to sing well. Sometimes her whole goal for a kindergarten session will be to get children to repeat a pitch she gives them.

Don't rush.
Consider asking kids to clap out a rhythm written on cardboard. Say, “Wasn't that easier, to get the rhythm into your body?” Kemp says that doing these things before giving them printed music keeps them from “locking in too quickly.”  

Rehearse kids where they will sing. “I often use a target at the most distance, like the clock on the balcony wall, so they have a sending point for their voices,” Kemp says.

Love the kids. Kemp constantly looks for ways to encourage kids, so they want to make the next small step forward. “Much better! You're learning to listen.” “Thank you for trying that new melody.” Learn their names and thank each by name as they leave rehearsal.

Learn More

Don't miss the bonus story on how Helen Kemp captures choristers' attention. Just for fun, read an interview with Kathy Kemp Ridl about growing up with a musical mom like Helen Kemp. Helen Kemp recently composed an anthem for the Presbyterian Church (USA). Among her many works is "Prayer Litany," arranged by her son Michael.

Amazing Grace Lutheran Church also sponsors a support group for grandparents who parent grandchildren.

Children as young as third grade learn to sing serious choir literature at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church. Organist and choirmaster Jim Rightmyer says, "That nice big pure sound is learned by apprenticing to other good singers." That's why he recommends sending young choir members to summer courses sponsored by the Royal School of Church Music. You can find RSCM resources in other countries, too, such as the U.K., Canada, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and South Africa. Rightmyer has also learned a lot from the Association of Anglican Musicians.

Join Choristers Guild and find sheet music, colleagues, new ideas, and moral support and solutions to common choir challenges. The Boychoir Symposium offers music, training, and concert reviews.

Visit Trinity Episcopal Church (click on Children's Music) in Escondido, California, to observe how toddlers explore music in interactive parent-child Sunday morning sessions and children ages 4 to 7 get their first choir experiences. They recently commissioned a Eucharistic liturgy for young voices.

Looking to hire a children's choir director? Use these resources to write and advertise job openings.

Glean ideas and multicultural song suggestions from a conference report on helping choirs function as part of the worship, not as performers. The essays in A Child Shall Lead edited by John D. Witvliet will give you good ideas on involving kids in worship. Many churches use Stepping Stones: An Ecumenical Children's Choir Curriculum edited by C. Michael Hawn.

Examine sheet music available for choirs, much of it incorporating traditional melodies from other countries. As you consider incorporating children's choirs into your worship, think about whether your worship services are friendly to children.

The 2005 Calvin Symposium on Worship will include sessions on new choral music for children, choosing a repertoire, copyrights and permissions, using shorter songs in worship, teaching global songs, planning repertoires, and how songs shape and reflect our beliefs in God.

Start a Discussion

  • What opportunities does your church offer for children and youth to sing together or lead in worship?
  • If you have one or more children's choirs, do you find that the choir director, choir members, and congregation experience the choir more as worship or performance? If as performance, how might you change that?
  • In what ways do your children's choirs learn about the elements of worship?
  • Do children build relationships with each other and adults through your children's choir?
  • How does the music your children sing shape and reflect their beliefs in God?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help children explore music, build relationships, and lead worship through choir?

  • Have you used children's choir to reach out to unchurched youth?
  • Do you have special traditions, people, or events that attract children to choir year after year?
  • Have you designed a recognition event or reunion for past members of children's choirs?
  • Have you surveyed your congregation to find out how being in a children's choir affected the people who are now adults in your church? If so, did you share these findings with kids now in choir-so they get a vision for their own life in the church?