Martin Tel on Creative Movement and Placement for Church Choirs

How and where a church choir enters, stands, and moves can make a difference in how deeply a congregation engages in singing and other parts of worship.

Martin Tel is C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. He directs choirs, oversees music for daily chapel services, and teaches music and worship courses. He serves as organist at Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church in Windsor, New Jersey. In this edited conversation, Tel talks about choir choices specific worship service at the 2018 Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

How can a choir use its entrance or processional to enhance an element of worship?

As worship begins, a choir often enters in procession. For many this procession simply marks the beginning of worship. Just as the choir sometimes sings on behalf of the congregation, here the choir enters for the congregation. With the choir, we all enter into worship. But for this particular service we delayed the processional and interpreted its function in another way. The Scripture reading for the service was lengthy (Luke 24:13–49), and Leanne Van Dyk, in preparing the sermon, remarked in an email how this story was full of movement. So it seemed important that after this reading filled with so much walking that there be some movement before we turned to preaching. The choir could embody this by walking up the aisle, two by two, during the singing of “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.”

This worked in part because the beginning of the service was less formal. We began by teaching the congregation a sung call to worship, “Come and Go with Me to My Father’s House.” It’s a traditional song arranged by Michael R. Gittens, who accompanied our choir.

How does where a church choir stands affect its worship role?

Our choir gathered around the pulpit rather than restricting itself to the choir risers behind the pulpit area. For a service in a space that is nobody’s home base, such as a conference service, placing the choir and other worship leaders close to the congregation makes a better connection. This allows, I think, for a more efficient learning of the songs we sing together. Rather than relying on amplification or image magnification [IMAG] to simulate proximity, I like for people to actually see leaders and hear their voices. That’s real proximity.

The choir arranged itself as a half moon facing out toward the congregation, which was seated in the round (or two-thirds of the round). That meant many singers could not really look at me as a conductor. But not everything we sing needs a conductor.

Why not?

Most of what we sing in worship should not require conducting. These are congregational songs that the choir has had the advantage of rehearsing. The choir is there simply to help the congregation sing. For this we rely on good, solid playing and clear rhythm from the organist, pianist, or percussionist.

At times the choir sang by itself, and at these points we had to make some adjustments so all members could have me in their lines of vision. But if we were to sing everything in this way, this would imply that the song is the choir’s—or worse, the director’s. Most of the wonderful singing I experienced growing up was without a choir or worship team or director. We simply sang. Choirs can help to make this sort of singing stronger, and this is especially helpful in a conference setting. But in my church and at my seminary, I purpose to nurture enough songs for which such leadership is totally unnecessary.

Did where the choir stood have any unintended consequences?

Yes. It created a bit of a conundrum for the sound technicians when, in rehearsal, I asked the choir to move from the choir seats to the pulpit area. The sound technicians explained to me that the choir was now standing in a position where the overhead microphones, suspended from the ceiling, were behind us. This meant not only that we could not be amplified, but that we would compromise the sound for livestreaming the service.

These are not easy decisions. We decided to sacrifice recording and streaming quality to create a better experience for those who were physically in the Calvin College Chapel. In the chapel itself, we avoided the sense of a remote choir.

You and your choir led the first twenty-three minutes of that worship service, including the call to worship, songs, prayers, and Scripture reading. Do you know of many church choirs that take such an active role?

I think the way a choir or ensemble leads worship at a conference should not be taken as the norm. In a church that worships together regularly, certain practices can be nurtured that require less pervasiveness of the “leaders.” But at a conference, you cannot assume familiarity or common experiences, so I think worship leaders, including choirs, have a special role to play. Nonetheless, many churches underutilize their choirs.

How might churches begin to broaden a choir’s worship role?

Look for ways to connect worship elements musically. For instance, rather than waiting for the “Wrestling Jacob” Old Testament lesson to conclude, I had the pianist begin to play an ostinato [short melodic phrase] under the second half of the reading. This created the sense that our anthem, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” really flowed out of the reading. For a lot of people, this simple elision [merging two things] helps them to listen for the connection between the Old Testament lesson and choral response.

What’s an example of how a choir can inspire better congregational singing?

By simply moving, a choir can help the congregation sing better, especially if the song is unfamiliar. In the symposium service, we taught parts and variations for a traditional freedom song, “Come with Me for the Journey is Long.” South Africans used to sing it while marching to end apartheid. In less than five minutes, with help from our choir, the congregation could sing it beautifully.

Between the New Testament lesson and the sermon, the congregation sang “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” But we did this African American spiritual in Spanish and English. First a choir member sang it solo in Spanish. Then everyone sang in English. Then we sang it in canon, with one side of the congregation in English, followed by the other side in Spanish.

For both songs, various choir members turned to face different sections of the congregation to help them sing. It might have been even more helpful if we could have sung in what we call “infiltration mode.”

Infiltration mode. Can you say more about that?

It’s leading from within the congregation rather than from a choir loft or risers. Our seminary’s Chapel Choir sings in infiltration mode for at least a quarter of our daily chapel services. If the music is unfamiliar or perhaps somewhat challenging (such as a bilingual canon), we disperse ourselves throughout the congregation and lead from within.

Sometimes we’ll move from this space to the outside aisles if we need to sing something by ourselves. We might use the time when we come forward for communion to peel off one by one into the choir chairs up front for a closing choral anthem. But we rarely sit still!

LEARN MORE

Martin Tel is especially interested in congregational singing and using the psalms in worship. He was senior editor of Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. Listen online to his free webinar on creative uses of the psalms in worship. Read Jonathan Aigner’s Patheos blog post “9 Reasons to Keep the Church Choir Alive.”

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