What would our Sunday mornings be like without our choir[s]? Fortunately, most of us will never have to find out. All across the country there are friends and members of our congregations who are committed to giving us music. They have written “choir practice” on their calendars for Wednesday night. Every week they show up with music folders and water bottles in hand and then on Sunday morning they pour their hearts out for the rest of us.
They’re riding a cultural wave. The organization Chorus America estimates that more than 32 million adults regularly sing in choruses – up from 3 million in 2003 – making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.
There’s more to a choir than simply exercising one’s vocal cords. “A choir is a place of deep spiritual practice,” explained Rec. Jason Shelton, [recently retired in 2017] Minister of Music at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville and former board member of the UU Musicians Network. “It can be transformative and life-changing for choir members. Singing in a congregational setting is probably one of the most physically vulnerable things people do in their regular life. It’s rewarding, too. Studies show there are significant health benefits to singing in a choir, and choir members have an opportunity to wrestle with the theological ideas that our music expresses.”
Choirs also create community. In many congregations they are the strongest small group helping hold the congregation together and creating bonds among themselves. Some choirs share joys and sorrows after rehearsal and bring treats for members’ birthdays. “If there is something pressing in a choir member’s life, we make sure to talk about it. We’ve noticed that those who are connected with the choir are more likely to stay connected to the church,” said Ila Stoltzfus, music director at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge.
“I am always surprised by the emotional impact our choirs have on people,” said Mark Slegers. Minister of Music at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon. “I get emails from people – ‘You had no idea what I was going through and your music reached out to me.’ It’s the power of community.”
And, choirs can help improve congregational singing. A choir sets a tone for worship. It can also help a congregation sing better. Singing is such a visceral emotional activity. In a world in which we live in our heads maybe too much, music is our heart connection. An effective choir and music director can give congregations that heart connection they might not have otherwise.
Caryl TIpton, Director, Music Ministry