Does your church choir look something like this? A small number of people, mostly aging, many dealing with health and well-being issues? Here’s a question that came into my inbox last month that I know many of us are struggling with:
I have a growing problem in my aging church. We just began having choir again in September, and my choir has always been small—if I have 8, that’s a big Sunday. Three of my choir members are now struggling with early stages of dementia and Parkinson’s, and I have a lot of difficulties that I’ve never had before.
We moved our rehearsal time to 9:00 AM Sunday morning, and we sing for about 30 minutes. Often, they forget to come, and show up at about 9:45 wanting to sing. (Their phones confuse them, so texted reminders are not helpful.)
It seems that the best I can do is try to roll with it. We no longer use published sheet music—we sing hymns, and I copy them on colored paper so I can tell them to look for the green one, the yellow one, etc. They each have a notebook with their name on the front. We sing every other Sunday, and we only sing songs that they have done in the past. Learning something new is just an exercise in futility.
Are there any resources for this? I have no budget, and try to purchase a St. James Music Press membership myself, every couple of years.
Two of them will probably be going to assisted living/memory care soon, and the third has a husband who takes care of her. I realize that this is a problem that will resolve itself, but until then, what are some things that I can do to help them continue to enjoy singing?
Dear Sibling in Christ,
First, let me say that you are not alone. In the year 2000, 45% of churches had fewer than 100 in weekly attendance. Now, that number has climbed to over 65%. Many churches either have small choirs or no choir at all. And, of course, many of our choir members are also aging and dealing with the health and well-being issues that come with age.
The first part of my answer is going to rely heavily on an earlier article I wrote entitled “The Four Functions of A Church Choir.” The article argues that before we emphasize singing “beautiful and challenging music to praise God and edify the congregation,” there are three other aspects of the choir that must be prioritized:
- The church choir leads and enlivens the congregation’s song
- The church choir sings music that the congregation cannot
- The church choir serves as a small-group within the church for faith formation
Look for changes of voice in a hymn text and use that as an opportunity for choral and/or solos for your group. The hymn “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte is a well known and beloved hymn. The unusual thing about that hymn is that the text’s point of view changes between the verses and the refrain. The verses are God speaking (“I, the Lord of Sea and Sky”). The refrain is the response by the people (“Here I am, Lord”). This is a great opportunity to point that out to your congregation and let the choir represent God’s voice by singing the verses and let the congregation respond to God by singing the refrain.
Think of hymn singing as an orchestration with the congregation, choir, soloists, and instruments as options for your symphony. There is something powerful in music that can bring people on a journey. One of the things I lament is when I attend a service where every hymn is played at the same dynamic with generally the same sounds throughout the morning. Let’s use “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” as an example. The opening stanza is a plea to God:
Come, thou Fount of every blessing
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above
Stanzas two and three are faith statements and the response to God’s overwhelming grace:
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God
here’s my heart; O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above”.
So what if you orchestrated it like this:
- Piano Introduction – Melody only, a little slower than normal
- Keep stanza 1 relatively slow and heart-felt
- Soloist 1 – “Come, thou Fount of every blessing; tune my heart to sing thy grace”
- Soloist 2 – “streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”
- Full Choir – “Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above; praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of God’s unchanging love!”
- Piano interlude – Play the last phrase “mount of God’s unchanging love” in the new upbeat tempo
- Congregation sings stanza 2 with choir and piano at new upbeat tempo
- Stanza 3 – Piano drops out on third word “grace” so that the rest of stanza 3 is a capella with congregation and choir
- Choir and piano do a tag on the end by repeating “Seal it for thy courts above” while slowing down.
Function #2 & #3
The second function of a church choir “The church choir sings music that the congregation cannot” might be hindered by the health of your group, especially if many of them are showing signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. At that point, it’s really important to lean into the third function of a church choir “The church choir serves as a small-group within the church for faith formation.” A church choir, and especially their leader, must be more concerned about each other’s well-being than they are with the beauty of the music they want to make. Don’t get me wrong, I love excellent music-making, but I don’t remember Jesus saying “heal the sick…unless you want to make some awesome choral music in which case leave those folks behind.” The call of discipleship means that there are times or seasons in life when being Christ to one other means creating less-than-perfect music.
Like you said in your message to me, “It seems that the best I can do is try to roll with it.” Exactly. Your consistency and presence with those choir members is likely one of the balms that is healing their minds and hearts each week. There will probably come a time when navigating holding music and arriving on time and remembering how to read music becomes more of a frustration than a blessing for some of these folks. At that time it’s important to have a trusting relationship with them and their caretakers so that a good decision can be made about their weekly activities. But until then, never underestimate the importance of what you’re doing by simply being there to sing a couple of hymns with them.
- This article by Kai Ton Chau and Joan Huyser-Honig entitled “Best Tips and Resources for Small Church Choirs” has good ideas and links to important resources.
- The website “small church music” has lots of free arrangements and accompaniment recordings designed for small churches: www.smallchurchmusic.com/
- Your hymnal! Never underestimate the importance and richness of your congregation’s hymnal. If your aging group spent much of their life with a previous book, don’t forget to look at that one for songs/resources as well.
- Finally, make sure to read up on current best practices and resources for dementia and Alzheimer’s care-giving. While you may only see them for an hour each week, knowing what’s happening in their lives and what support you can offer to them is important: Alzheimer’s Association Page on Caregiving