Guidebook for Choral Music

Published by the LDS Church in 1975, the Guidebook for Choral Music offers great ideas for choir directors.  It’s a wonderful resource if you can get your hands on this little treasure.  Below are some excerpts straight from this handbook.

Below is an exerpt from Guidebook for Choral Music, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1975, pp.7-9

Repertoire

Musical selections must be appropriate for a particular group and occasion.  A major responsibility of the ward choir is to strengthen the spirituality and sacred character of sacrament meetings.  This makes the selection of suitable choral music a challenge for the choir director.  The choir director might make an inventory of music in the meetinghouse library and evaluate it according to quality, usefulness, and difficulty.  He should use music that is suitable, including appropriate hymns from the hymn book.  He may also wish to add to the choir’s repertoire by carefully selecting additional anthems.

Selection of Music

Music used in sacrament meeting should be sacred, although patriotic music may occasionally be appropriate.  The text and mood of the music should be consistent with the theme of the meeting…or the season.  A thematically unified service is highly desirable and can be achieved regularly through the mutual efforts of the choir director, the ward music chairman, and the bishopric.  It is desirable to select music as far in advance as is practical.

A selection worthy of performance in a church service should be of high quality and must be consistent with the spirit of Latter-day Saint worship.  Characteristics of such music are-

  1. A message in keeping with the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
  2. Strong, appealing melodic lines that are free from awkward skips and are well suited to the text.
  3. Harmony that fits the melody and text, is stylistically appropriate, and has good voice leading for all parts.
  4. A unified matching of word accents to metric accents, such as important words or syllables on primary or secondary accents.

As he evaluates a piece of music, a choir director could ask himself:

  1. Does the text carry a strong gospel message?
  2. Is the selection within the vocal and musical capacities of the choir members? Extremes in any voice range should be avoided.
  3. Is the piece right for this choir? Music need not be complex to be good.  The choir director should seek music that is easy to moderately difficult and that can be adequately learned in a minimum of time.
  4. Is the accompaniment within the pianist/organist’s capabilities?
  5. Most wards and branches throughout the Church have limited choral resources.  Appropriate hymns and anthems should be selected according to the capabilities of the particular choir.  Repertoire used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir should not be used as a guide, since many of their selections are not suited in purpose or in scope to ward or branch choirs.

A good text is thoroughly consistent with the doctrines of the Church, is free from excessive sentimentality, and is worthy of being heard often.  The study and analysis required to find good texts is time-consuming but is well worth the effort in terms of the choir’s contribution to the worship service.

In worship services, texts should be sung in the language of the listener.  In special cases where another language is used, a translation should be provided.

Parts

Sacred choral literature for choirs with limited resources is abundant.  While much of it is for mixed voices in four parts, there are also many for solo voice, unison (all parts singing the melodic line), equal voices, and other combinations.

Even the lack of tenors in the choir is not an insurmountable barrier, since many effective three-part (SAB) selections are available.  In addition, altos can often sing the tenor part, either assisting the tenors or supplying the tenor part if no tenors are available.  Some four-part hymns and anthems can be sung effectively without one of the parts.  When one part is missing, the deficiency can be minimized by substituting and modifying.

The idea that choral music for mixed voices must be in four parts and that women’s voices should sing in three is a misconception and may deprive some choirs of good music ideally suited to their needs.

Anthems for unison and two-part singing may offer musical effects not generally found in four-part selections.  Many untrained choir members will sing timidly when singing in parts, but will be more confident when singing in unison.

If the women’s and men’s voices are combined in one melody, the result is octave singing because most men sing at a pitch one octave below the women.  In unison of octave singing, the basses should not sing an octave lower than the tenors.  For variety on some unison anthems, the director may alternate sections of the choir.  Some music may have high notes or phrases that only the sopranos and tenors can sing comfortably, or passages that only men’s or women’s low voices can sing well.

USING THE HYMNBOOK

the hymnbook should be a basic part of any choir’s repertoire.  In addition, adapting a hymn can enhance it musically and provide a more interesting experience for the singer and listener.  A hymn might be varied in the following ways:

Unison or Two-part Verses

Many hymns will sound elegant when sung in unison by men, women, or both.  Similarly, many hymns lend themselves nicely to a two-part combination involving the soprano and alto parts.  Generally the women might sing alto; or in some cases, the men might sing both parts.  If the men sing melody and the women sing alto, the effect is unusual because the harmony is above the melody instead of below it.

Solo Stanza

A very effective and simple variation to any hymn is to use a solo voice or section (1) on the melody with organ accompaniment, (2) with choir humming voice parts, or (3) without accompaniment.  If the choir hums it is generally desirable to avoid duplication of the melody in the humming.  If a male voice or the men’s section sings the solo it is often possible to have sopranos hum the alto part and the altos hum the tenor part as written, or to have sopranos hum the tenor part an octave higher.

Obbligato or Descant Parts

An obligato or descant part might be written for a solo voice, for a small group of singers, or even for the entire choir while the congregation sings the hymn.  Some knowledge of harmony and counterpoint is necessary in writing such a part successfully.

Changing Keys

the process of transposition is not as complex as it appears and may make the music more acceptable than it was in the original key.  Often a key change (generally up a half step or whole step) can give a hymn an interesting variation, especially when four or more voices are being sung.  Raising the music tends to brighten the sound, while lowering the music tends to darken or mellow the sound.  Transposition of a half step up or down is often done by using the same writing notation, but changing the key signature.  The keys of A and A-flat, for example, have the same notation, but the first key has three sharps and the second key has four flats.  Accidentals are adjusted accordingly.

Changing Voices or Parts

An effective device for adding color to a hymn is to change the voicing or part arrangement.  The change is often from mixed (SATB) to all male (TTBB) or all women (SSA or SSAA).  when changing parts from SATB to TTBB, use the same notes and assign basses to the bass part, baritones to the melody (an octave lower than written), second tenors to the tenor part, and the first tenors to the alto part (at actual pitch rather than an octave lower).

Change SATB to SSA by assigning first sopranos the soprano part, second sopranos the alto part, and altos the tenor part, if it is not too low. (Their voice range often extends to a G or an F below middle C.) Comparable adjustments can be made for SSAA by raising the bass part an octave for the second alto part.  this might mean altering the bass line or transposing the entire arrangement.

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Below is an exerpt from Guidebook for Choral Music, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1975, pp.10-11

The Rehearsal

Prerehearsal Planning

The success of  a choir rehearsal depends largely upon the quality and extent of the preparation that has preceded it.

Some important considerations should be made before a choir is established:

Scheduling

In buildings that house more than one ward, scheduling may need to be done through the ward music advisers or with the help of the stake music adviser. Although an afternoon or evening rehearsal on Saturday or Sunday might be considered.

Rehearsal Room

Since more than one ward may use the chapel, a separate room for rehearsals is sometimes required. The rehearsal room should be adequate in size and well-ventilated, and the lighting should be sufficient so that the music can be read easily. Good acoustics are also desirable. An acoustically dead room, with carpeting, overstuffed furniture, or acoustical wall treatment, may contribute to poor intonation. Even then, an informed director can overcome such intonation problems.

Wherever possible, at least one rehearsal should be held where the performance will be.

Seating

An effective seating arrangement is necessary both in rehearsal and in performance. First, the number of voices in each part should be determined, and the seating should be planned so that each singer can see the director and hear the pianist or organist. As a general rule, the high voices (sopranos) are on the conductor’s left as he faces them. It is usually best to have sopranos near basses and altos near tenors. However, a choir need not follow this arrangement if another seems better. The conductor should not hesitate to experiment with various seating arrangements to find the most satisfactory one. Often, the physical characteristics of a chapel may determine the seating arrangement. Whatever the arrangement, remember that choir members will learn more from hearing other parts in relation to their own than from depending on the accompaniment.

A choir director should use ingenuity in placing singers together who complement each other in voice characteristics. If like voices are placed together, they should be behind one another rather than side-by-side. Someone who sings wrong notes even after repeated corrections might be helped by being seated either beside or in front of a strong, accurate singer.

Appearance

Appearance, as well as sound, is important. Avoid placing a tall person next to one who is very short. The dress of members should be conservative, in good taste, and in harmony with Church standards of modesty.

Piano and Organ

The keyboard of the piano and the console of the organ should be situated so that the pianist or organist can see the choir director easily. Both instruments should be tuned regularly and be kept in good repair. It is recommended that the pitch be maintained at 440 A, if possible. Ordinarily, organ and piano should not be used simultaneously for accompaniment.

Preparing the Music

Before the rehearsal, the director should have a good working knowledge of the music to be sung. The music director who gazes fixedly at the page as though he had never seen it deprives himself of using two of his most important tools: facial expression and eye contact. If he does not look at the choir members, they may not look at him.

STEPS IN STUDYING THE SCORE

Before presenting a selection to the choir it is suggested that the choir director–

1. Read the text aloud in an oratorical manner with proper inflection until he thoroughly comprehends the message and the mood.

2. Go through the entire score, noting tempo indications, key and meter signatures, dynamic markings, and other expression marks.

3. Go through the entire score again, noting form, style, and climaxes. This will facilitate correct musical interpretation.

4. Play each voice part and circle difficult intervals, complicated rhythmic figures, strong dissonances, places where problems of intonation or ensemble might occur, and other difficult passages. These passages will demand extra attention at the rehearsal.

5. Formulate ways to clarify each problem that has been circled.

6. Be prepared to point out to the choir identical or similar melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic passages; contrasting passages or cadences; and the musical ideas, patterns, and overall form of the work.

7. Review the selection again, analyzing, if possible, the harmonic content, and relating this to the form of the composition.

8. Go through the score, reviewing what has been studied so far and considering the various elements as parts of the whole.

9. Practice conducting the score, using expressive gestures and baton techniques. This method of refining conducting technique is most effective in front of a mirror.

Planning for Variety

The director should strive for variety, balance, and challenge in each rehearsal. He should schedule enough anthems to maintain interest and enthusiasm, to polish some for immediate presentation, and to develop others for later performance. Entire works do not need repeated rehearsal; he should concentrate instead on strengthening the difficult passages.

Effective rehearsal planning must take into consideration the element of fatigue. If several selections of the same type or key are rehearsed consecutively, the singers’ attention span may decrease. Provide variety by alternating selections with contrasting styles, moods, and tempos.

In the planning period, the director should establish the maximum time to be spent on each selection. There is a limit to what can be accomplished with a given selection during a single rehearsal.

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