Part One: A Philosophy of the Children’s Choir
Last fall, a friend and I met for a brainstorming session about children’s choirs. During the course of our conversation, my friend posed a question that has been following (haunting?) me ever since: What is the role of the children’s choir ministry?
Sometimes this question is explored and answered with deep forethought and intention, sometimes not. There are many models of children’s choir ministries out there. Some children’s choirs’ role is merely to bring the “cute” factor (or, unfortunately, the “humor”) into worship. Others take the route of the lowest expectations, what I call the “we’re-just-glad-they-come” approach, never mind the quality of their contribution to worship. Some aim for the highest caliber in music making, but neglect the rich liturgy and worship life that we Lutherans are so proud of. Worse yet, there’s the belief that the purpose of the children’s choir is to parade them in front of the congregation like bait to get people to come and/or join the church! I’m not denying that they can be cute, nor am I denying that we shouldn’t be grateful that they are there! Of course we should celebrate the commitment that both child and parent makes to get their young singer there. However, there is much more to it and the kids can do it.
So, what is the role of the children’s choir? I believe there are several and that each is critical to creating an effective ministry. The role of the children’s choir is:
- To provide worship leadership through knowledge of the liturgy and hymn-singing.
- To provide music for the worship service to enhance the worship life of the assembly.
- To learn about the liturgy and the liturgical calendar.
- To learn the faith.
- To learn the fundamentals of music and healthy vocal technique.
- To learn how to live as a community.
I hope that, at some point, each of us as thoughtful cantors/conductors/music ministers/whatever-your-title has reflected on our role and its true meaning. As the musical leaders of the church, we should not be satisfied to merely go through the motions and become what Paul Westermeyer refers to as “music grinders.” We strive to think about the meaning of all that we do. Perhaps we’ve even given this deep thought in regards to our adult choirs. But, have we really taken the time to think about our children’s music ministries?
A colleague once said, the children are the body of Christ, right here, right now. They are not the future of the church, they are the church. Through the anthems that they sing, the children are enriching the worship life of the assembly. But, do not resort them to merely becoming an anthem choir (read: music grinder)! In addition to participating fully in the entire service (sitting/standing/singing/praying), the children are more than capable of leading the Kyrie, the Psalm, a hymn stanza, etc.
Children’s choirs do not exist solely to serve the assembly. They are also for the edification of the young singers in our care. As leaders of these choirs, we have an opportunity and responsibility to help them to grow as Christians, as musicians, as citizens of the world. Using the church year, the liturgy and hymns, and our anthems as starting points, we can explore faith, Bible stories, why we do what we do in liturgy. We are not a replacement for the Christian education that they are receiving at Sunday School, but, why miss a chance to explore more of what it means to follow Jesus?
In an era when music education (and all arts education) is often on the chopping block in our public school systems, church choir might be the only chance for many to learn how to read music or how to sing in a beautiful, healthy way. How can we not help children to become life-long music makers?
As the church in a country where individualism is celebrated (I live in the “Live Free or Die” state), and in a world where electronics are redefining social interactions, we need to practice how to live with one another in a community, amid disagreements and conflicts. Choir is an incredible place to teach this. Choir is not a utopia, just as the church is not utopia. It may be made up of people who disagree with you, who you don’t know, who are not your favorite people. For children’s choirs, the most annoying people might be there–your siblings! I have always maintained that choir is a team, no matter what. Your little brother is not your little brother in choir; he is your teammate. How would you act toward a teammate? You don’t have to love the teammate, but you have to be able to live with him/her. There are many, many ways to build a community within your choir. Here are just a few: sharing prayer concerns, congratulations to each other on a job well done, group work, movement activities, service projects, get-to-know-you games, etc.
I insist that every children’s choir should and can contain all of these elements. Now, many of you are probably wondering if I am completely insane. (That part may be true.) Some of us are just grateful to survive rehearsals with all participants in tact! And there will be some days where that may be all that happens—survival. And, that’s ok! However, with a lot of planning and creativity, you—and, more importantly, the kids—can do this, even under the least ideal of conditions. In Part Two, we’ll explore some creative techniques to fit everything into our precious choir rehearsals.
 Paul Westermeyer, The Church Musician. Revised edition. (Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, 1997), 6.