• Hilary Ferguson

Inspire to Desire: How to invite church choir participation without begging

I don’t normally make opposing comments on other people’s threads on social media, but recently I broke this tradition by posting an opposing idea on a group for church choir directors. My comment was not meant to hurt feelings, but rather to bring to light an issue that needs to be addressed: how do we motivate church members to participate in church choir? The originator of the Facebook thread posted that for over a decade, she has directed her church choir and has “convinced, cajoled, begged, bribed, and bullied” her church members to come to choir. Although she most likely was using humor in this statement, she unfortunately is not the only choir director who resorts to these motivational strategies. I’d say this is the cultural norm for church choir directors in my church to get participation, mainly out of desperation—choir directors often don’t know how to do it any other way. We as members are so used to it, we expect our choir directors to beg for participation

I would really like to see us shift our thinking and reform how we go about church choir. After I explained my feelings about this long-standing cultural tradition in my church choir, one reader on the thread asked me to elaborate on more productive ways to motivate and invite members to participate in church choir, which I am happy to share here. Although this blog is not intended to be religious in nature, many of us as musicians are also involved musically in our churches, and the solution to how to motivate church members to participate in church choir involves examining our religious devotion.

Many years ago, Dallin H. Oakes gave a profound talk entitled “Why Do We Serve?” In his talk, which is referring to any kind of service, he lists a hierarchy of reasons which underly our motivation for why we are willing to give service. With #6 being the least noble motivator and #1 being the most noble motivator, these reasons are:

1. For the love of God and of fellowmen

2. Hope of an eternal reward

3. Sense of duty

4. Fear of punishment

5. For social reasons

6. For an earthly reward

These motives also apply to voluntary participation in a church choir. When church choir directors are desperate for member participation, they often resort to motivating members by using the less noble motivators such as rewards (treats?), social reasons (choir is a fun way to meet other people), fear of punishment (guilt), or a sense of duty (you are an amazing musician…you need to be devoting your talents to the church!). I would like to see more church choir directors who can “inspire to desire.” If a choir director can intrinsically motivate members by inspiring them with more noble motivators, then members will likely desire to participate on their own without the bribery, begging, and guilt trips.

Let me share an example. I had a church choir director several years ago who was an expert at inspiring us. The choir usually met after church for 30-45 minutes. It was the highlight of my sabbath day. She was able to share insights from her life and her religious knowledge as it related to the music we were singing, which made it so uplifting to attend choir that it filled my soul and I found myself looking forward to choir all week. She created an atmosphere that was motivating on a higher level, which made it so much more rewarding as a participant. She didn't have to beg me to come, because I wanted to come.

Here are some additional insights into how church choir directors can create an atmosphere which promotes voluntary participation:

1. Directors select music that is of very high-quality compositionally as well as textually. There is a lot of very low-quality compositions available to us, and many church choir directors who are volunteers themselves haven’t put in the effort to sort through what is good and what is mediocre. Any experienced musician is not going to want to participate when the music itself is not interesting. This doesn’t mean it needs to be complicated and difficult, but it does need to be high in quality.

2. They select music that is of the appropriate level. This is tricky. If the music is too difficult, then the director might feel desperation when members don’t show to participate, which then breeds the guilting and begging. However, if the music is too easy, some members may feel bored and may feel like they don’t need to attend rehearsals. This is a balance. Finding appropriate level music is essential. Ideally it could be a song that is technically easy but still interesting and beautiful. A lot of SAB arrangements can fit this category. Some directors also recommend choosing music that doesn’t go very high in pitch, as the higher pitches will expose the untrained singers.

3. They know the difference between informing, inviting, and reminding, versus begging and bribing. There is a difference. Members do need reminders but not guilt trips. Guilt trips ultimately lead to feelings of resentment that sucks the enjoyment and intrinsic motivation out of singing with a church choir.

4. They are respectful when a member says that they can’t commit is important. We don’t always know what another person’s life is like and what demands and challenges they are dealing with. Many people are trying to simplify their commitments and spend time where it is most important, and church choir is not their top priority. (Which is the subject of another talk by Dallin H. Oaks called “Good, Better, Best”). We need to respect other people’s boundaries and priorities without judgement.

5. They can think outside the box for how often the choir will sing. In my church, the choir used to sing once a month. Maybe we need to get away from thinking we need the choir to perform so frequently. Perhaps quarterly or even just for Christmas and Easter. There’s actually nothing that says it has to be on a certain time frame. When members can see that they will not be abused, they may be more willing to give of themselves for a finite number of rehearsals and performances. In my current church congregation, there is no formally organized choir, but music is organized on an as-needed basis in small ensembles.

6. Most importantly, directors make the rehearsal a place where members can be spiritually fed. Referring to Dallin H. Oaks’ hierarchy of motivators, the greatest reason we can sing in a church choir is because we love God. When we can give of ourselves because we love God, the choir participation becomes intrinsically motivating and innately enjoyable. My friend who directed the choir several years ago was the perfect example of this principle. Directors also know that when a church choir sings in church, it is a form of worship, not a concert performance. While we don’t want our imperfections to detract from the spirit of the meeting, our singing doesn’t need to be perfect. The way a church choir director runs things should be different from how a community choir director prepares for concerts and other performances.

I hope these suggestions help on our quest to “inspire to desire” our church members to feel the desire to participate in church choir.

Hilary Ferguson

March 2020

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