Healing in the Choral Rehearsal Setting
By Sarah Bereza
Singing heals our spirits and bodies as we breath and tune our voices together. It isn’t a metaphor for community but literally is embodied community. And while the pandemic has been difficult for everyone, it has been especially hard for all of us vocalists who haven’t been able to sing chorally—we couldn’t engage in this embodied, healing practice during the pandemic. We couldn’t use a huge part of our musical selves. We couldn’t be in a full relationship with other vocalists.
I point this out, not to be an Eeyore, but to stress how important healing practices in choir rehearsals are—and will be—for some time to come.
We can’t just jump right back to how things used to be. Instead, we must decide that healing is an important goal for us as directors—maybe the most important one right now and certainly more important than “make excellent music” or “teach people how to read music notation.”
But how can we help our choirs collectively heal? I suggest the following as a constellation of practices that individually might not move the needle, but that together can initiate and continue healing. Hopefully, what we lead in the choir will also be complemented by other elements of our church’s ministry as well as healing practices that choir members engage with outside of the church.
First, Nourish Yourself
It might seem counterintuitive to start with ourselves. After all, we’re here to serve others through music! Plus, hasn’t the pandemic been difficult for just about everyone?
Yes, but as musicians, something integral to our lives was off-limits for a very long time. For the most part, the food for our musical souls was taken away, often replaced by hours of tedious audio- and video-editing at our computers and nerve-wracking recording sessions that amplified every little bobble and missed note. Maybe you’ve had a pastor or congregant take their own anxieties out on you. Maybe you are primarily a vocalist and, just like your choir members, you haven’t been able to do much music-making outside your home.
We can’t give to our choirs out of our own emptiness: we must replenish our own musical well. What that nourishment will involve is unique to each of us, but might include learning new music, improvisation and listening for pleasure.
Talk About What Happened
To heal, we have to come to terms with what happened in the past, not ignoring it or glossing over it like it never happened. For our choirs, that means helping them collectively articulate what they went through. Were they unable to sing together? Was the sanctuary closed to in-person worship? Did people in the church argue about how to interpret and apply scientists’ guidance for gatherings? Making narrative sense of how a particular group experienced the pandemic will help them collectively heal.
Focus on the Bodily Experience of Singing
This isn’t the season for teaching sight-reading or stretching our musical limits. This is the season to really home in on what is most important about music: our bodily experience of it—how it sounds and how it feels to breathe, phonate and so on. This is the time to guide singers into closer listening to their fellow vocalists through tuning exercises and careful attention to pronunciation. Yes, those exercises build long-term musical skills that we all want for our choirs, but more important to this season, they help us help our vocalists to really engage with what it feels like to make music in community.
Many of us race through rehearsals. So many anthems, so little time! But the pandemic has sapped us of our executive function and ability to keep up with quick transitions from one anthem to the next. So, we need to slow down. We also need to plan our worship services knowing that our choir won’t get through as much music as in the past. Saying yes to healing practices also means saying no to some other things, and we need to accept that for this season.
Sing Familiar Pieces
It’s not just that we can’t make quick transitions, but that our bandwidth for new information is quite limited. So instead of getting frustrated that our choir can’t learn a new anthem as quickly as they would have in the past, lean in to familiar pieces. This will help people reacclimate to singing together, get used to a new seating arrangement if necessary, and focus their limited bandwidth on the bodily experience of singing rather than trying to figure out a new piece. Plus, singing familiar pieces can give vocalists that “Oh yeah, I love this anthem” feeling—a good bridge from the pre-pandemic past to our present.
Sing Short Songs
Another way to bring simplicity to the rehearsal is by teaching short songs, possibly as warm-ups or as a collective prayer at the end of rehearsal. You might have short songs already in your stable, and groups like Music that Makes Community (MusicThatMakesCommunity.org) also have many songs that would suit this purpose.
Take Time to Pray
Take time to pray—emphasis here on time. Most of us already have a practice of opening or closing rehearsals in prayer but might make it a perfunctory gesture. Instead, we need to be sharing prayer requests and caring for each other through prayer. If you aren’t comfortable with including requests in an extemporaneous prayer, you might ask choir members if any of them would be willing to be regularly called on to pray.
Have an Open Heart
We don’t know the future of our music-making. Of course, we didn’t know it in the past either, but our limitations are more evident now than they were. In prayer and faith, we need to keep our hearts open for the future of our choirs and for the grace and mercy God brings. ■
Sarah Bereza, PhD, is the Minister of Music at the First Congregational Church of St. Louis, UCC. She shares resources for church musicians, including a podcast and newsletter, at sarah-bereza.com, and her book on ministry comes out Spring 2022.
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