Lately, I've been playing with an idea in my head. The "what if" idea. The "What if I was a choir director and I wanted to improve the choir and they fought it" idea.
You see, I've sung in both church and professional choirs. And for some reason there is an arrogance on both ends of the spectrum. For a professional chorus, to be told "you sounded like a church choir" is a put down. Yet, in church choirs, there seems to be a fear of becoming good, lest you become a "professional choir", and Lord knows, you don't want a church choir to become like that! I think church choirs have an arrogance that's based upon their belief that theirs is a "calling" to praise God, and so therefore, they need not work hard or even SHOULD not work hard on the music, because to do so would be too "professional", and therefore, not glorifying God. Now, I am not talking about all church choirs, but I am referring to those that have enough talent to be better than they are.
And I find that to be just as arrogant as a professional chorus stating "you sounded like a church choir".
I was blessed to sing with someone, a gentleman by the name of Don Walker, for 7 years, and to have been his friend for 20 years. During those 7 years at a good-sized Presbyterian church we sang a wonderful mix of sacred works, ranging from Bach and Palestrina to contemporary composers such as Paul Manz, John Rutter, and even Jester Hairston spirituals. We worked hard in rehearsal. Don was an alumni of St. Olaf in Minnesota, and had worked with the son of the founder of St. Olaf's, so we were receiving a St. Olaf "education". But Don had the keen ability to build the choir and improve it, while always balancing the true importance of what we did and what we were: leaders in worship. We did not "perform" in the service. And so, the choir improved during those years, improved enough that on a few occasions, some of the greatest names in choral music would come to listen to us, and compliment us. That was not our goal, but an offshoot of the goal. We were still ministering to folk in the congregation, but we were doing it at a level of excellence that allowed the music to be so much more. And a few years later, when I was singing in professional choruses, all that I learned from Don I applied there.
Therefore, I KNOW that a good church choir can become better. And it can occur with good instruction in choral tone and intonation, and in expressive singing, and in basic musicianship, without it becoming "professional". It does require a sense of balance, and a constant reminder of WHAT the choir is really there for: to lead in worship, to inspire the congregation, and to edify and enhance the Word of God.
But to those would still argue that church choirs have a "higher purpose" and should therefore NOT work towards better choral sound and musicianship, I have two "arguments" to refute that logic.
The first is from our own Lord's mouth: the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25. We all know that parable: a man is leaving on a trip, gives his three servants "talents" or amounts of money (I did look this up to make sure that is correct), but I think we can easily assume that in the Parable, Christ's use of the word "talent" was the metaphoric Gifts from God. As the Parable proceeds, the man gives his 1st servant 5 talents, to the 2nd he gives 2, and to the 3rd, 1 talent. The 1st servant invests the money and returns with double, as does the 2nd servant. The 3rd servant, fearing the master, buries his talent. When the master returns, he rewards the 1st two servants, and chastises the 3rd.
So how do we apply that parable to a church choir? Easy. Those who sing in a church choir are using their God-given gift to sing for the Glory of God. But do we not, being given that gift, need to be a good steward of that gift? Do we not need to turn that gift into more, or use it wisely? And can we not apply that to a choir working harder on intonation, expression and musicianship? I believe so. If a choir does not, if it sits and does not strive to improve, than it is no better than the man with 1 talent who buried his talent. But if the choir decides to serve its purpose for Glorifying God by working harder, and being a better steward of that gift, does it not Glorify God more?
My 2nd argument comes off the 1st argument: for in working hard and striving to improve their musicianship, the choir is better able to communicate the text of the music, and better able to reach and touch the hearts of the congregation. Again, they're not looking for a better "performance" as much as looking to better praise God through their gifts. And is this not what Our Lord wishes us to do with the gifts we receive from Him?