Hey You! Join the Choir!
I'm pretty sure there's a large swath of people (mostly men) who suddenly remember that it's time to be somewhere else when they see me get that certain look, especially in January and August - prime Choir Recruitment Time. They know they're on my radar, either because I can hear them from upstairs when they sing below, or they used to be in a choir but left, or I know family members of theirs with fine voices, or any number of other reasons. Choir directors learn to live with this fact - that most people will laugh and simper, and say "oh, you don't want me in the choir," (which is sometimes true), but that doesn't mean they don't want to be asked, or even pressed. Still, most of the time, the final answer is no.
But this post isn't for the choir directors, since I don't have any good tips for recruiting - in fact, I'm always scrambling for more members. (Especially basses - I think I must have offended a bass somewhere down the line, and now the position is cursed, or something; our Bass Section turnover is very high.) No, this post is for those people in the pews who love the music at their parish (or who don't love it and want to change it) but for a variety of reasons, don't join up. If you think it would be fun to sing, but there's something in your way, I'm going to answer every objection I've heard. But first, some words on why you should:
Singing together is the second-most socially affirming activity available to humans.* When we sing together in unison, the similar regulation of breathing literally makes our hearts to beat in unison. It's both a metaphor and a reality. We experience a sense of belonging to something bigger, which increases our ability to enter into the liturgy - more properly united with those around us, we are better equipped to join ourselves to the Heavenly Choir. Medical research is rife with literature telling us how many ways singing together benefits us physically, mentally, and spiritually. In the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, all of these are magnified.
So to the objections:
1. "I don't have a good voice." OK, well, I'm not going to audition you on the spot here. This is one a choir director should take at face value. If you can't carry a tune, or an injury has harmed your voice, well, that's a bummer. I've had to ask people who couldn't sing to leave the choir before, and I'm not going to put myself in that position ever again. However, consider that the modern state of constant inundation with the sound of professional musical performances (thank you, recording industry!) might be skewing your perception of how good you have to be in order to make music - choir is the perfect spot for those with middling-fair voices to make the most beautiful music.
2. "I can't read music." This is not an absolute obstacle to singing in the choir. Even if the music program at your parish is fairly ambitious, you can learn the parts if you have a decent ear. That's why we have rehearsals. There are also numerous YouTube videos (such as this channel) that pick out individual parts of even very complex polyphony while scrolling through the music on screen - so helpful! Of course, if you can't read music, you're going to have to do a little more work up front than someone who does, (that is, than someone who has already put in that work earlier - people aren't born reading music) but it will pay off - chances are, you will pick up reading, at least a little, fairly quickly.
3. "I want to attend Mass with my family." It's certainly not my business to say what is right for your family, but I do notice that this objection does not stop parents from allowing their children to serve on the altar. Stepping, as we do, outside of time and into eternity, you can't help but attend Mass with your family, even if you attend Mass alone. You attend Mass with every person in Heaven and on Earth who ever has or ever will attend Mass. If this is about helping wrangle your small children in the pew and not leaving the burden on your spouse to do so, then ask your choir director about bringing strategic selections of children with you to the choir area, if it is hidden from view. (If the choir is on display in your church, you're probably out of luck on this one.) Many parents bring their little ones up to my choir loft, from sleepy newborns to squirrelly seven-year-olds. Most children have a sense of the solemn, and will behave better when seated in a special area in the church. I think it is very good for these little ones to see their parents as actors in the liturgy, and to be raised with an attitude of willingness to help out.
4. "I don't have time for rehearsal." I've been told, when assessing what I have time for in my life, to reframe the statement "I don't have time for [thing]" as "[result of thing] is not a priority for me," and see if it still makes sense - for example, "I don't have time to exercise" -> "Good health is not a priority for me." If you can see the benefits of being in choir, ask yourself - are those benefits, to yourself and to your parish family, worth the sacrifice of only one evening a week? It is not a very long time, and if you enjoy making music, it can energize you in such a way that you have more time to do the other things.
5. "I don't want to be distracted during the Mass." When I make music for Mass, I am more focused on the liturgy, not less. It is true that initially, nervousness was a distraction - I would attend the Saturday vigil Mass to focus on Mass, then perform at the Sunday Mass in the morning - but after a few successes, that nervousness passed. Now, after rehearsing the words earlier in the week, teaching them to the choir and discussing how they should be phrased, and having had to note them again and again every three years, the liturgy has taken a deep root in my mind. I can call to mind the psalms especially, and living in the rhythm of the church year is second nature; so far from my personal distractions invading my participation in the liturgy, my cooperating in the structure of the liturgy has spilled over into the rest of my life. If your music director has the right priorities, participation in choir should intensify the Mass for you, not diminish it.
How can you say no?
*The most socially affirming activity available to humans is playing catch.