How to win friends and influence singers

Regular readers may recall that when I started this blog, I was the choir director and organist at a small town Episcopal church in Upstate New York. I loved the creative work and the core singers whom I now consider some of my dearest friends.

But certain aspects of the job were tedious. I used to spend a fair amount of time cajoling volunteers into showing up for choir practice. Palestrina is sunk without participation, and you can’t pull off Mozart’s “Ave Verum” without at least a couple of basses and tenors. So I used to compose a weekly e-mail, such as:

“Dear St. Luke's choir member,

I hope to see you tonight for practice! We'll rehearse ”God the sculptor of the mountains,” an arrangement of "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands" by Hal Hopson, and an anthem from colonial America (William Billings's "When the Lord Turned Again.") Come, see everybody etc. etc.”

One week before Easter Sunday, low on basses and slightly panicked, I approached a friend who was an experienced high school choral conductor and church musician and
asked, “How do you get singers to show up for rehearsal?”

“Sexual favors,” she deadpanned. I think she was joking.

I called Cary Ratcliff, composer, expert keyboardist, and church choir director. I asked him how he motivated his singers. Ratcliff, whose operas and anthems are performed by tens of thousands of people all over the world, chuckled and said that he was not above taping signs on the mirrors in the men’s bathroom at church that read, “Tenors, we know you’re in there.”

Since leaving my organist and choir director post five months ago, I’ve gone through various stages of relief and regret. I miss the creativity, the exhausting rehearsals, and the glow that follows an especially moving service. I miss feeling needed. On the other hand, sleeping in on Sunday mornings still tastes of luxury, and I don’t have to worry about recruiting singers.

This week, I received a personal e-mail from my choir’s capable new director, a competent young pianist with multiple degrees in music. She needs basses. She wrote:

“Hoping that you will be joining us for the remainder of the choir season which will end on June 22. When we met last night, the choir suggested I contact you in regard to your father who has enjoyed singing with the choir in the past. It would be wonderful if your father could join us, and I would appreciate your asking him if he would be willing to sing with us. Thank you.”