What Am I Doing Here? Reflections of a Choir Rookie

Seeing the Unseen

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

The first thing for a rookie choir member to figure out is where to look. The conductor reprimanded us last week for not looking at her. You do not want to be off side this particular conductor. So I resolve this practice to stare at her waving hands. But then I lose my place and end up singing with the sopranos (which I suspect is not entirely appreciated).  

It’s like putting a golf ball—you cannot look at both the hole and the ball at the same time.  Something has to give. I can choose to hit each note precisely and be on my own or I can elect to more or less sing the right notes in a kind of approximate way but at least be singing along with the others. Wilma suggests you can look at both paper and person by holding the score out almost flat, at eye level. I’m thinking of cutting eye holes instead.

As you get more comfortable up there, you start paying attention to the others a bit more. Phil is carrying his section; Fred’s voice is, shall we say, audibly noticed in ours. Some of the sopranos are aiming at the trusses. The altos? I can’t hear them at all; the tenors are starting to doubt their very existence.

It’s been 40 years since Jan Overduin let me audition for London Christian High, his blunt admonition still floating around in my head all these years later (“I will let you in, but on the condition you do not sing too loud”). I thought I’d give it a go this Christmas again, cutting coffee break short.

The notes have not changed a whole lot over the past decades. There are ovals not filled in; those are the notes you hold forever. Then there are the black ones with the little dot; these are the notes you hold for a little longer than the black notes without the dot. I think I got it, but, oh no, our conductor is adding on more stuff. Like the “f” that means loud and the “ff” that means loud squared. So the tenors let it rip, only to be slapped down—“Don’t yell!” It appears we are supposed to be really loud but not super loud.

The Gloria section is a crazy amalgamation of every note known to man in history, compressed within two bars. Just as I hit one note, Tom has moved on to another I did not even see was there.

To the audience, a choir is a lovely, high-minded affair. Beneath the surface, it is in fact a minefield of tension: Tom riffs with someone over who came in too late; a conductor works through some marriage issues with one of the tenors; that same conductor politely tells the pianist that something was done poorly, that such was the fault of one of them and that she is pretty sure it was not her (she is wrong, it was all on her).

It is not a place for those with weak egos or thin skins. Jack is ignoring me in an effort to stay in tune. Once I thought I saw Tom wince. Jessica’s holding her infant, and I swear the kid is laughing at me. At one point, Joanne spins around and does a little impromptu conducting of the tenors herself. Fred suggests to Wendy that she practice with me during the week.

I think I can get through Christmas. Easter may be another thing.

About the Author

John A. Tamming is a longtime member of Owen Sound CRC in Ontario. A small-town lawyer and seminary grad, he is now in his mid-50s, looking for some new things to try. Choir today, fly fishing tomorrow.

See comments (4)


I tried singing in the church choir a few times, but since my "gaiting system" was weak I could not tune out other groups and ended up throwing the sopranos off tune.  The gaiting system is what allows you to ignore stuff you hear around you, so after having been told that my contribution was not welcome in the choir a couple of times, I decided to look for my niche elsewhere.  Not easy in a denomination where you either have to teach kids or sing to make a "valid" contribution to the life of the church.

The fine arts are not appreciated in my church.  Some have even dismissed it as clutter, amd my paintings have been put out of eye's reach in corners where you have to know they're there and make a point of going to look at them.

So, I finally began to find a use for my gifts in baking desserts for the Community Supper, and later in translating sermon power points into French before becoming a Regional Advocate for Disability Concerns.

I enjoy the choir I sing in. I do understand your frustrations. Try and listen to the best singer in your group only and be as loud and soft as he/she is. Once you can understand all the markings in the music score and can use them as you sing (with a lot of practice this is actually possible) it becomes a little easier. Once you memorize the piece you can then look at the director. Once you understand the directions she makes with her hands, it becomes easier. If you hold the music up so that the eyes can easily switch between the music and the conductor.  The bases in our choir had an excellent singer that everyone depended on. When he retired, they had lots of problems.  Good conductors are much kinder to new singers and welcome questions like How can I look at the notes and you at the same time?  If you have a piano at home, it makes practicing easier, or find your choir part of the music on line - then sing with it.

Thanks for the article.  It made me smile. :-)

LOL!! John, this is gold!! I recognize everyone in your column!! I'm thrilled Linda runs a tight ship as conductor!!!