By Mark Cabaniss
I will never forget to this day that special night my father drove me to our church in my hometown of Shelby, North Carolina to my first rehearsal, ever. It was for children’s choir and Mrs. Melba McWhirter was the director. I can remember what my father and I spoke about, what was playing on the radio, and where the room in the church was. And a lot more. As with all musicians, I’ve seemingly been in thousands of rehearsals since then, but that first one will always stay with me. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old at the time, so that I can remember those feelings of excitement and anticipation decades later (as if it were yesterday in some ways) shows how powerful that experience was for me. But I know I’m not alone in recounting such a story. I’m sure you, too, can easily remember such a musical occasion from your childhood that resonates so strongly. And perhaps it was also in a children’s choir.
Children’s choirs create lifelong magical musical memories. But it’s not just memories that you’re creating when you have a children’s choir, it’s a whole lot more. These days, when I’m doing reading sessions and other presentations before church musicians coast-to-coast, when I ask the question “Who has a children’s choir?” not nearly as many hands go up as did 25 years ago. There are a variety of reasons for that as we know, but I think it’s a terrible shame that many churches have relinquished the battle for children’s time and energy in favor of other competing activities. I say it’s time to reclaim those precious moments for children’s choir! The long-term (and short-term) gains are more than worth it. So here are my Top 10 Reasons for having a children’s choir in this day and age:
- Music Appreciation. Nowadays at an airport gate, I’m amazed as I look at the families sitting there with children. 99.9% of the time, every child…from the youngest to the oldest…has their head buried in their device of choice. (So do the adults!). Get those heads out of those devices and into the interactive world of making music. Music appreciation is always enhanced by music education, and children’s choirs can and should be fertile ground for some basic music education. I know rehearsal time is relatively brief, so I’m not talking about anything massively involved. But the basics of note reading, rhythm, and harmony can lay a foundation for a lifetime of music appreciation for those children in the choir who will most likely make their living someday outside of music.
- Train Them Up. Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” While of course we know this Proverb isn’t referring to children’s choirs, I think the principle applies to children’s choirs as well. “Train up” a child in the children’s choir and there’s a good chance that child will keep singing their whole life long. Hopefully in the adult choir eventually. And even if they don’t remain in an organized choir program, having a positive experience at church can stay with them into adulthood, making it more likely they’ll at least continue as a churchgoer. And we need all of those we can get nowadays (especially the younger types).
- You Raise Me Up. Singing in a choir at an early age helps develop positive self-esteem, studies have shown. Performing in front of people when the choir is fully prepared and confident creates a powerfully imprinted positive impression on the child(ren). And take things a step further: Performing in a musical* where dialog is employed with songs heightens the experience and confidence level for successfully tackling the challenges of childhood (and success breeds success, helping the child develop into a healthy adult with the confidence to tackle the challenges of adulthood).
- A Little Child Shall Lead Them. Every time a children’s choir sings in a worship service, it’s a special event. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and others who might not be regular churchgoers come to church to hear their special one sing. It’s a wonderful moment that is commonly captured on those “devices of choice” and cherished for years to come. Do you want more bodies in the pews whose lives can also be positively impacted? Start a children’s choir and have them sing regularly or at least semi-regularly to “bring in the sheaves.”
- It’s Not hard. There are countless resources available to help you start and maintain a successful children’s choir. Sure, once you’ve jumped in the water you’ve got to keep swimming to go somewhere. But the benefits for all concerned will make your efforts wonderfully worthwhile. And I suspect there’s a volunteer(s) from your choir or church who will happily and ably assist you in helping make it a roaring success.
- It’s an Opportunity. While a cast of thousands isn’t required to support a children’s choir, it can create an opportunity to involve some other members of your church (especially senior adults or teenagers who generally love children). Invite a Sunday School class or other individuals to sponsor and serve refreshments at a break during or after rehearsal. Then reward them by singing your latest anthem that is “ready for prime time” as a private performance after the refreshment break. And if you prepare a musical, there are opportunities to involve some others in the production through various additional roles if you so choose.
- It’s an Outreach. Have your children’s choir sing at some assisted living and/or nursing homes. It will show the children a world they might not be familiar with (especially if their grandparents aren’t yet in those spots…and if they aren’t, it’s a good introduction to that world). The residents of the center will be overjoyed to see the young, energetic, smiling and singing faces in their midst (and again, if you prepare a musical, that’s particularly a wonderful thing to take “on the road”).
- Music is Therapeutic. As you know, there are entire college degree programs based on the practice and career of music therapy. Studies have shown music has a positive impact on the child's motor/sensory, and academic/cognitive function. By having children actively involved in a choir on a weekly – or at least seasonal – basis, the inherent therapeutic benefits of music can shine through.
- Music is transformative. There are plenty of quality team-building, social interaction, you-name-it activities in which children can engage that don’t involve music. But as we know, music is a unique, God-given transformative experience like none other. Sure, the child will probably always remember that goal they made that won the soccer match for the team, but can they sing that twenty years later? (Therefore, reproducing the original transformative experience practically verbatim…note for note). Forgive me for comparing music with sports (although many do make that comparison for good reason at times). But the takeaway here is that sports vs. music is truly the old apples vs. oranges equation. The two activities aren’t mutually exclusive, and one can complement the other. But I believe music is in a league by itself, since the benefits of music performance and music education are too numerous to document here.
- In Spirit and Truth. Singing in a worship service…and therefore helping lead the worship service…helps children feel the power of the presence of God in the context of worship. It will make them better worshippers as they start to grasp the impactful beauty of the worship experience. Singing in a choir at school or in a community group is its own unique experience. And likewise should singing in a children’s church choir be so…with the additional spiritual (and yes, eternal) aspect.
My personal children’s choir experience, while life-changing and unforgettable, is not unique I’m happy to report. I estimate millions of children’s lives have been positively changed by their early choir experience. If your church doesn’t have a children’s choir, I urge you to start one. As soon as possible. Those transformative experiences are waiting in the wings to happen (and will give the participating children wings of their own). And if you do have a choir…bravo! Hopefully this blog affirms the many benefits you see from your program.
A coda: I’m still in touch with my dear director, Melba McWhirter, after that first rehearsal those many, many years ago. Another incredible gift of that wonderfully auspicious, long-ago evening! (and the power of children’s choir).