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Church Choir Director's Guide to Success (Out of Print)

By: James McCray    

Catalog Number: SBMP 201     Price:     ISBN# 978-0-9648071-1-2

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Author Dr. James McCray has been a church choir director for over twenty years serving in both Protestant and Catholic Churches. His music program at the Methodist Church in Ft. Collins, Colorado, has more than doubled in the time he has been there. His church choir is recognized as one of the finest in the area; they annually perform more than seventy-five anthems/cantatas for the church. He directs two choirs and supervises a staff who direct the children's choirs, the youth choir, and the handbell choirs. For twenty years he has contributed a monthly article on church music to the international periodical THE DIAPASON. He has published two conducting books, twenty-five major periodical articles, and over one-hundred music compositions and editions.



Dr. James McCray (b. 1938) is a Professor of Music at Colorado State University and the Director of Music at the First United Methodist Church of Fort Collins, Colorado.

His music program at the Methodist Church has more than doubled in the time he has been there. Dr. McCray directs two choirs and supervises a staff who direct the children’s choirs, the youth choir, and the handbell choirs. His church choir annually performs more than seventy-five anthems/cantatas and is recognized as one of the finest in the area.

For twenty years Dr. McCray has contributed a monthly article on church music to the international periodical The Diapason. He has published two conducting books, twenty-five major periodical articles, and over one-hundred music compositions and editions.


The church remains one of the most important active repositories for choral music. Throughout America, as well as other countries of the world, music holds a place of prominence in the weekly liturgical services of most denomi-nations. In some, as they have been for centuries, daily services are held, and incorporated into them as one of the main features is music.

Most of our colleges and universities are not training young musicians to be church choir directors. An examination of numerous music programs available in state and private institutions not only reveals that no formal degree is offered, but in most schools, there is not even a single course which addresses this profession. Except in rare cases, students are trained to be teachers, performers, conductors, and music therapists, but not specifically church musicians. Interestingly, church musicians tend to be a combination of all of those courses of study.

There is not a scintilla of evidence that being a high school band director or a piano teacher is an appropriate correlation for those wanting to do church choir directing. Each community has many churches, usually far more than the number of schools requiring a music teacher. Yet, because schools have a more formalized certification program for hiring, it is the school degree which is emphasized. Just as elementary music teachers need skills different from those teaching high school, so it is with church choir directors compared to directors in school and community choirs. Some musical attributes are the same, but purpose and motivation contrast sharply. The proverbial axiom of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (the rooster crows and the sun rises, therefore the crowing caused the sunrise) is universally accepted regarding church choir work. There is a false assumption that anyone with a music background is suited for church choirs. Sadly, that is not only the case, but is one of the prime reasons for decay in this area.

Church choir directors, generally are in part-time positions. Only very large, usually metropolitan churches, have full-time musicians on their staff. Ministers and church leaders recognize the value of music at their institutions, yet seem unwilling to seek out and hire trained people to develop a full-time comprehensive program. Naturally, part-time work and a small salary results in limited accomplishment. But, the value of music to any congregation is unlimited.

Church attendance has a serpentine path; today most churches are finding a large percentage of their flock to be in places other than the pews on Sunday morning. Christmas and Easter services swell to gigantic proportions, yet weekly attendance often is sparse. The numbers of members on a church roll may be four or five times the numbers attending on any average Sunday.

One approach to the attendance problem has been the use of a more “popular” style of music. Prescient thinkers decided that if people spent the week listening to “pop” music, then perhaps that should be the style used on Sunday mornings too. In most instances, that has not produced consistently significant increases, and at best, has been an ineffective band aid.

What is needed is the development of strong, well-educated church musicians who have a broad perspective rooted in the traditions of the church. Solid church music programs are those where recruiting and retaining singers have been effective, and where multifaceted musical activities abound. The main choir provides musical leadership to the congregation and, in many instances, acts as glue connecting all phases of the worship service. Directors with vision, expertise in musical and social arenas, and a dedication to quality will be an important part of the growth and stability of any church.

This book is a compendium of ideas that have surfaced throughout my nearly twenty years as a church choir director. I, too, was one of those school conductors thrust into the realm of church choir work with no formal expertise. My “on the job training” was slow, often growing out of a trial process to discover what did and did not work.

My experiences as a church choir director have included both small and large churches; my first experience was in an all-male, maximum security prison where I was asked to start a new program that developed both a Protestant and a Catholic choir for the prison. Recruiting choir members in that situation was extraordinary training. Some of the techniques learned there have been useful in church environments outside the prison.

Over the years, I have discovered many different ways of accomplishing tasks; many ideas have been absorbed from a multitude of people and programs. Suggestions and ideas come from workshops, other church music programs and directors, and members of the choir. To everyone who has influenced my work habits, I offer a profound thank you. Through this book, I now am pleased to have the opportunity to share those ideas with other generations of church musicians.

This book is designed to be a resource for anyone, new or experienced, who is faced with the weekly problems of preparing a church choir for liturgical involvement. Many of the recommendations may seem obvious to those who have been church choir directors, but for those just starting out, they may be a life preserver in the sea of the unknown! It is not structured to be read from cover-to-cover, but rather as something that can be sampled. For example, users may want to start with Chapter Eleven, REMINDERS, which is a forty-item checklist of “do‘s and don‘ts” for new and ex-perienced directors.

The book is dedicated to all of the church choir singers I have encountered through the years. Their dedication, talent, and commitment to the church have been an inspiration which has helped me find my way through the maze. Each Sunday they reappear as a nameless face in the crowd, projecting beautiful interpretations to the congregation. They, truly, are the ones who elevate the worship and bring a deeper understanding of the Word.

Special thanks are extended to Jerome Buttera, Editor of The Diapason for giving me permission to extract ideas and comments from my columns on church music which have been written over the past twenty years. I am appreciative of the suggestions from the book readers. Lee Egbert (Colorado State University and Timothy Snyder (Yale Institute of Sacred Music) have both served as church choir directors, and their insights were very helpful. William Runyan (Colorado State University) and Barbara Harlow (Santa Barbara Music Publishing) provided useful, penetrating comments on the technical writing. Finally, thanks go to Colorado State University for providing me with the sabbatical leave which gave me time to think, process, write, and complete this book.


Recruiting and retaining singers - numerous creative and practical ideas.

Rehearsal strategies - how to keep the rehearsal alive, varied, and effective; presenting the music; developing vocal techniques; textual concerns; artistic and practical considerations.

Repertoire - extensive discussion covering all aspects of church music literature-a valuable reference source.

Funding resources and rewards - imaginative ideas abound in these chapters.

Special aspects of the church music program - children's choirs, youth choirs, handbell choirs, and the performance of music with instruments.

Helpful appendices include - a Sanctuary Choir newsletter, a music schedule for a month, and a repertoire list for a year.

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