Creating Meaningful Traditions by Prof. Robert N. Ham

One hallmark of any spirited group is that traditions are upheld. This is especially true in choirs. Traditions create an air of expectation in choirs that breeds excitement and a sense of connection with the past and momentum for the future. Nobody likes ruts, but familiar trails are sometimes welcome paths to travel in an ever-changing world. Traditions are one key to your church choir’s success. Our church choir has developed several traditions that serve as roadsigns in our choir season. I’ll briefly explain some of them. You are free to use them or, even better, use them to stimulate other ideas you may come up with for your choir.

Each Labor Day weekend we take an overnight retreat. This is our "kick off" weekend as we get a head start on our music for the first eight weeks, listen to our Christmas cantata, sing some great "Messiah" choruses, and make new friends as well as renew old friendships. We go to the same camp every year so my singers know what to expect. We have devotions, a campfire, share communion, eat, relax and practice together. A course for success is already being formed and a shared vision for our year begins to emerge. The retreat also serves as a great recruiting tool since everyone is excited about our weekend. Not only do we get a jump-start on the music, but also we’ve created a sense of an event no one wants to miss. There are even traditions within this tradition that people look forward to, like the camp’s famous baked oatmeal for breakfast and the pastor serving communion.

We perform a cantata every Christmas and sing the Christmas portion of "The Messiah" at 9:00 PM each Christmas Eve. Both events are not only enjoyable for our choir, but are very meaningful for our church. In fact, our church used to put together its own devotional book for Advent based around the theme of our cantata. The entire church became involved and focused on the cantata and its message.

On Good Friday, we sing a tenebrae service in the evening and close with the same piece every year. The scriptures, the dimming of lights, candles, and the music all combine

for a unique experience. The choir has embraced this service wholeheartedly, and it has become a powerful tradition for who participate and attend. The joy of Easter Sunday is magnified by the darkness of Good Friday.

We do a spring cantata, then finish our choir year with a service entitled, "The Praise Continues." This event is a capstone service for our year. The choir votes on their ten favorite anthems of the year. After tallying the votes, I arrange these pieces by theme and present them as a concert review of our choir year. The response of the congregation is one of gratitude and deep appreciation for the choir. The "Praise Continues" service not only keeps the choir committed through the end of the choir season, but it gives us a chance to sing our favorites once again. Our church is known for its choir. Singing our favorites seems to excite the congregation and brings a sense of closure to our choir season. At the conclusion of the service there is a sense of accomplishment and well-being that permeates the choir. We have a carry-in lunch together, followed by hugs, and already the talk begins about seeing each other at the retreat.

These traditions work for us. They are part of the fabric that makes us unique. These traditions evolved naturally out of meaningful experiences. You can create your own traditions. Almost every choir already has some, but to add a few is a blessing to many. If you’d like to share some of your traditions with me perhaps we could publish a list of different traditions that would benefit us all. My e-mail address is Send me your suggestions at your earliest convenience.

Remember Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"? ... "Tradition!"

Prof. Robert N. Ham is Chair of Fine Arts and Choir Director at Bethel College. He also directs the adult choir at Clay United Methodist Church, South Bend, Indiana