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Spiritual Formation in Choir Rehearsals

Michael Waschevski

Michael Waschevski is the senior associate pastor and chancel choir conductor of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Worth, Texas.


Every week church choirs of all sizes, ability levels, and contexts gather together to prepare music to lead the people of God in worship. What happens is nothing short of a miracle! Church choirs prepare more repertoire in a year than school choirs, community choirs, or professional choirs. For church choirs that sing weekly in worship, as well as special services for All Saints’ Day, Advent, Christmas Eve, Lent, Holy Week/Easter, and any number of unique congregational services and events, it is common to prepare and offer fifty anthems a season. It is miraculous!

To prepare such a volume of music means that every minute of rehearsal counts. There is so much to learn and master musically. Notes for each part. Intonation. Correct rhythms. Appropriate stylistic engagement for each genre—Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Spirituals, World Music, and more. Of course, our choirs are composed of people who work, raise families, travel, and experience the trials and tribulations of life personally each week. They are often among the busiest church members and friends as they exercise their discipleship in a multitude of ways outside of the choir. Church choir attendance is unlike school or professional choir attendance, in which members often keep near-perfect records. 

Many conductors, understandably, get so caught up in the demanding pace of learning music and preparing for the next anthem or next service that spiritual formation is not often a conscious element of the choral experience. And, given that many choirs are also rehearsing on Sunday morning, participation in formal adult Christian formation through church school or Sunday morning small groups is often not possible for choir members. 

This essay lifts up the value of spiritual formation in choir rehearsals. The good news is, if we are focusing on spiritual formation, it’s not all up to us. There is no doubt the Spirit is at work in and among choirs whether we are aware of it or not. And also, intentional spiritual formation as an element of rehearsal can lead to deep and transformative experiences for singers. As choirs experience deepening spiritual formation, the congregation’s experience deepens as well. 

The Spirit’s Work

Martin Luther is credited with the insight that “the (one) who sings, prays twice.” Frederick Delius said that “music is an outburst of the soul.” Fred Pratt Green’s text “When in Our Music God Is Glorified” includes the verse, “How often, making music, we have found / a new dimension in the world of sound, / as worship moved us to a more profound / Alleluia!” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, 641).

Singing, praying twice, outbursts of the soul, finding a new dimension in the world of sound that touches us profoundly . . . the Spirit is at work when we join our voices together as a choir. Lest we think it all depends on us, it is good to remember, humbly, that experiences of the Spirit are occurring in our rehearsals that do not depend on us and our planning or leadership.

In Scripture there are many texts that beautifully describe experiences with the Spirit. In both Hebrew and Greek, the words translated “spirit” (ruach and pneuma) can also be translated as “wind” or “breath.” The beloved hymn text by Edwin Hatch begins each verse with “Breathe on me, Breath of God”; when a choir takes its first collective breath as it prepares to sing, the breath of God has already preceded us. Filled with God’s breath, filled with the Spirit, our spirits united experience emotions that move us personally and collectively, shaping and forming us.

When I was in college, I was blessed to sing under three amazing conductors—Brad Holmes, Beth Holmes, and Weston Noble. Each drew out musical excellence. Each was also keenly aware of the Spirit at work in our rehearsals and attentive to the power of sharing experiences in the moment. They would notice a smile on a singer’s face, a tear rolling down a check, or a changed countenance and ask the singer to share what they were feeling. Every moment spent hearing about that immediate experience from others confirmed for all of us the presence and work of the Spirit in our midst. Taking a moment to acknowledge the Spirit’s work formed and shaped us all. Assuming a posture of expectation and awareness of the Spirit at work, even in rehearsal, forms a choir in their singing. Something happens when a choir sings.

Intentional Formation

Knowing that the Spirit is working among us, we can bring intentionality to nurture spiritual formation in our rehearsals. The challenges and realities of a choir’s weekly demands make every second of rehearsal count in order to be prepared for worship leadership on Sunday.

As important as it may be to practice good vocal production, to accurately learn parts and rhythms, and to perfect style in a rehearsal setting, it is also vital to weave intentional spiritual formation into the rehearsal experience. A deep experience in rehearsal enriches and inspires singers on Wednesday (or whenever rehearsals are held) as they rehearse and the congregation on Sunday. Let me suggest four practical and concise (minimal rehearsal time required) practices to consider as your context allows. 

Reflection on the Texts We Sing

Sacred choral music unites text and music. All too often, our rush to master the music can lead us to undervalue the importance and centrality of the text. Many of the texts we sing are drawn directly from Scripture. As such, they are texts that have formed, sustained, challenged, comforted, and inspired God’s people for millennia. They have their own contexts and their own histories. Making time to lift up the biblical text, share its history and context, and invite singers to reflect on the text in the context of their own lives transforms the experience of singing
a choral anthem and in turn transforms its hearers as well.

Let me share an example. Philip W. J. Stopford’s “Do Not Be Afraid” (MorningStar Music Publishers MSM-50-9818) echoes several verses from Isaiah 43. The recurring refrain is from Isaiah 43.1:

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name: you are mine. 

God’s people have heard this tender and loving word from God since the time of exile. For well over 2.500 years these words have shaped and formed the faithful. Over 2.500 years . . .

As the anthem progresses, the first verse lifts up Isaiah 43:2 and is followed by the refrain:

When you walk through the waters, I’ll be with you;
you will never sink beneath the waves.
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.
Do not be afraid.

The second verse of the anthem names the experience of exile and God’s care for God’s people in the midst of it:

When the fear of loneliness is looming,
then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of a stranger,
remember you are precious in my eyes.
Do not be afraid.

The third verse amplifies Isaiah’s words of assurance from God: 

You are mine, O my child,
I am your Father,
and I love you with a perfect love. 

Do Not Be Afraid: ©Kevin Mayhew Ltd. Reproduced by permission of Kevin Mayhew Ltd, ( Licence No. KMCL300523/01.

The final refrain adds a solo soprano voice soaring over the choir using the same words. It is as if God is with the choir, singing to all gathered. 

The construction of the anthem, especially the repetition of the refrain, invites singers to make a deep connection between the text and their own lives. When I have used this piece with my own choir and in festival settings, I have taken two to three minutes in rehearsal to verbalize the connection between the anthem, the Isaiah text, and the context of exile. Then I invite singers to write directly on their copy of the music any reflections to personalize the text as they sing.

As the anthem begins with what will become the recurring refrain, I invite them to write notes that remind them that we are proclaiming God’s word that has sustained God’s people for so many years. 

As they sing the first verse and the refrain, I invite them to hear the word of God for them in the midst of whatever waters or fires they are experiencing in their lives and to hear God’s voice speaking to them. 

As they sing the second verse and the refrain, I invite them to write in their score the name of someone they love or care about who needs to hear God’s word to them. Who needs to hear the assurance not to be afraid, for they belong to God?

As they sing the third verse and the final refrain, I invite them to hear anew God’s word to them and to those they love and care about as the soloist soars above the choir.

It is worth the two or three minutes it takes in rehearsal when singers connect to the context of the Scripture, personalize their singing by remembering others and themselves, and listen for God’s voice anew as the soloist enters on the final refrain. These two or three minutes deepen the experience of singing the anthem and form singers and listeners in the Spirit. This kind of practice can be done with every text we sing, whether a biblical text, a sacred poetic text, or an historical liturgical text. 

Reflections on Placement in the Liturgy

Another concise way to engage in spiritual formation and to deepen our experience of a text is by reflecting on its placement in the liturgy. Highlighting this placement in rehearsal in anticipation of singing it in worship can shape the experience of hearing the choir’s music for the whole congregation.

Richard Bruxvoort Colligan’s “O Christ, Surround Me,” arranged by David Sims (Augsburg Fortress 978-1-5064-2210-7), is a paraphrase of a traditional Celtic prayer often referred to as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. The full text can be found in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, #543. 

The recurring final line of each verse is, “O Christ, surround me, O Christ, surround me.” Some key phrases from this paraphrase speak beautifully to the life of discipleship:

God be the love to search and keep me;
God be the prayer to hear my voice;
God be the strength to now uphold me . . .

Bind to myself the Name of Holy,
great cloud of witnesses enfold . . .

Walking behind to hem my journey,
going ahead to light my way,
and from beneath, above, and all ways . . .

Christ in the eyes of all who see me,
Christ in the ears that hear my voice.
Christ in the hearts of all who know me . . .

O Christ Surround Me: © Richard Bruxvoort Colligan. Used with permission. 

This recurring refrain and the paraphrase of the prayer can function in multiple places in the liturgy and in multiple types of services. My most recent use of this piece was on the Sunday we celebrated baptism and confirmation in the congregation I serve. That day sixteen youth, including one who was being baptized that morning, made their public profession of faith. I asked the choir as we rehearsed that morning to commit, during the liturgy of baptism and confirmation, to look at each young person, to let their faces imprint on their own mind and heart, and to silently offer a prayer for the confirmands as they make their promises to live out a life of Christian discipleship. When we sang the anthem during the offertory (only moments after the liturgy of baptism and confirmation concluded), I asked the choir to continue picturing the confirmands as we sang. It became a holy moment and deep experience of Spirit for the choir and for the congregation. 

Reflections on Text Painting

Another way to use rehearsal time to help facilitate spiritual formation is to highlight text painting by a composer. Text painting, or word painting, is a term used to describe the way the music itself communicates the meaning of a text through the presentation of the musical line, dynamics, tempo, rhythm, tonalities, and so forth. Text painting can be experienced implicitly for sure, and often leads to an experience of the Spirit for a singer without being fully aware of it. Making an explicit connection to what a composer has done to highlight a text can deepen the experience of the Spirit for the singer, and by extension, the congregation.

An example is “We Are Redeemed” by Williams and Dengler (Harold Flammer Music, A 7280). With a text based on Romans 3:21–24, a Scripture text about sin and grace, the piece begins in D minor, which creates a heaviness as the basses repeat the tonic while singing “All have sinned, yes all have sinned.” Meanwhile, altos and tenors sing a phrase that rises and falls with the same text. This communicates a sense of being pulled down by the weight of sin. The sopranos enter with a descending line to the text “and fall short . . .” You can feel the weight of it all as you listen.

A ten-measure piano interlude reiterates musically the weight of the opening of the piece and then descends deliberatively and mournfully two octaves, coming to rest on the tonic. It is stark. It is hollow. It is despair. It is as if all is hopeless. 

And then, in D major, the sopranos and altos sing “We are redeemed,” an open fifth with a warm piano accompaniment. It is a moment that lifts a listener from despair to hope. Highlighting the use of text painting in this example can be done in just a minute of rehearsal time. With just a minute of rehearsal time, a choir director can point to the way an anthem uses text painting, transform the experience of a piece of music, and provide a meaningful experience of spiritual formation for the choir.

Praying Texts Outside of Rehearsal (and Memorization)

A final practice that can deepen spiritual formation can be done by choir members outside of rehearsal time and involves praying an anthem text. Inviting our singers to pray a text for several weeks can allow the text to settle deep within them. When that happens, you can hear it in the singing of the piece. The text has shaped and formed the singers in ways mysterious and holy.

To encourage praying a text, I create a prayer card and invite the choir to pray the text for a certain number of weeks before we offer the anthem from which the prayer was drawn. A recent example was a text by Alexander Kopylov (1854–1911), “Hear My Prayer”:

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and answer unto me;
keep not Thy peace from my soul.
Unto Thee, O God, do I lift up my heart;
O my God, I trust in Thee;
keep Thou my soul and deliver me.
Bless the Lord oh my soul:
and all that is within me bless (God’s) holy name.
Thou art exalted above the heavens,
and Thy glory above the earth.
Hear my prayer, O Lord; and answer unto me.
Hear My Prayer: public domain

Inviting the choir to memorize a piece and guiding them in that memorization might grow naturally out of praying a text for several weeks. Praying the text and practicing the text for weeks can help the choir in their memorization, and in turn, memorization can lead to profound spiritual formation by providing a new openness and freedom to be attentive to the Spirit while singing. A memorized piece often settles so deeply into the heart and mind of the singer that it remains with them the rest of their life and becomes an ongoing source of spiritual formation.


Spiritual formation happens in choir rehearsals because the Spirit lives and moves among us. We are formed in singing because God is already present as we rehearse and worship. Opening ourselves to an awareness of the working of the Spirit is the first step in celebrating how faith may be shaped and formed in our choirs. Verbalizing this awareness is also crucial as we encounter the powerful and profound Spirit of God. 

Intentionally tending to spiritual formation as we lead choir rehearsals is well worth the effort and will lead to transformative experiences for the choir and the congregation. The four practices I’ve highlighted in this article can be woven into rehearsals with minimal time impact. Every precious minute given to spiritual formation will be worth it. Thank God for the gift of music and for deep experiences of the Spirit we share.

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