We think that with a little work, any synagogue can create a successful children’s choir. Here are some tips from our 15 years of experience at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey.
We meet on Shabbat mornings because we have a large cadre of children in the building and an audience waiting to kvell. We meet from 10:00 to 10:30, before children’s services begin, which gets everyone to shul on time, and gets the kids while they’re fresh.
Our congregants love to sing but our shul has steered away from choirs during services and does not use instruments on Shabbat. We sing a capella four or five times a year at the end of Shabbat services and are frequently asked to entertain at simchas or other special occasions, such as a recent Veterans Shabbat. We often get the congregation to sing along with the choir.
For 13 years, we were just two volunteers. You need to find people – either lay or a willing hazzan or music director – who are creative, committed, enjoy children, and are knowledgeable about repertoire and music. You also need parents willing to help out as necessary.
We keep the repertoire fresh and exotic with songs in Hebrew, English, Ladino, Yiddish, Zulu, Lugandan, and Nigerian. We look for pieces or arrangements that highlight kids’ strengths. Often older choir members sing the complex verses while the younger members chime in on the chorus. We sing old and new songs, fast and slow, in unison and in parts.
We distribute new t-shirts at the beginning of every season, and trophies at the end. And we have a great choir logo.
Cute is nice, but cute ain’t music. We treat the kids like professionals and with respect, and they return the favor. We ask for 30 minutes of focused attention. The kids learn music theory, choral singing, musical phrasing, and vocal technique. They learn about clean entrances and cut-offs, how to listen and blend, how to stand when they’re performing, and how to stay focused on their conductor. They learn terms like staccato and legato, crescendo and diminuendo; they know what an upbeat is and what a downbeat is. They never start a piece without a key and a count. And as a bonus, they are learning about Jewish texts and Jewish culture from around the world.
We try to punctuate each year with one new challenge or out-of-the-ordinary performance such as a concert with other choirs, a recording, or singing at a larger venue.
During rehearsals we keep a dozen chairs set up in the back of the room for parents. Sometimes a young child has trouble separating, but more often the parents just want to listen and learn.
If you have questions about running a children’s choir, feel free to contact Ronit Wolff Hanan and Adina Avery Grossman at TzipporeiShalom@cbsteaneck.org.