How To Become a Choir Director
A church’s Choir Director selects music, recruits singers, and leads choral groups — but there’s also a surprising amount of behind the scenes work, too.
Brian Jones, former Choral Director of Trinity Church Boston and current Director of The Copley Singers says that, in addition to his directing duties, “there’s always a lot of administrative work, planning, organizing, chasing singers and making sure they stay with you because people are busy. You have to care and nurture them all the time.”
This element of leadership is especially important, as a choir plays a huge part in the spirit of a church. He adds, “One of the things I try to do really seriously is nurture a choir of about sixty to seventy people, with eight who are paid professionals and the rest who are auditioned volunteers.”
Of his tenure at Trinity, he says, “It was said that it was the most important community in the church; I tried to build a real community. We had a lot of people who joined who were in their twenties and thirties, so they had wonderful voices. It’s a lot of administration, plus practicing when I could, and going to meetings.
“The church had three services with music every Sunday and we did a lot of community services like Handel’s Messiah and the candlelight service, which has become a legend in this city. The lines would be twining around the square to get in!”
A good choir should appeal to singers and audience members of many faiths and at different places on their faith journeys. Jone explains, “Many people are there because music is religion to them. They believe music shows them a path to God and I didn’t want anyone to feel left out because they didn’t have the strongest faith. You didn’t have to be a card-carrying Episcopalian [to sing in the choir].
“I always said to them that you give a lot of presents at Christmas but you don’t give anything more significant than the singing you do at Christmas. You have a chance to touch those people’s souls and lift them up and empower them.”
Although not all church choirs are mixed, Jones says his “forte is directing choirs mixing professionals and auditioned amateurs. You have professional singers but we’re all amateur human beings so we all try to look at each other in a loving, supportive way.
“A lot of people have told me it was a highlight of their lives to sing in that choir, in that beautiful church, in that beautiful city. We had a chance to do something important and to me, there’s nothing more important than music.”
In addition to their work with professional and/or amateur singers, Choral Directors collaborate with spiritual leaders (Pastors, Priests, etc.) and receive help from Assistant Directors, Administrators, and Accompanists, depending on the size of the choir and its budget for employees.
On average, Choir Directors earn approximately $51,700 a year. The general salary range for Choir Directors is $23,100 to $125,200+.
For Choir Directors, Jones says, “If they’re in a school they’re on a regular salary, if they’re in a church there’s a salary, too.” Of course, the size of the salary depends on a number of factors, such as the organization’s budget and the amount of work expected from the Director.
Jones says his “time on the job is spent teaching other people and off the job is picking music. So you need to study your scores and learn the music. You need to learn the recordings so you get ideas. Go to concerts. There’s a lot of administration.
“I’ll give you an example; right now we’re doing the standing and seating orders and putting together fourteen pieces of music. We have to hire professionals. Like anything worth doing, it takes work to put it together. [It’s about] developing yourself, reading.”
Choral Directors at churches with vibrant music programs have a heavy workload devoted to performances.
At Trinity, Jones says, “I had two big choirs: one was almost seventy and one was almost fifty. They sang in the morning and every week we had a total of about seven to nine pieces of music. I had a full-time Administrator but it was still a lot of work. I had an Assistant and we used to joke about ‘administrivia.’”
During the day, Choral Directors tackle these administrative duties, with rehearsals and performances taking up a significant portion of nights and weekends.
Many church Choral Directors start off directing school or children’s choirs. Some also begin their careers by taking on another role within the choir, such as Assistant Director, and gaining experience in this manner.
To land a first job directing a choir Jones says, “There are a number of ways. It can be a little difficult to get a church choir because many of them are getting so old, but community choruses are often looking for new Directors. I took over a community chorus when I was twenty-four. I built it and we sang symphony hall a few times.”
Age and experience don’t matter if you have a love for the work and people see that. He continues, “You just have to have enthusiasm, talent, and passion. How much do you love it? Can you convince people that choral singing is the greatest thing in the whole world?”
- “Most college placement offices have suggestions for jobs. Then there are local organizations. With word-of-mouth, if you’re in a community and are studying” you can find ways to get involved. “You just need to look around for resources.
- Either plan on going to graduate school or just get a job and see if you like it.”
- Seek out school jobs when you’re just getting started. “It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of love to run a high school choir because the kids love it if you do it right, but otherwise they can run all over you. Private schools don’t have as strict requirements about having a degree, which can be good. Try children’s groups or teaching music for junior high. If you want a job, that’s probably how you start.”
Experience & Skills
Conducting and vocal skills are important for a Choir Director, but knowing how to play other instruments can really take someone to the next level. Jones says, “You should develop at least rudimentary keyboard and sight-reading skills. I think it’s exceedingly important because you’re working with the language of music and you’ve got to be able to read the notes.
“If you’re lucky enough to have a high school that has music theory you should definitely take it, but if you don’t have the resources you should find a tutor or a book or and teach yourself to speak the language.
“Another thing that’s a tremendous advantage is when I have a singer who’s also an especially good string player. Invariably they have good intonation and a great ear. I love to find a professional singer who has instrumental skills (specifically string playing) because they have to produce the right intonation and pitch.”
“It really helps if a person is as outgoing as possible,” Jones says. “You don’t have to be a total extrovert but it’s good. If you can feel passionate about what you’re doing and if you’re going to teach kids, they love when they sense a passion and love for what a person is doing.
“If kids see you later on in life and you keep in touch, they won’t remember so much what you taught them but who you were and how you made them feel. I taught at a private school in Boston for twenty years and they built an incredible new arts building; I hadn’t been there for years and they dedicated a rehearsal room in my honor. It really touched me.
“The plaque they gave me talked about my passion. That was surprising to me and I liked that. Enthusiasm does not hurt.
“There’s an old saying a Minister friend of mine used to say, ‘To act with enthusiasm is a condition of acting greatly.’ [It’s important to be a] person who loves to communicate and who can communicate with his singers what he wants them to communicate to the audience. I hate when you see a choir up there and they’re like ‘we are the choir and you are the audience.’”
Education & Training
Choral Directors must be well-trained musicians themselves so that they can effectively lead the group, select music, and teach songs to the performers. Jones says “people who have sung as children have a big leg up. Another thing I’ve found through the years, it’s like speaking a language — if you learn at a young age your mind is so incredibly receptive.
“If you haven’t [been in a choir as a child], you should sing as much as possible and hope your school has a decent group or find a community group with higher standards. I think children should try to get into a boys, girls, or youth choir.”
After high school, he advises, “You really should try to focus in your undergraduate years on getting into a music program. I went to Oberlin. If you’re really serious, you should go to graduate school for a master’s or doctorate.
“In the summer you can take courses; I took a class and it was wonderful. I had this teacher who was very critical but deep down he was a very great guy and he wanted you to be articulate. With choirs, it’s always a matter of ‘What do I fix now?’ You have to know what to fix about intonation, diction, etc.
“Listen to lots of CDs or your iPhone and familiarize yourself with the repertoire of world music, traditional stuff, and more modern stuff. I feel very strongly you have to be realistic that not everybody’s going to be super sophisticated in their tastes and you’ve got to do music that is accessible, that has variety and shows people how beautiful things can be when they’re sung well.
“That can include classic Composers and more modern ones. You don’t have to lower your standards. Be careful about modern Composers because they can be very discordant and it won’t always make any sense to them. At a church, I try to find music that will heal, empower and uplift people so they’ll feel good when they leave.
“Always be looking for the next best pieces, ask ‘Do I like it?’ and ‘Will other people like it?’ Ideally, I try to do a lot of music that I don’t even like that much because I know they do.”
Jones says, “It’s helpful to go to conventions because you hear all these wonderful choirs and it’s really challenging. You get all these new ideas. It’s great. They have conferences in different parts of the country one year and then the next year is the national convention.”
How much does a church Choir Director make?
The salary range for Choir Directors varies widely, from $23,100 to $125,200+, based on their employers’ size and budget, as well as on their workload. For full-time Choir Directors, the average annual salary is approximately $51,700.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be sure that it’s your great passion. Get the best training you can. Listen to what your colleagues say and do, what their groups sound like. You can tell whether they love him or her [the Choir Director] and whether they sing their hearts out for him or her because that person has imparted a love and skill.
You need to know how to handle the voice and know how to work with the voice because it doesn’t just happen automatically. Learn keyboard and voice; get good training. Show a lot of interest in your singers and show them you love them in a way they’ll respond to. Then they’ll bring their friends to share in it and their other friends to listen to it.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I’m not sure I’d say that [there’s a #1 mistake.] I do think a lot of my colleagues play the organ and direct choirs and I think they do too much solemn, pensive music. Certainly, you need that sometimes, but sometimes it sounds all the same. It’s drudgery.
“You want to be creative to balance your repertoire and not to do reckless amounts of twentieth-century stuff people don’t relate to. Choose carefully.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Enthusiasm. Passion. that’s what they put on my plaque. It was surprising when I saw that on my plaque and I really liked it.”
Brian Jones is one of the nation’s most highly regarded church musicians. An accomplished Choral Director, Organist, Teacher, and Accompanist, he has performed at prestigious venues around the world, including the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Rutgers University, Harvard, Yale, and Smith College.
His work has been showcased on the BBC and NPR. Album credits include The Trinity Choir’s With Heart & Voice and A Choral Christmas. Jones has also served as a classical Music Critic for the Boston Musical Intelligencer.
Jones has previously served interim roles as Director of Cathedral Music at the Cathedral of St John, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Director of Music at Old South Church in Boston, and Associate Organist of Memorial Church, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He is the Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church in Boston and Director Emeritus of The Copley Singers. To see Jones’ work as a Choir Director in action, check out this video from WGBH Music.