What’s the difference between the Church Choir and the Orchestra Chorus?

Well, they both sing, but that’s about the only similarity between the two.

I’ve said in past articles that most people, including most classical music “concertgoers” — because of their lack of musical training and ear training — probably can’t hear the difference between the average amateurish podunk Church Choir and a well-trained professional/non-paid Symphony Orchestra Chorus, even though there’s a world of difference between the two in most cases. No comparison can be made between the two.

You might be wondering: What’s the difference between a Symphony Chorus and an Orchestra Chorus? Well they’re essentially the same except for these technical differences: A Symphony Chorus is the Official Chorus of a particular orchestra and automatically performs with its orchestra when a symphonic choral work is programmed. Examples: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus. (Although with Tanglewood, as you can see the word “Orchestra” or “Symphony” is not part of its name. The TFC got its name because the Chorus was founded as the Official Chorus of the Tanglewood Music Festival, the Summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Whereas an Orchestra Chorus is not officially connected with any orchestra. They perform with an orchestra only by invitation. Examples: Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Washington Chorus (formerly the Oratorio Society of Washington), the University of Maryland Concert Choir, and in the past Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus when they were around before they were “retired”/disband by the University of Maryland’s School of Music at College Park. But both the Symphony Chorus and the Orchestra Chorus perform works from the symphonic choral repertoire, and the audition requirements are the same as well as the performance standards required for choral excellence.

With the average Church Choir, an audition is usually not required or even any musical knowledge or training. And they too often sound like it if you can bare to listen to them! I’m not sure how many Church Choirs exist today as many churches have gone to Praise Bands and moving away from the Church Choir and pipe organs, and electronic organs for that matter. In the US, I think many people see the pipe organ and electronic organs as outdated or part of another era. Which brings me to this:

If you put your average amateurish Church Choir on a stage next to a professionally-trained Symphony Chorus performing the same work — even though your average Church Choir does not possess the choral skills or sight-reading/music-reading abilities to perform symphonic choral works — most people in the audience will likely say:

“Huh. You got me there! I’m stumped. I didn’t really hear any difference between the two, did you (looking at the person sitting next to them)? Is there supposed to be a difference? What is it that I’m supposed to be hearing or listening for? I mean, they look different. The Church Choir is in Choir robes and the Symphony Chorus is in orchestral all-black concert attire. But, I have to admit that I didn’t hear any difference other than the sound is bigger with the Symphony Chorus because they are much larger.”

I think most people would say that, in part, because they don’t know what to listen for and because of their lack of ear-training or any musical training at all. And this leads to a gross amount of ignorance in the amount of value and respect that most people give to a professional — paid or nonpaid — Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Unfortunately, I think most people hold to the attitude that, “It’s just the Chorus.” (roll eyes, related: Second Class Musicians). Yet they don’t say, “It’s just the Orchestra” or “They’re just the vocal soloists.” So why is the Orchestra Chorus so minimised in the minds of the public?

The Symphony Chorus Director could ask the audience: Did you hear anything different between the diction of the two choral ensembles? The audience is thinking, “Diction? What’s he talking about now? Why is he talking about the dictionary? The Chorus Director could ask the audience: Did you hear the perfect intonation with my Chorus? Audience: “Perfect what? Perfect intonation, what’s that sex? Now he’s talking over my head.”

Yeah, that’s about the extent of it.

When I was in professional Orchestra Choruses, and I was fortunate to be in three — which admittedly was a very different time and a much better and educated societal culture than today — and people I met asked me about myself, in passing I’d bring up the Orchestra Choruses I was a chorister in. But only if they asked about it. I was very aware of not boring people with my musical experience or training which most would have no interest in, unless they specifically asked me about it. I didn’t strut around bragging about being in the Choral Arts Society of Washington or the University of Maryland Chorus or the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. They were the three major Orchestra Choruses I was in for readers who know nothing about me. At that time, most people I talked with — even if they were not into or knew nothing about classical music — seemed to know something about it because they would say to me, “Oh wow, you must be pretty good to get in that and to perform at the Kennedy Center regularly.” I’d say: Oh well thank you. I enjoy it and it’s a very rewarding experience to be able to perform with major symphony orchestras from around the world in a major Concert Hall. But today, if I were still in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and I happened to mention that to someone — especially the seemingly-lobotomised, phone-zombie Millennial techie trash around here — I suspect the response would be that of a blank stare as if nobody is home along with “I’m like, I’m like never like heard of it, like. I’m like, what’s lick the like Symphony lick Chorus like?” Since the word “like” — which sounds like “lick” when they clip it and say it staccato — seems to be the only word in the average Millennial’s very limited “Valley Girl” vocabulary. That’s about the extent of it today because stupid is in with many/most Millennials. And that’s the type of “conversation” (if you can call it that) that I hear when I’m around other people these days. Stupid. Stupid is in. They call that talking? How these Millennial techie trash in San Francisco hold a job based on the way they speak is beyond me! Have the hiring standards in Human Resources been that dreadfully lowered? Who would hire someone that talks that way? I don’t hear that trash language when I hear people speaking English in the EU. In the EU, I mostly hear very refined Queen’s English without the word “like” every other word or without the speaker sounding tongue-tied as they do around here.

Again, with your average Church Choir — most often wearing those tacky Choir robes — they consist of people who usually have no musical training, who have never studied voice, they can’t read music at all or very well, and are most often there because of their religious brainwashing rather than for the music and musical purposes. For them, being in the Church Choir is part of their being faithful to their god, their Floating Cloud being. It’s all about “dying and going to heaven and the threat of hell’s fire damnation.” It’s fear of dying, in other words. So they think that being in the Church Choir might help in a way to get them “into heaven.” Well don’t count on it.

Whereas the Symphony Chorus — which is a secular ensemble although they often perform sacred works in a secular/Concert Hall setting — usually consists of well-trained musicians who have studied voice or currently are studying voice and are also in other music training, many choristers have degrees in music, have trained as solo singers but know how to use their “choral voice” (meaning no noticeable vibrato voice) in the Symphony Chorus in order for the Chorus to achieve perfect intonation which is the perfect blending of voices. Perfect intonation is one of the foundations of choral excellence. Choristers in a Symphony Chorus are excellent sight-readers and have undergone excellent ear training. With the finest choristers, their sight-reading of a (tonal) piece can sound nearly performance-ready.

The average Church Choir prepares “repertoire” — often just sings through it which is their idea of a “rehearsal” — for the Sunday liturgy, which can consist of rote singing little ditties and where the Choir is singing in unison, because that’s all they can do, and they don’t even do that well. Polishing the repertoire is not something that the average Church Choir does, even if they sing some of it every Sunday. It never becomes polish because the Choirmaster never works on that aspect. The concept of perfect intonation in choral sections is nonexistent. When a Church Choir does have the ability to sing in SATB vocal sections, that makes things much more interesting, but because of untrained voices and untrained ears, singing in harmony can lead to some very unpleasant noise, with Mabel and Theodosha and their wobbling and quivering alto and soprano voices, respectively. Mabel being particularly known for her quivering alto. Also, if a Church Choir does sing in SATB sections, some of the Choir members often can’t stay on or may not be able to stay on their part, especially if they’re sitting next to someone singing a different part. Such as an alto sitting next to a soprano. “I can’t hear my part” they will likely say. Whereas with an Orchestra Chorus, the choristers — with their musical experience and training — have no problem at all staying on their part even if they’re sitting next to someone singing a different part. Instead, they enjoy and appreciate the harmonic differences between the two parts.

From my experience with the average Church Choir, diction is something that’s never talked about. “Diction, what’s that?” So they will sound like they’re just mumbling the text of whatever they’re singing.

If you can’t sound good, you can at least have good diction” is what I remember Dr Paul Traver saying, Founder and Director of the renowned and superb University of Maryland Chorus.

But most Church Choirs would not take Dr Traver’s suggestion about diction, but what he said is true. The parish Choirmaster can drill diction, although many people who are in the average amateurish Church Choir will have no interest in diction and don’t have the patience for any serious musical training because they’re not there for that. They’re just there to “Sing to the lord” and any old way is fine, to “make a joyful noise.” With emphasis on the word noise. But some people enjoy noise. Many times on U-toob under a choral video wherein the choral ensemble did not sing with perfect intonation, some of the commenters have written, “Sublime” or “gorgeous” or “wonderful.” I’m thinking: Where did you train to think what we just heard was “sublime?” It was awful. Apparently you have no taste in music or in choral excellence. You liked all that wobbling and fluttering, did you? So I take it you like Opera Choruses who sing with very noticeable annoying vibrato and have apparently never heard the term “perfect intonation” which cannot be achieved with noticeable vibrato.

Whereas with a professional Orchestra Chorus, they prepare major symphonic choral works that their Orchestra or an Orchestra they have been invited to perform with has programmed for the season. Some Orchestras deliberately do not have their own Chorus so they invite local Orchestra Choruses to perform with them, as is the case with the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra. These days, I guess it’s good that the NSO does not have their own Symphony Chorus because they wouldn’t have much to do. Performing the same three pieces each season (Beethoven’s Ninth, Orff’s Carmina Burana and GFH’s Messiah) would be uninteresting and monotonous. When the NSO do perform a symphonic choral work, they invite the Choral Arts Society of Washington (they might end up with one piece to perform for the season), or The Washington Chorus (they too might get one engagement; they used to be known as the Oratorio Society of Washington). And if they’re lucky, the University of Maryland Concert Choir (they replaced the University of Maryland Chorus when they were “retired”) might get an engagement. But again, since so few symphonic choral works are performed these days other than The Big Three, I shouldn’t think that any of the DC Orchestra Choruses are holding their breath waiting for the phone to ring for an engagement opportunity from the NSO or any other Orchestra for that matter. These days, they’re pretty much left to doing their own thing in order to survive and have something to do. Fortunately, things seem to be a bit better in the EU in the symphonic choral music sense.

The average, amateurish Church Choir “rehearses” once a week usually one night. Their “rehearsals” are nothing like that of the professional Symphony Chorus.

I’ll start with the latter: The Orchestra Chorus is expected to perform at the same level of excellence as the Orchestra they are performing with. Therefore, for a Symphony Orchestra Chorus, there will be at least two, rigorous 3-hour rehearsals a week or at least that’s the way it was when I sang with major Orchestra Choruses; one night sectional rehearsals for just the sopranos and altos together or the tenors and basses together. The next night is Full Chorus. I always preferred the Full Chorus rehearsals because you got to hear all of it, all the choral sections together and this glorious sound of high choral excellence. Some Symphony Choruses have three rehearsals a week. I think the San Francisco Symphony Chorus rehearses three nights a week, although it was two nights when I sang with them during the Margaret Hillis/Vance George (Chorus Directors) years. Impeccable attention to detail is part of the rehearsal process going over diction, especially if a piece is not in one’s native international language. In that case, a language coach is brought in to train the Chorus on the precise pronunciation of all texts in the choral score. The Chorus Director along with the piano accompanist will drill/rehearse the Chorus for weeks in preparation for the next performance they have with the Orchestra. In some instances, there will be little time for preparation because of the performance schedule. If the Chorus has an “early call” for the season, that is where it’s highly beneficial to the Chorus to have the finest choristers auditioned who can produce a near-perfect performance from very few rehearsals. With few exceptions, usually the Symphony Chorus does not perform with the Orchestra until well into the season (as in maybe two+ months after the season has started) will be the performance of the first symphonic choral work. That gives the Chorus the time to prepare the first piece of the season. But they may be preparing another work at the same time, such as the “required” and perfunctory Messiah performance or other holiday music repertoire.

However, I’m of the opinion that the Symphony Chorus should appear with its Orchestra in its opening Gala night performance to show that the Chorus is an equal partner with the Orchestra. If the Orchestra does not have its own Chorus, it’s a little different when it comes to the opening night Gala. That gets into music politics. Whichever Chorus they invite it might look like they are the unofficial “Official Chorus” — even though they’re not — and would likely lead to some politico jealousy and rivalry with the other Orchestra Choruses. I’m not sure about this, but I think maybe the Tanglewood Festival Chorus appears with the BSO the first night (Gala Opening) they perform in Boston’s Symphony Orchestra. If they don’t, they should and the same for all other professional Orchestra Choruses, such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. If there’s little rehearsal time, programme some (shorter) piece from last season. No one would object. Not everyone would have heard the piece last season, and some would be glad that they’re hearing it again. One piece they could perform is Beethoven’s rarely-performed Choral Fantasy for Piano Orchestra, Chorus and vocal soloists. If there’s a piano concerto programmed for the Gala Opening concert, perform Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. You already have the pianist and Orchestra there. Just bring in the Chorus. And use vocal soloists from the Chorus.

There are some churches — parishes and Cathedral Churches — in the Anglican Communion as well as the Catholic tradition that have a Choir of the caliber of a professional Symphony Chorus. St Thomas Fifth Avenue (Anglican) in Manhattan has a Choir of Men and Boys where that is the case, and St Thomas has the only residential Choir School in the dis-United States. Some other parishes and Cathedral Churches take this approach for choral excellence, but they don’t necessarily produce the same results.

In some instances, when the Men of the Choir in some Cathedral Churches work on an “on-call” basis, I’ve noticed that their intonation is not the best, perhaps from not having sung with each other enough and or the Choir Master accepting anyone who applies who’s a good sight-reader. I’ve also noticed that some Choirmasters who sing with noticeable vibrato themselves when they serve as Cantor on occasion allow their choristers to sing with very noticeable vibrato which of course prevents perfect intonation, one of the foundations of choral excellence.

These days — especially in the US — I’ve noticed that more and more lazy Choirmasters and Chorus Directors seem to be abandoning the concept of perfect intonation. Apparently they don’t want to do their job. Their job requires that they actually have to work and produce a refined sound from their choristers, something they’d rather not do it seems. I especially thinking of the Cathedral Singers at Washington National Cathedral (Anglican Communion) where you’ll hear wobbling and fluttering from the Men and from sopranos singing a descant with ugly, awful operatic-style vibrato. Noticeable vibrato for a descant? Unheard of. That’s like noticeable vibrato in Renaissance Music. Unheard of. Are some of these choristers sure they’re in the right field? Where did these people train not to know that one does not use noticeable vibrato for a descant? So the Cathedral Singers sound more like an Opera Chorus than a traditional and time-honoured Anglican Cathedral Choir singing with the perfect blending of voices. But other times, for some of their Introits sung in the back of the Nave, the Cathedral Singers sound lovely singing with perfect intonation. And that’s my problem with the choral programme at Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia. The standards are not consistent in their level of choral excellence. One wonders why they keep the current Choirmaster. The last time I heard them, the Girls of the Cathedral Choir sounded superb. They were the best there. The same cannot be said for the Boys of the Cathedral Choir. They sound scratchy at times.

But that’s pretty much the way it works, and there are some grey areas in this regard. It’s not black and white. Some of the larger major metro areas have superb Church Choirs requiring auditions and high choral standards. But usually, the Symphony Chorus or the regional Orchestra Choruses are regarded as “the best Choruses in town,” with few exceptions.

An example of regional Orchestra Choruses are the choral ensembles who are invited to perform with the local major Orchestra. Such as is the case with the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra in the District of Columbia. The NSO have never had their own Symphony Chorus by choice. These days — on the rare occasion they perform a symphonic choral work — they invite either the Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Washington Chorus or the University of Maryland Concert Choir. During the years before and after that I lived in the District, the NSO invited the University of Maryland Chorus, or the Choral Arts Society of Washington, or the Oratorio Society of Washington (now: The Washington Chorus) to perform with them.

In some cases, the quality of the Symphony Chorus can deteriorate over the years, such as was the case with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the late Chorus Director John Oliver. So a new Chorus Director can be brought in to bring the Chorus back up to the standards expected of them by their Orchestra, as has been the case with James Burton and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. From the brief clip I heard of the TFC under Burton, they have improved.

Also, some years ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra disband their Symphony Chorus — a rather unusual move — because apparently they weren’t that good. I never heard them to determine why they were not that good. Was it the Chorus Director or the caliber of the choristers, or both? So Baltimore began inviting the superb University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them as well as, on occasion, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. I can picture orchestral management from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sitting around a conference room table asking: “Why do we have our own Chorus? — they’re not that good — when we could just use the best Orchestra Chorus around here to perform with us, the University of Maryland Chorus, instead. Another person sitting at the table says: What an excellent idea. Yes, I’ve heard the University of Maryland Chorus many times and they are outstanding; absolutely superb. Good idea. Let’s do that. Let’s disband our Symphony Chorus and invite The Maryland Chorus. Calling Dr Traver’s office: Dr Traver, I’m calling from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. We would like to invite the University of Maryland Chorus to perform Beethoven’s Ninth with us this season. Can you do that?” Dr Traver: We would be delighted and thank you for the invitation.

There is also the issue of “amateur” versus “professional.” Professional technically means paid, although I don’t hold to that simplistic definition because most Symphony Chorus choristers are not paid even though they should be and they are indeed professional musicians. Your average podunk Church Choir is amateur and most sound quite amateur, unfortunately. They don’t hold to any concepts of choral excellence. Most Church Choir members are not there for that. They are in the Church Choir for religious and or social reasons.

I only know of two paid Symphony Choruses in the US: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus (80% are paid, the last I heard) and San Francisco Symphony Chorus (20% are paid, the last I heard). All other Orchestra Choruses perform for free to my knowledge, even though, again, they should all be fully-paid just like the orchestral musicians. But most Orchestra Choruses are considered “volunteer,” a reference I don’t like because it can imply they are not professional in the musical sense, when indeed they are. The word “volunteer” can imply amateurish. So when I’ve read that the “all-volunteer Choral Arts Society of Washington….” it makes me cringe because the Choral Arts Society is a professional Orchestra Chorus, whether they’re paid or not, and I don’t think they are. We were not paid when I was in the Chorus. I immediately thought: Why did the reviewer have to say “all-volunteer?” What does that have to do with anything? It sounds like Mr/Ms Reviewer was trying to somewhat minimise/dismiss the Chorus’s level of choral excellence by tagging on the words “all-volunteer.” As if choristers are Second Class Musicians. The finest Church Choirs are fully-paid. Under James Burton’s new audition requirements, some choristers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus may now be paid — you get what you pay for! — but I’ve not heard or read anything about that. I’m merely speculating that maybe the BSO has decided to pay some of the TFC choristers?

Also, I’d like to address this: Some/many people seem to think that the orchestral conductor prepares the Chorus. Wrong! That is absolutely not true. The Chorus is prepared by the Chorus Director. In some case, the Chorus Director will talk with the orchestral conductor who is conducting the performance to go over the score before the Chorus Director begins to prepare the Chorus. But in other cases, the Chorus Director has no contact with the orchestral conductor. The orchestral conductor usually doesn’t see or hear the Chorus until the dress rehearsal on stage. Any minor adjustments and changes to how the Chorus has been prepared are made at that time by the orchestral conductor and sometimes assisted by the Chorus Director since the orchestral conductor may not know the terminology and language to use with the Chorus in “coaching” them. I can only think of two instances where the orchestral conductor came to one of our rehearsals before the dress rehearsal on stage. Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos came to one of our (Choral Arts Society of Washington) rehearsals to hear us before the dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Center for our performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the NSO (National Symphony Orchestra). And conductor John Nelson came to the University of Maryland for one of our last rehearsals (University of Maryland Chorus) before our performance at Wolf Trap of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5 with the NSO. I remember John Nelson telling us at the end of our rehearsal with him, “I have to say that this is the best prepared Chorus I’ve ever worked.” We and Dr Traver were thrilled to hear that.

Most orchestral conductors have no vocal training or choral training — they majored in one of the orchestral instruments — so in the dress rehearsal the Chorus Director will be there to assist the orchestral conductor in making changes with his or her Chorus. Probably from experience, some orchestral conductors are quite good at working with a Chorus where others are not. Andrés Orozco-Estrada is one of them. He’s currently principal conductor of the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony). Orchestral conductors might make phrasing changes, final consonant changes and or interpretation changes to how the Chorus has been prepared. An example of a final consonant change would be: “Chorus, can you put the “t” of “et” on the half beat of 2 rather than carrying it over to the third beat? Let’s try that. Now let”s hear that and we can start at measure 30.” “Oh, and I love your hard K on Kyrie. You’ve been well-prepared by your Chorus Director. Usually with Choruses I have to work on that because they sound like they’re singing “yrie” which is no such word. But not you.”

Mi amigo/My friend asked me an interesting question: When you were in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, did the paid choristers act as if they thought they were better than the non-paid choristers? No. I never noticed anything like that. I was not one of the paid choristers because I never auditioned for one of the paid positions, and there were only so many paid positions (20% of the Chorus) and I assumed the voice majors had those positions. (I majored in piano and had a 3-year minor in voice and pipe organ at the Conservatory where I trained). But I never looked into it to tell you the truth. And who was paid and who was not was not talked about. Two of my friends in the Chorus were paid, but they didn’t talk about it either, and they didn’t act like they thought they were any better than any of the rest of us. And they were very respectful of me and my choral background even though I wasn’t one of the paid choristers. That didn’t matter to them.

So hopefully this will help some to inform those who erroneously think that there’s little difference between the average, amateurish Church Choir and a professional Symphony Chorus. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Related: Is it Chorus or chorus?