Conducting the Synagogue Volunteer Choir

by Warren Sickel

5 years ago I became the Co-Director of Music for Temple Beth Shalom, the sole Jewish Congregation in Topeka, KS with a warm and enthusiastic total of 109 families.  Being, literally, in the center of the country, with some support services from nearby Kansas City, we need to do things on our own and provide for our spiritual needs as best we can.

When I arrived here, it was my honor to inherit a dedicated group of 14 volunteers who make up our choir.  Here were my challenges:  1) How best to lead them; 2) How to improve our musicianship as a group; 3) How to select music that was appropriate to the needs of this group with a mixed level of training.

The previous rabbi started the choir and encouraged its growth laying a great deal of groundwork for most of the music we sing. Our current rabbi has continued to encourage and nurture the choir and is a tremendous resource. The choir sings for High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Purim Blintz Brunch, and two special Shabbats per year. Of these, High Holy Days are the only time choral music is used in either 2 or 3 parts (SAB). At the other events, we sing unison music. The choir is all-volunteer ensemble, and averages 14 members. Fifteen years ago, the board made the decision not to hire “ringers” reasoning that what may be lacking in vocal skills is more then made up for with a group that loves making Jewish choral music as opposed to bringing in a few professional non-Jews to perform a gig with questionable Hebrew diction!

Abilities in the choir range from nice voices that are non-music readers to others with choral experience. In a school choir setting, the goal would be to teach so that all students are music readers. Since Temple choir does not sing on a weekly or monthly basis this is not a realistic goal for this ensemble, so those that do not read must learn by rote. To improve our ensemble sound I have them warm up with ascending & descending 5 note scales on a vowel. During this exercise, I challenge them to sound as one with their trio (person on either side), then the section and across the ensemble. The phrase I employ is “listen & match”. Then we sing the Mark Dunn arrangement of “Hashivenu” in unison and as a 3 part round making for a nice warm-up chorale that reinforces what I am striving for in terms of a cohesive ensemble sound. On the advice of my son, who is a school choir director south of Kansas City, I have found that rounds make great confidence builders.

My experience as a music educator is an asset for me. I learned very early with my students that it is important to acknowledge and then be able to access an individual’s learning style. The world of education has learned that there are a myriad of learning styles. I found that adults are no different. If I were to assign the labels to the learning styles within our choir, I would have two designations: aural & visual. The aural must lean their part by rote. I encourage them to watch as the line ascends or descends and on the advice of a Kansas City colleague, have taken to using my hand to further reinforce the ascending and descending line. When I feel I am not making my point verbally, I will point to the spot in their individual music I am making reference to and either further attempt to explain what I want and / or mark their music.  I find the visual learner is more musically literate, but in both cases, a skip or leap is problematic. I advise them to use the same tricks used by those of us who had sight singing and ear training classes in college: Descending G to E think the National Anthem. Educators are also encouraged to model, and that has worked very well for me. I believe all of this helps me to effectively deal with all of the individuals of the group thus making the group more musically effective. The cohesive ensemble sound I referred to earlier is further reinforced by what experience has taught me in teaching a performance-based class in school. It is not enough to tell an ensemble member to listen, but that they must listen & match. My mantra with my school bands is: Listen and match your neighbor, listen and match your section, and then listen from tuba to top. Here is what I use with the choir: Listen and match your neighbor, listen & match your section, listen and match your gender, listen from bottom to top.

I also strongly believe that it is important for the director to connect with the people that he/she is directing. This knowledge helps with the management of the group.  Being a music educator has also taught me that a rehearsal with volunteers must be a balance of hard work and some light-hearted humor. Between rehearsing selections, I will make a bad pun or 2 and the rest will see if they can top me and we have a few laughs together. That investment in a few minutes off task results in more substantial results when we are on task. Utilizing a moment to connect with an individual before, after, or between selections of a rehearsal helps with making the individual member feel a part of the group with the hope that the member bonds with myself and the rest of the ensemble. I want rehearsals to be a combination of the pursuit of the best effort possible while rehearsing a selection, and then to have a quick laugh or something positive to happen between the selections being rehearsed. I also learned very quickly in the beginning that a delicate balance must be maintained between welcoming member input and the need for me as director to ultimately lead / make the decision.

Warren prepares the choir for the High Holy Days.

Our sanctuary was not designed to have a choir, so the choir stands on the bimah behind the Rabbi. Since I am also needed to sing with the men, I stand with the men in the ensemble, and limit my conducting. To begin a selection, I nod at the accompanist for the introduction. If I’m not satisfied with his initial tempo, I will do some conducting to adjust the tempo to my preference. Assuming the introduction is the tempo I want, I will wait to conduct until one measure before the choir entrance and cue the choir and conduct them for 1 to two measures. If I feel we are all in sync, I will reduce my “box” to the point that I am not conducting until I want either a dynamic adjustment or I want the ensemble to retard. I will also conduct the last few measures and give a release at the end. This does challenge the ensemble to look up at me at those designated areas. I accept this situation, but do not endorse it. I believe a conductor is needed; however conducting in front of the choir in our venue adds other logistical challenges so I accept the situation. It is akin to the time prior to the 19th century when the principle violinist of an orchestra or concerto soloist would also conduct in addition to playing with the orchestra.

When I inherited the choir 5 years ago, almost all of the choral music for High Holy Days had already been chosen and both the choir and I were not looking to make major changes. This stance helped to make my transition to director much smoother as change is difficult for all. While some additions have been made, we have kept selections such as Richards’ “Shalom Rav”, Weiner’s arrangement of Taubman’s “Hashkivenu”, & “Yihyu Leratzon” by Janowski arranged by Shur. We have added a 2-part arrangement of  “Hassidic Kaddish”, a musical benediction by Bonia Shur, and we share solos. Ironically, I have yet to suggest musical changes. When the time comes for to select a specific piece, I would apply the same rubric I use with the selection of music for my school ensembles:

1.      What is the needed genre?

2.      Is it within the technical proficiency of the ensemble given the time we have for preparation?

3.      Will it be musically and spiritually engaging?

My focus with the choir has been musicality. I have been challenged with the notion that once the word musicality is applied to the preparation of religious music, one has crossed over into the realm of performance. It is my feeling that the function of the choir during a service is to assist the rabbi in leading that service. That contribution is accomplished through the attempt to enhance the spirituality of the congregation via musical expression. It is the expression of music through the elements of musicality that hopefully enhances congregation’s spirituality.

As a child who loved music, I dreamed of being musically involved with the Temple I would be affiliated with as an adult. Not only has that dream been realized, but also it is far more rewarding working with the choir then I could have imagined! What a joy to be spiritually engaged with a group of individuals who want to share their love of Judaism through music. And I am grateful to Temple Beth Sholom for the opportunity afforded me.


Temple Beth Sholom of Topeka, KS has 109 family units and is the only Jewish congregation in the city. Topeka has a population of just over 125,000. In Warren’s role as co-director, another congregant and he share soloist duties for Shabbat. The other person oversees all of the musical logistics such as the distribution and filing of music, and all communications relative to the choir.  Warren runs the rehearsals, conducts the choir, and also directs the t’filah band. Both  are volunteers.

Warren has a Master’s Degree in Music Education from Kansas State University.  He  has been a music educator for 34 years, and is presently a school band director teaching in grades 5-12, and junior high choir director in a small town located 25 miles west of Topeka.

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