Our ensemble reacts with great joy when we hear that a new member is joining the group. We understand the effort that goes into preparing music for the liturgy, and few ensembles can claim that they don’t need more members. As with any group, ensembles experience natural churn as members get older, or move away, or get too busy with kids, so we need to be regularly welcoming new ensemble members to replace those we lose over time.
So, what happens when the new member shows up? Too often, ensembles inundate the newcomer with names, assign them a seat, and fire up a normal practice. We tell them not to worry if they feel overwhelmed at first — they’ll catch on, and we’ll help them along the way.
But what does “helping them along the way” end up looking like? It varies from ensemble to ensemble. In some groups, new members might feel like they were thrown in the deep end and left to figure it out on their own. In others, they may feel like they’re being micromanaged and there’s too much focus on making sure they get every detail just right. As in most cases, either extreme doesn’t generally yield a good outcome. The key is to find the Goldilocks “just right” approach that keeps rehearsal moving but still empowers the new member, and that requires some deliberate action and communication outside of rehearsal.
These five tips can help with welcoming new ensemble members and ensuring they feel at ease with the group.
Tip 1: Help them get to know everyone
Liturgical ensembles are made up of many different types of people and personalities. Some members are introverts, while some are extroverts. People have different reasons for joining the group, too. Before you ever introduce the new member to the ensemble at large, have a chat with them about why they want to participate and how you can best make them feel comfortable in the group. From there, you have a couple options:
- If you have someone who can handle a crowd, make the first introduction then let them get to know everyone.
- If you have someone who is shy but feels the call to serve, consider a more orchestrated introduction so they can learn everyone’s names.
Keep in mind that introductions shouldn’t be a one-time activity for new members, especially if the ensemble is large. If you’ve ever started a new school, a new job, or a new volunteer role, you likely remember the feeling of trying to remember everyone’s names on the first day. It doesn’t take long to go through names once more at a couple practices in a row, and it saves the new member the potentially embarrassing need to ask.
Tip 2: Find their spot
In an ensemble, everyone sits or stands somewhere. When it comes to placing a new member, don’t just look for the nearest open spot and point. Instead, gauge where they are in terms of strengths and weaknesses compared to their counterparts.
- Is your newcomer a bass singer who doesn’t read well but matches pitch with ease? Make sure they are next to your strongest voice.
- Did you get lucky with a new strongest voice and best sight reader for that section? Lucky you, now make sure they are sitting next to someone who isn’t as good a sight reader.
- Did you get a new guitarist who knows G, C, and D but who was inspired by your fingerstyle lead guitarist and wants to help with music? Wow, what an honor and responsibility. Make sure they are placed so they can see the fingerstyle guitarist, but probably closer to the rhythm section, as they might start out with simple strums or even rhythm on muted strings.
- If you have someone who switches between an instrument and a vocal part, you may need to make sure there is room for them to move when needed.
There are far more use cases than could possibly be listed here, but this gives you an idea of how you can address finding the right spot for your new member. And, of course, you can adjust as needed after they settle in with the group a bit.
Tip 3: Give them the lay of the land
Most ensembles have at least a few standard procedures and traditions. The sooner you can get a new member into the swing of what’s normal, the sooner they can feel comfortable making music with everyone.
- If you have a standard routine for how your music changes during the liturgical year, let new members know that from the beginning.
- Do you do a lot of a capella work at Lent? Good to know, especially for those who mostly play an instrument.
- Do you have a standard approach to hymns, such as everyone on melody for a verse and a refrain, then harmony on the refrains after that?
- Do you generally want all the instruments in from the beginning of a piece, or do you have a normal way you like to build?
- What time is rehearsal each week? Are there periods of the year when you don’t rehearse? How are any changes to rehearsal schedules communicate?
- If they will miss a rehearsal or a Sunday Mass, how should they communicate that to the group?
Anything that can be given to a new member that helps them learn your style and how your group communications is incredibly helpful for making them feel welcome in the group. There will always be exceptions, but when they understand the general parameters, they can get up to speed faster. Consider typing and printing a one-page overview that you can give to any new members so they have the information in writing.
Tip 4: Remember that newcomers are new
It seems so obvious when it’s written out like that, but how often does your ensemble look at an upcoming piece and say, “No worries, we’ve done that for YEARS.” A new ensemble member may know very little of your repertoire, including the Mass parts. If you skip over working a piece because it’s familiar for most of the group, you risk alienating your new member or having them blow through a fermata that’s not written in the music.
This is especially true when you have pieces that are done only once a year, or once every few years. You can get a new member acclimated over a few months, but then you might forget they haven’t gone through an entire liturgical year with you. Try not to assume what they do or don’t know. It never hurts to sing an old favorite during rehearsal to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Tip 5: Check in with them
Once your new member has been around for a few weeks, check in with them to see how things are going. Make yourself a list of questions and use it as a temperature check:
- Does the flow of practice make sense to them?
- Are there any places where they need help with the music or procedures?
- Do they know everyone’s names, or do they need help remembering a couple?
- Do they have any feedback to offer about the experience thus far that can help you improve in the future?
- Do they have any pieces that are special to them that they want to suggest for the ensemble?
This is as much a health check for your ensemble as it is for the newcomer — sometimes a new set of eyes and ears might identify something you’ve started to neglect and help you get back on the right track. You may assume certain hymns are well known, but it turns out they’re not, and you may even need to get the congregation caught up on your repertoire. It’s our job as a liturgical ensemble to help the congregation pray, and our ability to bring along a new ensemble member often reflects how effective we are with the congregation.
Your ensemble may already be doing most of these things when it comes to welcoming new ensemble members. But, it’s worth reviewing the process periodically to make sure the group is supporting and empowering new members and giving them the best chance to succeed. Doing so helps ensure the long-term health of your ensemble as they lead the assembly in sung prayer.
Written by Matthew Wesley, a volunteer choir member and cantor at Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church in Oklahoma City.
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