What exactly is a choir?

I was pondering this question earlier this morning during the notices given by the chaplain after the morning service at Mary Magdalen Chapel in Bath where I am the organist.  I have to admit that during sermons and notices my attention does tend to wander sometimes but this morning my ears pricked up at the mention of a choir practice before the 10am service.

This was certainly news to me (although as the unofficial chapel organist I am often the last to find out anything!).  But most particularly because there currently isn’t a Chapel Choir at least not on a full time basis. From time to time, we have a group of people affectionately known as the Magdalen Singers who get together, often at short notice, to put on choral services in the Cathedral tradition.  So the notion of a choir practice before the 10am service, apparently on a weekly basis, rather took me by surprise.

Upon further examination it turned out that the chaplain wanted a group of singers, taken from the congregation, to help lead the singing, particularly of Psalms which are now a regular feature of the morning service.  Well, technically he is correct in use of the word choir.  A generally accepted definition of choir is a group of singers who perform together usually under the direction of a choirmaster.   However, it may well be that in this instance the reality of the situation is more of a congregational singing practice before the service although given that the service has recently moved from 10.30am to 10am, the likelihood of encouraging people to come even earlier to practice singing is, I’d have thought, fairly remote!

This, however, is where the definition of choir is less clear.  Does the “body of singers” who call themselves a choir have to remain the same each time the “choir” meets or is it essentially a new choir each time.  Obviously most church choirs have a core membership and on any given Sunday some or all will be in attendance.   Even if only half the members turn up you would still regard those people as the church choir of the particular church in question.  However, if there is no actual membership or the choir is made up of whoever turns up on a particular day that poses a different question.  Strictly speaking it’s still a choir but should, in the case of the Magdalen Chapel, this random group be referred to as the Chapel Choir?

Only time will tell how this ‘choir’ develops and whether it becomes more than a few members of the congregation singled out to sit elsewhere!  Currently there is no talk of who, if anyone, will lead the proposed “choir”, but that could lead to a whole new can of worms which I will save for another day!