Just What Is a Chorister?

Several months ago my 9-year-old daughter joined a large children’s choir here in New York City. The choir is so large that it involves more than 100 children grouped into several age-level divisions–requiring, therefore, no small amount of coordination of the children and parent-volunteers to make sure that children make it to rehearsals and performances and to make sure that the children are dressed as required. As a result, we now get forms and calendars handed to us and in regular mailings, all addressed to my daughter: “Dear Chorister”¦”

The address threw me off. My daughter is just a member of the choir. She isn’t conducting or directing or anything. She’s only nine!! Chorister is an unusual term for a member of a choir, isn’t it?

Actually, no.

Growing up Mormon, I’ve always heard the word Chorister used to refer to the choir director or conductor, or to the person conducting congregational hymns. Its the title used for the person who directs the music for the ward or a group in the ward–there are Ward Choristers, Relief Society Choristers, Primary Choristers, etc.

To confirm my impression, I searched all the General Conference addresses and LDS.org, and found only one use of the word chorister to refer to members of the choir: a 1955 address by Pres. David O. McKay.

So, I then looked at how Chorister is used generally, and found something closer to the opposite. The most common use of Chorister is for members of a choir, especially for those in boy choirs; it means the singers, not the conductors. Every dictionary that I looked at, from the OED to Merriam-Webster, lists ‘member of a choir’ as the first definition and ‘leader of a choir’ as a second (i.e., less commonly used) definition.

The results of a google search shows similar results: Kings College, Cambridge has an information page on “how your son can join the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.” The National Cathedral in Washington DC is holding “Chorister Auditions.” And so on.

But unlike Mormon use, there is a bit of the ‘leader’ meaning–there is a “Chorister’s Guild” for choir leaders, and several other pages that use Chorister to refer to a leader of a choir, especially a children’s choir. However, when the LDS pages are excluded, the uses of Chorister as a leader of a choir are few compared to its use for members of a choir.

So, why is Mormon usage so different from that of the world at large? I don’t know. My searches show that we have used the term since at least the 1850s. But I haven’t looked into why very hard. It could be that Michael Hicks says something about it in Mormonism and Music, but I don’t have a copy to look in. But this is one of those things I’ll keep in the back of my mind, so I may eventually find an answer.

So, I’m adding Chorister to the words defined on Mormon Terms.

Any additional information is, of course, appreciated.

18 thoughts on “Just What Is a Chorister?”

  1. As long as I can remember, the Church has been fighting against our old use of “chorister” as leader. They’ve tried to get us to adopt “music director” in its stead. That you aren’t aware of this speaks volumes about how ineffective the effort has been, and how entrenched we our in our speech habits! (And that is meant not at all as any kind of swipe at you, but only as as an indication of the failure of the effort to penetrate the general Church membership. I think it’s a little better known by choir directors and organists.)

  2. Ardis, does it need to change?

    As I mentioned in the op, while using chorister for the conductor or director is a less frequent use for the word, it is one that occurs outside of Mormonism. I’ve found others using chorister in the same sense we do.

    From my perspective, the only surprise is that we don’t use it at all to mean choir member.

    I’m a little surprised at the idea that “the Church has been fighting against our old use of “chorister” as leader” given that, IIRC, the current manuals consistently use chorister to mean leader — if you want this to change, wouldn’t you start with the manuals?

    I certainly don’t have your experience with this issue, but could the Church perhaps be of two minds on this question?

  3. Actually, Kent, the word “chorister” does not appear anywhere in the newest handbook.

    Official calling titles include:

    Ward Music Director (i.e. the person who conducts the music for Sacrament Meeting)
    Priesthood Music Director
    Relief Society Music Leader
    Ward Primary Music Leader

    I’m curious about the difference between “Director” and “Leader”!

  4. Makes me glad I live and worship in Taiwan, where, once you get past the writing system, everything is crystal clear. When I was in charge of the music for the stake, I was the 音樂主席 (tone music main seat). When I lead choirs, I am the 指揮 (point direct: in Chinese, a verb can sometimes be a noun—sometimes meaning the action, sometimes meaning the performer of the action indicated by the verb, often both; it’s a high context language).

  5. PostScript, all I know is that when I search for the word “chorister” on LDS.org, it shows up in multiple manuals, always with the sense of “choir leader.”

  6. 10 to 0.01 if you grab a random English-speaking North American Mormon at a meeting house and ask “How would you like to be a chorister?” the answer will be “But I don’t know how to lead music.” It may be different with Brits, although my parents never gave me the impression that they objected to Canadians calling the conductor the chorister to the exclusion of all other choir members.

  7. Interesting – I was unaware of this. Another word to add to the list of priesthood, bishopric, presidency, etc.

  8. Loved this 🙂

    For years, I thought that a “quorum” meant twelve. This despite pervasive ward-level use of terms like Aaronic priesthood quorum.

    For even more years, I thought the story of the translated city of Enoch was in the Bible, and familiar to readers-of-the-Bible-at-large. No wonder my lit-class cohorts had such blank looks when I brought it up.

    When my non-Mormon brother-in-law referred to the story of the Cyclops as Biblical, I had to laugh . . . the conflation was pretty familiar. Or is that the confusion . . .

    But the worst was the bishop who called a 12-year-old Primary graduate up to the pulpit and asked, “What’s that wonderful thing that only boys have? . . . it starts with a p . . . ” He meant “priesthood,” but his young protege thought of a different p-word.

    You’d almost have to move out of the ward, wouldn’t you?

  9. I find it interesting that “chorister” was defined in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary as:

    1. Literally, a singer; one of a choir; a singer in a concert.
    2. One who leads a choir in church music. This is the sense in the United States.

    So, if in 1828, before the LDS church was organized, the sense in the United States was as the Mormons use it now, one wonders when that usage fell out of favor with the rest of the country.

  10. This issue of the usage of “chorister” has been an issue that I have been dealing with for decades. I held music callings from the time I was 12 years old and was a young Ward music Chairman back in the 70’s. Even then, in all the official music training materials including the Handbook for Church Music printed in 1971, the calling was listed as “Music Director”. Ward Music Director, RS Music Director, (back then) MIA music Director. Primary was always indicated as “Music Leader”. Why? Because the Primary Music leader does so much more than direct music. They teach. Not just music but the gospel too, through the music. I have, as one who has served in this capacity in several different wards, appreciated the distinction.

    I was in the Chicago Stake back in my early years and the Stake Music Chairman and Stake Organist did the music training several times a year. They were professional musicians (organist and choral director). They trained us to use the correct terminology for the callings, instructing us that chorister was an improper term based on the church music handbook. Additionally, as has been previously discussed on this thread, chorister has a different meaning when you look at a music dictionary. Their belief was that since so many of the early saints came from liturgical churches that the word chorister was used more colloquially, to describe the music director. A chorister back in the 1800’s was indeed most commonly the member of the choir who was designated as the one to whom the other choir members looked to to start and stop the song, and did not direct the song with their hands. You will find the perpetual usage of the word most common in the west where these families settled during the immigration. Additionally, because many LDS members have perpetuated the use of this word as a music director, some dictionaries and have now added this definition to the entry.

    Old habits are hard to break! Back in 2000, a member of the Church’s General Music Department did training in SLC instructing participants of the error of using the archaic term “chorister” and to, essentially, go forth and tell others to expunge the word from the church calling list.

    We are a church that believes in exactness. We wouldn’t call our bishop the pastor, even though the meaning there is the same and we don’t call her, our Relief Society Chairman! There are official titles and names of callings and we should use them.

    One of the problems in overcoming the use of this term is that on LDS.org there is a secure page where bishoprics can login that lists the callings in the ward. The word chorister is used on this list. I have “fought” bishops over this for many years. This list is not an official church document, A person was given the assignment to create this page and used their own knowledge to create it (chorister is not the only term inaccuracy on the list). I would simply tell my bishop that the official Handbook of the Church supersedes everything. They have always agreed.

    In my lifetime, and I was born in the 1950’s, the official calling names have always been music director or leader for primary. We should use the correct names and kindly correct others. It matters.

  11. Bravo, Sally! Amen to all you wrote. I believe that here in Australia, to use the word “chorister” when referring to a music leader, is peculiar to Latter-day Saints. My Aussie dictionary defines “chorister” as a singer in a choir. However, my USA dictionary defines it as a) a singer in a choir, or b) one who leads a choir. Fortunately, in my 50 years as a church member, I have never heard a music director incorrectly sustained as a “chorister” – thank goodness!

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