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I've seen this in pretty much every amateur choir I've ever been in; the director will avoid putting certain pieces in front of the full choir (or any of them), the major reason being some sugarcoated version of "you're not good enough to sing this piece".

I do understand some of the meta-reasons; we're all music lovers, and if we can't do a piece justice we don't want to sing it poorly just to say we sang it. Other choirs are "amateur working choirs" like church choirs which have to get pieces prepared on a tight timeline, and there just isn't enough time to polish a masterpiece every week. And, in those situations, sometimes it may really be true; half of the average church choir can't read music; they see the shape of the line, read the lyrics, and learn the exact pitches and rhythms by ear.

But, "if there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass. You don't get better as a musician if you're not challenged musically. You have to push, otherwise you'll be stuck singing the same stuff over and over again until you get bored and quit. At the very least, if you can sing a Whitacre or Lauridsen piece, or something from the classical era like a Bach or Palestrina, even if you wouldn't put it in front of an audience (yet), when you go back to the level of music you had been doing normally, you find it very easy to pick up. Skill is gained, not discovered. So I say, put that challenging piece in front of the choir, and spend some time working on it even if you don't get it polished up just right for a performance. It'll pay off in other ways, and who knows? That group of non-music-readers may just surprise you.

Am I wrong? Is this the wrong way to think for the average case?

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This is more a psychology question. –  American Luke Sep 26 '12 at 18:31
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I've been in choirs that have sung pieces that were too hard. Taking a hard piece only makes sense if the choir director is able to convey the goal and able to decide whether to abandon it later if necessary despite sunk costs. –  Phira Sep 26 '12 at 20:04
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2 Answers

I think that every piece of music deserves the best possible method of being prepared in a such a way that both the musicians and audience have a pleasing experience. Preparation includes time, rehearsal, and every member stepping up to meet the challenge including the conductor's interpretation so that the entire group is a part of the solution.

If your present group is missing any of these essentials it might be time to sort out a group where you are all looking in the same direction with common goals and expectations. If you are a five star chef, you don't want to be stuck being a cook at a fast food chain for the rest of your career, eventually you have to make the move.

On the other hand what is keeping everyone in your present group to move together to reach the next level? A choir is so much about the synergy of musicianship that it is hard to imagine any choir functioning without team work. Every voice, every note, every beat is a group project. Perhaps, your group could use some team building analogs to break down obstacles? Exercises?

This might a bit corny, but do you remember the movie "The Mighty Ducks"? Do you remember the exercise where the coach (Emilio Estevez) ties up the entire hockey team and they have to learn to move as a unit in order to make their way down the rink?

You have presented a very good analysis, so I think you have a chance at investigating where your present group is falling short and work with the director on exercises that will engage team building. Start with the weakest link(s).

Perhaps you are all five star chefs that just need the right exercises to see clearly that what might appear as a fast food chain is actually the world's best mom and pop restaurant?

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Chapeau to the directors you encountered. I can only speak for orchestras, but there I've seen more than once the over-ambitious director, frequently choosing pieces, which were (at least one level) too difficult. It's always a tight line to find, but the danger of musicians stumbling through a piece completely absorbing all concentration, so that none remains for looking or listening to others is not desirable either. Occasionally playing a piece slightly too difficult helps for constant improvement (and prevents boredom of the best), but in the same concert should also be something to relax (so the weaker colleagues are happy with it). There is a nice sentence of Robert Schumann: "Try to play easy pieces nice and really good; its better than achieving a mediocre performance on difficult ones."

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