Let’s work backwards. Ringing is the term we use when a professional singer joins a choir, say a church choir, for a kind of limited engagement. It’s usually one week here, maybe another week down the line, and the main job of the singer is to ‘fill out’ the section. Sometimes solo work is included, but frequently not. A ‘ringer’ (the person who ‘rings’) is really hired to be a strong voice leading a section of the ensemble.
In the case of a church choir, a ringer is asked to attend one rehearsal, usually a Wednesday night, and then a short rehearsal just prior to the Sunday service(s). (This is usually paid as two events, the rehearsal being one event and the church service(s) being one entire event, e.g. $50 per event x 2 events = $100.) Since this process is short, you can well imagine that a ringer needs to sight-read and be willing to jump in and really go for it. That’s part of what makes ringing so much fun and it’s always a treat to meet a new choir and also for them to meet you.
While you as a professional singer work in a different part of the singing profession, we’re all really a part of the same, huge, musical family. It’s sometimes like meeting distant cousins you didn’t know you had--and had so much in common with!
While ringing is paid, it’s not the same as a paid, section-leader position in a choir. A section leader has a contract for the season (roughly September through May), a schedule to adhere to, and certain tasks to perform during the year. Tasks may include cataloging and organizing music or even performing a certain number of solos. Section leaders may hold sectionals, short rehearsals for just one voice in the choir, like the Alto Section Leader rehearsing with only altos. Section leaders frequently work in their positions for years, building up a repertoire of ensemble music, a long-lasting relationship with the director/conductor, and a rapport with their section members. Community choirs and church choirs are such fantastic communities; they can really grow into families!
Guest musicians are hired-in musicians, be they singers or instrumentalists, who perform special music for a church service or concert. A guest musician would attend a choir rehearsal if they are performing with the choir, but they are typically independent in their functioning. The church may request a certain program, and frequently they simply ask the guest musician to bring in music that fits the theme of the day or the sermon topic. Frequently guest musicians rehearse or do a sound check on Sunday morning and perform one or two services before departing. That's it!
This is actually how I got to perform four songs from Spring Reverberations; when a church hired me as a guest musician, the minister requested music to fit the theme “Resisting Reasonable Atrocities.” Poetry written by a prisoner of war certainly fits that theme, and it was a great way to bring beautiful Vietnamese music to a new audience. And this one event has led to at least 3 other performances of Spring Reverberations, one of them being the first performance of the song cycle in its entirety! It’s great fun to see where one event might lead!
Ringing, section leading, and working as a guest musician are wonderful and different ways of bringing your solo and ensemble skills to new communities, whether they be in churches or in community choirs. It’s a solid way to keep up your sight-singing skills and to build relationships in our huge, musical community. And it’s true that you never know where it might lead!