Sunday, November 23, 2008

How to start your own community choir 4 — The right place and the right time

Last week, in Part 3 of this series on How to start your own community choir, I looked at the issues of Finding the money in order to set up your own community choir. That means that you should now have a plan and an idea of where the money is coming from. The next step is to find the right place and the right time to start your choir.

The right place

Let’s begin by looking at finding the right place. There are two main considerations, global and local:

  1. geographical location
  2. rehearsal venue

1. geographical location

Maybe you’re looking for a new place in the country to set up a choir. Or perhaps you’ve lived in an area for some time, and are thinking of launching a choir. In both cases you’ll need to look at:

  • what choirs (if any) already exist in the area?
  • can the local population sustain a choir?


Some areas of the country, for various reasons, seem to have choirs coming out of the woodwork, whereas others have no choirs at all. It may seem to be an advantage to set up somewhere with no choirs at present, but there may be a good reason why there aren’t any choirs there, and this may end up being an obstacle!

You’ll need to find out first what choirs exist in your area. In the UK, you can look at various member organisations such as TONSIL (whose members include members include the Association of British Choral Directors, Sing for Pleasure, The Voices Foundation, British Choirs on the Net), Natural Voice Practitioners Network, Sound Sense, Gerontius, etc. There will be similar organisations in other countries. However, many small choirs don’t belong to any umbrella organisation in which case Google can be useful. Just look for your location (or nearby towns) and the word ‘choir’.

Once you’ve discovered what other choirs (if any) are in the area, then you need to consider the ‘flavour’ of those choirs. Can your choir offer something different from what’s already on offer? You have already worked this out in your Forward planning stage (6. What type of choir will this be?), but may need to tweak it a bit to fit in with local circumstances. But even if there is already a choir out there very similar to the one you’re proposing, it doesn’t mean that the two can’t co-exist. People will always go to the choir that they feel suits them best. This doesn’t just mean the type of choir, but also depends very much on the personality and style of the person leading it.

can a choir be sustained?

Depending on the local demographic, population size and density, and cultural heritage, one area can often sustain many choirs. What might be more problematic is if there is no history at all of choirs in the area. This may be for many reasons:

  • the population density is too low to sustain a choir (in which case you may decide to set up somewhere a little distance away from where you’re based);
  • there is no background of singing in the area (in which case you’ll need to kick-start an interest, possibly with a series of taster workshops);
  • the local demographic is only interested in a very particular genre of singing (in which case you may need to adapt the flavour of your choir);
  • the population is too diverse in culture, age, class, etc. (in which case you’ll have your work cut out, but it is possible);
  • there used to be a choir, but it folded due to lack of interest (in which case you’ve arrived in the nick of time to prove everybody wrong!)

2. rehearsal venue

You’ve picked your geographical area and are now ready to find somewhere for the choir to meet. You can either set things up yourself, or you may find a venue willing to host you (for example, if the local arts centre might like you to set up a choir for them). Again you’ll need to do a considerable amount of local research. The internet can come in handy, but so can cafes, arts centres, health food shops, etc. Go around and see if you can find leaflets and posters advertising yoga classes, girl guides, etc. Make a note of the venues. Your local library often has a list of all the community groups that meet in the area. Make a note of the venues. Look up all the local churches and see if they have church halls. Make a note of the venues. See if there are any community halls, arts centres, galleries, performance spaces, etc. Make a note of the venues.

Once you’ve got a list of possible venues, make sure you’ve got the addresses and contact numbers. At this stage you’ll need to decide if you’re going it alone (i.e. hiring the space yourself), or trying to find a venue which will host and support your new venture.

finding someone to host you

This is related to the idea of someone employing you to start a choir (see Finding the money). Approach your local council and/ or performing arts service, any community centres, and any local arts centres. See if they are interested in having a choir at their venue. If they are, you may be able to get paid to set up and run the choir with the venue (and possibly publicity) being thrown in for free. However, you are then at the mercy of the venue as regards your income, what time and day of the week the space is available, etc. This is a very good way of getting started though, as you can always go private later. If they can’t pay you, some venues might let you use their space for free in exchange for some service, e.g. a free public workshop every now and then. Or maybe they need to fulfil some kind of community remit and you’ve come along at just the right time!

going it alone

Ring the person concerned with bookings and go to visit the space. Is it big enough? Will it be warm in the winter (or too hot in the summer?)? Does it have toilets on the premises. Is there a place to make tea and coffee? Is it accessible for people with mobility problems? Does it have disabled toilets? Can the sessions take place on the ground floor? Does the space feel right (this is intangible, but you’ll know when it’s right – often it has to do with the height of the ceiling and the amount of natural light)? Is there convenient parking (that is free at the time you want your seessions)? Is it easy to get to for your proposed members (e.g. is it on a bus route? is it in the middle of a complicated one-way system? is it a long way from the main population centre?)?

If, after answering all these questions, the venue seems to be suitable, then you need to ask:

  • how much does it cost to hire; and
  • when is the space available?

You will have considered your budget and sources of finance in Part 3: Finding the money. At this stage you will need to have an idea of what is a reasonable price to charge for individual sessions given the local demographic. You can look at what other choirs in the area charge, or similar length leisure activities (e.g. two-hour dance or yoga classes). Will you be offering any kind of concessions? This will enable you to work out very roughly what your expected income might be in the early days of your new choir.

Now that you know how much it costs to hire a particular space, will the projected income from choir members (assuming a slow growth in numbers) be sufficient to cover your costs? If not, where will the extra money come from whilst you’re building up the choir? You may have to reject some venues at this stage.

The right time

When a particular venue is available may end up dictating when you run the choir. But first you must give some consideration to the ideal time that you would like to have your regular sessions. This brings us to finding the right time. Again, this can be divided into global and local:

  1. when is the best time of year to launch your new choir?
  2. when in the week/ month is it best to run your regular sessions?

1. best time to launch

If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll need a certain amount of lead-in time to publicise the choir and let people know that it’s happening. The best time to launch your choir depends on whether you’ll be running it on a regular basis, and if so, how frequently.

There are pros and cons to running choirs on a weekly basis or on a monthly, or less frequent basis.

weekly sessions

Weekly sessions ensure that a pretty stable group of people will make up the choir (it is possible though to have a weekly ‘drop-in’ choir, but this does mean that each session has to be self-contained as you can’t assume any continuity from week to week) . It means that you can build week on week with voice training/ warm-ups and songs. You can decide to close the choir and have new intakes only at set points in the year. The sense of community may be stronger as people make friends and become familiar with each other. With a shared block of songs, it makes concerts easier to put on. The main downside is that some people are not able to commit to such regular sessions. Also, it means that you can’t go away for long periods to have holidays, take courses, or run other projects since you have to be there every week.

monthly sessions

Running a choir once a month means that you can often have longer sessions, especially if it is on a weekend. You can then focus in detail on a handful of songs and really nail them. You can even have themed sessions, drawing on different singers’ interests each time. People who find it hard to commit to weekly sessions, or find evenings difficult, will prefer this. It can be much more relaxed on a weekend and more fun since there is no long-term commitment. If you do work for a whole day, for example, you can even have a little public showing of what you’ve learnt at the end of the session. You can schedule the sessions to fit your other commitments and don’t have to have a session every single month. You can give people plenty of advance notice of sessions so they can put it in their diaries and make sure you get people to turn up. The main downside is that there will be little continuity from session to session. You may not end up with a ‘choir’ as such since this is little more than a series of one-day workshops. But this may suit both you and the local demographic.

sessions by the term

Many people run choirs which follow the local school terms. The main advantages of this are:

  • choir members with children (or grandchildren) of school age won’t have to miss sessions;
  • there is a precedent in that adult education classes follow the same pattern; and
  • it means you have a familiar structure with ready-made breaks over the important holidays.

If you’re going to run the choir by the term, there is no point in trying to set the thing up in, say, June or July just before the long summer break! Also, if you plan to start in the spring term (January), it means your main publicity will have to go out just before Christmas when people have a lot more on their minds. However, many people do decide to take up the new hobby they’ve always been promising themselves when January comes around (New Year resolutions). Most adult education classes and all school years start in the autumn, so perhaps September is a good time to launch. That would give you the whole summer for a publicity campaign and possible taster workshops. On the other hand, many people go away for the summer, so publicity may fall on deaf ears.

If you plan to run the choir monthly, or even less frequently, then the launch date can be more flexible. Do take the long view though and think about why people might choose not to join a choir at a particular time of year.

Whenever you do decide to launch, you must make sure you have a long enough lead-in period to let people know of the choir’s existence. I will be covering the topic of Getting the word out in Part 5 next week.

2. regular sessions

Now you’ve decided how frequently you’ll be running your choir, you’ll need to decide the time of day, day of the week, and length of each session.

It’s worth bearing in mind that most potential choir members choose a choir simply because of the day of the week it’s on!!!! Many people just make their choice based on what night they have free — even travelling a bit further rather than going to a choir on their doorstep if they are doing something else on that night. Look at what else is on locally and try not to clash with other events which your choir members might like to attend. You may have to be guided on this by the availability of your chosen venue.

Having chosen your day, choosing the right time can have consequences. For example, if you choose a daytime slot, you’ll be restricting your possible recruits severely (e.g. stay-at-home parents, the unemployed, the retired). You’ll also be trying to tap into groups which may have little disposable income which might prevent you from covering your costs or earning a living. On the other hand, choosing such a targeted group might help you build a successful choir since you’re dealing with a specific niche.

If you decide on a weekday evening, you have to remember that most people work. You want to give people time to get home and have some supper before they venture out, so don’t start too early. Also, don’t start too late as people will have to get up for work the next morning, and also may get tired quickly after a day at work. This will also affect the length of your sessions. Anything from one to two hours is probably optimal. But if you’re running daytime sessions at the weekend, then you can have much longer sessions.

next week

Next week, in Part 5 of How to start your own community choir, I'll be looking at publicising your new choir and letting people know it exists in Getting the word out.


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