Sunday, March 13, 2011

Starting a new choir: my story

Having written about starting your own community choir, I recently put my money where my mouth is and started a brand new singing group – my first in 15 years.

Woodbridge poster

I learnt a lot from this process and thought I’d share with you.

pastures new

Last autumn I moved to a completely different part of the UK – Woodbridge in Suffolk. I knew that at some point I would need to start a regular weekly group as I have to earn a living! I decided to wait a while to settle into our new house and start something up in the new year.

Before I moved here I thought I would start a group in the nearest big town, Ipswich, as that had the largest population and was a central point for the surrounding area. But I also decided that I wanted to cut down on my travel.

So I decided to take a risk and set up a group in the small town that I live in (population 11 – 12,000).

In January this year I put my modest publicity machine into action, gave the group a name (The OK Chorale – I wanted to keep it light-hearted and avoid the word ‘choir’), found a venue (this was very hard as most decent spaces are already used on a regular basis), and waited.

the first session

I had modest expectations. I reckoned that if 20 people turned up, that would be OK as I could build over the coming months. If only 10 people turned up, at least I could cover my costs and it would be a start.

The start time was advertised as 7.30pm. A handful of early-birds turned up just after 7pm. By 7.10pm this had turned into a steady trickle, and by 7.15pm all the seats in the room (about 30) had been taken. By 7.30pm there were almost 100 people squeezed into the tiny room that I had booked with no room to move!

Fortunately, I was able to contact the person who books the large adjoining hall which (luckily for me!) just happened to be empty on that one night that month. We re-assembled in the big hall and only then did I realise how many people were there.

Panic over, I began the session with some trepidation as I’ve not worked with such a large group before. The acoustics were great for singing, but I had to really project my own voice to be heard above the hubbub. The evening went fast, and people seemed to enjoy themselves.

I got everyone who was interested in coming back to jot down their email address as clearly I had to find a new venue by the following week. I was amazed at how many names there were! I had thought we maybe had 60 or 70 people, but it was only when I counted them all up that I found there were over 100.

following on

I spent the rest of the week phoning round madly to find a suitable new venue. I thought I’d exhausted all the possibilities when I booked for the first session, but finally managed to find a school hall only 5 minutes walk from my house!

The following week pretty much everyone who said they would come back did, plus a few more who had heard about the group. Now that the dust has finally settled I have 93 fully paid up member for this term (I work in blocks of 10 weeks). And I still have people contacting me to go on the waiting list!

We have just finished our sixth session and everyone seems as keen as ever. The biggest problem I now have is what to do with such a large group and how to deal with those people who still want to join. A nice problem to have!

what I’ve learnt

  • plan for success – most of us have a contingency plan for when things don’t work out, but I didn’t plan to have such a successful choir!
  • big isn’t always better – yes, it’s great to have a large sound, keen singers, and lots of voices, but there are drawbacks to working with such a large group (I’ll be writing about this in a later post)
  • there are never enough men – amazingly I managed to attract around 17 blokes out of a total of 93 singers. I usually reckon on there being only 10% men, so that’s a great turn out (we even have a decent male tenor section). BUT it would be nice to have around 40 blokes at least. Same old story (see Why men won’t sing).
  • it’s the usual suspects who turn up – same old constituency: older white women. That seems to be a fact of life with any arty workshop. I have nothing against older white women, it’s just that it would be great to have a cross-section of (at least) ages (see How to recruit singers to truly reflect your local community). I have to admit though that I didn’t put a great deal of effort into widening the net.
  • get help! – with such a large group of people, the logistics of collecting money, getting contact details, dealing with questions, etc. means that I couldn’t have done it alone. Fortunately my partner Susie Mendelsson helped enormously.
  • start as you mean to carry on – it’s no good pandering to what you think other people will want only to do what you really want to do later on. You need to start as you mean to carry on. People will get used to your ways quite quickly so it will be difficult to change tactics later down the line.
  • it’s not just down to you – don’t let success go to your head. You might like to think that everyone turned up because they’d heard of you, or because your publicity was wonderful, but most probably it was due to luck, their friend told them, or it happens to be the one night of the week they have free.
  • keep tabs on everyone – even with smaller groups, it’s important to have everyone’s contact details (in case you need to cancel or move a session). Everyone also needs to feel valued and noticed so make sure you keep your eye on everyone (even those at the back) and try to learn everyone’s name. I’m getting photos of everyone and learning their names in the holidays!
  • create a sense of community – if you want everyone to stay and work well together you need to create a strong sense of community and team work. Introduce everyone to each other, be playful and make everyone laugh, put people in different groups each week, move people around, create social events outside the sessions.
  • make it clear what it is – you should have done this at the publicity stage, but it’s certain that some people will mis-read or mis-understand. People often hear or read what they want to, no matter how clearly you describe something. Make it clear from the beginning by the activities in each session and the songs you teach. Tell everyone several times and in different ways what they can expect. The OK Chorale is not currently a performing group and I’ve made that clear. But neither is it just a ‘singing for fun’ group. I’ve said that it’s “challenging but rewarding work” which means that I can keep the standards high.
  • you can’t plan for everything – no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to plan for every eventuality. The first venue I chose had a huge car park, so even though 100 people turned up, there shouldn’t have been a problem. BUT ... the car park also serves the local independent cinema which was showing The King’s Speech to packed houses so the car park was full to capacity!
  • you can’t please everyone – even though you might try. There will be people who don’t like some of the things that you do or want to learn more slowly (or faster) or who hate the warm-ups or who don’t like moving and singing or dislike songs that are not in English. Tough. This is what is on offer and if people don’t like it, there are plenty more choirs out there who can accommodate them. (see also Trying to please all the people all the time)

and your experience?

Several of you have contacted me over the last few months to say that you’re setting up your own choir. I’d love to hear how you’re getting on and what you have learnt from the experience. Are there things you would do differently? Did you make any mistakes? What was your biggest success? Do drop by and leave a comment and share your own experience.


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