Jane Christie-Johnston from Tasmania contacted me recently and we had a bit of an email chat. I asked her how she dealt with the challenge, and this post is based on her reply.
Jane Christie-Johnston is the Director of Sing For Your Life! Choir in Tasmania. Jane has watched her choir grow from about 12 to around 150 singers in almost 10 years. As you can imagine this has brought many challenges and new adventures.
Here is what she has to say about the challenges of maintaining regular attendance and how to keep a choir fresh and exciting over the long term.
Firstly, before I rant about some of the challenges, I have to stress that I love my choir. LOVE. With a passion. I couldn’t do it for nearly ten years if I didn’t love it and the singers within. But of course with any group, particularly a group that has grown so much and so quickly, there are challenges along the way.
I often have the same thing going on in my choir in relation to sporadic attendance. It’s extremely hard to walk the middle ground between creating a fun, laidback, pay-as-you-go, welcoming choir which people can fit into their busy lives, and creating a committed group which strives to be its best, performing where possible and engaging audiences by being polished and rehearsed.
In our choir we always stress that we understand that ‘people have lives’, and that singing in a choir is just one part of a busy life ... but that can be a double-edged sword for me in that it’s harder to build the ‘core strength’ of the choir when so many members are drifting around the edges.
I have about 150 choir members, but each week between 110 and 130 come to rehearsals, across two rehearsal groups (I do the same thing at both rehearsals each week so people can pick and choose, swap around, come to one or two or none etc.). So we, like you, have a slightly different group each week, and there are always at least a few people looking a bit anxious or working hard to catch up on some foreign words we’ve gone through in detail the week before.
Here are some things I’m doing to try and shift the situation. I acknowledge that these things are easier to do with a large group, because even if quite a few choose not to participate regularly, I still have a wonderful, large core group to work with. As with anything, progress can be slow!
1. singers need to do the work if they want to performI try to make it clear (on the website and at rehearsals) that performing is optional, but that if people want to perform it becomes a lot more important for them to know the words, their parts, the songs, how to follow my conducting, and the ‘performance’ version of the song (e.g. beginnings and endings). Over many years I’ve continued to build an expectation that those who want to perform will put in the extra effort.
2. don’t feel you have to go over the parts week after weekI don’t spend too much time going over parts week after week. I try not to leave anyone struggling and feeling really lost, but apart from ironing out some wrinkles here and there I won’t go through a song/part from scratch if we’ve been singing it for a month already. It’s just not fair to the members who are putting in the time and effort.
If someone misses several weeks and really can’t catch up, he/she needs to either find a way to catch up individually (with the help of me or a fellow singer) or, if that’s too hard, maybe postpone their involvement in the choir and come back the following year when I’m teaching new songs, and when they might have more time to commit. People soon get the message that, even though coming to choir shouldn’t be an arduous task, they do need to give it a little bit more effort and regular commitment.
3. ‘informal’ doesn’t mean it’s a social club!I used to refer to our choir as an opportunity for a ‘social sing’, but really, we’re more than that, and the language around ‘social singing’ isn’t reflective of what we’re actually trying to do. It’s informal, and laid-back, but it’s not just a social get together once a week; we have a bigger purpose than that.
4. have a sensible policy on when new singers can joinOver the years I’ve slowly been shifting the ‘rules’ (more like guidelines/expectations - nothing is very regimented) around joining the choir. It used to be that people could join any old time (our choir year usually runs Feb-Nov) which meant that I literally had people joining three or four weeks before our big end of year concert, where we were singing a dozen or so songs in four-part harmony.
These days it’s quite clear on the website that we welcome new members up until around August (we conveniently have a singing festival in our city each July - this brings a new wave of members who have seen us perform). After August I tell people that they need to wait until the following February, when the year starts up and I start teaching a new program of songs (everyone, old and new members, learning together). A few will still join but it’s very much a ‘sink or swim’ situation!
5. have catch-up days for new membersIn September last year I ran a ‘choir catch-up’ day for new members (those joining after July) and for anyone who felt they needed to polish up some of the songs. I used a whole day to go through all the parts of most of our repertoire, starting with the song I felt needed the most work and working down through the less certain or more difficult songs, so that those members could go back to regular rehearsals feeling more prepared for the lead-up to the end of year concert.
This meant that I didn’t have to re-teach songs at choir that some people had been singing for more than six months. It’s good to boost the catch-up day with some regular choir members so new members don’t feel totally stuck out on a limb learning new things in a small group - quite terrifying for some of them!
6. don’t spoon feed too muchI stopped printing and handing out song lyrics. We’ve never used any sheet music in the choir but I used to produce documents full of song words. People are now much more comfortable trusting their memories and if they need to make notes to help them remember, it’s their responsibility to do this. Some choir members continue to struggle with this, but I love seeing people’s happy faces rather than the tops of their heads while their noses are stuck in folders every week, so I tell people to bring a pen and notepad, or type words into a phone.
I was finding that people would take the song words home, make a few notes about their parts, and that meant they “knew the song”. Three weeks later they’d come to rehearsal and get a rude shock at how far the song had progressed, or that there was a vamp added, or a variation to a chorus etc.
7. it’s up to the singers to make sure of their partsI tell people all the time that if they’re not sure about parts, either because they join the choir late in the year or they miss a lot of rehearsals, they’re welcome to bring along a phone or recorder and I’ll sing their part for them, so they can listen and practise at home. Although I spend quite a few coffee breaks singing into phones, it’s a great help to people. I do tell them that this is to supplement their learning in person at choir, NOT to replace it!
8. it’s hard to get singers to come on cold, dark nightsTasmania has four distinct seasons and winter is cold, with very short days (getting dark by 4.30/5pm). My friends who are choir leaders all have the same story – choirs sometimes literally halve in numbers through winter, people get home from work and don’t want to go out again, or cold and flu bugs might take hold and spread through a group. Revving everyone up again during/after winter has traditionally been VERY hard.
The Festival of Voices in July has shifted this wonderfully. We now have a mid-winter event that is one of the highlights of our performing year, and attendance throughout June is at an all-time high. We perform around the city during the Festival week, then we have about three weeks off, a perfect time for recovery, rest and hibernation, and in August we all come back with renewed energy, with our last wave of new members for the year.
(Chris: interesting that we in the Northern Hemisphere seem to have the opposite problem: attendance during the summer months is very sporadic as people go on holiday or spend more time on their allotments! Winter is traditionally a time for people to start new adult education classes and January brings a flush of enthusiasm for new hobbies as people make New Year resolutions.)
9. create milestones to give singers something to work towardsI give them milestones to reach - performances, generally. I try to be clear about my expectations regarding what they need to know to perform. I have a couple of big milestone performances reasonably early in the year, then the Festival of Voices in July.
If these milestones don’t come along naturally then I create them. Last year I ran a big social ‘Sing For Your Supper’ event, where I got the two rehearsal groups together. We sang all the songs we’d learnt so far that year, and many members were amazed by the combined sound after only singing with one rehearsal group for so long. Similar milestones could be something like having an open rehearsal where you invite families and friends to come and listen, share supper, etc.
Next year I’m taking 70 of our singers to Ireland for the Cork choral festival - and travellers have signed a commitment to be regularly-attending in 2015 and that they will know all this year’s songs by the end of the year, in preparation for the trip. This has been a wonderful incentive to maintain regular attendance! ... maybe you should sign your choir up for the Tasmanian Festival of Voices in 2016 ... ??!!
10. make sure you create a lively social programmeI oversee an informal social program each year so that people have a chance to feel connected beyond just rehearsals - with connection comes a greater sense of teamwork. Social events are entirely optional but we have a pretty good attendance rate. We’ve had Sing For Your Supper events, trips to the movies, karaoke nights, a sing-along Sound of Music movie night, picnics and barbecues. Most of the organising is done by one of our choir members who just loves to organise things - every choir has one (usually many) of these wonderful people. We sell tickets to events at choir sessions only, so that if someone wants to come to the karaoke party they have to be actively attending rehearsals to buy a ticket.
We also have informal activities as part of our choir sessions usually during the mid-rehearsal tea-break. A few times a year we run things like swap-nights for books, DVDs, CDs, cookbooks, etc., and they’re great fun (and free!).
11. give regular pep talks and emphasise that choirs are communitiesI try to give good pep talks and to keep things relatively light-hearted and humorous in front of a group even when they’re working hard. I work hard to outline expectations, shut down poor behaviour, rev people up, show that I’m excited about the sound and our songs, and give positive reinforcement. I’m not shy about telling the group that something needs work, and I’ll share my vision for performances or events. I often tell them what I imagine a song will sound and feel like in a performance, and why it’s so important for them to learn it properly, and to be patient and kind during the learning process, etc.
For many years I’ve used the phrase ‘Choir = Community’, in newsletters, in interviews I do about the choir, and at choir rehearsals. I tell people that being in a community choir isn’t just about the individual. I get them to look to their right, their left, in front and behind - and I tell them that their responsibility stretches to those around them, both in the room and beyond. This becomes increasingly important for performances. The essence of teamwork is always remembered, so to not turn up is to let your team-mates down.
12. if you don’t know the song, don’t sing it!I would NEVER target someone individually in front of others about his/her singing, and with so many of my members having bad singing/choir experiences at school or church I’d never suggest to someone that he/she shouldn’t be in the choir, or should mime at the back etc. But I will quite happily stand in front of the choir before a performance and say to the group, “if you’re not 100% certain that you know your part for a particular song, don’t sing it”. I’m clear that if that means they have to mime a line every now and then, that’s better than coming out with something dodgy and unrehearsed and wrong.
I don’t see why someone should miss a whole performance if they’re shaky on just one or two songs, but that doesn’t give them an invitation to just sing anything they think might fit for those songs - they need to respect the group and the overall sound, and the arrangements that have been written (no making up parts on the run!!). To date no-one has had a problem with this, and we talk about it with humour despite it being a serious subject.
13. work gradually towards your ideal choirAs hard as it is (I’m a perfectionist from way back) I give them, and myself, a break. The choir is a product of what I’ve set up – we’ve always been very relaxed and informal and any shift of those goalposts needs to be gradual. I can’t expect them to suddenly care more about things that haven’t mattered for years – if I switch to being really pedantic about things that may matter in a more serious or auditioned choir, I know that our membership would drop significantly. It’s important for us to remember the big picture and all the reasons we sing together, while still working gently for continuous improvement.
14. work out what you want and stick to itSo, Chris ... after all that rambling, I think the bottom line has to be “it is what it is”. Outline your expectations, stand by them, and keep doing what you’re doing. Whatever you do will find the right market. Work out what your personal deal breakers are (they’ll be different from mine) and stomp on anything that crosses the line. I know from your writing that you feel that way - at the end of the day, as you’ve written previously, you can’t keep everyone happy. If you’re clear about what you offer and what you expect, including attendance and performance standards, your audience/market/team will form around you – and very importantly, you will be true to yourself as well as those in your lovely choir.
Director, Sing For Your Life! Choir