Sunday, November 30, 2008

How to start your own community choir 5 — Getting the word out

You’ve done your Forward planning, figured out how to go about Finding the money, decided on the Right place and the right time to start your community choir. Now you need to get the word out so people will know that your choir exists!

This is all about promotion — getting the word out in any way you can. These are the basic steps:

  1. know who your target group is
  2. research appropriate publicity outlets
  3. put your information together
  4. get the word out
  5. other methods
  6. keep promoting!

1. know who your target group is

You need to reach the right audience, so make sure you have a clear idea who your target group is. You’ve already considered what kind of choir you’re going to create. What kind of people will be interested? Do you have a particular group in mind (e.g. young boys, retired people, women)? Can anyone join? In many ways it’s easier to promote your choir if it has a particular angle or group of people in mind.

You will also have considered this when choosing when your choir meets. For example, daytime sessions will not appeal to those who have day jobs. Night sessions won’t be suitable for younger children. If your venue has no disabled access, then this will also restrict your target group, and you will need to make it clear.

2. research appropriate publicity outlets

You’ll need find publicity outlets that appeal to your target group. It won’t make sense to leaflet trendy bars if you’re trying to reach older people. Putting posters up at the private gym may well exclude the unemployed. Walk around town and see that other events are being publicised and note those places which seem to appeal to the same type of people who might want to join your choir. For example, yoga classes, choral concerts, talks on music.

Can you piggy back someone else’s publicity for free? Will your venue do it for you? What free outlets are there: local adult education magazine, library notice board, free newspaper, etc.?

mailing lists

One of the best ways of reaching people with information is a targeted mailing list. This is a list of people who you know are interested in your product. Start this as soon as you can. Every time you run a workshop or go to a gathering where there is singing, have a sheet where people can put their name and contact details. Maintain a database in any form that you’re familiar with (a Word table is quite simple), and regularly mail people on the list with what’s happening. This list will grow over time and you can use it to promote workshops, your website, concerts, and to get new choir members. Getting an email address is vital as this is the cheapest way of communicating with people.

3. put your information together

Before you send out a press release or make a poster, you need to get all the necessary information together.

You’ll need a name for your choir, and a brief description that sums up what you’re going to do. Names are notoriously difficult. You might go for a name that describes what you do (WorldSong, Global Harmony, Shared Voices, Bath Community Singers, Frome Community Choir, Singing for the Terrified). Or you might go with something a little more poetic (Purple Cats, Hullabaloo, Chutzpah, The Larks, Kadenza, The Morning Glories, The Caster-Sugars, Rough Truffles). It might make is slightly easier to publicise if your name reflects what you do, but remember you have to live with it! The Anytown Women’s Natural Voice Civic Community Singing Group may be descriptive, but it’s a bit of a mouthful (and will inevitably get abbreviated – not necessarily in ways that you want!). In my opinion, a name needs to be short and punchy, but doesn’t need to describe what you do. It will eventually become associated with the choir. Think of big brands like Orange, Apple, Next, Ford, Zavvi, O2, Tate, etc. — none of these actually say what it is they do or sell.

You’ll need to state clearly when and where the group meets, how much it costs, and what the commitment will be. Do people have to sign up for a whole term, or is it a drop-in choir? Will people be required to perform or is it optional? If you have fixed times of year for taking on new members, make this clear.

How much will it cost choir members each session and when will people have to pay? Weekly or in blocks in advance? Will you allow new members to try the first few weeks for free? Will you give a discount for advance payment? Have you got an account in your choir’s name, or will you be asking people to write personal cheques? In my view, writing a personal cheque can make your enterprise seem a little amateur, also you can get the choir income mixed up with your personal money when it comes to do your tax return!

You might want to create an identity for your choir at this stage (even though it doesn’t really exist yet!). A logo, strap line (short, punchy sentence which identifies what you do e.g. “harmony through song”, “release your voice”, “singing for peace”), letterhead, business card. Will you want a website? If so, what’s it for? It’s not enough to just have presence on the web, your website needs to have a clear purpose. It can be selling the choir to future members or it can be a resource once people have joined your choir. It can act as publicity for future concerts or it can just be a shop window for photos and recordings of the choir.

4. get the word out

The two main ways to publicise your choir both involve writing: press releases and publicity flyers.

print outlets

There are many, many resources out there which can help you to write an effective press release. On the internet, just Google “How to write a press release” and you’ll get nearly a million hits!

The best tips I can give are:

  • keep it short, simple (use straightforward language) and effective
  • put the most important information in the first paragraph, then in order of priority down the page. Apparently many editors cut pieces from the bottom paragraph up
  • make sure you include the most important information: what is it? where does it happen? when does it happen? and who to contact?

Once you’ve written your press release, you’ll need to do a bit of research to find all the local press outlets in your catchment area. Many free newspapers will readily print a short item if it has local interest. Some dailies will only print a small paragraph. Don’t pay for advertising unless you absolutely must — most newspapers are desperate to fill their pages with free content!

Also check out other local publications: what’s on magazines, glossy county magazines that come out every few months, local newsletters, etc.

Find out when things are published (weekly? what day? monthly? quarterly?) and if there are particular deadlines. Then tailor when you send your press release out. Too much in advance and people will forget the information; too near the date and people will have already found something else to do. Bear in mind that items need to be in several days before the actual publication date.

Most local newspapers have an online presence these days. You can find out from their website which email addresses are most appropriate for sending your information too. Sometimes it’s the editor, other times there’s just a catch-all email address. If you send it to the “what’s on” person, you’re most likely to just get a one-line mention in a packed diary. Better is to try and get some editorial space.

Many newspaper websites have online forms that you can use to submit items for their website (and maybe their print version). I try and send it to them in as many ways as possible, hoping to get into print and on the website.

I have been advised in the past not to send unsolicited attachments to emails. However, most newspapers like a photo to accompany a piece. Find out their policy by contacting the newspaper. Even better, cultivate a personal relationship with a particular journalist. Newspapers usually like to use their own photographer, even if it means ending up with a traditional, tacky, jazz hands shot! Get a few friends together, and arrange a convenient location that gives their photographer some scope. Come with a few of your own ideas, in case the photographer needs some help (I have a pet peeve about photographing choirs, see Picture this).

In my experience, no matter how carefully you word your press release, how clever your headline is, the newspaper will either get the date or phone number wrong, or change your witty headline into something lame and misleading! This is just part of life and you’ll have to grin and bear it.

You might get a chance to get an entry in your local council’s free adult education magazine, or in your local arts centre’s brochure. In these cases, you’ll need to adapt your press release and cut it down to its basics. This should be saved as the basic ‘blurb’ for your choir which you can endlessly recycle and adapt.

There are many websites that will also take information. Many of them are biased towards one-off events, but some are able to take listings of local ongoing clubs and societies. Sometimes these have a strict word limit for your entry, so you might like to work up a short description of your basic blurb for these purposes. Again, use a search engine like Google and try things like “what’s on Anytown”, or “singing classes Anytown” to see what possible local Anytown websites are out there.

posters and flyers

It’s not so easy to get simple hints on designing effective posters and flyers as there are so many variables. One of your main limitations will probably be cost. In which case you will probably want to limit the number of colours in your design, quality of paper that they’re printed on, and actual number that you will produce.

Again, you need to keep it short, simple and effective.

  • pick out the most important elements (i.e. where, when, what) and make them the most prominent in your design.
  • keep the number of different fonts you use to a maximum of two (one is perhaps best – you can use bold, italic, size, colour, etc. for variation), and
  • use fonts that are easily readable (i.e. not ones that look like handwriting or have to many embellishments like Gothic).
  • keep the number of colours to a maximum of two, and make sure they complement each other.
  • if you’re really trying to keep costs down, consider a black and white design which can be printed onto coloured paper.

It’s most likely at this stage that you will either print a few colour posters on your home computer, or — if you need lots of A5 flyers — get them photocopied on cheap coloured paper. Either way, the print quality is not going to be fantastic, so don’t rely on any subtle grey shades, or complex images and photographs as they won’t come out clearly. Stick to black and white graphics and simple images.

When researching your publicity outlets, you will have come across several places that might take stacks of A5 flyers. Make sure that these are the right places to put them! It’s no good printing 500 flyers to just have them sit, ignored in some cafĂ© somewhere. You’re also competing with the big boys who have much larger budgets and can pay people and services to display their flyers in all the best places. You need to make your limited resources count. It’s perhaps best to use your limited budget to make a smaller number of A4 and A5 flyers which can be displayed to the best effect, e.g. shop windows, local arts centre, your car, in the venue you’re using for the choir.

keeping tabs on the results

Over time you will gradually discover the most effective places to publicise your choir. I thought I had made a coup when I managed to get my new choir mentioned in the local adult education brochure which went free to every single household in Coventry. But I didn’t get a single new member through this!! The most effective method for me, in Coventry, is to get regular mentions in the local free newspapers. Each time I send stuff in I try a new angle and try to make it chatty and relevant to their readers.

I also started out putting hundreds of A5 flyers in various places around town, only to go back a few weeks later to find them all still sitting there! But that’s just Coventry. In your town you will find a different story. Keep trying new things, and keep evaluating what works best.

5. other methods

Here’s a quick list of other possible ways of getting the word out. I’m sure there are many others!

  • Run some one-off taster workshops to give people a taste of what’s to come. Take down the names and contact details of people who might be interested in joining your choir and contact them later when you know when the choir is starting.
  • Contact your local BBC or independent radio station. They are desperate to fill up air time with free content. Pitch your idea to them and make it sound really interesting and they may well invite you in for an interview. Take some publicity with you and a few notes written in big letters. Whilst you’re being interviewed you should constantly refer to these as your crib sheet to make sure you’re getting your message out. A good interviewer will help you with this by asking the right questions (“so when is your choir starting up?”, “remind me again where the choir will be rehearsing?”, “who should people contact if they’re interested in joining?”). But many interviewers have their own agenda and (usually wrong!) understanding of what you’re planning to do. In these cases it’s really important to keep getting them back on track. BEWARE: if your philosophy is that everyone can sing, you may well get the radio presenter asking you to teach their producer to sing right there and then on air!
  • If you already have a group of friends or local contacts who sing together, you can always put on a free performance. You can do this outdoors, in a shopping centre, in the local park, anywhere with lots of people. Maybe make a billboard with your choir’s name on. Make sure you have flyers to give out. Maybe even teach the audience (if you get one!) a song, thus proving that everyone can sing. This is one of the best ways of attracting new members as they can see and hear immediately what you do. A free, living advertisement!
  • Do you have any recordings of you singing or a group of people singing the kind of stuff you plan to do with the choir? If so, you can run off a short sampler and either hand it out to people, use it as a business card, leave some copies at your local arts centre, get the local radio station to play some tracks, approach a local record store, etc. Again, nothing beats actually hearing what your choir will sound like.
  • Hit people when they least expect it. Go somewhere where your target group already gather (e.g. coffee shop, evening class, drop in centre) and run a spontaneous workshop, again proving that anyone can sing. They will see you in action and immediately get a taste of what you offer. Make sure you have flyers, business cards, etc. You can either do this as a guerrilla tactic and just turn up, or contact them beforehand offering a free workshop.

6. keep promoting!

Until you’re in the luxurious position of having to start a waiting list because your choir has got too big (yes, this day will arrive!), you have to keep on promoting the choir on a regular basis. Keep the name out there in any way that you can. Find new ways of publicising the choir, re-write your blurb and press releases regularly, keep your website up to date (even if nothing important is happening, put the latest news up there), look out for other opportunities to promote the choir.

next week

Once more, a long, long post! It amazes me how much there is to consider, but please don’t let it put you off. I’m sure I’ve left out loads and loads of things, so please do leave a comment if you can think of anything to add. Next week in Part 6 — yes, the moment has finally arrived! — The first session.


Chris Rowbury's website:

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.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How to start your own community choir 3 — Finding the money

Last week, in Part 2 of this series, I looked at the Forward planning that is necessary before you actually start your own community choir. One of the issues that came up was: where is the money going to come from? In this post I will consider three possible approaches to financing your community choir.

You’ve decided to start your very own community choir and have spent some time doing your forward planning, but somebody is going to have to finance all this. At the very least there will be the cost of hiring a venue to hold choir sessions in. Not to mention admin. costs (stationery, internet access, postage, etc.), publicity costs (promoting the choir initially, future concerts, website, etc.), and your own time (if you want to earn money from the enterprise).

There are at least three approaches to this:

  1. get employed to run the choir
  2. make the choir self-financing
  3. seek funding and grants

1. Get employed to run the choir

In many ways this is the easiest option if you can find it! I started off being employed by my local council to run an adult education evening class called Songs from Around the World. They promoted it heavily for me throughout the city. It was a fantastic break for me since they supported me through the difficult growing period in the first few terms of the group. Things began slowly and it wasn’t for about 6 months until I had the necessary 12 or so minimum people signed up. Fortunately the council’s performing arts service really wanted the group to work so financed the initiative until it began paying for itself. The other big advantage was that they also found and paid for our rehearsal venue.

This is a great way to start out, but can have disadvantages further down the line. For instance, if (and when!) the choir becomes more successful, you will still be getting the standard council’s hourly rate for part-time teachers even though the income from the choir has gone through the roof. Also, as the choir grows, it may become harder for the council to find suitable venues. You may not have a lot of choice and end up in an out-of-the-way draughty school hall somewhere on the edge of town!

When I first started, it was quite easy to get into adult education, but increasingly in the UK you need to have certificates and paperwork to show you’ve completed this course and that course and that you have no criminal record, etc. etc.

Other ways of getting employed to run a choir are:

  • find a suitable community arts centre that is prepared to host you and support you (I run the choir Woven Chords on this basis);
  • get employed to take over an existing choir (sometimes an existing choir needs a new leader and the choir itself — via the committee — will employ you).

Both these options involve negotiating a suitable fee based on the size of the choir and the amount of work involved. Both of them bring a certain amount of admin. support and usually a ready-made venue.

To avoid any of the disadvantages mentioned above, you might decide to:

2. Make the choir self-financing

This is the clearest option: you charge choir members a fee to attend, and you take all the money. You have complete control over how much you charge, when the sessions are held, what venue to use and so on. As you become more successful and the choir grows, you end up earning more money.

The disadvantages are that in the early days when first starting out, you will usually have only a small number of choir members. This almost certainly won’t cover your costs. There is also no guarantee that the day will come when your choir is popular enough that you’ll be making a decent wage. You will also be responsible for all the admin. (collecting money, advertising for new members, finding and paying for a suitable venue), although it is possible to get help with this — see 4. Can I do it alone, or will I need help? in last week’s post on Forward planning. I’ll be looking at some of the issues involved in using a committee or group of volunteers in a later post: Carrying on (7. whose choir is it any way?).

3. Seek funding and grants

This is an option that I haven’t personally tried since I’m allergic to endless form-filling!

There are many sources of funding for the arts available, some on a local level and some on a national level. In all cases the funding will almost certainly not last for the proposed lifetime of the choir. Most funding bodies don’t want to get tied into providing money for an indefinite period. They are far happier funding specific projects with a limited lifetime and clear outcome. You may be able to get funding to help with the initial stages of setting up your choir. This will help to get you past the build-up stage when the income from choir members will be quite small. You could also apply for funding for a specific need: e.g. publicity, training, one-off taster workshop.

Even when your choir is up and running you may be able to tap into funding for a specific project, e.g. commissioning a composer to write for the choir, setting up a local choir festival.

Try your local council first for advice (find out who your local arts officer is) , or (in the UK) you can contact your regional office at Arts Council England, Arts Council Wales, Scottish Arts Council or Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

next week

Now we have a plan and an idea of where the money is coming from, the next step is to pick a location for your choir, sort out a venue and decide what time and day of the week to run it. Next week I will look at choosing the right place and the right time.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, November 09, 2008

How to start your own community choir 2 — Forward planning

You’ve decided that you want to start your very own community choir, so what’s the first step? Why, planning of course! Before you rush into the fun bit (the singing), you’ll need to take a lot of things into consideration. In fact, it’s not until at least Part 6 of this series of posts that you will actually do any singing! (unless you sing while you plan, which is admirable)

Last week, in Part 1 of How to start your own community choir, we looked at what the term community choir might actually mean and I suggested that it should be open to all and also involve a sense of community. With that in mind, we can now begin to look at what is involved in setting up your own community choir.

However, before you rush into anything you’ll need to ask yourself some tricky questions:

  1. why start a choir now?
  2. what skills do I have for running a community choir?
  3. what do I want to achieve?
  4. can I do it alone, or will I need help?
  5. where is the money going to come from?
  6. what type of choir will this be?

1. Why start a choir now?

Perhaps you’ve been meaning to do this for years and only now have got around to it. Or maybe you’ve taken early retirement or the kids have just left home. Whatever you think the reason is, it’s worth reflecting on why you haven’t done this before. Is it really the right time? Will this be a flash in the pan, or are you truly committed to making it work? Do you have to start a choir now (e.g. you need a way to make money), or is it just going to be a hobby (i.e. you have much less to lose if it doesn’t work out)? On a more general level: given the current economic climate, will what is basically a leisure activity for people be able to sustain itself financially?

There is another question that will pop up in a future post when I talk about finding a location to set up your choir: is there a need for a choir here and now? You may live in an area which is already saturated with choirs, or there may be such a low density of population that a big enough choir can’t be sustained, or even (and I can’t imagine this!) a place where people simply don’t want to sing as part of a group. Perhaps this is not the best time or place to be starting a choir (although I don’t want to put you off — honest!).

2.What skills do I have for starting and running a community choir?

Have you done this before? What experience do you have? There is a big difference between singing in a choir and leading one. How do you find out whether you have the necessary skills? Maybe you’ve run a small singing group with 5 or 6 people in it; perhaps you’ve led the after-school singing club; or you might have stood in for the musical director at your local choir one week.

Any of these will give you a clue as to whether you have the necessary skills to run a choir. But do you have the right skills? I’ve spent over 25 years teaching adult groups in the performing arts. Several times I have been asked to run a children’s group and each time it has been a disaster! Why? Because the skills I have developed in leading adult groups are very different from those needed to lead a group of children. Similarly, the skills needed to conduct a classical piece with an experienced choir of people who can all sight read are very different from those needed to teach a simple African song by ear to a group of inexperienced singers.

If you don’t have the experience or lack the necessary skills, where can you get them from? It might be possible to start out as an assistant in an existing choir (perhaps the one you sing in already?). Find a friendly choir leader who is prepared to mentor you and give you opportunities to teach songs to their choir now and again. There are also training courses and workshops you can go on. Some specifically for leading singing groups (conducting, teaching songs by ear, etc.) and some about setting up and running community groups in general. Here in the UK there are several organisations that can help you find such training: Sing for pleasure, Natural Voice Practitioners Network, Association of British Choral Directors, Sound it Out, Sound Sense, TONSIL, British Choirs on the Net, Gerontius, Making Music, ... to name but a few.

3. What do I want to achieve?

There are far easier ways of gaining glory than standing in front of a choir and waving your arms around! Leading a community choir should not involve your ego too much. Although you will be the ‘leader’ in many senses, a community choir only really works if there is a true sense of equality and community. Your job is to bring out the best in people, to give them a good time, to create a group who work as a team, to make beautiful music together! In an ideal world, the best choral directors are those who are not really noticed. The best result (in my book at least), is when a group feel that they’ve done it themselves and that I’ve made myself redundant.

There are many, many reasons for starting a community choir. At one level it doesn’t really matter what your reason is, but it’s always a good idea at the outset to have some idea of where you might be heading. Will this be a performance choir? Will you eventually want to hand over the reins to the choir members? Will this be a group to help people gain singing confidence after which they will leave and go onto other choirs? Will it simply be a fun session every now and then for people to drop in to have a good sing-song? The clearer you can be about this at the beginning, the more likely you are to have a successful choir.

4. Can I do it alone, or will I need help?

Do you have the necessary admin. skills to back up the choir? Some people are absolutely fantastically amazingly good and charismatic on an artistic level, but can’t keep accounts, mailing list databases or tidy offices. It’s fine to admit that you need help in certain areas, but you’ll have to factor this in: how can you find someone reliable to help you? how will you manage to pay them?

One way of getting help to run a community choir is to set it up as a constituted body with a committee made up of choir members. You will then have a number of (unpaid) people with clearly defined roles (secretary, treasurer, etc.) who are there to help and support you. And perhaps more importantly, this will give your new choir an identity of its own rather than just being a one-man or one-woman enterprise. If you decide to go down this route, you can approach existing community choirs that you know who would be happy to give you a copy of their constitution so you can have something to base your own on. It might also be a good idea to get a few interested singers on board at this stage to form your first committee and help you get the choir started. It’s probably best for these committee members to be potential choir members rather than asking friends and family (i.e. it’s not the same as having a neutral executive board).

You might also decide that you want external help in order to finance the project. Which brings us on to ...

5. Where is the money going to come from?

Aha — the thorny issue of finance! This will be the subject of next week’s post.

6. What type of choir will this be?

Yes, it’s going to be a community choir, but what ‘flavour’? What kind of people will make up the choir: absolute beginners who haven’t sung before? people who think they can’t sing? anybody and everybody? experienced singers? Will it be for a particular sub-section of the community: young people, the unemployed, gay men, over 60s, adults with special needs? What kind of music will you be making: unaccompanied harmony singing (acappella), songs from the shows, world music, barbershop, Western classical music, simple chants and rounds, sacred music?

Perhaps one of the most important considerations is whether the choir is going to perform in public or not. This is not something that needs to be fixed. Some choirs start off as non-performing choirs, but end up doing public concerts. If your choir is for inexperienced singers, or people who don’t think they can ‘sing’, then it’s probably a good idea to emphasise that the choir won’t be doing public performances. If, however, you want to attract more experienced singers, then you might want to flag up that the choir will be performing regularly (in which case you’ll need to do some forward planning and research possible local venues for performances).

It may seem that asking these questions goes against the idea of ‘community choir’ that I laid out in last week’s post, i.e. that the choir is open to all. However, every person has different needs and different tastes, so a single community can support several ‘open to all’ choirs, each with a different flavour. ‘Open to all’ means that, in principle, you won’t exclude anyone from joining you choir. But that also means that people are free to join whatever choir suits them best.

You need to be very clear from the outset what kind of choir you are setting up. That is what people are signing up to. If you decide later to change the nature of the choir (e.g. by narrowing the repertoire to just Eastern European songs or by beginning to perform in public), this should only be done in consultation with the current choir members. It’s not fair to move the goalposts on a whim without considering who it will affect.

next week

Next week, in Part 3, I will be looking at possible ways to finance the setting up and running of your community choir: How to start your own community choir 3 — Finding the money

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Sunday, November 02, 2008

How to start your own community choir 1

OK, strap yourselves in, this is going to be a long topic entailing a series of 10 posts! Stay tuned for future weeks when I’ll be looking in detail at how to start a community choir.

Children At Risk Foundation – CARF (

Here are all the posts in this series:

  1. What is a community choir?
  2. Forward planning
  3. Finding the money
  4. The right place and the right time
  5. Getting the word out
  6. The first session
  7. Carrying on
  8. The choir which just grew and grew
  9. Tending and caring for a growing choir
  10. Case study: guest post from David Burbidge

What is a community choir?

Apparently singing is the UK’s second most popular activity after sport. According to The Guardian:

“there are more than 25,000 choirs and over half a million singers in the UK*. They get some of the health benefits of the sporty types — increased lung capacity, better posture and so on. But they also get the sheer joy of singing in a group with friends.”

*These figures are supplied by TONSIL (The Ongoing Singing Liaison Group) which

“represents 14 organisations promoting choral singing across a wide variety of genres, supporting over 25,000 members choirs and over 500,000 singers, who each year perform to audiences totalling nearly 3 million.”

(In stark contrast to this, Cindy L. Bell of Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY wrote a paper this year entitled Toward a definition of a community choir in which she contends that “many community choirs [in the US] are either facing a declining membership and ageing singers, or have evolved into semi-elite performance machines that are no longer characteristic of the community”).

Many media outlets have picked up on this phenomenon of late (e.g. The Times: Choirs are becoming cool, especially since Last Choir Standing arrived on the BBC.

So … choirs are cool, and more and more people seem to want to join singing groups. An excellent time to set up your very own community choir. But before I can start on that, I have to ask: what do we mean by community choir?

Let’s start with fellow Natural Voice Practitioner Denis Donnelly, and his musical partner Shivon Robinsong. In the promotion for their training programme for community choir leaders, they say:

Imagine … a world where every city, town, and neighborhood had a community choir, one where the music of many cultures and faiths was celebrated. Imagine … a non-auditioned choir in your community where all were welcome. Imagine … that this choir could support and engage in powerful community-based activities.”

For me, they have hit on the two essential defining points of what a community choir is:

  • open to all
  • a sense of community

Open to all

A community choir should be open to anybody who wants to come and sing. Basically, everyone is treated equally and nobody is excluded. This means that:

  • there are no auditions (everyone is able to sing)
  • the choir is not affiliated to any particular idea, culture or organisation (e.g. church or other faith group, particular style of music)
  • no prior musical knowledge is required (e.g. the ability to read music)
  • people are not excluded on the basis of age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc.

In practice, however, it may well be possible to call a choir a community choir even though it only targets a specific (possibly otherwise under-represented) sub-group of the local community, e.g. community gospel choir, gay men’s chorus, barbershop group, women’s choir, youth chorus, etc.

Sense of community

A group of people singing together, united by their love of music, will inevitably create a strong sense of community. This is definitely something that any community choir should strive for instead of being a group of anonymous voices who are simply there to serve the needs of the music and/ or the musical director. To this end, many community choirs often have some kind of organising committee which represents the views of the choir as a whole, and which also helps to run social events for the choir.

Any community choir also exists within a wider community from which it draws its members. Such a choir can become a focal point for a local community by offering public performances, raising money for local charities, setting up concerts for local schools, care homes, etc., and representing the local community on a wider stage by, for example, entering choir competitions or performing at national choir festivals.

Even though a community choir might be initially set up by an individual or a local arts organisation, eventually there should be a sense that the choir is a result of “people grouping themselves together — not from policy on high.” (Community singing doesn't need bureaucracy).

Now, armed with a slightly less vague idea of what a community choir is, next week I shall look at the planning needed before you rush out and start your choir. Part of this involves difficult questions such as: why now? what do I have to offer? where is the money coming from?

See you next week for part 2 of How to start your own community choir — Forward planning.

go to Chris Rowbury's website