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

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