Sunday, December 28, 2008

How to start your own community choir 9 — Tending and caring for a growing choir

A version of this article first appeared in the August 2008 edition of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network’s newsletter.

In last week’s post I wrote about the problems that Octavia had encountered whilst building up a successful community choir. These are problems that many of us share. There are no simple answers, and I’m sure many of you have come up with creative and successful strategies of your own. I’d like to share a few approaches that I’ve tried in the hope that they may be useful to someone. I’d love to hear of other ideas that work!

My choir has become so skilled that people don’t think they’re good enough to join!

I always try to make the point at performances that the choir is non-auditioned and works on community choir principles, namely the belief that everyone can sing, and that you don’t need to have any particular knowledge of music. It’s a fine balance to say that basically “anyone can do this” whilst acknowledging the skills and hard work that the choir has put in. To help with this, I always teach the audience a song in harmony (often a round). I then point out that they can all now sing in unaccompanied harmony and are eligible to join the choir!

Another solution to this is to simply accept that the choir is a more advanced choir and will only be able to take on singers who feel more confident. The choir will remain open-access, but possibly become self-selecting. As long as there continue to be totally open-access ‘beginners’ choirs available, I don’t see this as a problem.

We have built up a huge repertoire of songs, and new members can easily feel overwhelmed.

(See also New singers, old songs)

This is quite a tough one and I haven’t found the perfect solution yet. No matter how much I tell new members that they don’t need to learn any of the back catalogue, they often feel obliged (or challenged) to learn as many as they can!

When someone joins the choir, I give them an information sheet and also try to take them to one side after a few weeks for a chat. I tell them that we have an extensive repertoire of songs, but that not everyone knows all of them. I hand out a lyric sheet to all of these songs and let them know that we always sing a few ‘oldies’ at the end of each session in order to keep the repertoire alive. If a part is really simple, they may be able to sing along quite quickly by just busking it. If they hear a more complicated song that they really love, then we have a collection of parts CDs available and new members can go off and learn their part in their own time.

When a concert is coming up, I tell new members that all the songs we’ve learnt that term (maybe up to six) will be in the concert and I’m very happy if they are the only songs that they sing. However, if they want to choose another couple to learn in their own time from a parts CD, then I’m happy with that too. But please, please don’t feel obliged to learn them all! Some people learn hardly any of the old songs, but there are always a few keen types who pick stuff up quickly who seem to learn the entire back catalogue in a few weeks!

I always try to revive some of the ‘oldies’ each term and spruce them up a bit by adding a new part, a new structure, more verses, etc. In this way I can help new members learn old songs whilst giving challenges to members who already know a song well. Older members can also use this opportunity to learn a different part!

Our weekly sessions used to be fun, but now they’re just rehearsals for our next concert.

(See also What a performance!)

I think this is all about balance. When I first started a choir it was never about performance, but about the joys of singing harmony together. At one extreme, some choirs never perform. However, many get to the point where members want to share their songs with the public. At the other extreme, there are choirs who perform 12 or more times a year who are constantly in rehearsal mode. They have little time to learn new repertoire, but what they do know is highly polished and well-remembered.

I try for a middle way. We do on average one performance at the end of each term. The bulk of the term is spent learning new repertoire, sprucing up a few oldies, revising dusty songs from the distant past, singing stuff we learnt the term before, and having fun! About half the way through the term I give out a list of songs we’ll do at the forthcoming concert. This gives people a chance to dig out old lyrics, listen to tapes they’ve made in previous sessions, and for new members to get hold of parts CDs.

I make sure that we run through all the songs in the concert at least once during the term. For the last two weeks before the concert, we rehearse the songs in order. One week we do the first half of the concert, and the next week we do the second half. Our concerts are usually quite long (two 45-minute halves) so can involve up to 30 songs or more. But there’s still plenty of time to comfortably rehearse one half in a two-hour choir session. We also have a full rehearsal on the afternoon of the concert which takes around 2 ½ hours.

This balance seems to work, but it’s always a little fraught towards the end of term, and we always feel like we could do with more rehearsal! To counter this, maybe one term a year I don’t teach any new material, but spend the time just polishing old songs.

I know of two other possibilities which perhaps others of you practise. Liz Underhill of Global Harmony has a whole day workshop rehearsal on a Saturday the week before a concert. Then the afternoon rehearsal on the day of the concert itself can be much shorter and just focus on technical things. The advantage is that people are less tired on concert day, the one-day rehearsal can be taken more slowly, and it can be more of a fun workshop day than an intense evening rehearsal after work.

Bruce Knight of Songlines keeps his concerts shorter than mine and also does a few songs with smaller groups of singers. This takes the pressure off the choir as a whole and leaves more time for rehearsing less material.

If I audition people, can I still call it a ‘community choir’?

I know of several choir leaders (me included) who run auditioned groups of one form or another, but who also believe strongly in the idea of community choir that I laid out at the start of this series. One of the two main defining features of a community choir is its ‘open to all’ policy. It would seem that by auditioning people, we are going against this important notion. I must admit that when I first thought of starting an auditioned group I felt that somehow I was betraying my belief that everyone can sing. But it’s quite obvious that everyone can sing in different ways, and sometimes a project requires particular kinds of skills or voices.

I think that it is possible to call your auditioned choir a ‘community’ choir if it still upholds the other features that I outlined, e.g. that the choir maintains a strong sense of community; that it is not affiliated to any particular idea, culture or organisation; that no prior musical knowledge is assumed; and that people are not excluded on the basis of age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc. I lead a women’s group called Vox Mondiale which I like to think of in these terms. I did audition people to join, but the only difference that makes is that we are able to tackle more complex material, learn songs more quickly, and focus on honing performance skills. Otherwise, I lead the group in much the same way as I do the community choir Woven Chords.

I don’t think we should get hung up on this. For me, the most important thing (whatever kind of group you run) is to be absolutely clear what the nature of the group is and not to change that without consultation with the choir. It is possible for individual choir leaders to run several different groups at once. Some may clearly be community choirs whilst others are not.

My choir has got so big I can’t take any more people on!

(See also Size matters)

When this first happened to me I felt very uncomfortable! I love working with large groups and always tell people “the more the merrier”. However, I first became limited by room size (I simply couldn’t squeeze any more people in and still work properly), then I realised that it was just more tiring working with larger groups. (I really don’t understand this: why is it more tiring teaching a part to 20 people than to 15 people?)

The Natural Voice philosophy states that we “aim to recreate the sense that vocalising, singing and singing together is natural and open to all” and that we “believe that vocalising, creativity and song should be accessible to all regardless of previous musical ability or experience”. Many of us interpret that to mean that nobody should be turned away from an open-access group. So I did feel very uncomfortable when I first had to close my choir to new members.

We now maintain a waiting list and take people on when possible in the order that people have gone on the list. Unfortunately, once people join the choir they tend not to leave, so it will be some years before some people are able to join! Occasionally one part is a bit thin on the ground (at the moment it’s the tenors, and we always need more blokes) so I recruit people from the waiting list on the basis of which part they sing.

I always let people on the waiting list know about the one-day workshops we run and of other choirs in the area. If you personally have the time and energy, you can always start another choir on a different night! Some people I know run one choir, but have several sessions each week. People choose the night that suits them and all sessions are the same. When a performance is coming up, the whole choir meet together to rehearse.

next week

Next week’s post will be a guest post from David Burbidge of Lakeland Voice giving his own account of his experience of leading community choirs. This will be the 10th and final post in the series of How to start your own community choir.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

How to start your own community choir 8 — The choir which just grew and grew

Now that you’ve started your very own community choir and it’s fully up and running, I would like to look forward to some possible obstacles that you may encounter as your choir grows and becomes more successful.

A version of this article first appeared in the March 2008 edition of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network’s newsletter.

Once upon a time ...

Once upon a time there was a singer, Octavia, who decided to help all those people who wanted to sing, but were a bit scared to do so. She found a nice place to sing in and let everyone know that she was starting a new singing group. Gradually, over a number of weeks, people started to come along. They were all a bit frightened at first, but slowly their singing confidence grew and before they knew it they were singing in full, glorious, unaccompanied harmony!

Everyone had come along simply to have fun each week, and indeed they were all having a splendid time. But then an opportunity arose for the group to share some of their songs with the public. It was a very frightening prospect, but having put all that hard work in, they decided that they really wanted to have a go. Thus arose the first concert of this shiny new singing group. It went very well (there were a few small mistakes, but the audience was very forgiving) and they decided that they would perform more often.

It’s getting better all the time!

As time went by, the small singing group attracted more and more people who were a bit scared to sing out loud. In fact, it got so big (about 20 singers) that they began to refer to themselves as a ‘choir’ (what impertinence!). Things were going swimmingly as the months passed, but soon problems began to arise. Many of the singers who had been in the group from the very beginning had gained so much confidence that they had begun to think of themselves as ‘real’ singers. The concerts that they did became more and more polished. This meant that many people began to be put off joining the group because they seemed to be ever so good, and not really the place for frightened non-singers at all!

Another problem was that many in the group liked to sing lots of the old songs that they had been singing for a long time. They sang these well and liked them a lot because they were very familiar with them. But when a new singer joined the group, they found it hard to catch up with all these old songs (the list of ‘oldies’ was getting longer and longer by the week!). In fact, some new members of the group felt so overwhelmed that they left and never came back. Finally, although Octavia loved working with big groups, she was finding it more and more tiring each week as the choir got bigger and bigger. She had reluctantly started a waiting list for new people who wanted to join, as she couldn’t fit everyone into the nice room they used for their weekly sessions!

Octavia takes time out

As choir leader (for that is what she now called herself), Octavia took some time out and had a long think. How could she keep to her original aim of helping frightened singers to gain confidence and join in with the group, but at the same time keep the longer-serving members (who were now very, very confident singers and wanted greater singing challenges) interested and on board? How could she keep the old repertoire alive (which was much-loved by all) without overwhelming new members of the choir? And now that the choir was performing much more often, how could she balance the need for rehearsals (to make sure the concerts were of a high enough standard to warrant charging the audience to watch) with the need to teach new songs and simply to have fun each week?

She had heard of one choir that had a concert at the end of every term. They performed all the songs that they had learnt that term, and then never sang them again. Each term they learnt a whole new set of songs. However, she also heard that this frustrated a lot of the long-term members.

Octavia thought of starting a second group – just like when she had started out at the very beginning – a brand new group from scratch for people who were a bit scared to sing or who thought they were non-singers. But then she realised that at some point she would run into all the same problems with the new group as she had now. Would she then have to start yet another group? If people kept wanting to join, would that mean that she would end up with a choir for each day of the week?!

Another possibility was to stop performing completely and just run a beginners group. When new nervous singers became confident enough, they could just leave her beginners group and join a performing choir locally. But she needed to earn a living and realised that this was not a very good business model! If she just ran groups for scared singers, her definition of success would be that they would leave and join another choir, so she would lose their income and would need to recruit another singer to replace them. Eventually she would run out of under-confident singers locally and would go bust!

A choir just for performing?

“OK”, Octavia thought, “what about going in the other direction?” Wouldn’t it be great to have a really accomplished choir who performed regularly to a very high standard? Let go of the idea of just having fun singing each week and create a performing choir that just rehearsed and rehearsed each week and developed their performance skills. “Other people can run groups for beginners, not me!”, she thought. But then she realised that she’d need to have some kind of quality control. She would need to have just ‘good’ singers in her performance choir. That meant some kind of selection, maybe even auditions. It meant that she would end up saying to some people: “I’m afraid you’re just not good enough to join my choir.” How could she square this with her belief that everyone can sing? Wouldn’t this perpetuate those old horror stories of children being told at school to “stand at the back” or to “just mime” or “please stop that terrible noise”?

What about the size of the choir? From the start Octavia had felt uncomfortable about having a waiting list because she believed that everyone should have access to singing. But she found it very hard work each week with such a big group, and since she was being paid a fixed fee by the organisation that provided the room they worked in, she got paid the same regardless of how many people in the choir. She had heard of a few choirs that had grown so large that they had two choir leaders instead of just one. She was so used to doing things on her own that she didn’t really understand how this would work. Also, wouldn’t that mean that her income would suddenly halve?

It had all started so well, but now it felt like she was becoming a victim of her own success! What was poor Octavia to do??!!!

next week

Stay tuned for next week’s post (Tending and caring for a growing choir) when I will reveal the solutions that I have arrived at for the problems our fictitious choir leader has encountered. It would also be great to hear from some of you out there who have had to solve similar problems, or perhaps you would like to air some of your own which have arisen from running a regular group.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

How to start your own community choir 7 — Carrying on

Congratulations! If you’ve got this far in the series, there’s a very good chance that you’ve started your very own community choir, and I wish you the best success.

Last week, after a long time spent planning, finding some money, choosing a suitable time and venue, publicising your new choir, we finally arrived at the very first session. I do hope it went well! Trouble is, you can’t now rest on your laurels (no matter how well-deserved!) as you’re going to have to do it all again next session! And again, and again, and again …

This week I’m going to talk about the nuts and bolts of carrying on with your choir on a regular basis so that it grows and flourishes. You need to try not to become complacent, but constantly try to keep the choir alive and thriving. No time to sit back and just coast, or you won’t have a choir left!

Once again, there’s a lot of information here as I’ve tried to cover all eventualities, but I’m sure that not everything will apply to you, so please don’t be too daunted! I’d love to get some feedback from those of you starting out to see if anything specific has helped you, or if I’ve left anything important out.

I’m going to be covering the following issues in this post:

  1. Will anyone come?
  2. Keep it different, keep it the same
  3. I’m out of my depth here!
  4. How do you teach songs?
  5. Putting a session together
  6. I’ve run out of songs to teach!
  7. Whose choir is it any way?
  8. What next?

1. Will anyone come?

Every year after our long summer break I end up sitting in an empty rehearsal room waiting for choir members to arrive. I always make sure I turn up early, so am often the first person to arrive. No matter how confident I feel, no matter how long I’ve been doing this, no matter how successful the choir has become, I still worry that nobody is going to come!

Even if your choir is thriving, you’ll need to keep the word out there. Keep on promoting the name of the choir and what you do on a regular basis. It will turn up trumps in the end and you may well become the “go to” person in town whenever anybody needs a workshop leader or choir to perform.

In the early days of your choir, you will probably want to grow by taking on new members. So you’ll need to continue to promote the choir and its aims to attract new people to join. You can use many of the techniques laid out in Getting the word out: e.g. fliers and posters around town, editorial in the local press. You may also want to run the occasional one-off workshop. You now have a keen, captive audience (your choir members) who may well want to attend. You can design a very attractive, populist, open access, non-threatening workshop to entice people to sing, then encourage them to join the choir. They will get a chance to see you in action and let your approach and personality sell the choir.

When you do take on new members, you’ll need to consider how you will incorporate them into your existing choir. People may feel uncomfortable coming into an already established group, so make sure you make them feel welcome:

  • print a welcome pack;
  • let them know which pub you go to for a drink after each session
  • make sure you have individual chats with them at the end of their first session;
  • allocate a ‘buddy’ to teach them the ropes and introduce them to others.

You may want to restrict when you take new members on, for example, only in the first two weeks of term, or only in September.

2. Keep it different, keep it the same

People love familiarity and are creatures of habit. People are coming to your choir for a fun evening and a bit of socialising. Make sure that you have some kind of familiar structure each week so that people feel comfortable. Don’t go changing everything around each week. BUT … it’s also important to keep things fresh and challenging without putting people off. This will prevent habits forming and people becoming lazy and complacent. It will help people learn by approaching things slightly differently each time. It will stop sessions becoming stale and boring. It will set challenges for people to aim for, and hence feel a sense of achievement. It’s a fine balance between familiarity and the new, but one worth cultivating.

Some things you might try:

  • have a session entirely of ‘old’, familiar songs from your repertoire
    People love singing things they know. It’s only us choir leaders who insist on introducing new repertoire all the time! Resist this or you’ll end up feeling like a song factory!!
  • have a whole term of revision
    Do the old songs, but in different ways, different styles, slightly different arrangements, focus on the performance of the songs, etc.
  • get people to stand in different places
    Experiment with different choir formations. Try songs in small groups with just one person on each part, but everyone in the room singing at the same time. Spread people around the room at random. Get the basses to stand next to the sopranos. Have them singing a song whilst entering the room.
  • different song styles and versions
    Make sure you have a spread of different styles of songs and countries of origins so that there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Do a radically different version of a well-known song. Sing a song they know well in an ‘inappropriate’ style, e.g. reggae, opera, cowboy.
  • different approach
    Teach the next song differently. Don’t always start with the tune, or the altos, or the first verse. Teach the song with ‘la la la’ and introduce the words later.

3. I’m out of my depth here!

There will come a time (it happens to all of us!) when you’ll feel lost, inadequate or out of your depth. Don’t panic! Make sure you have some kind of support or peer group available. Join an organisation like the NVPN for instance, or have a good friend who you can moan at. Find someone who knows something about music, not necessarily a singer/ choral director. Find someone who knows nothing about choirs, or someone who runs a regular yoga class. Cultivate other choir leaders in the area.

You may find that your musical knowledge is lacking, so find a good teach-yourself book, or go on a course. ‘Professional development’ (which is the posh name for it) is vital in order to keep you nourished. There is often funding available for this (I got arts council funding to go on two courses: harmony singing and song writing). The NVPN run two courses just for people who want to run Natural Voice choirs. There is the basic one-week starting course (valuable even if you’ve been doing it a while) with Frankie Armstrong, and also a Carry it on course especially for those who need a little refresher later down the line. There are plenty of other courses available from a wide range of organisations: choral conducting, teaching songs, etc.

As you become more accomplished as a choir leader you might want to try your hand at arranging songs yourself. My advice is to just go for it! The proof is in the singing. You will soon find out if a song works! You don’t really need much musical knowledge. By the time you’ve taught a load of harmony songs, you will have developed an innate sense of how harmonies work. If you do decide to take this further, again you can find courses on song arranging for choirs (e.g. Ali Burns runs a song writing course each year).

Don’t worry if you feel that you have less musical training or knowledge than some of your choir members. You were the one who had the courage and initiative to set the whole thing up! You’re taking all the responsibility and people will be willing you to succeed. Ignore the person who keeps talking in jargon in order to show off (or conceal their own fears), but cultivate the person who has perfect pitch or a better sense of timing than you. Maybe promote them to ‘section leader’ to take responsibility for people singing the same part as them.

4. How do you teach songs?

I will be writing an entire post about this subject in the future: How to teach (and learn) a song by ear. I'm assuming that you'll be teaching songs by ear. Teaching people with a score in their hand is a whole other thing! For now, I’ll just mention a few things.

  • Make sure you really know the song before you teach it. Rehearse at home. Use a multi-track recorder. Make sure you know each part equally well. Make sure you know the song before you teach it!
  • Break each song down into easily manageable, separate parts.
  • If you’re teaching harmony songs, make sure you don’t leave people hanging around too long before you teach their part – build the whole song, with all the harmonies, up slowly.
  • You don’t have to do a whole song in one session.
  • Keep revising the song, again and again. It takes a long time for a new song to bed in.
  • Make sure you have a means of giving out clear starting notes. I use a chromatic pitch pipe (i.e. one that has all the notes in the scale, not just, say, guitar or violin string notes), but you can use a tuning fork (if you’re really clever!), a portable keyboard, or a piano if you have access to one. Don’t worry about giving all the starting notes to each part and taking your time over it. Even the best conductors do this!
  • Don’t hand out lyric sheets too soon or everyone will have their heads down in a piece of paper! Either stick to simple, repetitive words, or put lyrics on the wall.

5. Putting a session together

As time goes by, you will settle on a suitable structure for each session. Bear in mind though that you’ll want a balance of familiarity and novelty (see above).

Here are some things you’ll need to consider:

  • keeping a register?
    Will you be keeping a record of who comes each week? If so, how? Will you do it or can you delegate (it takes up time!)? What about collecting money? Keeping track of names will help you build up a mailing list for future publicity as well as being able to keep in touch with choir members.
  • how to deal with latecomers?
    There will always be latecomers. No matter how often you read the riot act, no matter how important the rehearsal, there will always be latecomers. Make sure you are always on time or you won’t have a leg to stand on! Some people suggest starting on time no matter who is there. That way people who are late feel that they are missing something. However, in my experience, it is precisely those people who are late who could do with the whole warm-up session! Another idea is to just crack on with a brand new song at the start, before the warm up, so latecomers will feel left out. The most radical solution is to just lock the door and not let them in!
  • how many songs per session?
    It is possible to keep each session totally self-contained and just teach one or two songs, then brand new ones next session. This works best with choirs who don’t meet each week, perhaps have longer than two hours, and don’t ask members to commit to more than one session at a time. If, like me, you run regular weekly sessions, then you can spread song learning over a number of weeks. I always like to have two or three on the go, plus revision of some from earlier in the term, plus a few ‘oldies’ at the end of each session.
  • will we have a break?
    If you do have a break, I think it’s best to fix when it happens in the session and how long it lasts. Stick to that as a routine. Maybe have a bell or some claves to summon people back after the break.
  • how long is a warm up?
    A warm up is always too long, or too short. Some choir leaders have a half hour warm up or more, whereas others hardly bother. You will find a wide range of needs within your choir and you won’t be able to please everyone! If you do, say, a 10 minute warm up, some people will get bored and find it long and tedious, whilst others will love it and want more.
  • voice training, vocal development = confident singers
    If you run your choir on a regular basis, like weekly, then you can (and should) incorporate some kind of vocal development into your warm up. This voice training will pay off when it comes to song learning and song performance. Build on it week on week. Include tuning exercises, interesting scale exercises, challenges like walking whilst singing, small group singing, etc. – keep it fun!
  • rehearsal vs. normal session
    When (and if) you have a concert coming up, you’ll need to rehearse the songs that you’ll be singing in some detail. However, don’t let the spirit of your fun, relaxed sessions go out the window entirely. Some people who come each session might not be doing the concert. People who love your relaxed approach to teaching songs might stop enjoying themselves if they end up constantly drilling the same song and seeing you lose your rag when it’s just not working! Remember: it’s only a concert.
  • new members
    Don’t forget new members. Keep an eye on them. What will they do when you’re singing oldies (you don’t want them to feel left out)? What if they, in particular, are struggling with learning? Make sure you check in on them regularly until they are really part of the choir.
  • keep people informed!
    It’s important to find an effective way of keeping all choir members (even lapsed members) informed of what’s happening. Some choirs produce a regular newsletter. Some choirs have a members-only section on their website. Some choirs email their members often. Some choir leaders have a parish notices’ section around break time during each session. This is the time to let members know about session times and dates, when holidays are, forthcoming concerts, local singing workshops available. Keeping in touch regularly both inside and outside sessions helps to maintain a feeling of community and belonging.

6. I’ve run out of songs to teach!

Now that you’ve started a choir, your antennae will become super-sensitive and you will notice songs in places that you’d never noticed before. It’s good to keep attending singing workshops as this reminds you what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and it also introduces you to new songs. Listen to the radio, CDs, check out the internet, buy song books, nick songs from other choirs and choir leaders. You will soon end up with more repertoire than you know what to do with!

7. Whose choir is it any way?

There are many advantages to being the sole boss of your choir. You have no one to answer to, and you can make all the decisions yourself – you will have absolute artistic and administrative control. However, the disadvantages can be that it is a lot of responsibility and very hard work! (See 4. Can I do it alone, or will I need help in the Forward Planning post for more discussion.)

One ideal would be to be able to have complete control over the choir, but to have some help. If you have a very, very successful choir who can afford it, then you can simply employ some administrative help (or website help or graphic design help). Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to most of us! You may be able to get the occasional grant to help with one-off projects such as promotion (website or poster design).

Another possibility is to get voluntary help. There may be people in the choir with specific skills who can offer their help. Some people like taking the money and keeping lists. Some people like to organise the Christmas party. The drawback of ad hoc voluntary help is that you might not like what they come up with (e.g. poster design) and if they don’t deliver on their promise, or miss a deadline, you don’t have much leverage.

A slightly more formal approach to enlisting voluntary help is to draw up a constitution and elect a committee. There are plenty of suitable choir constitutions available out there. You can usually get hold of an existing choir constitution and tailor it to your own needs. The people then elected to specific roles are somewhat more accountable, and because they are visible to the whole choir, they may feel more responsible when carrying out their duties! The possible drawbacks are if a plonker gets elected, you might be stuck with them for three years or so. Or conversely, you may get a fantastic committee, but people will have to stand down after a certain period.

Whichever route you decide on, you must make it very clear who ‘owns’ the choir (its name, website, recordings, etc.) and who makes the final artistic and administrative decisions.

8. What next?

Now that your choir is up and running and going along swimmingly, it’s time to think of the future. It’s always good to have something to aim for or a choir may stagnate.

You might decide that you’d like the choir to do some public performances. Make sure you ask the membership first! Many choirs have a regular series of concerts each year. It gives people something to work toward and a sense of achievement afterwards.

Keep introducing new repertoire. Experiment with a type of music that the choir has never done before. You don’t know, they may end up liking it!

Think about possible choir exchanges, foreign or otherwise. You host them, then they host you when you go and visit.

Perhaps you can commission a composer to write a song especially for your choir.

Make your own CD. You can quite easily get hold of decent mobile recording equipment these days. Find a hobbyist or someone starting out and set up a recording session. Or if you regularly record your concerts, you can put together a live CD.

Constantly keep an eye out for new sources of money. This might give you an idea for developing the choir in ways you hadn’t thought of.

next week

Now that your choir is up and running, it’s time to look at what might happen down the line. Next week I’ll introduce you to Octavia and the choir which grew and grew. You can maybe learn some lessons from her experiences.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Sunday, December 07, 2008

How to start your own community choir 6 — The first session

You’ve done all your forward planning, figured out how to finance your choir, found a suitable place and time, and got the word out to all and sundry. Now all that remains is to actually run the thing!

Here is what you need to consider:

  1. planning
  2. arriving
  3. the session
  4. debriefing

1. planning

Before you start you first session you will need to plan it out in some detail. At the beginning of your career as choir master, you will need to plan every single moment of the session. This may take you a whole day, but as you get more experienced, it won’t take anywhere near as long. Even now, after more than 25 years of teaching (and 11 years of leading choirs), I still plan the warm-up in considerable detail, writing down the specific exercises and order for each session. I also spend quite a while planning which songs to do and in which order to teach them.

You’ll need to figure out a warm up (not too long, not too short – both physical and vocal), some simple rounds or chants to get people singing, and a few songs in harmony parts. I will be writing a series of posts about warm-ups in more detail in the future: Preparing to sing. A great resource for short, easy to learn songs, is the new book from the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network: To grace the earth. 64 songs with written scores and teaching CDs all for £25. Available from the NVPN website.

As far as sourcing songs in general, you can look at an earlier post of mine: Where did you get that song, where did you get that song? I hope to write a longer post in the future covering online sources for free and cheap song arrangements.

So you’ve planned the session, got any sheet music you need, found something to give starting notes (if there is no piano in the venue), arranged where to pick up the key, got some tea and coffee, printed off a sheet to use for people’s contact details, produced some fliers you can hand out in order to get more singers, and anything else you can think of.

2. arriving

And now the time has finally come. It may be a cold, rainy autumn evening, but you have to get off the sofa and turn up to the venue to welcome your new choir members. Make sure you get there in plenty of time: it will look bad if the leader is late for the first session! There may be more traffic than you anticipated or it might take you longer than expected to park. You may have to go to an unfamiliar house to pick up the keys. It might be harder than you thought to unlock the church hall and find the light switches.

Now that you’ve arrived and opened up, you need to make sure that new choir members can find the place easily. Maybe you need to put a sign on the outside door? Perhaps you’ve brought a friend with you for the first session who can stand at the door and guide people to the right room.

You’ll need to set up the room as you want it. Make sure it’s warm enough, especially if people are going to be sitting around for any length of time. Or if it’s the height of summer, perhaps open a few windows to let some air in. Make the place comfortable. Adjust the lights, maybe move some furniture. Set out chairs if you need them (you did make sure to ask for chairs when you hired the space??!!). What configuration will you be working in? A circle? In rows? Working in a circle has many advantages, but can become unmanageable if the group is too large. Standing when singing is preferable, but people may need to sit when they get tired, or if you’re doing a lot of talking. If people are going to sit whilst learning, point out that if they sit forward in their chairs it will free up their diaphragm and help with breathing.

You will be nervous this first session, hoping that someone will actually turn up! People will begin to arrive. Some people always come early, some will always be late. That is the way of the world. Greet people as they arrive. They will be even more nervous than you! Get their names. It's easier to learn names one by one. For thoughts on learning names in larger choirs see Getting to know you, and for name games see The singers shall remain nameless. Either keep a register each session or at least take down their names and contact numbers for your mailing list. Create a friendly atmosphere and introduce people to each other as they arrive. You may want to have refreshments available for this first session, or have some recorded singing playing gently in the background.

Will you be having a break? If so, tell people in advance. Note that if you let people have a tea break of ten minutes, say, it will end up being half an hour unless you keep strict control! Bring tea and coffee and make sure the water is hot at the right time. Don’t make too much of a mess as you’ll have to clear up afterwards. Get people to wash up their own cups. Will you be charging for refreshments? If so, make it clear. Some people (me included) just have a short toilet and water break in the middle of the session. This is also a good time to make any announcements. Some people have a refreshment break at the end of the session so that people can socialise. Others go to the pub (which one? let people know that they’re welcome to join you in the pub).

3. the session

Some people will have difficulty finding the venue or parking, so maybe don’t start exactly on time this first session. When you figure that most people have arrived (you did ask people to let you know if they would be coming didn’t you?), you can start the session. Begin by introducing yourself and explaining what is going to be happening. Some people may have stumbled in by mistake expecting the pottery class! Give them a rough idea of your approach and philosophy, how a typical session might look, and how the next few sessions will shape up. Mention commitment (is it drop in or regular commitment?), money (when, how and what will people be paying?). Will you be strict about starting on time?

Don’t make the introductory talk too long: people have come to sing. You might even dispense with such a talk at the start and do it later. Kicking off with a fun warm up and some simple songs is often the best way to break the ice.

Do a physical and vocal warm up to begin. Keep it light and fun without any technical terms. Games and children’s songs always go down well! Get people laughing and being silly together and their inhibitions will disappear. Start with some simple rounds with only a very few words. Then when the round is working, point out that people are now singing in harmony! Be clear when teaching the songs. Break them down into manageable chunks. Don’t focus too long on one part or the others will get bored and restless. Incorporate more than one part as soon as you can so that people get used to singing and hearing harmonies. Give lots of positive feedback. If anybody gets anything ‘wrong’, just get them back on the right track gently. Don’t be over-ambitious. This will all be new to everyone, so you can afford to go over things slowly and several times. Aim for a few completed songs, no matter how short and simple. You can then sing them in their entirety at the end which will give people a real sense of achievement.

4. debriefing

At the end, point out what people have achieved. Let them know how well they’re doing. Remind them of the time and place for the next session. Make sure they’ve given you their contact details. Ask for feedback on the session. Ask them to let their friends know and point out how long you will still be taking on new members.

Then go and lie down in a darkened room and congratulate yourself on a job well done! When you have a moment (don’t leave it too late) make some notes about what worked well, what things you found hard, what things the group found hard, what things really didn’t work at all. Then make changes so things will be better next time.

next week

After the shock of the first session, you realise that you will have to keep on going, so we’ll look at Carrying on next time.


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