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.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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