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:

Chris Rowbury


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