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:

Chris Rowbury


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