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:

Chris Rowbury


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