Sunday, January 04, 2009

How to start your own community choir 10 — Case study: guest post from David Burbidge

As the 10th and final part of the series How to start your own community choir, I’m delighted to present a piece written by David Burbidge of Lakeland Voice (Please contact me if you are interested in writing a guest post in the future!). David is a long-standing Natural Voice Practitioner who runs several community choirs and other singing projects. Here are some of his thoughts on running community choirs.

I do all the admin for my groups and all the teaching.

Years ago I used to hire a lot of teachers and do all the admin myself but then I found I was inviting divas to swan up from the capitol who expected to receive all the glory, take all the money, and treat me like the household drudge. But strangely on a few occasions when I did some teaching for holiday centres abroad I found I was being paid very little on the grounds that I was really only one notch above being on holiday, and that it was the organisers who were doing all the work who should receive the lion’s share.

Now I do it all myself and nobody complains.

Privately run as opposed to run by arts centre

My local singing groups are mainly made up of singers who came through my local arts centre course Discover Your Voice for people who believe they can’t sing. Once they believe they can, they move on to my group Lakeland Voices. They then continue paying me roughly what they paid at the arts centre — although unlike there, I do allow people to come for one-offs, but of course they get a huge discount if they pay for the whole term which most of them do. I generally say it’s a 10 week term (as it is at the arts centre) — but there will be other free events, which most terms bring it to the equivalent of a 13 week term. This has the advantage of allowing late starters to pay for the full term and not feel that they’ve missed out.

Also because I run this group rather than the arts centre it means we can go on our outings to sing in candlelit caves and by waterfalls and up on the fells without the centre freaking out about their insurance (and lost revenue in their bars).

There isn’t a great deal of admin. I don’t need to advertise much as we’ve been going for about 10 years and word of mouth always works best — though I do put stuff on local websites. I have an email group which all the singers join (specifically for the choir) and I send them background information on the songs we sing with links to information on the internet, information on forthcoming events, words for the songs, some instruction on singing issues as they arise. I find this very useful as most people can’t take in all the information in a session along with learning new songs. I’m a fast touch typer so this doesn’t take long and I enjoy finding out about the songs for my own benefit.

Home learning

I make a learning CD which has about 30 of our songs on it which people buy for about cost price. Then by email I can let them know which ones to practice before the next session if they’ve learnt it before (or to familiarise themselves with it if they haven’t already learnt it) .

I also always invite them to ring me if they miss a class so I can sing their part down the phone so they can catch up. You’d think I’d be really abused with a system like that, but it’s very few people who do ring for this service and I’m always pleased when they do ring as it shows they are keen.

Other than that, I just keep a list of the names of those who have paid, how much they’ve paid, and a record of their contact details in case I have to cancel a session in an emergency.

Managing the space

I ask the whole group to help with chairs (as I do at concerts and public singing workshops. It takes about 3 minutes if everyone does something). Also I bring teas, coffees and biscuits and cakes and then ask for volunteers to help bring it out. At concerts we generally put it all onto trays and bring it round to the audience and sometimes those who are helping have just come for the concert.

We rent a lot of youth hostels (or rather independent hostels as the YHA has turned into some sort of dreadful B&B organisation) for our weekend events and there we follow the old youth hostel code of everyone mucking in together. Sometimes this works so well and there is such a spirit of cooperation I think it helps the singing, and the singing helps the participation. It also means that I can charge less as I don’t need to pay anyone. Sometimes some people don’t do their bit, but I’ve never heard anyone complain. With some groups I have done a rota which of course prevents the people who help being the same ones every time, but also I always feel a bit disappointed when I have to do this as it shows a lack of trust. Harmony singers are mostly good hearted responsible people. We have a lot of activists, pacifists, humanists, charity workers, environmentalists and if they are not when they start, generally go that way.

My ideal groups are those where everyone helps each other and the running of the event without needing to be asked (I say in the introduction that some assistance will be asked for). This works well with adults. I’m not sure it would be so successful with some of our younger youth groups though they usually have leaders with them anyway.

I have started using Lucia and Anika, first class cooks, for doing our meals. I used to just ask for volunteers which didn’t work so well (although sometimes did!). As I live with Lucia and Anika is my 22 month old daughter, this keeps it in the family.

I also only used to do vegetarian food, but since we’ve started doing all the exchanges with the Slovene choirs, and since the chairman of the Town Twinning Committee is the local butcher, and since the Slovenes won’t eat anything unless it was walking about and breathing, we’ve started doing meat dishes (or rather Lucia has) as well. I still find it all slightly repugnant. We always cater for other special needs.


I don’t work well on committees. I was in some NVPN committee once and missed most of the meetings, was late for the few I did attend, and then fell asleep when I was there, which is pretty par for the course re: committee meetings. So I now I don’t even try to be part of a committee. But I am impressed by those who do manage to work in this way.

So ... I’m not sure if what I lead is a community choir, probably not a Community Choir in the official sense of the word.

But I do have an open access policy which includes people who can only make it for one session, those who have never sung before, and those who don’t speak English (who we provide translation for). We learn all our songs by ear (although on some of my weekend events I do occasionally use written music, and certainly with the west gallery music) and sing songs from communities around the world where singing together in community is the norm. Occasionally I will email people the written music if they need it to learn the part but then insist that they don’t bring it to the session (and if they do, I very rudely take it off them!).

I am also completely unashamed at moving people around. So if we are learning a song which some people know and others don’t, I always ask who doesn’t know it? And then make sure they are sitting next to two people who do know it (when sitting in a circle this is easy to do — much harder if we were in rows). Also with beginners and the less confident who tend to sit on the edge of their part in the mistaken belief that this is like sitting at the back of the classroom where no one can hear them (but in reality is the most difficult place to be as they are now exposed to the singing of another part very near to them) — with them I will occasionally move them into the centre of their section. They worry that they will be putting people off if they are in the middle, but usually if they are supported by good singers (who tend to gravitate towards the middle of their part) they sing much better. We will often sit to learn longer songs, stand to sing them or to learn short rounds and move around as much as possible.

I don’t stop people talking when other parts are learning their part unless they are being very disruptive, or if that part is not very confident. And also I keep an eye out on new and vulnerable singers and make sure they are connected to others. New people I will always introduce the group to and them to the group and to individuals living near them, or who have similar interests.

We have an old man in our group who occasionally makes inappropriate comments perhaps of a slightly sexist nature, which the group usually ignores on the grounds that he is 80 and perhaps not likely to change. But once, we had learnt a round and were walking around the room singing it (in that milling about way we sometimes do) and I noticed a new singer who had her fingers in her ears so she could hear her own part and also noticed that the old man was purposefully singing very loud leaning towards here, not to help her but to distract her. So I shook my finger at him and he stopped. I guess what I’m saying is that I tend not to be an authoritarian unless it’s really needed (in my view that is!).

Leadership styles

Leaning towards a non authoritarian style of leadership has it’s problems in that sometimes we have people (usually men) in our groups who perceive the absence of a strong leader as a power vacuum that needs to be filled by them. I don’t mind this so much if they are really helping the group, and try and respect any useful intervention they might be making, but usually I find it highly irritating and find myself wanting to lock antlers with them. Strangely it happens less and less these days. Perhaps I have a clearer sense of my own authority now. With overt power struggles I always enlist the group asking them what they want. There are few people who engage in a power struggle who would demand that the group does what they want rather than what the majority of people in the group want.

We sing songs from around the world and host several visiting choirs and visitors from around the world. I do encourage as much interaction amongst the singers as possible and only feel responsible for teaching the songs and managing the space. For their emotional woes I encourage them to support each other (which of course they do).

Once we’ve learnt the songs, I then join the singers in the circle — either bass or tenor depending on who needs the most help. Sometimes the bigger group of basses need someone confident with the part as 10 basses singing the wrong notes can be worse than 2 tenors not being heard much. I only conduct if it’s needed — they seem to keep the time very well without me.

I suspect the quality of the teaching and the singing suffers because I have so many other roles in the group as well, although if I know the song really well, I find I can be incredibly distracted and still teach it well. I taught Nickomo’s four part arrangement ‘I am a River’ in the pouring rain on a walk down Dentdale besides the river Dee and while we were waiting for the Sportsman’s Inn to open (where we then sang it round the open fire along with other songs, before continuing our walk over Blea Moor via the Settle Carlisle line to Ribblehead, where we were staying).

Foreign tours

I have found on foreign tours that these work best with a well established group. Touring with VoiceMale in Slovenia this year was a dream. I couldn’t have hoped for a better group who loved everything we did and were full of praise for everything I organised (although I did get that old feeling of being the household drudge again — a rather unfortunate need for glory, I think. My friend Trudi tells me this is a male thing and is why women generally don’t fight in wars). We sang with several community choirs in Slovenia, performed concerts while the Queen was there (though our tickets had sold out so she couldn’t get a seat), went into schools and met singers there (and taught them to play conkers which we had strung before coming to the class and even primed some of them to break on the third or fourth hit). A wonderful event.

Conversely, the scratch choir I toured with in August which I led was more troublesome, with endless complaints about dogs barking, or that they couldn’t pitch from my portable Casio keyboard (which I only use for my own pitching!). Also terrible backseat driving (which VoiceMale didn’t have at all) as I was driving the minibus. And I now never lead groups at Christmas as I did one year. The emotional needs are just too much. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Ah, this is Tuckman’s theory of group process about how groups go through a storming period before they create norms and then perform.” And I think you’re right, hence why I prefer established groups to some extent. And of course there are things I can do to help that storming period through (but generally don’t).

Singing for singers

One other thing I find helps is to remember who the group is for and what they’ve come for.

When I worked as a journalist on a newspaper we were always being reminded by our editor to think of the readers. This is because many of us would just be writing for each other, for other journalists — that witty turn of phrase which does nothing to help the story but will get a good laff in the pub at lunchtime. So I tend to ask myself if I am choosing songs because that is what the singers will appreciate, or because I think they are clever. Sometimes I find teaching songs which most of the group already knows is very welcome by all the singers, even though I’m always thinking “Oh I can’t teach this one, she already knows this one.” If people do know songs, I try to respect this, and perhaps even ask them to help the others in their part with learning it. I don’t think people in the group mind having a little responsibility during the session as long as they are not overall responsible.

I love what I do and surprisingly make a living at it. Though people tell me that the minimum wage level of income I have at the moment won’t be enough when my daughter is no longer 22 months old but is demanding ponies and ballet lessons. I’m not really an anarchist and anyone coming to any of my groups would probably be very surprised to know that I hold any of the ideals of anarchism. But I do find that by having this at the back of my mind, that the best groups are unled ones, then it keeps me closer on course for leading the group in a way which is more about serving them and less about fulfilling my needs.

I often say to my groups (and I have heard this many times from other teachers as well) that harmony singing is the perfect model for democracy — that everyone is encouraged to be different, to be empowered in their difference, and it is that difference which creates a richer whole, and a whole where they fit in, rather than need to be separate in their difference. But musical directors are also a good model for dictatorship and autocracy with their need for absolute obedience from, and control of, the group.

I find it helps to remember that we work between these extremes.

David Burbidge

Smithy Cottage, Farfield, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5LW, England

Email: Tel. 015396 21166

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“And this shall be for a bond between us: that we are of one blood you and I;
that we have cried peace to all and claimed fellowship with every living thing;
that we hate war and sloth and greed, and love fellowship ...
and that we shall go singing to the fashioning of a new world.”
William Morris


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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