Sunday, August 16, 2009

The job of being a choir leader

A version of this appeared as an article in the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network’s newsletter in 2006.

As a singing workshop and choir leader I have an incredibly easy life. I can get up when I want to and have no work commitments for four days of the week. I’m my own boss and can choose when I work and how much I do. I have holidays when the schools do, which means a long summer break each year.

I’ve just been away for a week to Suffolk, and have come back even more tired than when I went! How come? It was a restful week and we didn’t do anything strenuous.

So I got to thinking: how much do I actually do when I’m working? Perhaps it’s more than I thought. Maybe it’s like teachers and other high-energy, stressful occupations – when you eventually stop, you crash. Most teachers seem to get ill in the holidays when they let go. Perhaps it’s adrenaline that keeps us going during term time, and as soon as we have time off our bodies let go.

Until recently, when people asked me what I do, I felt slightly embarrassed to say that I just taught songs for two evenings a week, two hours at a time, and ran singing workshops three Saturdays each month. It seemed a pathetic amount of work for a grown man!

Then I realised that, of course, the “work” is not just during the contact hours, that in fact I am not just a teacher of songs, but a PR guy, a publicity designer, copywriter, PA, project planner, administrator, song arranger, office manager, website designer, recording engineer, marketing officer, song researcher, committee member, musical director, music transcriber, accountant, performance & rehearsal scheduler, community musician, filing clerk, stationery purchaser, fund-raiser … amongst other things.

In fact, I have a very FULL TIME job! I work evenings, weekends, bank holidays, and half-terms. Yet it doesn’t feel like “work” at all. When I’m arranging a song or designing publicity or writing this on a Sunday afternoon, it’s because I want to. It has to be done at some point, but I enjoy doing it, it’s creative, and I can choose when to do it.

I thought it might be interesting for those starting out (or for those who’ve been doing this for a while who didn’t realise how much work they actually do!) to give an idea of what a typical week might be like for a freelance teacher of songs/ musical director/ community musician. This is (some of) what I did during a fairly typical week shortly before I went on holiday:

  • transferred a concert recording to my PC and edited it into separate tracks
  • dealt with several requests to buy some of my song arrangements
  • researched and contacted a range of venues in Lincolnshire and Coventry for autumn gigs
  • updated my website with workshop information
  • started to look for a suitable local venue for a workshop I’m running in October
  • answered a backlog of emails asking general questions about singing
  • planned and ran a workshop in Shropshire
  • finished writing and arranging a new song about the summer
  • liaised with a Stamford venue regarding an early September gig
  • archived last term’s work with my choir and updated song lyrics and information for choir members
  • ran choir on Thursday evening
  • rehearsed with scratch choir for Warwick Folk Festival on Monday evening
  • started funding application to be part of Coventry’s Peace Festival in the autumn
  • agreed dates for more workshops next year
  • confirmed rehearsal space for two projects for the autumn: Vox Mondiale and Foot and Mouth
  • put in several invoices for recent work
  • publicised my Beach Boys workshop in September
  • sent out orders for choir CDs
  • maintained mailing list (via website requests)
  • designed flyers and posters for Vox Mondiale autumn gig
  • updated my Facebook page and Twitter account
  • started to collect songs for Woven Chords’ autumn term
  • kept Woven Chords’ website up to date
  • wrote blurb for Farncombe Estate open day
  • made a recording of separate parts for a song arrangement that I sell

When I look back at that list it just makes me feel tired! Most of us get through huge amounts of work like this every week, but it’s only when we write it down that we realise how much we actually do to maintain our modest lifestyles, and that being a “community musician” or “choir leader” is not just about the music.

The job of choir leader

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you may be interested in several other posts I've written about choir leadership.

I’ve looked at the basic job definition, the roles and responsibilities and the notion of the ‘benign dictator’ (What the job of choir leader involves).

I’ve considered how you might assess a choir leader and whether the ends justify the means (How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish).

I've listed what I consider to be the six qualities needed by any good choir leader.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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