Sunday, October 18, 2009

Whose choir is it any way?

Your church or community centre sets up the concerts. Your committee deals with the finances and the social events. Your musical director teaches and conducts the songs. Your singers turn up every week to create the music.

But who does your choir actually 'belong' to?

role playing

The different roles involved in running a choir are often divided amongst a number of groups or individuals.

At the very least, most choirs have a musical director, a committee and an organisation which hosts them (e.g. a church or arts/ community centre).

However, some choirs — especially large, mature choirs — have many more roles: section leader, repertoire group, accompanist, assistant musical director, librarian, publicist, and so on. Each of these roles helps to define the flavour and public image of the choir as a whole.

i'm the boss!

Usually these roles can co-exist happily with everyone pull together in the same direction. However, sometimes one or more factions within a choir begin to believe that they alone are responsible for the choir's very existence. Without them, everything would fall apart. It is only because of their super-human efforts that the choir has achieved anything at all so far!

This is human nature and people are usually content with just 'knowing' the fact without it causing any friction. For example, all sopranos know that without them, any song will simply fall apart. But everyone also knows that the bass section is the vital element that holds every song together. There is no harm in this, and in fact, it may help people feel proud about their role in the choir and make more of an effort.

The problem arises when these views become outspoken which can result in conflict. The secret to avoiding such conflict is to always have the bigger picture in view.

always look for the bigger picture

If you're given a responsible role to play in the choir, it's obvious that your focus will be mainly on that aspect of the choir's existence. If you're the treasurer, you will look at the choir's activities in terms of money: how much will it cost? how much will we raise? If you're in the repertoire group, you will be concerned with balancing the types of songs that the choir sings: how many sacred songs did we do in the last concert? how long is it since we sang a Russian song?

Although it's necessary to have this focus, sometimes people lose sight of the bigger picture.

  • Just because a concert looks like costing a lot to put on, it may be worth it as good publicity and a confidence-booster for the choir.
  • It's no good planning the repertoire for the next season without asking why our audience numbers have dropped recently.
  • Agreeing to perform for the town's gala concert may well boost our profile, but we're well-known already and the amount of work involved is just not worth the effort.

creativity vs. nuts and bolts

Don't get me wrong: some kind of administration and organisation is necessary for every choir. You will find the type that suits you. But you need to be aware of the balance between the nuts and bolts and daily administration of any group, and the need to create beautiful music.

In any artistic organisation there needs to be a balance between:

fun, freedom, creativity, and artistry;


seriousness, structure, practicality, organisation.

The first of these is about having a good time, and the second is about making sure that things work.

We need both. If things don't function properly there won't be any good times!

Without creativity and music-making, there would be no concerts. Without a rehearsal space, there could be no singing at all. Without free-ranging, fun weekly sessions, people wouldn't want to join the choir. Without someone to collect the money each week, the choir wouldn't be able to cover its costs.

There are several different ways in which this balance can be struck, but the two most common models are outlined below.

different models: lots of cooks

One model of how to organise a choir is to hand out the many different roles involved to a range of individuals and groups.

Why this is a good thing:

  • spreading the load of responsibility
  • good for identifying the different jobs that need to be done
  • no one person is in charge
  • members of the choir feel more engaged

why it can be a bad thing:

  • too many cooks!
  • rivalry between different groups/ individuals
  • easy to lose sight of the bigger picture
  • can create jobs which aren't real

different models: going it alone

An easier solution, with less conflict, is to have just one person responsible for everything. Some choirs, especially smaller community choirs, just have a choir leader - no committees, no assistants, no treasurers.

Why this is a good thing:

  • everyone knows who is responsible
  • one-stop shop for complaints, suggestions, etc.
  • much easier for one person to keep the bigger picture in mind
  • the choir's identity is clearly defined

why it can be a bad thing:

  • that's a lot of responsibility for one person!
  • even control freaks need help some time
  • the job might just be too big for a single person
  • nobody else gets a look-in: it's more like a dictatorship

without whom none of this would be possible

Before we forget, there is one vital element of any choir without whom the choir would simply not exist: the singers!

It's very easy to lose sight of the fact that a choir needs singers more than it needs anything else. It's important to keep those singers happy and on board with any decisions that are made, whether they are about repertoire, finances, concerts or whatever.

But more importantly, each choir member needs to feel some kind of 'ownership' of the choir. They need to feel empowered and reminded of how important each and every singer is.

There are several ways of doing this, some more successful than others:

  • have a committee and regularly elect new choir members onto it
  • have a regular (annual?) meeting with the whole choir to discuss anything choir-related (if you have a constitution, then normally this will be your AGM)
  • make sure that whoever's in charge (committee, arts centre, musical director) can be contacted easily
  • encourage feedback from choir members
  • send out occasional questionnaires to gauge the views of the choir
  • keep the choir regularly informed of any decisions made on their behalf (a newsletter is good for this)

who keeps the balance?

In my view, it's the musical director who is the person best-placed to keep an eye on the bigger picture and make sure that everybody is happy (well, I would say that wouldn't I??!!). Next week I'll look at what I consider to be the roles and responsibilities of the musical director: How to be a good choir leader.

who's in charge of your choir?

Do you know who your choir belongs to? Are you happy with this situation? Can it be made any better? I'd love to hear how things work in your choir and if you have any other suggestions that I could add to this subject. Do leave a comment below.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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