Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to deal with problems in a small chorus

Question This post is part of a series of occasional Questions and Answers. Just use the contact form if you want to submit a question.

A choir leader asks:

“I would very much appreciate your response to something that has happened to me with a small group that I started. I have had my 35 member chorus for some years, but a couple of years ago I wanted to do something with better singers, so I auditioned a group of singers to form an eight-person a cappella group.  We have sung together for two years, but now it seems now that it has all fallen apart.

The social dynamics started to take over the group instead of the singing. Also there was a kind of split in the group – with some people wanting to become more of a professional a cappella group and some people not being able to put that kind of time in. What I was imagining was a kind of a small choral group. Do you have any thoughts to share?”

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! There are no easy answers, but I outline 12 ideas below that I think are very important.

When you’re working in a small group, any differences (musical or social) are magnified. There is nowhere to hide!

Depending on who forms the group, there is often a mismatch in what people want the group to be and how they expect it to develop. This is why you often hear of pop bands breaking up due to “artistic differences”. It is very rare for a group of people to come together and share exactly the same vision for a group. If you have a very small group – say four – it may be possible if you’re lucky. But with eight it’s very unlikely.

Like you, I have started several small groups over the years expecting it to turn magically into some amazingly cohesive group of singers all on the same wavelength. It hasn’t happened so far.

The first time I did it, I made the mistake of asking people to self-select (rather than auditioning). I soon realised that people’s self-awareness and opinion of their own abilities far outstrips the reality of what they can actually do. I had to ask some people to leave the group – which was rather painful.

I was left with six singers and I managed to knock them into shape and we ended up making a reasonable sound. However, after a while I realised that I was in exactly the same role as I had with the bigger chorus: teacher, arranger, song-finder, conductor, etc. I had imagined the smaller group would be more of a peer group and we would all share the running, but it wasn’t to be.

I also found myself having to deal with weird dynamics within the group. Sometimes there was am air of dread in rehearsals with people not wanting to talk to each other. I sometimes felt that the group could have done with some kind of family therapy!

I disbanded the group, but three of us (more or less peers) stayed together. I still did most of the sourcing and arranging, but it started to feel a little more equal. But after a while I realised that we all wanted different things from the group so I left. The other two have carried on.

Finally I started an all-women group of 12 singers for which I auditioned. I raised the bar considerably (some of the singers were already in my larger chorus) and really put them through their paces. I cranked up the difficulty of the repertoire, made demands on performance standards, spent a lot of time getting the ensemble to gel, and made it very clear that if somebody didn’t pull their weight, they were out.

In the end, the ensemble really came together and performed to a very high standard. Eventually I stopped conducting them in performances (see Does your choir really need a conductor?) and finally I left the group, encouraging them to continue on their own – which they have done successfully.

From all these experiences I have learnt the following:

  • be clear what you want – if you start a group on your own you must have a clear idea of what you want it to be before you start.
  • you’re on your own – if you do decide to start a group yourself, don’t expect help or support from the others. You’re in charge. People like to follow and don’t like responsibility.
  • it’s a vision thing – people will sign up to your vision. If they don’t like it, they can leave. Leading or starting a group on your own is not democratic.
  • be specific about who can join – decide what the entry requirements to join the group will be and stick to them (be consistent). If you decide to audition, be very clear about what you’re looking for.
  • groups need consensus – if a bunch of you decide to form a group together, talk a lot about it beforehand to make sure you all have the same vision, aims and ambitions.
  • ambitions will change – the direction of the group may well change over time. Allow it to, but keep talking so you’re all on the same page. Don’t make assumptions.
  • you can’t create by committee! – even if you’ve started the group as a bunch of friends, it’s always good to have one individual in charge. You could take turns at leading each rehearsal or allocate clearly defined roles to each person.
  • how to fire people – have clear rules about when someone can be asked to leave and enforce them. Be fair and apply the rules equally to everyone in the group.
  • rehearsals need to be professional – they are not social events. Don’t let personal issues creep in. Socialise before or after the session, don’t try to deal with personal stuff in rehearsal.
  • can new people join? – inevitably people will leave over time. Now that you have a group that gels, how easy is it to introduce new members? Will the entry requirements be the same? Make sure you think it through and discuss with the rest of the group.
  • the group is more than the individual members – it will develop an identity of its own. So much so, that it will eventually be possible for all the founder members to leave and the group continue.
  • be clear what you want – I can’t emphasise this enough. If you start a group off with only a vague idea, then frustration and confusion will inevitably follow.

Have any of you tried to start a small chorus? What kinds of problems have you come across? Are there any major points that I’ve left out? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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