Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exactly who’s in charge of my choir?! – how to deal with change

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:

“The church I work for is presently in talks of amalgamation with two other churches - one is smaller, the other is the ‘Mother’ church. Both congregations are great but totally different. What advice do you offer when amalgamating groups?

The ‘Mother’ church is steeped in traditional music and most members are unwilling to change to anything more modern (that is within the last 25-30 years).

I have a problem with committees TELLING me what has to be done, and how, who and when. I don’t mind suggestions but ultimately it is my decision along with the minister, as to what we can or will not do.”

Ah, committees and big organisations. Doncha just love ’em?!!

Although the question comes from a church context, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who’ve been in a similar situation when the organisation or committee that runs things starts to interfere with artistic decisions, or when two different choirs amalgamate, or when a new musical director takes over, or when a big influx of new singers joins the choir and upsets “the way we’ve always done things.”

change is good!

The first thing to realise is that when two choirs (or congregations or audiences) amalgamate, or when a new musical director takes over a choir, things will change. It is inevitable. So the sooner people give up the idea of “this is the way we’ve always done it”, the better!

Changes like this are a wonderful opportunity to discover something new. Not the way Choir A did things, not the way Choir B did thing, not the way the previous choir director did things, but a new, third way that is different and more suited to the new situation.

Think of the amalgamation as an opportunity to shake things up, dust things off, and make things generally better. This is a wonderful chance to re-examine what your aims are, to think about how things have been done in the past and if there are better ways of doing things, to reinvent this ‘new’ choir that you have on your hands.

take charge with your vision

There will always be grumblers and stick-in-the-muds who don’t want change. Some of them may well end up leaving because they won’t accept change. Let them go – it’s their loss! You can’t run a choir by consensus. The best way is to have a strong leader with a clear vision and that’s what the choir members sign up to.

As a new choir leader (or choir leader of a newly amalgamated choir) you will need to take on board the opinions and tastes of members (send round a questionnaire, sound individuals out, find out who the ‘opinion makers’ are – sometimes they have the loudest voices, but often a minority view). But you can’t please everyone!

Make a plan which incorporates the views of the majority of members, but also add in your own personal taste and ambitions for the (new) choir, and maybe completely new elements(songs, warm ups, rehearsal methods) which are new to ALL choir members. In that way you won’t encourage any division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the ‘original’ choir and the ‘incomers’.

whose choir is it any way?

Of course, this all assumes that you (the new choir leader, or person who inherits the newly amalgamated choir) are free to make your own creative and artistic decisions. But what if there is a committee overseeing you, or you feel that one of the choirs in the new amalgamation somehow has more ‘clout’?

I’ve written before about this topic before in Whose choir is it any way?

A choir is basically its members and the person who leads them. You need both. The choir wouldn’t exist without either, so you need to find the balance between the different demands of leader and singers. Any committee, arts centre or governing body is incidental to the business of music-making. A choir can exist without them!

A lot depends on the relationship between the choir’s leader and the governing body of the choir. Sometimes a choir leader is employed by the committee or arts centre, in which case there should be a contract or at least some kind of agreement. If there isn’t, now is the time to meet and thrash one out! If there is, then you know what is expected of you and you need to abide by it, or leave the job.

Sometimes a committee can begin as a helpful, supportive body which helps the musical director do their job well. But sometimes particular individuals on the committee can be forceful and it ends up becoming quite dictatorial. Some people love meetings, being on committees, and having power!

If you’re clever, there should be written into the choir’s constitution something which prevents strong individuals from taking over a committee, or stopping a committee from interfering too much in the choir’s artistic work. If that’s not there, maybe it’s something to address at the next AGM!

keep talking!

Above all, there needs to be clarity. Keep communication channels open between all the interested parties (singers, choir leader, committee, minister, arts centre, etc.) and try to resolve who is responsible for which element of the choir.

Has anybody else been in this situation? What was it like when you amalgamated with another choir? Have you felt that your committee has been too dictatorial? What changes occurred when your new musical director took over? Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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