Sunday, March 31, 2013

How to run a choir without driving everyone nuts: the first seven years

This is a guest post by Betsy Sansby who co-leads the One World Community Choir in Hopkins, Minnesota, USA along with Alan Dworsky.

One World Community Choir
The One World Community Choir

Read on to find out what Betsy has learnt so far in the seven years since she started her first community choir.

less is more

The first year I started my choir I was eager to teach all the songs I’d just collected.  Each week, I devoured new material like a stack of hot pancakes I simply had to share. I spent every waking hour that I wasn’t working at my real job, sniffing around for more, more, more pancakes!

It was a wild ride, but ultimately, it not only proved unnecessary and unsustainable, but crazy-making for everyone.  I was a wreck all week long, and my choir members suffered from overload. Finally, Al (who was watching from the side-lines), insisted that I ask our choir members how much new to old material they wanted each week.

I was stunned. Almost everyone had the same feedback:
“It’s stressful to have to learn so much new material each week.”
The consensus was: 75% – 80% old to new material each week.

What I’ve finally learned is that my bunch of choir members were looking for a fun, relaxing, and only moderately challenging conclusion to their work day. They weren’t looking to add another stressful activity.

What I discovered over time was that the more we worked on songs we already knew, the deeper our understanding of them was, and the more nuanced we could be in our rendering of them.

For example, in our first 10-week session (six or seven years ago), I taught Follow the Heron, a song I’d learned after taking a lesson in Edinburgh from Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart. I’m so sick of it by now that I can hardly stand singing it, but it’s the most beloved and often requested song we do. And to be fair, it’s one of the most beautiful songs we do, not just because it’s a lovely song, but because the choir knows it by heart, and sings from that place of knowing.

I now introduce only one bit of new material each week—unless I toss in a quick round or chant. But I’m also teaching more challenging material than I was coming out of Community Choir Leadership Training (CCLT).

I started with all the songs I’d learned during my training, and from a week-long family singing camp (the Swannanoa Gathering near Asheville, NC) I had dragged Al and our daughter to, in order to gather songs for the start of my new choir. If I were still teaching just simple songs and chants like Tuli Tuli, I’d probably have to introduce more songs to keep people interested. But I recommend not teaching a million short songs. That’s fine for a workshop, where you won’t have a chance to hone anything. I’ve started teaching more interesting songs in smaller bits. More on that next.

teach songs twice as slow and repeat twice as long

I don’t read music well, but I do have a quick ear and good aural memory. Al has been great at slowing me down during choir sessions. The choir loves having Al there to offer comic relief when my intense forward momentum threatens to leave half the choir in the dust, gasping for air.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to move on after teaching a line or part, only to have Al shake his head broadly at me and motion for me to have everyone repeat the part many many more times before moving on.

This has been very helpful. We now sing phrases over and over, as if each phrase were a stand-alone chant. We don’t move on until 90% of the section has got it down. It’s made a huge difference, both in the sound of the choir—so much richer—but also in the tone of the group—so much more playful and relaxed with each other.

always invite all sections to sing each part as you’re teaching it

So the basses, for example, are never standing around waiting to sing until you’ve taught the other sections their parts. This is a tip I learned from a CCLT reunion. So much more fun for everyone to be singing the whole time, and to get a feel for how all the parts are woven together.

get folks used to learning by ear ...

... even if you have sheet music.

Since I have this amazing friend in the UK who likes to score my songs so she can teach them to her choir, I usually have a score to work off. It makes it easy for me to check starting notes or tricky parts, but if I hand out scores before people have learned their parts, they get too attached to them.

They can learn parts faster with a score, because I can teach longer phrase with more foreign words. But I have a hard time weaning them off a score, once they’ve gotten used to having it as a crutch. For me, it’s better to teach shorter phrases by ear, take longer to teach a song, and not have people buried in a score, instead of paying attention to me or listening more closely to each other.

model the kind of behaviour you want your choir to emulate

I remember meeting another choir leader at the CCLT reunion. She told us that her choir members know that choir time is for singing, not talking or visiting. When people do visit or talk during choir, she stops what she’s doing and glares at them.

That’s not my style. I want us to take the music seriously—meaning that I want us to sound as good as we can. But I am more interested—especially as time goes on—in building a community that welcomes new people, and cares for, and supports each other—inside and outside of choir.

don’t dumb it down

Because the music I love is often rhythmically challenging—6/8 time vs. 4/4—or has slides and what I call ‘tweedles’, Al is always encouraging me to simplify parts.  I have steadfastly refused to do this. A Scottish song with tweedles will have tweedles. A Cuban song in 6/8 time will not be squared off to make it easier to teach.

Instead, I’ve learned to slow down, use clapping, body rhythms or ridiculous gestures or phrases to get phrases right. For example, there is a West African rhythm Al and I learned as “I want my Grapenuts now!” This phrase is rhythmically difficult to explain, but simple to learn with the phrase.

Okay, that’s it for now. My real job calls. Hope this is helpful.


P.S. You might be interested in two teaching CDs for community choirs that Betsy has made. They are available as CDs or as downloads from Al and Betsy’s Dancing Hands website.

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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