Sunday, February 09, 2014

Joining an established choir: a guide for new singers

Joining a new choir is a bit like going to big school: it’s exciting, but a bit scary and it will take a while to learn the ropes.

First day at school
photo by VisitCopenhagen

Here is a guide to help you take your first few steps as a new singer in an established choir. Next week I’ll be writing a guide for choir leaders and choir committees on how to ease new members into established choirs.

It’s hard to join a group that’s been working together for some time. No matter how welcoming and friendly people are, you will always feel a little bit like an outsider at first.

It takes a while to learn the way things are done, where the toilets are, the style of the musical director, whether there’s a break or not, if you have to bring your own water, where you should stand.

Challenges range from the mundane to the creative, but they are all challenges nonetheless.

Here are a few ideas that might help you make the transition a bit easier.

  • buddy up – many choirs have a ‘buddy system’ in place where somebody in your section acts as a support to help you learn the ropes. If there is no formal system, some friendly person will probably take on that role. If not, just ask. Most people will be flattered and glad to oblige.
  • take time to choose your part – some traditional auditioned choirs test your vocal range and you are ‘allocated’ to a part. Most community choirs leave the choice up to you, and some even encourage you to swap parts for different songs. Don’t be too quick to decide which part you belong to. You can easily get stuck in a part that is wrong for your voice (see But I can’t sing that high!).
  • make friends with singers in other parts – it’s inevitable that you will chat with and get to know the other singers who stand with you in your own part. It’s a little harder to find opportunities to socialise with singers from other parts. Some choirs have social events which make this easier, but if not, don’t be shy to go up to people in the break and introduce yourself. Unlike a party, at least you know you have a shared interest (see Getting to know you).
  • don’t hide at the back – it can be overwhelming when you join an established choir and your first instinct can be that everyone else knows more than you and sings better than you. There is then the tendency to hide at the back. The downside is two-fold: you become invisible and never get to know the other singers, and you will struggle because you are effectively on your own when learning a song.

    But if you stand in the thick of things, you can get to know the singers around you, and their confident voices will help you learn your part quicker and act as a support (see Don’t stand too close to me! – finding the right place to stand in your choir).
  • don’t try to learn all the old songs – an established choir will often have a huge back catalogue of songs that they’ve learnt over the years. The temptation can be to try to catch up as quickly as possible and learn the whole of the choir’s existing repertoire. Especially if a concert is coming up and there are a lot of ‘oldies’ included.

    Resist! Take things at your own pace. Just learn the songs that the choir is studying at the moment, and if you want to start catching up, pick just one song at a time from the back catalogue that you really, really like and learn it in your own time. Most choirs support you in this with recordings, sheet music, etc. (see Helping new choir members learn the old songs).
  • try not to compare yourself with others – it’s easy to think that because you’re new that you’re automatically a beginner compared with existing choir members who are experts. Because they are used to the musical director’s ways, they might pick new songs up quicker than you. Because they know the old songs, they’ll be confident when they sing them. Because they’ve been coming for ages, the warm up will be familiar and not too challenging.

    Stop! There will be a range of experiences and talents in the choir. Some singers who’ve been coming for years might still struggle with new songs, not have much of a range, and find the warm ups challenging. On the other hand, there might be singers who have only been in the choir a few months yet have the most wonderful voices and seem to pick up new songs with ease (see You are not alone – most people in your choir think they can’t sing well).
  • take the pressure off: don’t perform too soon – you will inevitably get excited when your new choir’s next concert comes up. But the danger is, because you’re a new member, you will take the whole thing far too seriously, end up putting loads of extra work in, lose sight of the bigger picture and then everything stops being fun.

    If you DO decide to do a concert, be realistic and only sing those songs that you’re very, very comfortable with. You can always sit out the ones you don’t know. There’s no shame in that. In fact I wish more singers WOULD sit out the songs they don’t know that well (see Don’t sing what you don’t know or don’t like)!
  • make an effort to go to the pub – even if you don’t drink, if choir members go to the pub after rehearsals or concerts, make sure you join them, even if it’s only for the first few weeks. It’s a great way of getting to know other singers, especially those who sing different parts. You can catch up with choir gossip, find out how confident and experienced people really are, get some hints on how to make the choir work best for you, and find out what everyone really thinks of the musical director!
  • don’t put yourself forward too soon – learn to feel the ‘culture’ of the choir before you start volunteering for things (solos, committee posts, section leader, etc.). Wait until you know what kind of choir it is that you’ve joined. Also, be patient as you might alienate existing choir members if you seem like a ‘know it all’.
  • it all takes time – there will come a day, all too soon, when you’ll feel like you’ve been in the choir forever. Time seems to go really slow in the first few rehearsals when everything is new and you don’t know anyone. But hang in there: it gets better.
Next week I’ll be writing a guide for choir leaders and choir committees with some ideas for how to make life easier for new singers joining your choir: Joining an established choir – a guide for how choir leaders can help new singers.

further reading

You might find these other articles useful.

Raising the bar: singing with people who are more experienced than you

Ask not what your choir can do for you – ask what can you do for your choir

You are the most important singer in your choir

How will your choir cope if you don’t turn up?

Handy hints for hesitant singers – 10 tips for singers new to choirs

How to be a good choir member

From the back of the choir 1: first steps – the personal story of someone joining a new choir

what’s your story?

Have you joined an established choir? What were the hardest things you had to deal with? What helped you the most? Any hints for other singers joining an established choir? I’d love to hear from you, do leave a comment.

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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