Monday, June 09, 2014

Taking over an established choir – a guide for choir leaders

Choir leaders don’t last forever so there will come a time when a choir needs to find a new one.


If you’re the person who gets the job it can seem daunting to take over a long-established choir. Here are a few tips to help with the transition.

Coming into an established group — whether you’re a choir leader or singer — can be daunting. No matter how welcoming people are, it’s a bit like trying to join a clique. They will have their own ways of doing things, long-established rituals (some of which they might not realise they do), happy shared memories, a familiarity with each other and so on.

I’ve written before about joining an established choir as a new singer (Joining an established choir – a guide for new singers), but now it’s time to write about it from the choir leader’s perspective.

When you take over an established choir you will be worrying about lots of things: will the singers like you? are you up to the job? can you cope with their extensive back catalogue? is it the choir for you? what if they don’t like the way you do things? are you as good as their previous choir leader?
All perfectly normal and understandable. But it’s also exciting and there’s every good chance that it will work out well.

I’ve taken over two established choirs in my own career and both were very different experiences:

  • Each had committees which I wasn’t used to and was very wary about, but they helped me enormously with practical issues.
  • Some singers left one of the choirs because I wasn’t strict enough (go figure!), but I didn’t take it personally.
  • I adopted much of the old repertoire and discovered some fantastic new songs in the process.
  • With the agreement of the singers I changed one choir from women only to a mixed choir.

I’ve also handed over two choirs to other choir leaders, both of whom I knew beforehand and knew would take good care of what I’d spent many years building up. I helped a lot by handing over sheet music, song information, contacts, etc. and was always on hand if they had any questions or problems.

But after a while I just backed off and left them too it. There’s nothing worse than an ex choir leader interfering! They had to find their own way of doing things and I had to let go of my baby.
Here are a few tips that might make your transition a little easier.

  • make sure they’ve got the right person – do at least one workshop with the choir and be interviewed by either the committee or some of the choir members. Make sure you’re on the same page and have the same vision for the choir.
  • make sure it’s the choir for you – do your homework, find out what kind of choir you might be taking over, go to some of their concerts, look at their website, check out their CDS. If you like what you hear, then give it some time and try them out for a while before deciding whether it’s really for you.
  • be yourself – they want YOU, so follow your vision, don’t compromise or try to be someone you’re not.
  • be sensitive to the existing culture – but don’t be afraid to change things. Just because “we’ve always done it like that” doesn’t make it the best way to do things.
  • you are not their old choir leader – you’ll get loads of “we used to do it like this”, “we always had a break at 8.15”, “can’t we do the warm ups like we used to?”, but you’re not that person. Do things your way (but don’t make too many changes at once!). Some people might leave because they don’t share your vision. It’s inevitable and no reflection on your abilities.
  • respect the current repertoire – keep it alive, but make it fresh. Put your own spin on old familiar songs.
  • don’t flog a dead horse – if it doesn’t work out, leave. Give things time to settle in, but if it’s not working for you don’t be afraid to quit.
  • art by committee – make sure you know your responsibilities and what those of any committee/ funding body/ church are. Be clear about who makes artistic decisions like repertoire, concerts, etc.
  • socialise – get to know the choir members socially. If they go to the pub after rehearsal join them, at least for a few times, even if you’re not a drinker.

I hope these tips help. Do let me know if you’ve taken over a choir yourself and what helped you with the transition. I’d love to hear about your experiences. And I respond to every comment!

further reading

You might find some of these other posts useful too. Just click on the title to read more.

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

Whose choir is it any way?

Trying to please all the people all the time

Too many cooks – benign dictators rule!

10 ways to breathe new life into old songs

Keeping a choir happy – you can’t please everyone

How to keep the old songs in your repertoire from going stale

What exactly is the point of your choir?

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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