Monday, September 11, 2017

Taking over an existing choir: a guide for musical directors

Choir leaders don’t last forever. There will come a time when a choir will need a new musical director.

A Village Choir, 1847 (Thomas Webster)

Here is a brief guide for those who find themselves in the position of taking over an established choir.

It’s always hard to take over an established group. They will have established their own repertoire and particular ways of doing things. It can be a daunting proposition trying to fill the shoes of someone you respect and admire.

Here are a few pointers which may help.

  • do your research – make sure you know what you’re taking on. Go to concerts by the choir, chat to the musical director who’s leaving, introduce yourself to the committee, meet choir members, familiarise yourself with the style and repertoire of the choir.
  • softly, softly – don’t wade in and straightaway try to put your stamp on the choir
  • adopt existing repertoire – make sure you know the existing repertoire and be prepared to take it all on board. It’s easier for the choir to work with familiar songs. After consultation you may all agree to drop some oldies and add new songs.
  • consult current choir members – find out as much as you can about how the choir has been run to date: warm ups, rehearsals, performances, sheet music policy, etc. Have friendly chats with current choir members to get a feel for things.
  • get people on your side – there may be a certain amount of resistance from existing choir members. Singers in choirs tend to be very conservative and don’t like change. See if you can find some choir members who think in a similar way to you and are keen to move forward. At the very least you’ll have those who recruited you on your side!
  • work with and not against – many choirs have committees. It’s important to work with them and not against them. Use diplomacy to get them on your side. Wait until new committee members sympathetic to your plans have been elected. Take things slowly: it’s important to have the committee’s support.
  • be patient – you’ll want to put your own stamp on the choir, but you need to be patient until the choir have got used to you and your ways.
  • make very few changes – when it comes time to introduce changes or new ideas, don’t introduce too many at once. Drip feed changes into the choir and wait until they’ve been accepted before adding more.
  • respect ‘flavour’ of the choir – any established choir will have a particular flavour, from their recruitment policy to choice of repertoire. Respect this flavour as it’s what has allowed the choir to survive for so long and given it its current identity.
  • bring your own ideas – on the other hand, it will be frustrating for you if you don’t introduce your own ideas and personality. Inevitably the flavour of the choir will change slightly, but there’s always a balance. If you’re not happy then the choir won’t flourish.
  • don’t try to be someone else – be yourself. There will always be those who say “We’ve always done it like that” or “Our last musical director didn’t do it that way.” You can’t be that other person, you can only be yourself.
  • don’t take it personally – it’s inevitable that some people will leave the choir. You can’t please everyone and there will be some for whom you will never match up to their last MD. Don’t take it personally. Singers join a choir because of your vision, there will soon be new recruits to replace any losses.

If you’re taking over a choir this season I do hope some of these ideas may help.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve taken over from someone else. Do you have any other tips? What worked best for you?

next week

Next week I'll be looking at how you can cope as a singer when somebody new takes over as choir leader.

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Chris Rowbury



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