Monday, February 12, 2018

Leading your first ever singing group – a complete beginner’s guide

I am often asked for advice from people who want to start a singing group, but have absolutely no experience.

kids singing
photo by The U.S. Army

Or sometimes people have been asked to start a workplace choir or to take over their church choir activities. Here are some tips to get you started.

starting from scratch with no experience

Does this sound familiar?
“I have been asked to lead the church choir activities. I have no formal training in music, but I have sung as part of the church choir for several years.”
Or maybe this?
“I am trying to start a small singing group and I have about 12 to 15 people interested. I don’t have any musical experience or much of a voice, but I do enjoy singing very much.”
Is this something you’ve been asked?
“Since I play the piano a bit, I’ve been approached to start a choir where I work. I have never done anything like this before although I love to sing. I’ve no idea where to start!”
Most people’s reaction to these situations is: “Help!”

Don’t panic. It’s easier than you think.

Think of yourself as the facilitator so you don’t take on the whole responsibility for the group’s success or failure. Have realistic aims and, who knows, you may exceed them.

Each of these three situations is slightly different.

In the first two you’ll already know the singers, whereas in the last one you’ll have to recruit some.
In the first one you’ll be taking over something that already exists, whereas in the other two you’ll be starting from scratch.

In the second one it’s a bunch of friends, all of whom want the venture to succeed. It can be more of a team effort. In the other two there is more of a formal distance between the leader and the singers.

how to get started

However, there is a lot of common ground. Here are some ideas to get you started.
  • what are your aims for the group? – it’s all too easy to start something off and then become disappointed later on. That’s often the case if you’re not clear what your aims are for the group. Maybe it’s to just get people singing and enjoying it. Perhaps it’s to aim towards a performance. Or maybe to simply improve the group’s singing skills. Perhaps it’s enough to get your workplace choir up and running and then you can hand it over to someone else. Or maybe it’s enough to have taken over the church choir successfully so it can carry on as it always has. You’ll need to be clear about your aims so you can make adjustments along the way. See Do your singers know what kind of choir they’re in?
  • start as you mean to carry on – once you’ve set sail, it’s very hard to change course. Make sure you set the group up as you eventually want it to be. If you’re going to take complete charge and do everything yourself, don’t resent it later. If you want it to be more of a team effort, put structures in place early on so everyone knows their responsibilities.
  • find a suitable space – easier said than done! It needs to be affordable, accessible, available when you want it, the same space each time, warm and light, near public transport, have adequate parking, loos, and so on. See Choosing the right space to work in
  • you don’t need an instrument – if you can sing then you can run a singing group. All you have to do is to sing to the group and they sing back to you. Simple call and response, or learning by rote. You can sing unaccompanied quite easily and don’t even need backing tracks. You might want to involve accompaniment at a later stage, but it’s much easier to start with no equipment and no instruments – just a room and a bunch of keen singers. See How can you possibly teach songs without a piano??!!
  • pitch it right – it’s useful to have something to make sure you start on a suitable note (and the same one!) each time. That could be your phone (there are plenty of sound-making apps available), a recorder, a small keyboard, a piano (if there’s one in your rehearsal space), a pitch pipe, a tuning fork, and so on. Anything that can reliably and consistently play the same note. You don’t need to be able to play tunes on it! See How to give an receive starting notes
  • don’t bother with song lyrics – your aim at the first few sessions is to get people singing as much as possible with as few obstacles as possible. Begin with songs that have no lyrics (“la la la”), one word (“Alleluia”) or very simple lyrics (“Amazing grace”). You want singers to focus on singing together and listening to each other, not worrying about word sheets or whether the overhead projector is working. See Easy songs for your choir
  • start simple and work up – no matter what level your singers are at, it’s impossible to start too easy. Even experienced singers can use well-known rounds to work on listening, dynamics, enunciation, etc. Don’t be tempted to start with something too complex – you’ll only come unstuck if you’re not experienced at leading a singing group! See Sing something simple (and see if your singing is as good as you think it is)
  • unison is OK – even if your eventual aim is to sing in four-part harmony, singing in unison can be a good training ground. You can then add simple harmonies later. Get singers used to really listening to each other and getting pitch accuracy. See How to introduce harmony to a group of novice singers
  • don’t be too democratic when choosing songs – everybody has their own individual taste. If you spend too much time waiting for group consensus on what songs you will be singing, you might be waiting forever! Come with half a dozen or so songs to get you going and see how the singers take to them. You can easily take on board individual suggestions further down the line. See Finding songs for the new choir season
  • feedback is vital – feedback to the singers how you think they’re doing (be encouraging!). Ask for feedback about how the session went (ask what went well and what could be improved). Reflect on your own achievements: did you fulfil your aims? If not, why not? What can you do better next time?
Whatever happens, keep things light and fun. Lots of laughter is a good sign! Good luck, and do let us know how it goes.

further reading

Here are some other posts that you might find useful.

How to start your own community choir

What the job of choir leader involves

How to plan and run a singing workshop

Do you have to be a good singer to lead a choir?

Less is more: don’t feel you have to teach new songs all the time

How much should you charge singers to be in your choir?

The nuts and bolts of running a singing workshop

How to set up a choir if you’re not a choir leader

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Chris Rowbury



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