Monday, January 13, 2020

Can anybody be a choir leader?

As you probably know, I believe that everyone can sing.

But can anybody be a choir leader?

As a member of the Natural Voice Network, I believe that everyone can sing (so you don’t need singing experience to attend our choirs) and there should be no obstacles to music-making (so we don’t audition or use unnecessary technical jargon or sheet music).

That doesn’t mean to say that everyone can be a professional singer or perform to a high standard. Just that everyone has a singing voice and should be free to use it. No matter what experience people have, they can be gently encouraged to sing in tune and enjoy their own unique voice.

But what about choir leaders? Can anybody set up and lead a choir?

In principle, yes. There are no obstacles to starting your own choir, no exams to take, no minimum level of experience needed.

You might be an awful choir leader though and people may not stay in your choir. But there’s nothing to stop you trying.

Jules Addison wrote a blog post some time ago entitled Anyone can run a Community Choir, but should you pay for it?

Jules even mentions me in his post:
“From what I have seen and read, [Chris] is quite possibly one of the most talented and inspirational choir leaders there is.   I have a feeling (sorry if I’ve got this wrong Chris) that he didn’t train as a musician, but instead has a natural ability to help people sing.  To put it simply, Chris Rowbury knows everything there is to know about setting up and running a Community Choir. All his choirs are extremely successful, and members benefit from his unique teaching methods as a result of his complete understanding of choral harmony & texture.”
It’s always nice to be recognised in this way. It seems that I’m an OK choir leader even though I didn’t have any formal musical training.

However, Jules has a beef with those choir leaders who:
“admit that when they started, they knew nothing about how to run a choir.  It seems that nowadays, most community choirs are viewed as an easy way to make money …”
But that’s exactly how I started (see Becoming a choir leader – it’s a long story!).

We all have to start somewhere and unless we’re planning on a career leading a professional group of classical singers, there aren’t many courses out there to help. There are some training opportunities for learning how to run community or “singing for fun” groups, but not many. Most of us learn on the job.

But should we ask people to pay us for the privilege of being our guinea pigs?

In my experience, most novice choir leaders charge just enough to cover their costs (venue hire, heating, publicity, etc.). Some community choirs charge their singers as little as £5 per week for example. Not exactly an easy way to make money!

In the early days of leading a choir, mistakes will be made and learning will occur – both for the singers and the choir leader. Small, informal singing groups and community choirs are made up of people who are caring, enjoy the social side of things, and are willing their choir leader on to make a success of things.

Jules writes:
“the one crucial element none of these online resources seem to mention at any point, is the requirement to understand music; let alone read music or have some sort of vaguely relevant qualification.  In fact, I have watched videos intended for ‘wannabe choir leaders’ which suggest you don’t need to know anything about music, you just need a passion for getting people to sing together.”
I agree that an understanding of music is important, but that can be an intuitive, informal ‘understanding’ without reference to any music theory. And yes, a “passion for getting people to sing together” is also vital.

It may be that there are a few individuals out there who think that playing a backing track and getting a bunch of people to sing along is a quick way to make money, but I doubt if there are many. There are much easier ways to make a fortune!

If the people attending such groups are having a good time (even if they’re singing in unison and the person out front is just waving their arms around at random), what’s the problem? A few quid each week for a sing-along and some socialising sounds good to me.

And if a choir leader is really, really awful (see How to tell if your choir leader is rubbish), then the singers simply won’t come back and the whole enterprise will fizzle out.

There is space for all of us. From singing in unison along to backing tracks to formal choirs singing the classics.

So my answer is yes, anybody can be a choir leader – you just need some passion and a love of music (and people).

What do you think? Can anybody run a choir? And if so, should they charge for it?

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Chris Rowbury




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