What does ‘community’ mean for your choir?
Before you start a community choir, the very first thing I would recommend is deciding what community the choir belongs to. Many community choirs belong to a location. Some choirs are about gender, sexuality, age, political affiliations. Some community choirs have a commitment to providing support for people in need, such as homeless people, domestic violence survivors etc, or people with specific health challenges. Articulating what ‘community’ your choir belongs to will inform how you plan the logistics of your choir. It will also help singers know if the choir is for them. I think it’s really really valuable to know, from the start, ‘community’ does not have to mean that you cater to every single possible person. Trying to be all things to all people makes your choir unfocused, and makes it hard for you to start, establish and keep running the choir.
When and where for rehearsals
Being clear about who your community is will allow you to make decisions about rehearsals. One consideration that is actually quite important is rehearsal time. For example, evening choirs might not suit everyone - if you want to have a choir for retired people, they can rehearse during the day, and singers may very much appreciate not having to go out in the evenings. If you want busy city workers, a lunch time ‘drop in’ choir may be a great idea, or rehearsals within school hours may be appreciated by moms.
Knowing the community you are part of will also inform who you approach as a rehearsal venue. Libraries, schools, community centers, churches, scout halls, even pubs and cafes are worth approaching. All organisations with a usefully sized and shaped room, geographically and philosophically well placed in your community are worth approaching. It’s amazing how many people are interested in helping a community choir and will offer free or very cheap room hire for you. It’s just a question of getting on the blower and asking around. I am a huge fan of sorting out day, time and place for rehearsals before you start recruiting, because people will make a decision about coming based on when and where rehearsals are. In a perfect world, rehearsals are near a cafe or a pub so choristers can socialize together afterwards. This is a really valuable and important aspect of community choir. (more on this further down).
Have a navel gaze - who are you? what do you want?
To run a successful choir, you have to enjoy it, so you have to know what sort of music YOU want to do, what sort of community choir you want to be directing for eg choirs range from unison singalong groups through to auditioned choirs that devote a lot of resources to mastering sophisticated choral music. Would you like an acappella group (makes logistics so much easier, but presents other challenges).
You do not have to be all things to all people, and if you don’t decide for yourself what sort of choir you want, the pushiest choristers who turn up will decide for you. In my twenty years of experience running community choirs whenever I’ve taken a group where they have been in charge I have not felt effective as a director, I haven’t enjoyed myself, and i haven’t stayed. A community choir cannot be all things to all people, but it needs to be right for the director. Particularly if you’re the founder, you get to make a lot of decisions about how you want the choir to be. So what DO you want? What music do you want to teach? How? Do you want a low pressure group that is about everything being easy, or do you want a group that focuses on developing and achieving? Do you want to work towards performances or have the rehearsals be an end in themselves?
Knowing the community you’re drawing from and your own interests will help you decide on a name for the group, that helps identify the group. Don’t sweat this, I think marketing types would say don’t worry too much about capturing every aspect of the choir in one name and just call the choir something catchy.
Now you can put together a flier and a newsletter article
When you know who the community is, when and where rehearsals will be and what sort of choir you want, you can put all this into a few sentences, make a nice flier and do a poster/flier run in the area, and email any suitable local community groups and ask if they would distribute a pdf flier too. You could look for aligned facebook groups from your community and ask if they would also share the message, and approach community newspapers in the area.
“Razzle be Dazzle Singers is a new choir for the chronologically advantaged (ie over 50) focused on singing the big hits from Broadway. We have fun and don’t work too hard. Everyone with a love for showbiz songs and a willingness to wear feather boas at performances is welcome. Rehearsals day, time, place contact….'‘
“Early Early Music Consort is a group of auditioned non vibrato just intonation nerds who sing early music - medieval, renaissance and select obscure baroque - exclusively early in the day. All our rehearsals and concerts are at 5am beside Lake Melody, on every day there is enough mist to shroud us in a veil. We do not rehearse on clear days. We dress in black and many of us own ravens.”
“If you’ve always wanted to sing, and never have now is your chance. Doodle Doot Community Chorus has just started up in Croydon and is looking for adults of all ages who would like to begin singing. Our focus will be on fun, encouraging each other, finding our voices, learning basic singing technique and learning how to sing with others with songs like Bring Me Little Water Sylvie, date, time, contact”
How much you charge in choirs subs will depend on the circumstances of the singers, and what your choir is about, whether you are donating your time, or are looking to earn money and what your running costs are. If you are paying for a rehearsal venue, you will need enough in subs to cover that. If you are buying sheet music you will need enough to cover that. If you are paying for public liability insurance you will need to cover that. I’m from Australia, and the Australian National Choral Association had a good deal for public liability for choirs. Legally, in Australia singing copyrighted work at a choir rehearsal is considered a public performance, meaning royalties need to be paid to the royalties collecting body of APRA/AMCOS for rehearsals. I don’t know what the laws are in other countries and what the best set up for choir is. I will say, for choirs where money is an issue, public domain sheet music saves stress/money.
I have always charged subs, and always had a published policy that if money is an issue, don’t worry about subs because choir is more important than money. Rarely have i had singers who haven’t happily paid. To keep costs down, I have sent choristers pdfs of sheet music that they have printed out themselves. If you’re really strapped for cash you can rehearse at someone’s house. (This can be an issue for power dynamics though.) In Australia, generally speaking community choirs would be unlikely recipients of grants and donations. Perhaps this is a potential source of income in other countries.
Pick music that seems easy. Songs that are easy will give your choristers confidence. For many community choristers, the rehearsal is the show - the rehearsal isn’t the means to a performance end - the rehearsal itself is the main experience people come for. (Performances still matter, but they aren’t necessarily the primary goal for many choristers, which can be to sing with other people.) So being able to sing songs from beginning to end at every rehearsal matters and comes down to judicious repertoire selection.
It pays to program a rehearsal as if you were programming a concert, and think of your singers as having similar needs to an audience. Variety. Hard pieces (and only have one or two on the go at any one time) interspersed with easier pieces. Make sure to sing through known material and let the choir just roar through it between more hard working sessions. I will write a separate article on suggested repertoire for a new community choir.
If you are used to working with children, you will need to slow down the tempo of your directing/teaching because adults on the whole move through the world more slowly. The older your community choir is, the more marked this tempo change will be. You need to keep your rehearsal moving of course but no one likes feeling rushed and flustered.
The main behavior management issue that comes up in community choirs is chatting. I have two tools for this. Firstly, when we are learning parts I encourage everyone to sing every part or hum their own part. And I tell them the reasons why; it’s good for their musicianship, it’s more fun to sing than just sit there and if they’re singing they won’t be tempted to chat. Or use similar devices: “See those eighth notes on beat two? To help the tenors can everyone else please clap a ta ti-ti ostinato to help them, while we learn their part?” The other tool is break time. Community choristers like to get to know each other and bond and care about each other. And that’s a great thing you are helping to create, as you know people with close human connections stay alive longer! The only issue is, choristers do this by chatting to each other. So give them a time and a place to catch up. A 20 minute break during, or coffee/drink time afterwards. Chat time not only keeps rehearsal time tight, but if your choristers are friends they will keep coming!
When you teach children and model for them, they largely copy you. When you teach adults, for various reasons, the sound they make will be much less an imitation of your voice. This means when you sing along with your community choristers they will not match your singing style. Particularly if you are working with unauditioned and beginner singers who through no fault of their own have not had the chance to develop good technique, you need to be cognizant that if you sing along with your choristers this may well impact on how you sing. This will matter if you end up teaching ten community choirs a week. To keep your voice in good health, which is in everybody’s interest, it’s important when working with community singers, that you model but don’t sing along.
It’s OK to start small, and it’s perfectly fine if people come and go
In my experience a new choir takes a year to feel settled. I’ve had groups starts with only two or three singers, and it’s taken at least a year of recruiting to get a sustainable 12 to 15 committed singers. Singers come and go. Your choir won’t be what everyone is looking for. I had a retired professional opera singer turn up to one rehearsal of my unauditioned community choir. Not surprisingly, she sent a very sweet email saying that the choir wasn’t what she was looking for. I totally agreed. It’s important to be relaxed about this and not panic. I had one woman turn up to a gospel choir rehearsal and announce that she loved gospel music but wouldn’t sing any songs about God. Hmmm. This was early on, in the first year of this particular group, and early in my career, and I was desperate for singers. I made the mistake of not wishing her well finding another group, but instead foolishly tried to source a choir’s worth of secular gospel music.
If your choristers are enjoying themselves they will recruit for you, and they are the best recruiters. So your job is to make the rehearsals worth talking about and they will bring people along. Let your choristers know - guests are always welcome - please bring people you think might be interested. And have a cache of spare folders ready to hand to people who walk in the door.
Nerves are a big thing for adults, performances can be small
Performances give choirs a sense of season eh, often helping to create momentum and purpose in the choir. Often community choristers are well community minded people and can want to share their music within their community. Performances do not have to be a big deal, to be meaningful. If your choristers are new to singing, they are likely to be very nervous to start with, so low key performances will help them develop their confidence. I had a community group who rehearsed on Friday mornings in a community center with a public art gallery attached. On the last Friday of the month, we would sing in the art gallery for fifteen minutes. This was singing in a public space, but not exactly a performance. We did this for about a year. That was how long it took the lovely singers to have enough confidence to sing as well in public as they sang in rehearsal.
I am not a huge advocate of fun meaning the opposite of good - that having fun means choirs can’t work. But I am a huge advocate of the more joy and playfulness you can bring to music making and singing, the more your choristers will enjoy choir and the better they will sing. All of the elements needed to sing well require playfulness and willingness to try. On this, here’s a community choir warming up. We were doing this ridiculous but effective warm up and they looked so marvelous, I took out my phone and recorded them mid rehearsal. What a bunch of darling humans. (shared with their permission.)