How to inspire and motivate your Choir

Motivation needs to come from the top, and in the case of a choir this implies the conductor or musical director.  Regardless of whether you are dealing with a professional paid choir or an un-auditioned community choir, the basic principles of how to manage and inspire your choir remains the same.  I’m going to look at 5 ways you can inspire and motivate your choir.  These are by no means the only ways and I plan to explore some aspects of this topic in greater detail in another post.

Understand your role

In order to motivate your singers, you must first understand your role and position within the choir.  A choir leader or musical director is ultimately in charge.  Even where there is an accompanist or committee in place the choir leader is often the only person receiving a renumeration for his or her efforts and as such not only has a position of power, but one of significant responsibility. How you choose to deal with this responsibility will ultimately shape the development of your choir and also has a large role to play in terms of their motivation and inspiration.

Power is something which, when used correctly can influence people and/or events.  But power, whether granted or assumed must be used correctly.  If positive leadership is given then you will gain raport and respect from your choir.  If power is used in a negative manner this is likely to alienate your group and any relationship will be left in tatters.

Have a clearly defined goal

It may go without saying, but one of the most obvious ways of motivating any group of people is to set goals.  But, beware of the “grand plan”.  Ideas are great and often to be encouraged but always make sure you have something to back that up.  Starting a choir rehearsal with the big announcement “this time next year we will be singing on the television in front of millions” is all very well if you have already made such an arrangement and are confident it will happen.  If this is just something you are dreaming of, then keep it quiet until it is more realistic.

That said, sometime a shared challenge is an inspiration.  “Within 6 months I would like us to be able to sing x, y and z all unaccompanied”.  In this scenario the implication is that you will be working on something over a period of time and the expected outcome is a positive one. This gives your choir an idea of what to expect, but they will also realise there is work to be done in the interim period in order to achieve the stated goal.  Therefore, setting a goal alone is not enough. You need to also map out the route which needs to be taken in order to ensure the goal is achieved.

Introduce New Music

An eminent singer once said to me, once you’ve learnt a “party piece” go and perform it to everyone.  There is a lot of sense in this.  Some music may take quite some time to learn and many hours in rehearsal.  Given all that effort, it’s important to make sure you get enough opportunity to perform the piece in order to justify the time spent on it!  This is one of those situations which requires a careful balance.  On the one hand if you introduce new music this will give your choir a fresh challenge and a new goal but on the other hand they will also enjoy performing something they know well.

The ideal situation is a large repertoire which is all known well and enjoyed by the whole choir.  This is of course easy to say, but the reality is in a larger choir not everyone will like every piece of music you learn and in order to get to the position of a large well known repertoire you have to put in many hours of rehearsal.

My solution is to publish a list of the new music you intend to work on over the next few months.  This tells your choir what they can look forward to. But as you learn pieces look for opportunities to perform them while you are learning the next new piece.

Perform at every opportunity

My view, which is not necessarily universally acclaimed, is that all choirs are ultimately performance choirs.  That is, they exist for the purpose of performing songs in public to an audience of some sort.  In cases of professional choirs I cannot think that any would not agree with this statement. However, with community choirs, whilst many members would jump at the chance to sing in public there may be others who just come along to the rehearsal on the basis of it being a night out and chance to socialise with their friends afterwards.  Different people join different choirs for different reasons.   I still maintain the ultimate goal is to perform your music in public.

This doesn’t always have to be a full concert. There are many ways a choir can get out and perform. For new choirs with a limited repertoire sometimes just joining in with a concert as a warm up act or singing in your local shopping centre is enough to show what is possible.  There are also many residential and care homes who are always grateful for choirs and musicians coming along to entertain their residents. When I started the Pewsey Belles, the first public concert we gave was in a nursing home and we have been invited back every year since.  It may not be the greatest venue on earth, but the audience and staff are appreciative and it gives the choir an opportunity to sing in public outside of the rehearsal space.

I will discuss the challenges of public performance in another post, but the main challenge for a lot of amateur choirs is the notion that you have no second chances.  Once the backing track or accompanist has started, thats it, there’s no going back!

Be enthusiastic

This seems rather like stating the obvious, but over the years I have been to a few choir rehearsals where the musical director clearly would rather be somewhere else or simply is just going over the same old ground and perhaps getting frustrated by the lack of response from his or her choir.  The danger of this, is that your choir will sense this and if you are frustrated, they will be too and neither of you will get anywhere.

Sometimes it’s not easy.  It’s a cold evening, you’ve already had a long day but instead of sitting down in front of the fire with your favourite tipple you have to go back out in the cold to a freezing hall in order to teach your choir a new piece which they just aren’t getting.  It’s easy for me to say oh just get a grip and be enthusiastic, but sometimes it’s not that easy.  Any choirmaster (myself included) will tell you that some rehearsals are not as good as others.  We’ve all, at some point, come away with the feeling that despite best intentions, actually that rehearsal wasn’t really the best it could be.

The way I deal with this is preparation, which brings us full circle back to my first point about setting goals.  If you set out with a clear plan as to what you are going to rehearse and know what you are expecting then often this simple notion will be the inspiration you need to make choir practice exciting and invigorating.   Always remember, you are in charge and your choir are looking for leadership.   If you turn up at a rehearsal and say “what shall we do tonight?” then instantly most of the choir will lose interest.  Always remember, if you have had to force yourself to go back out on a cold and gloomy winters night, then everyone else has too!   Turn up with a clear plan and suddenly with the right attitude even a simple warm up exercise can get people smiling and enjoying themselves.