Some thoughts on Running Community Choirs

For almost as many years as I care to remember I have been involved with community choirs in one form or another.  This has been as a choir member, an accompanist and most recently as Musical Director.  I thought it was therefore time to share a few of my own thoughts about how to run and be part of these choirs.

1. What is a Community Choir?

We should probably start by defining what a community choir is. I’m actually not sure whether or not there is an official definition, but here are some of my thoughts.

I believe a community choir is one which is open to all members of a local community and does not require an audition to join.  Sounds quite simple really and this is partly the point.  There are a lot of choirmasters and musical directors out there who believe that everyone can sing and therefore a Community Choir is “for All”. I have to confess that I do not entirely share this view.  Yes, everyone should be given an opportunity to sing and indeed encouraged. However, I don’t go as tar as saying everyone “can” sing. I have, in my time, come across some people who can’t. Not many admittedly, but there are some.

The point however, is that a community choir is open to everyone regardless of their singing ability.

2. “I’d love to join but I can’t sing…”

How many times have I heard this!  Of course, there is nothing wrong with a little modesty in life and I totally understand people not wanting to arrive with too much expectation placed upon them.   But it does make me smile when almost every potential new choir member contacts me and says they would really like to be part of my choir but not sure I’d take them. “I have sung but not since I was at school” or “I’m not really sure I can sing and wouldn’t want to ruin the sound”… I could go on!

Interestingly the vast majority of people who approach me with one of these introductory statements usually turn out to be really rather good and go on to sing solos or lead their section!

3. Auditions

Mention the word audition to anyone in a Community Choir and you can almost see fear spread across people’s faces!  To be honest I don’t audition my choir members because otherwise it wouldn’t fit with the definition of community choir I have just discussed above.  However, if the entire choir is unauditioned and a lot of these people haven’t sung before (or claim they can’t sing) then somehow you need to find out where everyone should be placed.  In very simple terms, can they sing high notes or low notes?

For the majority in one of my choirs this is the closest they get to an audition.  Usually I get people to sing in groups in order to establish whether they should be Soprano, Alto, Tenor or Bass.  Using scales as a warm up exercise is also a useful means by which to establish people’s vocal range.  From this point you can usually put people into their right part and over time most choir members will be able to work out whether they are comfortable singing the parts presented.

4. Fresh Repertoire

One thing I have noticed with community choirs is they love to learn new songs.  This is in stark contrast to your average choral society who will often spend many weeks on the same piece. Admittedly Bach’s B Minor Mass is considerably longer than the average songs I teach to my ladies choir so in terms of numbers of notes, the choral societies probably win hands down!

That said, I do like to introduce new songs on a  regular basis this ensures that music is always fresh and the choir always has a challenge ahead.  Obviously there is a fine line to be trod here. When preparing for concerts I would be the first to say that repertoire needs to be properly prepared. From time to time then when the choirs are busy with concerts I try to focus on the concert repertoire to ensure the choir are well prepared.  As the old saying goes; Amateurs practice until they get it right, Professionals practice until it can’t go wrong.  I like to think that my choirs are somewhere between these two statements – after all I am not claiming to run a professional choir (not yet anyway!).

5. Fun is in the detail

As a classically trained musician, I was brought up (musically speaking) to follow and adhere to the music on the page.  So if the rhythm was a dotted crotchet followed by two semiquavers and then 3 quavers, that is what I would rehearse. I don’t think this is a particularly unusual practice!  However, when running a community choir there is a balance between getting the song right (i.e. following the dots accurately) and producing a performance which is both musically acceptable and enjoyable to perform.

In many ways the oat important thing to aim for with choral singing is being together.  Ultimately this is the principle role of the conductor / musical director.  Indeed this also explains why choirmaster’s are so obsessed with having the choirs watch them!  Ideally I seek perfection but in the absence of that, I would far rather the choir was together at the ends of phrases and sang as one. If the odd wrong note creeps in, well that’s often not the end of the world!