I should preface this article by saying that I know a lot of Choir Leaders who run a variety of singing groups which include choral societies, community choirs and chamber choirs. There are some amazingly talented choir directors out there, a great number of whom I aspire to. For example local to me in Bath there is a guy called Matt Finch. He runs a number of workplace and Community Choirs. He even runs choirs in pubs – the ultimate get together and have a sing type choir. He is a hugely talented guy and experienced professional musician with the skill set and qualifications to back up his claims. As a result his choirs are amazing!
Anyone who looks for choirs online is likely to have come across Chris Rowbury. I don’t know Chris personally, other than the occasional online message. But I do know that he works with very different sorts of choirs. His choirs focus on the Natural Voice Method. From what I have seen and read, he 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.
There are of course many other amazing musicians out there who are running some of the best choirs this country has ever seen. However, regardless of how brilliant these people might be, this article is in fact not about them.
I’ve recently been watching some online videos of self appointed choir leaders who have all talked to camera to 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 for someone who has just been made redundant or is incapable of getting a job in McDonalds. I agree that to some extent you do have to see a choir as a business project. There are indeed similarities with the business world. If you charge people to be in your choir, then you need some means to taking and accounting for the money. You probably need to pay for a rehearsal venue and you might need to pay an accompanist.
A degree of business sense, or indeed just common sense, is clearly going to be useful if you are trying to set up and run your choir without any other help. You also need to know a bit about planning and organising events if you are to find concerts and other things for your choir to get involved in.
However, 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 relevent 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.
Consequently, one ‘choir leader’ in her video seemed proud of the fact that when she first decided to start a choir, she stood up and waved her arms around, but didn’t really understand why. But that was ok, because everyone was having a great time and the choir sounded great. For whom it sounded great, was unclear!
And this is the inherent problem with the increasing numbers of community choirs nowadays. To put it bluntly, they are run by people with as much choral training or singing experience as the average rodent. Sure, if you play a backing track to a song people know and hand out the words, the chances are the majority of people will sing along. But does that really constitute a choir? I’m all for people engaging with and being involved with music, at whatever level, and I get the argument that even this sort of choir brings people together to make music. But, if you are charging people to be in a choir then surely you should be doing a bit more than pressing play on a CD player and doing a little dance while your choir sing along!
There are exceptions to every rule and you don’t always need a degree in music or to have achieved Grade 8 on the piano or in Singing to qualify you for directing a choir. Equally, it’s been shown that you don’t always need to read music in order to create a great choir. But this should not be the mainstream. If we are to welcome more people into choirs, which as a result encourages more people to attend live concerts, the role of the choir leader needs to be taken a bit more seriously.
Technically anyone with a driving licence over a certain age can teach a learner driver to pilot a vehicle on the roads in the UK. But that doesn’t qualify them as a driving instructor – hence why the DVLA have strict rules about not being allowed to charge for lessons unless you are a qualified ADI. Maybe we need something similar in the music industry? Sure anyone can stand in front of a choir whilst it sings. But, with no experience or training, should this person really be allowed to charge choir members for ‘choral training’ which comprises nothing more than the self appointed Choir Leader doing a little dance in front of the group while they sing along in a karaoke style?
Jules Addison is Musical Director for 3 choirs. One needs waving at, one requires him to play the piano and one only needs input in rehearsals, with no direction in performance.