How to be a choir leader Part 1: Why lead a choir?

This is the first of a series of articles that’s going to take you step by step through the issues that you need to address when deciding whether, and how, to make the leap into the world of the professional choir leader.

One of the most powerful motivations that Christine and I had for starting Total Choir Resources was our feeling of gratitude at having found a way to make our living as choir leaders and leave behind our previous careers, an aspiration we know a lot of your share. However, whether you decide to make choir leading your main profession or whether you embark on it in addition to other work, these articles will help you start that journey as well prepared as possible.

Not all of the subjects I’m going to discuss will apply to everyone. For example, you might be looking to find an appointment with an existing choir rather than start your own group. However, all the posts will, I hope, contain helpful information and advice for even the most seasoned choir leaders, and I’d be very grateful if those of you who are already on your choir-leading journey take a moment to share your experiences in the comments. That way, our novice friends can benefit from hearing lots of voices.

So, let’s make a start. Why lead a choir?

Choral singing has never been as popular as it is today. With mainstream television programmes like The Choir, Last Choir Standing, Glee and more recently Pitch Battle showcasing ensemble singing, and community rock and pop choirs springing up all over the place, the word ‘choir’ no longer conjures up images of fusty old choral societies churning out The Messiah for the thousandth time. Watch Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir singing Sleep on You Tube and marvel at how far the concept of group singing has developed in recent years.

Human beings love to make music together

It’s a primal way in which we create camaraderie and community. Perhaps everyone says this about their own particular interest or passion, but there really is nothing like singing with others to instill in us a sense of fellow-feeling. Think of sports crowds singing You’ll Never Walk Alone or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Think of proud or defiant citizens singing their national anthem. Even something as basic as singing Happy Birthday with gusto to a loved one can give us a wonderful feeling of belonging.

Maybe you’re already singing in a choir, but want to have a go at leading or conducting. Maybe you crave a different repertoire or a greater musical challenge. Maybe you just want to get a group of like-minded people together and have fun singing your favourite songs. Whatever your motivation, one thing’s for sure: running a choir will be a life-changing experience, both for you and your singers.

So whether you set out to lead a choir or you have choir leading thrust upon you, I hope you’ll find it as fulfilling and challenging as we do.

In part 2, we’ll ask what sort of choir should you lead?

Comments on How to be a choir leader Part 1: Why lead a choir?

  1. Avatar Mary says:

    Are you aware of any research into how many choirs an area can sustain?

    I live in a city with a population of around 75k, and a rural hinterland of about 250k. Ten years ago, there were a range of church choirs, and five secular choirs. Since then, the number of church choirs has stayed steady, but the number of secular choirs has doubled, and a number of workplace choirs have started also. Recruiting men has always been a challenge – but many of us are now facing issues getting singers in all sections.


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks for your message, it’s an interesting question. Our choirs are in a small village. There are other towns around but the nearest city is about 20 miles away so I’m afriad we don’t have the same potential pool of singers as you to compare. There are two or three choirs in our village, although as far as I know mine is the only contemporary one singing modern rock and pop repertoire. In the surrounding area there are another four or five such choirs we know about.

      Perhaps solutions might be to advertise on local radio, press or hold an open rehearsal to entice new singers to your choir. If you felt it appropriate you could contact other local choirs for a discussion on whether they struggle to find singers but they may not be willing to discuss.

      If anyone else has any comments or feedback on this issue, particularly if you run a city based choir do get in touch.

      1. Avatar Denise Noice says:

        I take my choir “out on the road” to small towns and villages. You will be surprised who is out there and just need a nudge! We are based in a fairly big town and perform there a lot. Churches will let you sing for free and they advertise locally to get an audience. If you are targeting men (which we all are) Cricket and Football clubs are a great place to sing. They have club houses. Once they see men in a group they will join in a “round” and hopefully be hooked.
        Good luck

        1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

          Thanks Denise, some great pro-active ideas for recruiting singers, particularly men.

  2. Avatar Stella Moore says:

    I am very confused about copyright for arrangements and performing rights too. We recently asked about singing in an informal way in the gardens of a stately home and were met with questions about licence, so would be VERY grateful if you could shine some light on this. As to arrangements, i know some choir leaders who don’t seem to bother at all about permission for arrangements even when running wirkshops. What are your thoughts? I must say, i feel that if we are singing locally and only collecting for charity it seems a hassle to get permission for everything! However, i do appreciate how much musicians are taken for granted.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Stella. We deliberately don’t tackle copyright and licensing issues on Total Choir Resources, firstly because it is, as you say, a very complicated subject and we’re not media lawyers, and secondly because our audience is global and every jurisdiction is different.

      Having said that, I’m quite surprised that the stately home you refer to didn’t have a performance licence. I would imagine that they would do functions, such as weddings, where music would be played and that they would be licenced. PRS for Music is a good place to get advice in the UK.

  3. Avatar Maestra says:


    I hope your articles will include comprehensive and detailed information about the issue of copyright for community choirs, covering learning, performance and recording (your legal background may be useful here?).

    I am certain that many choir leaders would welcome this and find it hugely helpful.

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi. Thanks for commenting. We’ve certainly thought about writing something about copyright. The only problem is that every jurisdiction is different and our audience is all over the world. We’ll certainly consider it though, so thanks for the suggestion.

      1. Avatar Iain says:

        There seems to be a lot of information for the US, but I find relatively little for the UK. For example it seems that some interpretations of the law would allow groups to perform covers of songs on payment of PRS fees, without having to pay the publisher, because a licence to arrange is implied in the licence to perform someone else’s work. The question could be asked whether writing down or photocopying the arrangement for your internal use counts as publishing, for which fees to the publisher would become due.

    2. Avatar Keith W says:

      We are just in the process of forming a church choir. We want to run a community singalong session just to see who is interested. However, we are struggling to determine which licenses or permissions are needed for which song. The songs we want to do are not all hymns. This is so frustrating as there seems no clear point of reference to be able to work out what needs to be done.

  4. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

    I’m going to be covering a lot of issues about being a great choir leader in this series. I hope you enjoy it.

    1. Avatar Beth says:

      I love creating harmonies and hearing how they sound when the choir sings them.

      1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

        Hi Beth,

        I couldn’t agree more, it’s so satifying to hear the harmonies when the whole choir sing them. I then love showing them off to an audience at performances, such a buzz!

  5. Avatar ebenezer says:

    I need a lecture to become a Good choir leader

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