How to be a choir leader Part 2: What sort of choir will you lead?

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the motivation to become a choir leader. Once you’ve dealt with the ‘why’, it’s time to think about the ‘what’. If you decide to start your own choir, as opposed to taking a position as director of an existing group, you have the luxury of deciding what sort of choir you want to lead. That’s great, but it also throws up a lot of issues to think about.

It’s all about YOU

Many factors will inform your decision, and we’ll come to those in a minute, but your first consideration has to be yourself, both as a choir leader and as a person. What sort of work do you want to do? How much time do you have to devote to this project? Will starting a choir be a fulfilling experience that builds on your musicianship, or will you simply be piling too much onto your already groaning plate? Put your own well-being right at the top of your list when you’re planning this project, and keep it in mind when you’re looking at all the other criteria in this section. Better to acknowledge limitations now, whether they relate to time, money or skill, than end up as a big ball of stress wishing you’d never started.

You also need to think about your skills as a person and as a musician. What are you good at? What do you find challenging or scary? I’m not suggesting that you should shy away from a challenge, but it’s important to play to your strengths and to think about your purpose. If you’re a nurturing type who finds ultimate fulfilment in helping others, perhaps you would suit an all-comers community group, or a choir that supports people with particular health or social issues. If you’re a brilliant technician with an ear for detail, perhaps you would be most suited to a choir whose members want to improve their musicianship or enter competitions. The important thing is to think about all this in the planning stages and be explicit about what you want. Okay, we don’t always get exactly what we want, but at least if you’re aware of your ideal, you have a chance to make choices that will get you as near to it as possible.

What’s it for?

In some instances, budding choir leaders will know the answer to this before anything else. If you’ve been asked to form a choir for a school or a church, you’ll already have a pretty clear idea of the purpose of the group. If you’re starting completely from scratch though, as Christine and I did with Total Voice, you need to think this through. Our friend Jo formed a choir whose raison d’être is to raise money for local charities. Symphony choruses are formed to support the work of a particular orchestra. And think of all the groups that get together to sing a particular style of music, be it barbershop or madrigals.

Who will be in it?

This is where your planning process can get a bit more complicated. You need to start balancing your desires and ambitions against what is possible and desirable for the community you are hoping to attract. Your gut might be telling you to start an auditioned choir with the sole purpose of performing music of the modernist period of the early 20th century. Brilliant. If you’re located in London, Berlin or New York, that might work just fine. If you’re living in rural Wales, not so much. Take a close look at the demographic of the area you want to work in. Who, realistically, is going to be singing in this choir and how will they find you?

The devil’s in the detail

Once you’ve got the basics in place – where will the choir be located and who will sing in it – you’ll need to do some more detailed planning and start thinking about budgets. Here are some additional questions and how they might affect the viability of your project.

Will you use scores or learn by ear? There’s a wealth of public domain choral music out there, but if you’re going to sing music that’s in copyright, you’ll need to think about the cost involved. Will you charge your singers a fee that covers the cost of sheet music or arrangements? Will you ask them to buy their repertoire individually (either through the choir or not)?  If you’re going to buy sheet music, how much are you going to need to spend in year? It could be a significant amount.

Will your singers need to be able to read music? The more particular the skills you’re looking for in your singers, the more limited the pool from which you will be drawing. That brings us back to the demographics issue mentioned above. Can you run the choir you want to run in the place you want to run it? If you’re going to work from sheet music, but you’re not going to stipulate competent music-reading as a requirement of your singers, how will you teach the music? Note-bashing in rehearsal (can be very tedious and you’ll need more rehearsals for each performance)? Rehearsal tracks for home study? (takes time to prepare and probably has an associated cost)?

Will you audition? This is similar to the last point, but you also have to consider whether people will be willing to audition? It could turn away prospective singers who are simply too scared to put themselves through an audition (and I’ll tell you from experience, it doesn’t matter how much you tell people “it’s not an audition, just an informal chat so I can hear your voice” – they’re still terrified!). Additionally, there will be costs associated with running auditions, possibly a venue, accompanist, music etc. How will you cover those costs?

Will you perform? Some choirs, a minority, just get together to sing for fun and have no interest in performing. Most will expect to perform or compete in some capacity. I’ll cover performance considerations in more detail in a later post. For now, make sure you keep in mind that whether you perform for fun, to raise money for charity, to earn a fee or for any other reason, there are financial and legal issues that you’ll have to address.

Where will you rehearse? The bigger the choir, the harder this question is to answer. A small ensemble might be comfortable rehearsing at a member’s house. A symphony chorus of 150 will really only fit in a concert hall. Most venues will have associated costs. Some may not be available all year round (eg school halls). As well as logistical considerations, there are musical ones. Are the acoustics conducive to singing? Will you annoy the neighbours? Selecting the right rehearsal venue could be critical to creating a successful choir.

Will you need musicians? If you’re going to need the services of any musicians (most probably a piano accompanist), you’ll need to pay them. There’ll probably be a ‘going rate’ for local accompanists and you might be able to ask around to find out what you can expect to pay. You’ll probably also need a ‘plan B’ for when you regular accompanist is unavailable. If you’re going to perform regularly with a band or orchestra, when and where will you be able to rehearse together? We can just about shoehorn our contemporary choir into our rehearsal venue, but if we need any live music, we have to hire an alternative space.

That’s a quick run-down of the kind of questions you should be asking yourself when you’re setting out to plan a new choir. It can all seem a bit daunting, but it’s better to face all the issues now than realise a year down the line that what you’ve planned can’t work in reality. It’s great to be creative and passionate and to want to fill the world with music. It’s no fun being creative, passionate and bankrupt.

In Part 3 – using contacts and networking to get your choir off the ground.

Comments on How to be a choir leader Part 2: What sort of choir will you lead?

  1. Avatar zena taylor says:

    Do you know the legalities of when a choir wants to do covers and video themselves, what are the requirements before placing them online on Youtube or their website or social media?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Zena. We’re not copyright experts, and it will depend a great deal on where you are in the world. As a general rule, you can upload copyright recordings to YouTube, but you’ll need to check the details in your country with a licensing body or media lawyer.

  2. Avatar Keith W says:

    Where can we find the public domain choral music? Your articles are very helpful!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Hi Keith. I use

  3. Avatar Liz says:

    I have come very late in life to the position of trying to make a living by facilitating music instruction. Your article has given me clarity as I continue developing a framework of instruction based on reality.. Thank you!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      You are very welcome Liz, and best of luck.

  4. Avatar Lesley Joosten says:

    I love your articles…they appeal to all levels of leadership and give very honest and positive ideas. Thank you!

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks Lesley, that’s very kind of you. May we use your comment in our testimonials?

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