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Helping small amateur choirs to survive and flourish

Choral singing has been, for some 150 years, one of the mainstays of local music-making and entertainment in the rural regions of Britain. As Director of Music at the University of Plymouth and musical director of several singing and orchestral ensembles in Devon and Cornwall, I keep an eye on the activities of the region’s numerous choral societies – and some rank among the best in the UK.

Many towns with a population of just 2,500 boast their own singing group, with a membership of anywhere between 14 and 50 members. The larger towns and cities in the South West such as Plymouth, Truro, and Exeter accommodate regional choirs of up to 150 as well as specialist chamber groups performing a wonderfully diverse repertoire.

However, many of the smaller outlying choral societies struggle to survive. On several occasions over the past 30 years, I have been invited in as a troubleshooter to ‘save’ or at least revitalize such groups. Some of the issues they faced included ageing choruses with dwindling membership and audience, unsuitable repertoire, a recently retired musical director, poor finances, weak administrative infrastructure, and inadequate publicity. These factors have often combined to generate a lack of motivation in members and communities.

Encourage, cajole, and convince to form your committee

Establishing a strong committee is another must. Identify those members of the choir who can offer skills in basic financial management, record-keeping, communication, and organization. Encourage, cajole and convince them to commit their time to the choir for a year.

Promoting your concert

As for promoting concerts, do not overlook the standard tools of well-written press releases to the local and regional media, posters, banners, announcements on regional radio and television, listings on what’s on websites and social media. However, face-to-face selling is also an effective way to generate ticket sales. Having a choir website is essential (Making Music can offer advice on this if you need it), and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can all play a valuable role in raising the profile of your choir and its concerts.

Sending publicity to a regularly updated and targeted database is also important. I would suggest that handing out forms at concerts inviting people to add their names to the mailing list is a good start. Feedback is valuable: include a questionnaire asking for responses on the various aspects of their experience of the evening – what music did they most enjoy? how did they like the venue? did they make use of the town’s facilities (pubs, cafes and shops)? This kind of information can often be useful for funding applications.

Repertoire, soloists, and orchestral players

How can you reactivate a choir musically? Choose repertoire for the next performance that is well within its capabilities and invite everyone involved to a big party afterwards! The choir will sing well and with confidence; the audience, however small, will respond positively. Ensure the concert is reviewed in the local press. It is important that the singers receive praise for a good performance so celebrate your success.

I strongly believe that the very best players and soloists should be contracted. This raises the standard of music making and motivates the choir to work hard at its performance and at selling tickets. It is not always necessary to attempt Elgar and Verdi with a 40 to 50-piece orchestra when there is so much early and classical music which is equally uplifting and fulfilling. Why not employ just 20 top-quality orchestral players? The success of a higher calibre performance will stimulate an enthusiasm to sustain this quality and might motivate the members to address fundraising.

Why not join Making Music?

In setting up or maintaining a small amateur choir, the first port of call I would recommend is Making Music, the organization for amateur music. It offers a wide range of training and support opportunities to help its members be effective. These include guidance in administration, promotion of events, and commissioning new music and opportunities to take part in national initiatives such as the ‘Listen Up!’ festival and their adopt-a-composer scheme.

National and regional training programmes are run by Making Music to help groups with their marketing, fundraising, and project development. Members are encouraged to look to the future, both in terms of responding to the needs of their communities and of their singers, past, present, and future. Most choral societies will already be members, but some may have lost touch with the current benefits that Making Music has to offer.

One final note to conductors

So much can ride on the personality and music interests of the conductor and his or her connections in the local, regional, and national music scene. Being well prepared for rehearsals and concerts should go without saying — and if you are new to the job these are essential. It helps to have a sense of fun. I also always make a point of being secure on translations of foreign texts before rehearsals begin.

Featured image credit: ‘Reims, France – July 25 2016 : Canadian choral in the Notre Dame cathedral’ by Pack-Shot via Shutterstock.

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