5 Ways to Create Culture and Community Beyond the Notes

Joel Rinsema Apr 25, 2024

Learn more: chorus management

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For most, singing in a choir offers more than just the opportunity to sing great music. It’s about being part of a community that cares for each other and makes a difference in the world around us through the transformative power of our art. One of the most powerful forces for your organization lies in that community, and harnessing and directing that energy can be extremely beneficial across your organization.

In my career, I have been fortunate to work for two adult choral organizations that have worked very hard to create a community in and outside of the rehearsal room that positively impacts not only the art they make together on stage, but also the financial health of the organization.

One of the organizations is a professional choral organization, in which all singers are remunerated for their services, and many have pursued music as their profession. The other, a high-level volunteer choir in which most of the singers have extensive experience singing in choirs, but the majority do not make a living in the music profession.

Both organizations have artistic excellence as part of their mission and vision, and both have experienced significant successes both artistically and organizationally due in large part to the community they’ve created in their membership that goes beyond making beautiful sounds from the stage. Their organizational successes include increasing their support base and diversifying their funding sources, dramatically increasing their budget sizes and infrastructure, and expanding their local, national, and global impact through touring and recordings.

Singers in the groups I have worked with have a great sense of ownership and pride and are willing to help the organization with fundraising and marketing and other foundational and essential needs to help them achieve both artistic and organizational success. What’s the secret sauce to creating a culture and community and sense of ownership by the singing membership that contributes to these successes?  It may seem cliché, but communication.

1. Transparency

In order to create a sense of ownership, the administrative leadership must be willing to communicate with the singers some of the more intimate details and activities of the leadership and what it takes to run the organization. It is important that the board and administrative staff members regularly communicate with the singers whether or not you have singing membership on the board.

Depending on how your choral organization is set up, most all business activities (including financials and meeting minutes) are open to the public anyway. It is especially important to communicate with the singers any work done with the vision, mission, values and strategic planning and to encourage feedback regularly from the singers. This can come in the way of an annual singer questionnaire, or as a session as part of a singer retreat.  If you don’t ask for feedback, it’s not possible to have singer buy-in, which is essential when you are asking them to go “above and beyond.”

Part of being transparent is communicating with the singers what is needed in order to be successful in planning and execution of the board and staff’s goals and objectives as well as sharing some of the dreams and the vision for the future of the organization. The singers can be the organization’s greatest assets when it comes to realizing those dreams.  But they can’t step up if they don’t know what is needed.

And, when times are tough and when the organization is struggling financially, the singers can be your most powerful and effective advocates. They are well connected, and have those in their circles that can help you meet your fundraising goals, introduce your organization to influencers, procure in-kind contributions of goods and services, and much more.

2. Share in the financial successes of the organization.

Let’s face it, outside of the armed forces and a select group of fully professional ensembles around the world, very few choral singers are going to be able to make a living singing in choir. It is important that the singers benefit from the financial successes of the organization, especially if they are going to be asked to help fundraise and market the choir.

Each organization will have to determine what they consider a financial success. Certainly, if you are consistently ending the year in the black, or have created a “rainy day” reserve, your organization is financially stable.

If you find your organization in this position, consider investing more resources into your singing membership. If you have a volunteer choir that charges singers dues, consider lowering the amount, or eliminating them all together especially if you decide you are going to ask your singers to help fundraise for the organization. At a minimum, consider setting your annual individual singer fundraising goal high enough to offset what you were charging for dues. Engaged and informed singers will likely well outperform that goal. When singers are asked to give up extended amounts of time for run-out concerts or community engagement activities or retreats, consider providing a stipend or a reimbursement for gas and any meals they must cover. If travel is involved that furthers the organization’s mission, try to cover all of the singer’s direct expenses.

Recording projects, tours, commissioning music, and bringing in special guest performers, conductors and composers are other great ways for singers to experience first-hand the fruits of their labors.  It is imperative that as you are planning and dreaming about these major projects, that you regularly communicate them to your singers. You are not looking for opinions or approval, but what you are doing is building support and ownership. It will be easier to involve your singers in fundraising and marketing activities if they feel they have ownership and they are regularly communicated with.  If they are passionate about the project, they will work with you!

If the singers are passionate, feel supported, are regularly communicated with, and personally experience the results of their hard work fundraising and marketing for the organization, getting them to commit to continued action and support is easier and rewarding for all.

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3. Create policies and procedures that encourage accountability, communication, and community

Be very clear about what is expected of the singers; not only artistically and their preparedness heading into rehearsals and performances, but also what is going to be asked of them when it comes to supporting administrative efforts like fundraising and marketing and contributing to the choir themselves. Singers don’t like surprises! Consider communicating these expectations in their handbook or agreements.

While there may not be a specific expectation, communicating with them about the importance of making a financial contribution to your organization is beneficial.  I love to be able to share with other current and potential funders that 100% of the singers in my current choir, Kantorei, contribute to the organization.

Successful choral organizations have a strong sense of family in their community.  With all families, there will be disagreements and conflict. How a family deals with conflict can greatly impact the community. Consider creating and adopting a Conflict Resolution Policy that clearly outlines how conflicts are managed. The most important part of a good policy is that it encourages respect through open lines of communication across your organization.

4. Building community beyond the notes

Especially in volunteer choral organizations, singers are looking for connection and community in addition to the music making. It is important to encourage the creation of opportunities that encourage relationship building outside of the rehearsal room and off the stage. This can be as simple as creating social gatherings following rehearsals and concerts, or can be as involved as creating smaller networks inside the choir.

In my current ensemble, we have several of our members who regularly create and swap soup and salad lunches every week at rehearsals. Another group enjoys gardening. We also have some who enjoy snow-skiing, camping, biking, golfing, tennis etc. and they will plan group outings.  

We’ve also had groups of singers who have gotten together on a weekly basis to watch their favorite TV shows together (RuPaul’s Drag Race, Game of Thrones etc.). We’ve created internal communications to allow for informal conversations including using the bulletin board through Chorus Connection and also a private Facebook group.

When we welcome new members into the choir, we assign a “buddy” to help onboard and to plug them into the community. It is sometimes daunting to come into a well established family of people and having a “buddy” who can make introductions and check in regularly with the newcomer greatly enhances their experience.

Creating an inclusive, open and welcoming environment for all should be a priority for your artistic and administrative leadership. Consider incorporating this into your organization’s values and regularly communicate that value to your singers.

5. Keep it going

In my ensemble, we don’t experience a lot of personnel turnover. We have founding members that are singing with us after 25+ years.  It is very easy to do things the way they’ve always been done. While it is absolutely important to continue doing things that work well, it is also imperative to continue to find ways to breathe new life into your organization.

Especially as you welcome new singers into your ensemble, regularly communicate with them about their experiences. You’ll find that sometimes things you think have been working well, aren’t. By asking them, you’re also creating a culture of ownership from the very beginning of their experience that will benefit the organization moving forward. These efforts are not one and done. They must be revisited and renewed regularly in order to be effective.

Your singers are your most valuable assets. In addition to the talents and resources they provide on stage, they can be some of your most influential fundraisers and marketers. Building a strong community and culture through communication will help create a sense of ownership and pride that will pay dividends across your organization.

New call-to-actionWhat other ways do you build community in your organization? Share in the comments below.

Joel Rinsema

Joel M. Rinsema has served as Kantorei’s (Denver, CO) Managing Artistic Director since 2014. During his tenure, Kantorei has experienced tremendous audience growth, nearly quadrupled its budget, and launched an ambitious commissioning and recording strategy. Joel is a passionate advocate for the professional choral art form and frequently consults with other choral arts organizations around the country. Because of his leadership in his field, he is a recipient of the Louis Botto Award for "Innovative Action and Entrepreneurial Zeal" from Chorus America. Joel came to Kantorei from the Grammy Award-winning Phoenix Chorale. Throughout his 23-year tenure with the Phoenix Chorale, he served in nearly every capacity with the organization, including his last 15 years as President & CEO and Assistant Conductor. He holds music degrees from Arizona State and Whitworth Universities, is a member of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammys), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and also serves as Artistic Advisor and Principal Guest Conductor of Vocalis in Guatemala.

Joel Rinsema