Five days before the North Fork Community Chorus’s spring concert last year, one of the choral members, Lisa*, asked me if she could make an announcement at our dress rehearsal. She told the choir that the town's oldest resident, 102-year-old Fred*, was moving permanently to be closer to family. The community at large was organizing a surprise last-minute send-off for two days from now, she said, involving a classic car, a parade down the main street, and a stop at one of the parks he had helped to create. Was there any way we could sing a song or two, maybe a couple of his favorites from the 1940s?
Any larger choir I've been part of would have instantly shut this idea down. Two days isn't enough time to produce a polished performance with a group of amateur singers, not to mention the logistics of setting up a performance venue while making everything Covid-safe. But in this community choir, the community came first, so other singers immediately began to volunteer. One had a keyboard that she could bring. Another had been sewing masks to keep herself busy and had a whole basket of them we could use and hand out. A third volunteered to copy music for Fred's favorite songs, and the accompanist volunteered to play. Within 10 minutes, this small rural choir cobbled together the elements of an entirely new concert mere days before their major spring performance. On the send-off day, nearly every NFCC member came out to sing. Fred sang along to every 1940's hit from the back of his classic convertible, leaving most of the attendees in tears as he drove off towards his new home.
The farewell for Fred is just one example of how a choir can create value well beyond the concerts we ticket. The music itself was far from polished or perfect, at times downright out of tune and out of time, but that wasn't the point. The social value that the choir provided at that moment in time went far beyond the notes and rhythms. Singing Fred into his new stage of life gave us a collective experience that we won't soon forget. To our small rural community, the choir in this context provided connection and value towards something the entire town valued. And because we showed up for the community in this way, they showed up for us just a few days later by completely shattering our attendance goal at the spring concert.
Understanding Your Context
The first step towards creating a unique and valuable identity within your community is knowing what your community values. Is your town or neighborhood mostly seniors or primarily families with small children? Is the population generally outdoorsy or worldly or foodie? Why do people move to your community? Do you have a college or university or a specific industry that drives the economy? What makes your community tick?
If you have trouble doing this alone or are new to your community (or want a fresh, updated perspective), look at the local tourism board's website or some local real estate agents' descriptions of the area. Alternatively, ask your choir members to write down three things that most strongly describe the town or neighborhood to them, then analyze which words or phrases occur most frequently. This word cloud method effectively captures current perception around an idea. If you want to create a compelling visual representation of this to share with your Board or choir members, take a look at this free Word Art generator.
Once you understand what your community values, think about where your choir fits into your community. If the primary local industry is agriculture, does your season calendar follow the growing season, with breaks for planting and harvesting? If your community is primarily families with small children, are you providing access to childcare in a way that helps young parents participate in your choir? Has your choir ever collaborated with your community's well-respected culinary institute on a Dinner Show fundraiser?
The more you understand your community, the more you can integrate your choir with your community, and the more the community will support your choir.
Defining Your Brand Image
Ask anyone currently working in marketing, and they will tell you that producing a good product is no longer sufficient to build a good marketing strategy. A good product is an essential foundation, but a wide range of factors now impact sales, including the company's values, causes, policies, and public image. Affecting these factors is how a company builds its brand image and, by extension, its sales.
As with most nonprofits, choirs aren't trying to maximize income. Choirs are usually scraping by with just enough to accomplish their mission, reinvesting any surplus into future concerts. As a result, we rarely talk about concepts like corporate identity or brand equity. But we should.
In a small town, the same people who sing in choir attend Rotary Meetings, take yoga classes, play in the local symphony, and generally juggle several diverse activities. If you're in a larger city, there may be half a dozen or more community choruses within your community alone, not to mention thousands of other activities. Resources and people can get spread very thin between all the possibilities. To make your choir stand out as an organization that people and businesses want to affiliate with, you must define what makes your choir unique in the often crowded nonprofit landscape.
Some elements are easy to define; is your choir a Gospel Choir with a lot of movement and improvisation, or is it a Choral Society that performs major classical works with the local symphony? Other elements can be trickier; is your choir welcoming high school-aged children? If so, are there transportation methods for those who can't drive and scheduling accommodations for school hours or sports? How are you making it clear that you are welcoming this particular demographic?
If we dive even deeper, each detail becomes an opportunity to distinguish your choir. Is your ensemble firmly associated with a specific location or event? Are you known as an LGBTQ+ safe space? Do you have a hip, modern vibe or a traditionally sonorous sound? This is another opportunity to do a word cloud with your choir to assess how they perceive the choir. You might even find some surprises; in my choir's last word cloud, I was surprised to discover that the choristers increasingly consider choir a "growth opportunity," both musically and generally, as I program more complex and diverse music. On the other hand, the word "music" barely showed up in this last word cloud, which indicates a potentially problematic flaw in our marketing strategy.
Once you understand how your choir is perceived, take another look at your community's values. How do the two compare? There will almost certainly be both parallels and gaps. Use this comparison to define your strengths and opportunities. If you're in an agricultural community and your schedule runs similarly to the school calendar with time off for planting and harvesting, that's a strength! If your community is primarily families with young children, but your choir is mostly older singers, there's an opportunity to bring your choir more in line with the values of your community.
With your strengths and opportunities in hand, it's time for a two-part brainstorm. First, consider ways you can communicate your strengths more clearly. Does your choir's partnership with the local university get mentioned frequently in your advertising materials? Are public transportation options listed prominently near the information about your centrally-located rehearsal location that you chose to make participation easier? Did your choir's recent fundraiser for The Trevor Project show up in the local paper or on the local news channel? Ensure that the things you're already doing that align with the community's values are publicized early and often.
For the second part of your brainstorming, take a look at your opportunities and envision how you might close the gap between the community's values and your choir's priorities. For an outdoorsy community, program an outdoor concert in the park. If your community is diverse, but your music is composed primarily by white men, incorporating a requirement that each of your season's composers must approximate the 2020 census may help. Don't be afraid to get input from choir or community members at this point since they may come up with ideas you'd never considered!
Lastly, turn each of these ideas into a concrete action item by choosing a single starting action that is attainable. For example, if your community is generally older and you want to choir to support long-term vocal health among seniors, add a Stemple exercise to your next warmup. Or, if your community values cattle ranching but your concert is in early March, offer recordings of rehearsals during January and February in case anyone has to miss practice during calving season. Make a specific, actionable plan that you can reasonably attempt and start there.
Once you have an actionable plan, it's time to reach out and find some allies who can help you solidify your position within your community. One of the best places to start is with your choir members themselves since each of them has hundreds of connections within your community, and they are already invested in your success. Maybe one of your choir members has a spouse in early childhood education and would be willing to set up a small daycare in a neighboring room during rehearsals. Maybe one of your Black or Latinx singers would be willing to trade a DEI consultation for dues.
Of course, you may need to move beyond the confines of your choir to find the allies you need to shift your choir's image. If the local steel mill drives your town's economy, but none of your choir members work there, finding a way to integrate your choir with the steel industry may be more challenging. In this case, the best way to proceed is to approach the steel mill with a specific project that is beneficial to both the choir and the mill. Something as simple as the choir performing work songs on the steel mill's parade float wearing hard hats can create a strong allyship very quickly. These collaborative projects can be very creative, but make sure you approach your new potential ally with a concrete plan that benefits you both.
If all this talk of community partnerships and building your image within your community excites you, that's great! Community building is exciting stuff. But when excitement enters the equation, we risk taking too many tasks too quickly and burning out. Remember that the goal is to create a permanently strong position within your community, so any new things you try must be feasibly sustainable.
Also, we can't lose sight of the fact that a choir's primary role is to be a musical community. If either the music or the community starts to suffer because of efforts to direct your brand image, it's time to make a change. Your music and community are the foundation that your entire brand rests on; if those two elements start to falter, the rest will crumble.
How do you distinguish your choir in your community? Let us know in the comments!
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
To read the first article in our Learning From Rural Choirs series, click here.
Stephanie Helleckson's parents met in a choir, and her entire family has been choir nerds ever since. Having sung under nearly 50 different conductors while living in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, and Colorado and having conducted several choirs herself, she is a strong advocate for using choral music as a tool to bridge gaps between people, social groups, and cultures. She currently lives in Paonia, Colorado, where she directs the North Fork Community Chorus, teaches voice and violin, and manages her own writing and editing business. When not singing or writing, she can usually be found hiking in a National Park, kayaking down a new river, or experimenting with new flavors in the kitchen.