I have attended several choral conferences and gatherings over the past year or so, and as organizations emerge post-pandemic, the question of singer recruitment and retention is a hot button conversation.
It seems that everywhere I turn, choral organization leadership and music educators in schools are trying to figure out how to get singers back in their groups. Prior to the pandemic, recruitment was dwindling for many choirs to begin with, and with the hit of online/outdoor singing/singing with masks on (or no singing at all), many recreational singers have left the hobby. Recruiting new singers is imperative to the financial, social, and musical success of our organizations.
I see articles and presentations often labeled “Tips & Tricks for Singer Recruitment.” Quick suggestions to find singers and to get them in the door. I’m here to suggest something new (and potentially challenging to hear) but…tips and tricks just aren’t going to do it.
Don’t get me wrong, tips and tricks may get bodies in the door. Hosting a bring-a-friend day may result in a few more singers showing up and giving it a try. But building a consistent, growing culture of numbers in your choir doesn’t result from pizza parties and icebreaker games (...but please…keep doing these things! Social events and activities are critical for culture-building and I am not discounting their effectiveness or importance in that way!)
The truth of the matter is this: Recruitment is the effect, and a successful program is the cause - not the other way around.
Before we dive into this theory, I’ll give you a bit of background.
I founded my organization, South Shore Children’s Chorus (SSCC), in my hometown of Quincy, MA in January of 2016. The organization was founded 100% from scratch - there was no starter money, no school, no church, no community or professional organization acting as an umbrella to help us get off the ground. Truthfully, I wanted it to happen and decided one day it would be a thing and POOF - it was a thing. (Well….not poof. There was a pretty significant amount of elbow grease involved…) We performed that following May with 30 singers.
Right before the pandemic shut down in March of 2020, SSCC was 95 singers strong (grades K-12) and growing. We were hitting our stride, finding our voice, and understanding our ‘why’. On September 1st of 2021, we returned to weekly in-person rehearsals, and had 48 singers enrolled in our programs. Today, just a little over one year later, our enrollment count is now 175.
CAVEAT: I want to be sure to say that I am not suggesting that the mark of a successful program is a lot of singers. There are many aspects to determining success, and each of us is going to determine success in a slightly different way. I am not proposing that quantity = quality, but rather that quantity is a byproduct of quality.
So how do we make it happen? How do we get more singers in the door?
The answer is culture.
The truth is, folks, we are in changing times. Varying generations are handling the post-pandemic world differently, but almost everyone is acutely aware of how they are spending precious, precious time. As a society, we are beginning to break down the culture of “busy”, and are actively trying to create space to breathe. This means we need to remind people in words and in action that being a part of our community and organization is a valuable way to spend their time. In order to communicate what that value is effectively to new singers, everyone who is currently a part of your organization must have the same idea of what that value specifically is.
Step 1: Reflect Internally
It’s possible that this work has already been done by your organization, but many smaller organizations may not do this regularly. Revisiting your organization’s mission, vision, and values every 5-10 years helps to ensure that your organization stays relevant. Here’s how:
Answer the big questions about what your organization provides in value to your singers. Define what your top two values are, and focus on how to provide opportunities that support those values to new singers (and returning singers!). If you are reading this article, you probably could list 20 reasons why attending a choir practice is valuable. However, we as organizations need to choose specific priorities in order to provide a focused and engaging experience. Here are some questions to help guide your self reflection:
- What is unique about your organization in comparison to other similar organizations, or different activities? What does your choir bring to the table that others do not? What sets you apart?
- Why do singers want to be involved in your ensemble? (If you don’t know…ask them!)
- Remember a time when a singer told you that your ensemble inspired them. Why was the singer impacted? What made them feel so positively that they shared their feelings with you? Did that positive feeling spread to anyone else (you, another singer, a family member, etc…)
- Think about a time when you felt that a certain rehearsal was successful. What made it successful? How did you define that success? Did the other people involved in the community (singers, co-directors, administrators) also find that rehearsal successful? How did that success make you, and those around you, feel?
My suggestion? Plan a whole day. Order in lunch. Spend time with your team rumbling about these important questions. Let everyone share, and find common threads through every story. People will want to join your choir if they believe they can align with your effectively communicated values.
Remember, as you are working through this exercise, set your goals accordingly. There is a significant amount of the choral tradition that is highly valued but also can exclude most people from believing they are aligned with your values.
For example, if you’ve come up with “high-level musicianship” as a value - that’s great! But you must also realistically recognize that you may be recruiting singers from a much smaller pool. We have strong traditions in the choral realm of auditioning singers as they walk in the door, and I have strong feelings about that tradition (read another one of my articles for more in-depth ideas about that!).
I know if I was interested in spending time learning about one of my hobbies - let’s say, yoga - and the response was “Wow! Fantastic, we would love to have you join our studio! Please sign up for a time to show us how much yoga you can already do by yourself so we can judge and see if you’d be a good fit for our studio!” I would be out of there faster than you could say “namaste."
If you are desperately looking for new singers and willing to say no to someone who walks in the door, be sure you are recognizing that it may be much more difficult to find what you are looking for. Trained singers (especially volunteer trained singers) are becoming a pretty rare find.
As an example of how culture and values directly affect recruitment, I can tell you that my organization, SSCC, values learning over knowing. What that means for us is that if you are willing to learn, you have a place here - regardless of what you already know. We hold this value for students, staff, and audience members. The result? We can cast a very wide net when recruiting singers. Our welcoming community encourages new children and teens to try singing in a group for the very first time. Our staff has many strategies for teaching singers of varied experience levels, and we reach children who may not already consider themselves “singers”. Ultimately, our students do achieve high levels of musicianship, but they do so as a byproduct of our organization valuing learning over knowing.
Doing the deep-dive-work into understanding your organization’s values will help align the team you already have, and this is the first step to being able to communicate effectively with new singers and recruits.
Step 2: Ensure your culture reflects your values.
I can’t tell you what will work for your organization in your area, but I do know that when your culture accurately reflects your values, people are drawn to what you are doing. Commitment to a value-driven culture encourages others to be involved. It is imperative, however, that your values become integrated into your every day actions, and guide your every day work and decisions. Once these values are super clearly defined, the next step is to determine how they become action in your culture. When you’ve called your team meeting and defined your values in the morning, this step is what happens after your lunch break. How would I have this conversation?
I’d start by hanging our decided-upon two priority values on the wall, or writing them large on two pieces of paper. On a posterboard, I’d write the following situations. Then, I’d rumble with my team, brainstorming what actions are value-centered based on regular situations the choir entails. For example:
How can we, as an organization, be value-centered when…
…our singers walk into rehearsal?
…during the rehearsal process?
…during rehearsal break?
…at the end of rehearsal?
…when we commu
How can we, as an organization, communicate in value-centered ways to…
…singers who can’t sing with us for this concert?
“A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.” -Dr. Brené Brown
Again, answering these questions takes time. The best way is to answer them as a team, and really challenge each other. Get creative. Get unique. Find ways to really lean into your values and to create an experience and environment that is impactful. People want to repeat intentionally impactful experiences. There’s a key word in that sentence. “Intentionally.”
“Our organization values a welcoming environment.” Here are two scenarios that reflect this statement. See if you can see which one is embracing intentionality:
Scenario 1: A new singer comes to the first rehearsal. People are kind and friendly. They walk up to the table with blank nametags, open the sharpie, write their name, and stick it on. A couple of people in the group ask their name and what they do for a living. We sit down and start singing. The new singer is approached by the director briefly at break, and smiles and welcomes the new singer. On the way out the door, the chorus manager says to the new singer that they hope they’ll return next week and join the choir!
Scenario 2: A new singer comes to the first rehearsal. They are greeted at the door by the director and chorus manager, and handed a name tag with their name already printed. “You must be one of our new singers this evening!” The director engages in conversation, and introduces the new singer to a few members of the section while the chorus member grabs a fresh binder of music, already labeled with the singers’ name. The director moves on to greet others, and the chorus manager checks out the seating chart and shows the new singer where their seat will be (strategically placed between the two friendliest chorus members). At break, a fellow chorister shows the new singer the online forum where they can find practice tracks and socialize with other choir members. While they’re at it, they friend the new singer on social media. On the way out the door, the chorus manager says how nice it was to have the new singer in rehearsal tonight, and asks if the new singer has any questions. The chorus manager answers any questions fully that the new singer might have, and offers a communication method if the singer has any questions. Halfway through the week, the chorus manager checks in with the new singer to see how they’re doing, as well as the chorister that sat next to the new singer during rehearsal. The new singer definitely decides to join up, and shows up next week with a friend! :)
Scenario 2 is exactly how aligning intentional actions and behaviors with values can be effective. While the first scenario is aligned with the value listed above, the second scenario is much more intentional about sticking to that value. You’ll also notice that the second scenario seems to have a considerable amount of preparation needed in order to live out. It’s the small differences (having already printed name tags versus a table out with sharpies and blank name tags) that intentionally make people feel like they are expected and welcomed as a part of the community.
Step 3: Marketing & Communicating Your Value
The final step is communicating your value to new singers. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is a solid social media presence. Be thoughtful with the words you choose. Are they value-aligned? Be careful with the photos and videos you choose. Are they value-aligned? The messaging you create on your social media accounts, or on interviews with newspapers or podcasts or local TV channels is imperative to communicating your value.
Let’s use SSCC as another example. We value learning over knowing. How do we communicate this with our messaging?
- We use the word “classes” instead of “ensembles” (if you aren’t already in the club of people who know about music, you may not know the word ensemble! Additionally, “classes” is a word that encourages a learning environment rather than a knowing environment.)
- We use the word “teachers” instead of “conductors”.
- We often explain what is happening in the activity we took a video of, to help people understand why we are doing it.
Where are we improving? We can’t be afraid of change when thinking about messaging, mission, values, and the like. In fact, embracing change when deep diving into values-based messaging is imperative to a clearly communicated mission. As SSCC continues to grow, my team continues to look closely at where there are inconsistencies, and we are actively working to improve. Here is an example: When I founded SSCC in 2016, I named the choirs in traditional “levels”.
- Training Choir - K-2nd Grade
- Intermediate Choir - 3rd-6th Grade
- Advanced Choir - 7th-12th Grade
We’ve noticed that our messaging is incredibly inconsistent with this choice, and it is no longer relevant with our narrowed mission. We value learning over knowing. A specific value-based action that we take to communicate that value is that we don’t require auditions or experience to be involved in any of our choirs. However, the names of our choirs send a message of a required experience level to participate. (ie: a 9th grader that has never sung in a choir before hesitates to be in “Advanced” choir, even though this would be the choir they would join.) How do we fix it? This January, we’ll be changing all the names of our ensembles to better reflect our values and open our doors even wider to new singers. Does it mean we have to change? Absolutely. But in that change, we will find a clearer mission and more students will be recruited as a byproduct of communicating this value effectively.
Phew. That was a lot of information, but I truly believe that this is how we move forward as a field. These deep dive conversations can be hard. I know, I have facilitated conversations just like these with organizations and public school music teams. It isn’t easy. It requires reframing what we do and letting go of some traditions that we may hold dear. But if you truly want more singers coming through your doors, this is the work that needs to be done.
Kirsten Oberoi is a music educator, podcaster, composer, vocalist, and arts administrator in the Boston Area. She is the Founding Artistic Director of the South Shore Children's Chorus, the General Manager of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, and recently launched her podcast Choral Connectivity: A People-First Approach to Singing. When not chorus-ing 24/7, Kirsten enjoys cooking meals for her and her choral-director-and-musical-theatre-composer husband and heading to competition obedience class with her two golden retriever puppies Chester and Charlie.