Building your choral community may be the most important job of an artistic director for both the quality of performance and the overall success of an ensemble. There are two sides of creating buy-in around a chorus. Community needs to be built among the inside stakeholders (your singers!) and outside stakeholders (audience members, area organizations, collaborators, general public).
Choral Community Among Singers
Singing in a choir is the ultimate team sport and its success depends upon each member doing their own job well while supporting each other. The teamwork and camaraderie that is required for a choir to grow into one cohesive unit forges bonds beyond simple friendship and creates a choral family. Several factors contribute to this building of community within the ensemble, and modern research on successful families lists the following characteristics as integral in achieving that goal:
- Good communication
- Commitment to the family
- Quality time together
- Respect of one another
Like anything in life, good communication is paramount in working together.
Singers (and humans!) are fickle creatures and need to feel both included and led; listened to and instructed. Each group and each person has different communication expectations. Some appreciate over-communication; some are fond of a more laissez-faire communication style. It can be difficult to find the effective middle ground in this complicated seesaw.
At its most basic, communication needs to be used to give singers access to all necessary information needed to feel comfortable with everything going on within the chorus. This might mean singers need to know with confidence where they will be standing at each concert, who is singing the solos, or what the exact schedule is for a dress rehearsal. Giving access to all this information can be difficult using only simple methods such as a weekly email, but is necessary for effective communication.
Commitment to Family
Creating an atmosphere of commitment and individual buy-in improves the musical product and builds trust between singers.
Commitment can start from a high-level expectation such as an attendance policy, but must become more ingrained in the ensemble to establish pride in the group. A few useful techniques are clearly defining roles and focusing on the mission of the ensemble. With good delegation of responsibilities to all members who have a well-defined role, everyone can feel valued because they are contributing to the success of the organization beyond simply singing. A Board of Directors can help to set up these roles by having committees such as social media/website, marketing, or day-of concert operations.
Quality Time Together
Quality time outside the rehearsal room is an underrated part of a choral community. It directly affects the family dynamic that is built and is apparent and attractive to potential new members. The best compliment a community chorus can receive from someone after attending their first rehearsal is that they felt welcomed and cared for.
Speaking from personal experience, I was set to begin directing an ensemble and was invited to the preseason barbecue before completing my move to that city. Within an hour of meeting the group I had six offers for moving help. People crave connection, and singing together naturally creates bonds. Support those bonds by setting up regular social gatherings before, during, and after the season.
Become a place to belong.
If the previous three characteristics are created and cared for, mutual respect will be naturally present in the ensemble.
The phrase “respect is earned, not given” is fatally flawed, as our default should be that respect is given to all humans and can then be confirmed or lost. Each singer, accompanist, or guest musician should be respected as a collaborative artist. Artistic directors do not need to walk in like a bull in a china shop and demand respect, but rather continue to softly confirm and build upon the respect their position entails.
If each member on a stage respects each other’s talents, abilities, and contributions, the united ensemble can truly move the audience.
Choral Community in the General Public
For the growth and success of the organization, ensembles need to work to expand their choral community to the public. The simple truth is that a choir can cease to exist if they do not have a body of support outside of their own singers.
The first and easiest way to do this is to allow your product and internal community to speak for itself. Success attracts success, so chorus growth and musical excellence will attract new audiences exponentially.
Once new audiences are found, retention is important and can be achieved through very simple initiatives such as an active email list and regular updates. Social media can also be a powerful tool through consistent output of audio and visual examples to audiences that are not currently reached by direct contact.
To jumpstart growth and reputation, collaboration is also key. Not only will it expose the audience members of the collaborating group to your product, but also helps to create a coalition in the area of likeminded people working together toward the same musical cause.
Erik Jacobson is the General Manager of VCM USA, the choral music foundation supporting the work of VOCES8. He directs the Kalamazoo Male Chorus and will soon begin work as the Executive Director of the Michigan School Vocal Music Association. Erik spent time as the Executive Artistic Director of Milwaukee Children's Choir and taught high school choir for five years.