Leading a children’s choir program presents unique and challenging scenarios for directors, administrators, and board members to navigate. These choirs are an after-school commitment that must work around preexisting local school music program schedules, they may include singers from the wide age range of 4 to 18 and, most notably, children’s choirs deal not only with the singer, but also with the parents.
Constructing a clear and comprehensive Chorister Handbook may be the most time consuming and ‘pull-your-hair-out’ frustrating process, and it may also save your life. Chorister Handbooks vary from a simple one-page agreement to exhausting 45-page manifestos. Although unfortunate for our already busy schedules, I would recommend the latter, as having clear policies for nearly every situation will add consistency to the organization in dealing with conflict, avoid difficult and awkward conversations with parents, and help parents and outside stakeholders understand the mission and values of your organization.
Information Your Chorister Handbook Should Have
Here is an exhaustive list of information that every children’s choir should have in their Chorister Handbook, followed by a brief breakdown of some of the more important or difficult policies to craft:
- Behavior/Rehearsal Expectations
- Concert Expectations
- Marketing Policy/Media Waiver
- Practice Policy/Expectations
- Parent Volunteer/Chaperone
- Audition Practices
- Mission/Vision/Guiding Principles
- Choral Structure
- Open/Closed Rehearsal
- Pick-up and Drop-off Policies
- Rehearsal Cancellation
- Handling and Care of Music
- Ticket Sales
- Commitment to School Programs
- Medical Policies and Procedures
- Board of Directors Information
The Most Important Policies for Children's Choirs
From experience and talking to other professionals in the industry, this is the real doozy in constructing your Chorister Handbook. If you are struggling with an effective attendance policy, know that you are not alone! Attendance policies are complex animals that need to include information about the following:
- Expectations and procedures for rehearsal absences
- Excused vs. unexcused absences
- Pre-arranged vs. last minute absences
- Dress rehearsals
- Weather cancellations
- School performances
- Make-up possibilities
With an attendance policy, the organization needs to keep clear expectations in order to meet standards of quality musicianship, while also acknowledging that the program is an elective, after-school program in children’s already busy schedules. This balance leads to widely different degrees of severity in attendance policies. Severe and intense policies can have the unintended effect of making families feel like the choir is rigid and does not care about being partners with the parents who are trying to provide meaningful musical opportunities to their children.
One option to set strict rules and consequences while remaining flexible is through an effective “make-up” policy. For example, if a chorister has more than their allotted absences for a given semester or concert cycle (regardless of excused vs. unexcused), they will simply not be eligible to participate in that concert unless they schedule a time with the director to show that they know their part.
The simple truth to remember when constructing and communicating an attendance policy is that they exist so that the choir as a whole does not suffer. Each chorister needs to show commitment to the group and to their fellow singers so that the team can learn effectively in rehearsals and present the strongest unified ensemble in performance.
For programs that have different ensembles with a wide range of ages, uniform policies should reflect the increased levels of exposure and performance caliber. A multi-tier children’s program might have a formal concert uniform for the top performing groups and then a less formal polo uniform for the younger ensembles and “All-Choir” concerts.
Clear financial policies are likely the most important to specify for legal purposes. One should lay out a tuition and fee structure, the policies in place for late payments or failure to pay, tuition assistance or scholarship opportunities if available, tuition discounts, and a refund policy.
Marketing Policy/Media Waiver
When choristers sign up to participate, it is easiest to add a simple parental consent form to cover all marketing and media questions. Admittedly, this statement should be exhaustive to cover all issues of photo and video ownership as well as privacy issues. Media waiver agreements can be found in various places online, so there is no shame in simply pulling an existing agreement and making slight changes. No need to reinvent the wheel here!
Behavior, Rehearsal and Concert Expectations, and Discipline
In dealing with children, behavior expectations and discipline policies are always important to lay out so parents know what to understand and expect. More importantly, if your program has multiple choirs and different directors, these policies can ensure that the organization is consistent across ensembles.
Like attendance, discipline policies can vary greatly in severity; they can include official infractions or demerits for behavioral problems, or can simply leave it up to directors to work with parents on a case-by-case basis to solve any issues.
In discipline (and all!) policies, I believe it is important for parents to feel like part of the choral family, so err on the side of tolerance, flexibility, and partnership with families and choristers to create the best experience possible!
If you are in the midst of creating choral policies, be encouraged and use resources! Established programs often have their Chorister Handbook posted online and the people who created them are always willing to share experiences and expertise. Reach out… you are not alone!
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.