Even in the Welsh heartlands, that bastion of male choral singing, choirs are struggling to recruit new singers and inevitably, some will simply fade away into silence, taking with them a once proud tradition of community spirit and male singing. Their failure to evolve into something attractive to a new generation of singers seals their fate, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The stereotypical image of old men in blazers singing traditional Welsh hymn tunes is one that many men’s choirs, including the Swindon-based Wessex Male Choir, are working hard to dispel, but like all deeply-embedded stereotypes, it is proving difficult to shake off, and even innovative choirs have to tread a fine line between alienating audiences that love the traditional songs, and attracting new audiences and singers who want something more contemporary.
‘The Men in Black’ – Wessex Male Choir & Music Director Rhiannon Williams
So how do male choirs fight back and ensure that they remain relevant to today’s audiences and singers? There are plenty of articles in the press about the demise of male choirs, but considerably fewer offering suggestions for how the genre could evolve and develop. Science hasn’t yet reached the point where we can clone Gareth Malone, (and maybe that’s a good thing), so there’s no easy answer: if there were, then every male choir would be thriving. However, it’s fair to say there are some emerging trends among successful choirs that may point the way. Arguably, it is also true that choirs that are successful in attracting new audiences, are also successful in attracting new choristers: the two go hand-in-hand.
Butlin’s Bluecoats or an Undertakers’ Convention?
The first problem is the look. As smart as it may be, for many people, a choir dressed in blazers seems very old fashioned. But what to replace it with is equally challenging. For many years, Wessex choristers have worn black trousers and open-necked long-sleeved black shirts when performing (although sometimes we wear DJs and red bow ties – or a garish selection of Christmas pullovers). But even the black shirts are now commonplace and maybe rather passé. Various choirs have experimented with different coloured shirts, different ties, bow ties, waistcoasts, jackets, and altogether more informal styles such as rugby shirts, ‘working clothes’ and even pirate costumes. The jury is out as to which works best because there are still occasions that call for a more formal look. I remember on one occasion when we tried our black shirts with bow ties we looked like an undertakers’ convention! And trying to look ‘cool’ if you have a Zimmer frame or a beer belly is also tricky, but somehow choirs have to find a cost-effective style that works and doesn’t send younger audiences and singers running for the hills.
Wesley’s Greatest Hits
The second problem is repertoire. I don’t think any male choirs want to completely turn their backs on the wealth of wonderful tunes represented by the traditional male voice choir genre, but if we are to attract younger audiences there has to be a desire to innovate and try new stuff including pop and rock arrangements, and choral works by modern composers. Getting the balance right can be difficult, and selecting the right material is also hard with most choirs having to indulge in a costly bit of trial and error to find songs that really work. Whilst there are some good arrangers out there, there is also a shortage of great arrangements of modern pieces for TTBB (tenor/tenor/baritone/bass) choirs, and quite often, the cost of obtaining the rights to arrange a great pop song, rock anthem or music theatre piece can be prohibitive. I know from personal experience that trying to secure arrangement permissions from companies like Disney, who own the rights to a huge number of very popular songs, can be too costly to contemplate. The Wessex Male Choir strongly encourages our choristers and our audiences to suggest songs they would like us to sing. This can be a double-edged sword at times because it can create expectations that are difficult or impossible to deliver. To ‘manage’ all the suggestions, we have a repertoire advisory team (RAT) that supports the Music Director in finding new pieces. A lot of the suggestions received by the RAT are simply not viable because of copyright or performing rights issues; because there are no suitable arrangements available; or simply because the style of piece relies too much on other voices (e.g. sopranos) or long instrumental riffs for guitar and drums that sound pants when played on a piano! It’s early days for our RAT, but with the encouragement of our Music Director, we are already building a sizeable chunk of enjoyable new repertoire that is quite different to most other choirs: but we still have a long way to go!
A Bunch of Stiffs
The third problem is the challenge of being ‘entertaining’. Serried ranks of choristers standing rigidly to attention on stage is a real turn-off for everyone except retired sergeant-majors (who are strange people anyway). Choirs need movement to help them express the joy and energy of the songs they sing, and just as dynamic contrast can deliver spine-tingling moments, so too can stillness when contrasted with movement. Choralography (the art of putting choreographed moves together with choral music) needs careful handling if it isn’t to look silly or detract from the music. The music has to come first. Choralography needs to be slick, polished, and rehearsed to perfection if it is to work. And if your choir is populated by 70-year olds, the moves might be quite limited (e.g. no splits, pirouhettes, or balletic grand jetés!). Other forms of stagecraft can also help make the performance more interesting: use flags, torches, umbrellas, hats, false beards; stand in a different formation, move about while singing, hang the second tenors upside down from the ceiling (please)…anything but be more imaginative than just standing on parade and your audience will love you for it.
The disappointing news is that when you’ve done all this successfully, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll attract younger audiences or younger choristers. The trouble is, there are just too many other distractions for them. So how do you make singing so ‘cool’ that they will choose singing over other options? I’m not sure, but here are a few recruiting ideas to consider.
At present, we still get most of our new recruits via existing choristers. Your members are your best advert and they need to advocate vigorously on behalf of the choir. Get them talking about the choir to men at work, in the pub, in the club and at the game – and anywhere else! Their enthusiasm is the biggest selling point you have, and make sure they are well supported with a plentiful supply of attractive business cards, flyers and other recruiting literature. Gone are the days when you could just put on an ‘open evening’ and expect men to flock in. As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”, so be bold, try new things to attract new choristers.
Last year, the Wessex Male Choir ran a very successful recruiting campaign called Project RMS (Real Men Sing), which included singing at Wembley in front of 85,000 people, visiting a local military base (examining the hardware and singing in one of the messes), a flash-mob, getting broadcast on local radio, and singing in a concert – all without any obligation to join the choir!
Part of the Wessex Male Choir’s ‘Project RMS’ recruiting trifold from last year.
Even better is to give men a reason to sing, rather than expect them to admit they rather fancy the idea! Get them singing to raise money for charity. Just think how many outrageously hideous moustaches you’ve seen in Movember? Perfectly nice, rational men who for the rest of the year look almost respectable suddenly turn into hairy slug-balancers and sprout the most ridiculous 1970’s porn-star moustaches…in the name of charity! Joining a choir (even temporarily) to sing in a charity fundraiser is the excuse that men might need, and it’s nowhere near as bad as having to grow dodgy-looking face furniture.
Use social media as much as possible. Write a blog. Create memes for Facebook and Twitter. Get people talking about your choir! Consider using targeted advertising on Facebook where you pay to ‘boost’ a post to a specific demographic. For example, for recruiting, you might want to target 30-60 year old men with an interest in concerts and singing who live within 20 miles of where you are based. Facebook should then serve up your post into their Facebook ‘feed’ and hopefully, you’ll get your message across.
An example of some recent Wessex Male Choir memes for Facebook and Twitter.
Get collaborating – especially with youth choirs. Not only do they generally drag their proud parents along to hear them sing, but as they transition from a youth choir into something more adult, if they have seen you perform and maybe shared the stage with you, there’s a good chance they’ll consider joining you. But please, don’t be a ‘vampire’!
Old Vampires and Young Blood!
How many times have you heard old choirs talking about needing young blood? I hate the term – it makes us sound like a bunch of desperate old vampires! And that brings me onto a related topic: all too often, the existing members see the need for new members but don’t want them to ‘rock-the-boat’: in other words, some older members can be very resistant to change. The choir has to belong to the new members too – so do what you can to empower them. Seek their views on everything from stagecraft to repertoire, and dress code. You need them more than they need you.
Recruiting from Colleges and Schools
Recruiting from schools and colleges may seem like an obvious approach for finding younger singers but it can be hard work getting the right access and finding the right event format. The offer of running a singing workshop, or performing at a school assembly may seem good to us, but to a busy school with a jam-packed curriculum, it may not be met with quite such enthusiasm. Getting the lads to sing in front of their mates is also likely to be tricky unless you have got something really interesting to offer them. In my experience, this recruiting path seldom delivers, but when it does, it can build a core of younger singers that will help to attract more. (Don’t forget to use your younger singers in your publicity photos!) Having a youth choir is perhaps the best way of getting younger men interested in singing, but very few choirs have the resources to be able to offer this unless working in collaboration with a school or the local music hub. Sadly, even when you’ve enjoyed some success in recruiting younger choristers, the investment can often be negated by the pull of university and all manner of other attractions, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
The success of groups such as Only Boys Aloud shows that boys can be encouraged into singing!
Retaining all your new recruits can be a challenge: even following our very successful Project RMS, we struggled to retain some of the newbies. The Wessex is an auditioned choir with high standards and that requires a lot of time and effort from our choristers, so inevitably, some of our new recruits reluctantly felt that they couldn’t commit. We try to make it as easy as possible though: we have a buddying system to help new recruits; there is no shortage of support, encouragement and advice from section leaders and other choristers, and we have a first-rate set of online resources for helping people to learn the songs. For example, every rehearsal is recorded, just in case you want to go over something again! Lastly, having a chorister development programme helps to build confidence and attract singers as well as improving the overall standard of the singing. It is something that no good choir should be without.
I hope this article has given you some ideas about how male choirs might tackle some of the common problems we all share. We would love to hear your ideas too. Let’s grasp this exciting opportunity to transform the genre! The alternative is unthinkable.
Some articles about the challenges facing male choirs.
Welsh male voice choirs struggle to attract young (BBC 2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-19173496
Can the male voice choir survive in the modern world? (The Daily Telegraph -2016) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/can-the-male-voice-choir-survive-in-the-modern-world/
Welsh male voice choirs: a vocal minority (The Guardian -2011) https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/01/welsh-choir-only-men-aloud
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