Keeping Your Choristers Happy!

Looking back over some of the previous blogs on here, it seems that the focus has often been on how to recruit new members.   We often overlook our most valuable assets – the members we already have! So in a round-about way, this blog is about retaining people, and how to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls.  For various reasons, I had my grumpy head on when I first published this blog.   Since then I’ve re-read it and realized it was pants, so I’ve revised it.  It’s still pants, but at least it’s not so whingey!

I guess choir politics are pretty much the same whichever choir you belong to and without doubt, in a male choir, egos are never very far from the surface.   Personally, all I’m really interested in is the singing, and making that as good as it can be, but inevitably, if you’re passionate about something, you end up disagreeing with others, and this can become a source of disharmony in the choir if you let it.  Compromise and good communication can prevent choristers feeling that their contributions don’t count.  Most of us try very hard to subjugate our personal agendas to ‘the greater good’, (I can never say that without thinking about Hot Fuzz!) but I doubt that anyone ever really succeeds in doing so, despite the best of intentions.  Having an agreed Choir Vision that everyone can buy into is a good idea and takes away some of the guesswork! Be tolerant with others and remember, all of us think we’re better than we really are. For example, I think I can sing.

Lesson 1: No matter how good you think you are, a little humility and compromise never hurt anyone.

I was left ‘spitting feathers’ a few weeks back when someone quite brazenly claimed credit for something that I had done. Deep breath. Count to three, and move on.  Some people are just like that and most of your colleagues will see it for what it is.  I’ve noticed quite often in the past, that members can be quite critical of committee members, often without really understanding the at times difficult decisions that need to be made. I suppose that if you stand for the committee, you open yourself up to all manner of criticisms (mostly behind your back) and it goes with the territory.  If you’re in that privileged position, try to find the time to tell people informally about what the committee is doing for the Choir.  I’m not sure that posting your committee meeting minutes on the noticeboard really cuts it!

Lesson 2:  Treat everyone fairly and recognize their contributions, no matter how small.  If you’re on the committee, make a real effort to talk to members about what the committee is trying to achieve – and don’t be afraid to elicit opinions.  If you’re not on the committee, cut them some slack – they are trying their best and deserve encouragement. Of course, if you think you can do better, then put your money where your mouth is! In short, communicate, give credit where it’s due and don’t take credit for the work of others.

It’s funny how things tend to come in threes, shortly after having someone take credit for my work, and with just four days to go before a long-planned singing workshop, the visiting workshop leader pulled out due to ill-health.   I like a challenge, but that was a bit of stress I could have done without! Thankfully, my old friend, the amazing Dr Rebecca Berkley, stepped in to fill the void and delivered a superb workshop which I think made a positive and lasting impression on all who attended. (To be clear, when I say ‘old’ friend, I don’t mean she’s old – just that she was MD at Kennet Opera a few years back when I had the privilege of singing the role of MacDuff in Verdi’s Macbeth under her musical direction!) Fair to say, the workshop, which had been sponsored by One-Stop through their ‘Carriers for Causes’ scheme, was a great success, not least because we learnt a new round all about Gin and Tonic!

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Dr Rebecca Berkley leading the workshop astray with thoughts of Gin and Tonic!

No sooner had the dust settled on the workshop, than I received an e-mail from the local performing arts academy in Swindon where we had booked the auditorium for a weekend of recording work, only to be told (with a just a month’s notice), that they were cancelling the booking. I suppose I should be grateful it was a month’s notice and not just a week! However trying to find a good alternative location with the right acoustic and facilities at short notice isn’t a heap of laughs, and as the recording company deposit had already been paid and diaries cleared, changing the date wasn’t an option. Thankfully, one of our committee, Stuart,  for solved the problem (thank you Stu!) and found a location almost on his own doorstep!  The point is that it pays to build networks and tap into the your choir’s ‘collective knowledge’, whether it’s for a last-minute replacement for a workshop or a replacement venue!

Lesson 3: Many heads are better than one when it comes to problem-solving. Your members are your best asset – tap into their knowledge and connections. Do you even know what they all do, what skills they have, or who they know that might be able to help the choir?  Keep them all involved.  Team-working strengthens the sense of belonging.

The passion for singing is what keeps us coming back for more, but sometimes the singing (in my case, my own) doesn’t live up to expectations.  After one rehearsal recently, I found myself feeling unusually low and seriously contemplating my own departure in search of pastures new.  There’s a local singing group I’d love to join, but it meets on the same night as choir, so I can’t do both. It made me think that almost every chorister has something else they could be doing on rehearsal night, and sometimes the pull of the alternative is strongly felt.   I’d been feeling a bit crappy that night anyway, and once I had manned-up, I felt somewhat happier, so for now at least, the Choir will have to put up with me. The moral of the story is, no matter how ‘embedded’ someone seems in the Choir, it doesn’t prevent them having times when they wonder if it’s all worth it. Watch out for the signs and get them back on board quickly!

Lesson 4:  Never assume that your members are happy just because they’re not complaining. Engagement and valuing your members is everything here and the serial whingers whose voices are often loudest, may not be the ones you need to worry about!

One of the many things that makes it all worthwhile is the sweet smell of success. Back in March, the Wessex Male Choir had a particularly successful outing at the Mid-Somerset Festival in Bath where we managed first place in all three of the categories we had entered thanks in no small part to the brilliant leadership of our MD.   Our chamber choir, the Wessex Camerata, also entered a class but, perhaps not surprisingly given our new line-up which is still bedding-in, we only managed a creditable third place against some very good competition. Still it was a good test of the guys’ mettle.   Preparing for the competition was hard work, but as Samuel Goldwyn once said, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’ – it’s true both as a choir and on an individual basis.

Wessex MD, Rhiannon Williams, with two out of the three trophies won in Bath.

Lesson 5:  Success and hard work go hand-in-hand. Ensure that everyone understands this – there is no such thing as a free lunch or a short-cut to success! The sooner that choristers understand the connection, the happier they will be about having to work hard. Manage their expectations. No-one said it was going to be easy!

With preparations now well underway for the Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts later this month, it would be easy to overlook some of the other great things we are doing this year. We’ll be recording our latest CD next month and, as well as a few well-known numbers to keep our traditionalist fans happy, the CD will be packed with new material and different genres. (Follow us on Facebook to hear about the launch of the CD and a special offer on pre-orders!) .

We’ve also received the first draft of a new song of Remembrance that we commissioned from the acclaimed British composer, Paul Mealor. Paul is unique in having held top chart positions in both the pop charts and classical charts simultaneously, and will be known to many as the composer of the Military Wives’ Choir hits Wherever You Are and in My Dreams.   The commission (supported in part by a Co-Op grant), is for male choir but with an optional descant, suitable for a school choir (our way of involving youngsters in remembering the fallen). We asked Paul to use some of the text from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which includes the well-known stanza that begins ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old…’ and he has done a fabulous job.   All we need now is a good local school choir to help us perform the premiere at a big RBL event in October this year! Also in October, we’ll be performing in the Sheriff of Wiltshire’s event, An Uncelebrated Journey, a showcase for the best of Swindon talent.

We’re very much looking forward to our annual summer concert at STEAM in Swindon again this year (14th July) where our guests will be ‘The Magnificent AK47’ – an anarchic group of singing land-pirates and DIY-ers who are single-handedly changing perceptions about men’s singing. They wear hats, have far too much facial hair, and sing rousing stuff in a manly manner. We’re sure that our Swindon audience will love them! We’re especially looking forward to doing a few joint numbers with them including a rendition of the old English drinking song, ‘Down Among the Deadmen’.

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Brothers in song… Magnificent Wessex choristers with members of the Magnificent AK47!

Lesson 6:  Acentuate the positive! We have an interesting and varied selection of events and activities to look forward to – something for everyone. The promise of the next big gig or special event is often enough to keep people’s enthusiasm flowing!

Okay, I’m mad about singing and over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from hundreds (or maybe thousands) of hours of singing tuition from some outstanding singers (including Ros Plowright, Stuart Burrows, Ryland Davies, James Gilchrist, Gail Pearson, Susan McCulloch, Patricia Wheatley-O’Neill, Adrian Thompson and many more).   I’ve done masterclasses, consultations, summer schools, and more grade exams than I care to remember, all in the interest of improving my singing (especially as a soloist) and being the best I can be, given that I’ll never be more than a keen amateur. My poor family have been driven nearly insane.  I didn’t really start singing until twelve years ago and I’d like to think it’s never too late to learn new tricks, even for an old dog like me.  One thing is certain, we never stop learning.   So encourage choristers to learn, to attend workshops, to take lessons, to learn how to read music, to rise to musical challenges.  Making development opportunities available to choristers is a good way of keeping the challenge fresh and choristers engaged. The sense of accomplishment and recognition that comes with developing or learning new skills will keep your choristers happy!  As well as having a chorister development programme in the Wessex, our chamber group (the Wessex Camerata) provides some additional challenges in a cappella singing for those who want to push their boundaries a bit further.

Lesson 7:  Have a chorister development programme and provide plenty of opportunities for choristers to learn and improve. Have a culture that imbues choristers with the desire to do better, and make a point of rewarding those who make the effort.

There are probably many more things you can do to keep your choristers happy, I’ve just picked on a few that areas that represent quick wins.  Being in a really good choir is an incentive all of its own.   Above all, try and keep a sense of humour and make sure that singing is fun – but not at the expense of choir discipline!

GE

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Inspirational and Visionary!

A team from the Wessex Male Choir was recently fortunate enough to attend a Male Choir Conference in Peterborough. Now you might think that sounds a bit dull, particularly if your view of male choirs is that they are ‘pale, male, and stale’ – a term we heard quite a few times during the day. But it seems that the Wessex Male Choir has very similar aspirations for male choir singing to those of the inspirational choral director, Will Prideaux, who masterminded the conference. I think it’s fair to say we share a vision of male singing reclaiming its rightful position after years of steady decline. The Wessex, under the expert guidance our music director, Rhiannon Williams, is thankfully one of those choirs prepared to ‘up its game’ and play its part in the renaissance of men’s singing.

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Will Prideaux conducting the Peterborough Male Voice Choir during the conference.  (Photo – Peterborough MVC.)

So much for grand designs, but rebuilding and maybe re-branding a somewhat tarnished and neglected genre is going to involve a lot of hard work, commitment, and tough decisions, and maybe not all choristers are prepared to put their shoulders to the task. As Churchill once said “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”.   Perhaps that’s too stark a picture though, because as most of us who sing in choirs know, it’s also a matter of great satisfaction and pride when things go right. It is a rewarding and fun experience being in good choir, but we agree with Will: music, singing and choir development must lie at the heart of what we do if we take our singing seriously.

Of course, there are different types of men’s choirs: some are little more than singing social clubs for elderly gentlemen where, in reality, the priorities are very different. I have to say that I saw a male choir recently in concert that left me cringing and wanting to tell other audience members that ‘not all male choirs are like that!’   In that moment, I would not have owned-up to being in a male choir.   (Perhaps they had misread the sarcasm of my earlier blog (The Art of Coarse Choral Singing) and taken it as actual performance advice?)  Undoubtedly the ‘social singers’ have their place, but the image and standard of singing they present to the public is most likely one of the reasons for the overall decline in the popularity of male choirs, both in terms of recruiting and audience appeal.

To see just how far male choral singing has fallen, we only have to think about the great composers like Elgar, Schubert and Sibelius (to name but a few) who wrote numerous works for male choirs. The number of contemporary composers writing works for male choirs today is pitifully small, especially in the UK, and is a measure of the degree to which male choral music has lost respect.  We can certainly help ourselves in this respect:  for example, the Wessex Male Choir is commissioning the acclaimed British composer Paul Mealor to write a Remembrance piece for male choir.  But male choirs generally have lost the respect of many other singers.  I know many ‘choral society’ and ‘classical’ singers who look down on male choirs with something approaching disdain, and yet, done well, male choral singing can more than hold its own with more classical genres.

As already mentioned, if we are to reclaim our rightful place, we will have to work hard. We need to adopt a much more professional approach to our music-making – and that includes hiring-in professional music staff, ensuring the focus is on the music, singing, and developing the choir’s skills and competence.   Will mentioned in his keynote address the apparent pride with which a elderly chorister of thirty years’ standing had once told him that he didn’t read a single note of music.   It begs the question, that if someone takes their singing seriously, why on earth wouldn’t they make the effort over a thirty-year period singing with the choir, to develop their skills and learn how to read music? It beggars belief, but I suspect that nearly every male choir has choristers like this and some can perhaps be forgiven if they have never been encouraged to learn, but wearing it like a badge of pride is surely wrong-thinking.  You don’t hear people boasting about being unable to read.   Of course, the Choir itself has a duty to provide the help and training required, and there are many great ways of doing this. Katie Jeffries-Harris of Peterborough Sings, highlighted and demonstrated some of the great technology that can help.   We will certainly be looking at how we might use the Music Prodigy app!  Having a chorister development programme and offering to teach potential choristers new skills is one of the things that attract the right calibre of new recruit.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get get what you’ve always got”

The Wessex Male Choir’s founder and former musical director, Robert T Elliott, an experienced and highly respected choral adjudicator, gave a presentation on competition preparation and what adjudicators look for. With commendable clarity, he spelled out what we should already know. Rather like rugby, you need to do the basics well, and that repeating the same old ‘plays’ (or in this case, the same old stale male repertoire favourites) isn’t going to impress or bring success. A later speaker summed it up well when he quoted the words attributed to Henry Ford when he said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  For male choirs who want to develop, and for whom restoring respect for the male choral genre is important, the message is clear: we need to work hard and innovate, not least in our repertoire selection. For competition success, preparation is key. If you prepare well and allow just the right amount of time, you greatly increase your chances of success. Of course, even then, sometimes the TMO can it wrong though!

Recruiting, as always, was a topic of great interest, and the Peterborough MVC approach is certainly worthy of study. (Visit their website to see the sort of things they do). Quite a few of the ideas can also be found in one of my earlier blogs here. Claire Hailey of Peterborough Sings shared her experiences of project-based recruiting and the many good ideas it encompasses.   Whilst incredibly envious of Peterborough’s recruiting budget, I also reflected that Wessex Male Choir’s ‘Project RMS’ (Real Men Sing) from just over a year ago, employed many of the same methods and produced some excellent results at a fraction of the cost.   However, we will certainly be ‘tweaking’ our future campaigns to incorporate some of the ideas picked up at the conference! When you see the average age of Peterborough MVC members, it’s clear the organization is getting it right.

At the start of the day, we were treated to a recent recording of a once undeniably great choir singing a well-known song – a staple of the MVC repertoire, particularly in the Land of Song. It was pretty rough and ready, and certainly nowhere near the standard historically achieved by this once proud choir. (Which reminds me – be careful about the performances you permit to be posted online).  Despite a fairly depressing analysis of the state of male choir singing today, speaker after speaker shared ideas and provoked thoughts about how good choirs could raise their game. At the end of the day, Will and the Peterborough Male Voice Choir treated us to a demonstration of some rehearsal techniques and sang some new repertoire by way of example.   The singing was excellent and finished the day on a high note, having given us all more food-for-thought, and some very clear ideas about what sort of choir we wanted to belong to. At the end of day which started with such a dismal ‘report card’ about male choir performance and standards today, I think everyone was enthused, raring to go, eager to start making some of the changes, and committing to the hard but satisfying work needed to reclaim the great tradition of male choral singing. Bring it on!

Many thanks to Will Prideaux, Peterborough Male Voice Choir, members of Peterborough Sings, and the guest speakers for making this conference such a great and inspiring event.