Choir Management for Cowards Breakout at Colloquium 2016
  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 986
    Dear Forum Members,
    I'm presenting a breakout in June at the CMAA Colloquium on choir management for cowards. In short, how do you navigate the shoals of the volunteer choir, the pastor, and those people who leave little notes on your music stand?

    What are your "management problems"? And do you have solutions? In addition to my own experience, I'd love to hear from you to help narrow my focus and prepare for the breakout.

    If so inclined, you can post here or send me a message. In the meantime, a blessed Eastertide (what's left of it) to all!
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,896
    I would say one thing that is a must for me would be having rules for rehearsal. Something like:

    1. Follow instructions the first time they are given.

    2. No talking unless you have raised your hand and been called on.

    3. Be prepared to begin rehearsal on time.

    2 and 3 are particularly important to me, as it effectively cuts down on people interrupting and/or hijacking your rehearsal to suit their own perceived needs, and not those of the choir as a whole.

    I would add the following to that:

    4. Do not ask for a transposition: the music is neither too high nor too low; it is exactly how the composer wants it to be.

    5. Do not whine about not having the melody.

    6. No, I don't do requests.


    In terms of dealing with the pastor: it's like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get. This is because you could get a pastor who is completely sympathetic to your needs, and wants to help you, or you could get one that couldn't care less if there was even music performed for Mass, and the choir exists solely because there are people in it still. You really can't go against the pastor if he's not on your side. There isn't much you can do to put him on your side, either, because pastors, like all administrative types, have their own priorities, and the best you can do is appeal to them. If the pastor is overly concerned with congregational singing, then getting him to support something would require you showing how it would improve (most likely increase, administrative types tend to be quantity driven vs. quality driven) congregational singing. You just have to figure out what makes him tick, and then manipulate the semantics to appeal to it.

    What I'd like to see is how do you deal with what Thomas Day calls the "Mr. Carusos" of the musicians: those big-voiced "cantors" with big personalities that take up a lot of your space and time, and think that everything either is or should be about them.

  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    1 and 3 are pretty good, although I always have someone show up late. When you are a bit desperate for singers, it limits your options.

    2. No talking unless you have raised your hand and been called on.


    No, I won't put up with that from a director, since I am not a child. I don't expect it from my adult choir members, either. It is fine to ask questions as we go along. If you are exchanging recipes with your neighbor, however, I might tell you to stop talking and focus on the music.

    4, 5, and 6 are the nature of the beast. Diva sopranos always seem to think you can transpose everything, while ignoring the fact the rest of the choir won't be able to sing it in the new key.

    Whining? There is constructive whining and non-constructive whining. Depends.

    Requests? You are just hateful because you won't do Eagle's Wings. LOL.

  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,896
    #2 is in there for a reason: I've had the experience with choir members who just blurt out their questions and try to compete with each other for rehearsal attention. Even to the point of bypassing me and asking the organist to just go over a certain section with them. That is why #2 is in there. Some of those "divas" think that when you stop, you should focus on them first: "To hell with the rest of the choir, you can help them later: I need help NOW!"
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    Oh, I know all about divas LOL. What I was getting at was I didn't put up with directors who were full of themselves when I sang in choirs years ago. You have to respect your choir members who often are not getting anything, really, out of singing. They really are doing the church a favor. A little appreciation goes a long way.
  • I have mentioned this before, but my organist is addicted to the transposer. Having perfect pitch and trying to sight read with that stupid thing just makes things so hard...

    #2 is better used in a larger choir, but in a small group of maybe 14 or 15 on a good day I see it run the way that CharlesW has it.

    Also, a prayer before mass and before practice keeps a nice tone, and maybe an organ prelude as singers are gathering before practice.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    For 38 years under a previous pastor, the masses always started 10 minutes late. The late pastor, who did pass away some years ago, had the view that if he gave people a few more minutes, they would get in before mass started. Of course, as you might guess, everyone came late, including the choir to the loft. The next pastor started on time for 17 years, but half the people continued being late. These days with a pastor and associate who always start on time, the practices of the people haven't changed much. I still have a few choir members who drift in during the Gloria. I can look out over the congregation and see empty pews when mass starts. Ten minutes later the pews are full. I think I lost that being on time battle a long time ago - actually before I even took the job. Ingrained habits are nearly impossible to change especially when they have been doing them for 50 years.
    Thanked by 1canadash
  • JesJes
    Posts: 544
    This is interesting, I have the issue of calling on professional singers to come and sing for the occasional scratch choir that doesn't rehearse every week.
    I make recordings for them to rehearse to. I give them sheet music in advance to look at because I get one rehearsal to actually learn it with them. Just one.
    I'm curious to know how I get them to look at the music before they get to the rehearsal. They are paid to look at it and given plenty of time and still it becomes a huge mess of me trying to note bash.
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Do you pay them for these occasions? That wasn't explicitly mentioned in your post. If they are recompensed but demonstrate considerable ineffectiveness at first blush, figure out how to quantify that lack of diligence and give them notice that financial adjustments may be altered if conditions of employment aren't minimally met.
    Thanked by 1Jes
  • JesJes
    Posts: 544
    Thanks yeah, they get paid and according to the musicians union wages.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    I scan copies of psalms and communion propers and e-mail them to cantors a month in advance. My music is planned and listed a month or more in advance so cantors and choir know ahead of time what we will rehearse. All my cantors and choir members are volunteers.
    Thanked by 2Jes baritenor
  • CCoozeCCooze
    Posts: 876
    Having perfect pitch and trying to sight read with that stupid thing just makes things so hard...


    4. Do not ask for a transposition: the music is neither too high nor too low; it is exactly how the composer wants it to be.


    These are great arguments for C-clefs. The more I work on transcribing the Isaac propers, the more fond I become of these transposing clefs.
    I usually go 1 voice at a time, and then hit playback, listening while singing the part off the original to make sure it corresponds correctly to what I put into Finale.

    As for #4, if it's a more recent transposition, that may be the case - but for pieces like those in the Choralis Constantinus I-III, and pieces from that time, the versions available in modern notation can be and probably are in a different "key" than/already transposed from what the composer or choir originally had in mind. Oftentimes, to have an SATB version requires stupidly-high soprano parts that are seriously unnecessary in the context of an actual Mass. Sure, some sopranos "like it high," while others think, "wow, this is really unnecessary," why can't the altos be a bit less whiny about their "low" notes.

    Anyway, I think that choirs need to work more towards being able to read c-clefs and f-clefs.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen a_f_hawkins
  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,896
    Oh, I meant instances where in the middle of rehearsal, some singer will say, "that's too high for me, can we take it down a step?"
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,036
    This is going to be a great one, Mary Jane! Glad you're doing it.

    I like to run a pretty tight ship and (even with less skilled singers) tend to ask a lot, so I try to bridge the gap by providing social events, encouragement via phone or email, and offers of out-of-rehearsal practice appointments, etc. I also try to keep rehearsal light, but not disorganized.
  • kevinfkevinf
    Posts: 1,117
    I am the beneficent dictator. Having been around Robert Shaw and participating in his rehearsals, I strike a balance between the "fear of God" and a kind soul inviting people to sing.

    The "fear of God" approach:

    We count sing the parts. As in 1 and 2 and....
    Never, ever ask for a transposition. That is bs....
    We sing the parts in solfege. Don't know solfege...I will help you learn it.
    Always have a pencil in your hand. If not, one will be provided to you upon request.
    You should have your music in hand before we start the rehearsal.
    Rehearsals are organized, posted in front of them as we rehearse.
    Schedules of music are posted so that everyone knows what is going on whatever day.
    Rehearsals start on time...not five minutes later.etc.
    Rehearsals end on time unless we all agree otherwise.
    I decide the music..do not question. You may complain, but thats it.

    The kind soul,

    I will help you at any time with your part.
    I assist sections with vocal pedagogy.
    I teach solfege to anyone.
    I make part recordings for difficult music when needed.

    I care about my choir members lives. I know their birthdates, families, and if they are ill, I go and visit them.

    We have at least three parties every year and I have been known to surprise them with doughnuts.Coffee is generally available on Sunday mornings.

    Rehearsing children is pretty much the same though I am a little nicer. I am also teaching more technique and solfege in the rehearsal.

    Dictator...yes, even to volunteers.
  • @Kevin
    I would love to be your chorister! lol
  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 986
    What great responses! Keep 'em coming, ladies and gentlemen. Many thanks. Mary Jane
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    Then there is sheet music management. I always get a few copies of "O Holy Night" turned in during July. Why not earlier? Who knows. Choir members can be packrats with music and shuffle it here and there to the point they no longer actually know what they have. I have one gentleman getting up in years, who will take a copy of what we are rehearsing each week. He already has 4 or 5 copies of the same in his folder. I have to do folder raids periodically and remove the excess copies. When I find I am short on copies of a particular anthem when I ordered 10 more copies than I have choir members, I know something is amiss. LOL.

  • I am very much a chorister like that, CharlesW. :)
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    LOL
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,643
    "Thanks yeah, they get paid and according to the musicians union wages."
    Then they can produce accurate pitches according to union expectations. Or not. Make your expectations clear, give them one chance to shape up, and then don't hire them.

    Re "attention whores": give them something special to do, where they can get some attention and glory without necessarily getting it from you during the course of the rehearsal. It seems every group has one.
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,655

    Then there is sheet music management.


    I often fantasize about getting one of those office-mail systems with 100 or so slots and putting every motet and polyphonic ordinary we will sing for the year in its own numbered slot and letting the choir do their own filing.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,141
    1. Why on earth would I (or anyone) come on time if the rehearsal starts 10' late?
    2. Why would I look at something in advance if I know that the notes will be 'bashed', or worse, that the punishment for preparing will be to wait around while someone else's notes get 'bashed'?
  • Carl DCarl D
    Posts: 992
    This should be a wonderful session! And perhaps some overlap with the discussion we had back in 2013.

    A few things I'll add to the discussion thus far:

    1. Humor, lightness and fun go a LONG way in keeping people engaged. When they're no longer enjoying the experience, they'll just drop away. Or worse yet, continue to be involved while making life miserable for everyone else.

    2. I had some success in using different color paper to help people keep their books organized. This especially helped people to see which parts they should keep from week to week, and which ones to turn in or recycle.

    3. Having a schedule well in advance really helps, especially if you're not singing every week. With my schola I made sure to have dates scheduled about 4 months in advance, and the music would be decided about one month before singing. Life's not perfect, but if you can get 95% of things stable, people will become more reliable.

    Carl
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    "attention whores":

    Now that is vintage JQuicK!
    I currently have one of those who recently by-passed talking to me, the pastor, and took his "grievances" to the diocesan vicar. Apparently s/he thinks s/he's operating under an oppressive, racist bully.
    Let it go, let it go......
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    Apparently s/he thinks s/he's operating under an oppressive, racist bully.


    Shocked! Shocked I say. Is outrage!!!!
  • StimsonInRehabStimsonInRehab
    Posts: 1,655
    A sign needs to be made up for such sensitive types: "NOTA BENE: There are no trigger warnings in this choir. Only entrance warnings."
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,632
    My rule number one for new conductors is:

    Don't be afraid to take charge and mean it. Some people try too hard to let everyone have their say vis. the interpretation of a piece, and that doesn't work (in groups larger than an octet) and wastes time at rehearsals. Don't let people tell you what to do, you are the director. And it doesn't matter if you get to the podium and find that Helmuth Rilling is one of your choir members; you're still the director, don't let him interrupt and try to tell you what to do, in fact, as a matter of professional courtesy, no director sitting in a group directed by someone else will dare to even think to tell the director they are under what to do. (Though if you are new and you do happen to find Helmuth Rilling in your choir you should ask him if he has any words of wisdom!)
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen baritenor
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    Amen. I exemplified your bad conductor once at a colloquium and was promptly chastised by Wilko Brouwers. Makes you shape up fast, once and for all.
    If I had Rilling in my choir, it'd sort of be like Bugs Bunny's imposter "Leopold (Stokowski)" approaching the podium.....make straight a path!!!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593
    Thanks for posting this. I had to look up some info because I had Brouwers confused with a chubby organist of note. Not the same person at all.

    The Bugs Leopold is a classic.

  • eft94530eft94530
    Posts: 1,574
    turned in during July. Why not earlier? Who knows.

    Because there was no demand for surrender?
    "Take your time, we will wait while you look."

    I knew a director who would "score hand out" the numbers in order
    Folder # 1 (start at end of row and work toward other end, look for the person).
    Folder # 2 (same ...)
    etc.
    Nobody could say they did not receive their score.

    The same thing with "score hand in", done in order.
    And if you were absent there was a phone call the next day.

    "Oh, you (forgot, cannot find) your score? I am terribly sorry to hear that.
    Please look on with a neighbor."
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,593

    Because there was no demand for surrender?
    "Take your time, we will wait while you look."


    Not true. They were asked to turn it in but didn't. Even given time to do it. It is possible one or two may not have been there that evening. The choristers have numbers they have had for anywhere from 20 to 40 years, depending on the person. I don't know who assigned them but it was before my time. Choir members are territorial about those numbers and unwilling to surrender or change them. With deaths and members going elsewhere, there are gaps in the numbers and the whole system needs to be done over. It would be a huge fight and not worth it. I found one no longer with us member, kept a complete collection of pieces she had sung over the years at her home. After she went on to her eternal reward, someone turned them in. It's all crazy.

    Not only are those numbers sacrosanct, those individual copies have markings in them. Should someone not get, "their number," they of course cannot sing without their markings. Those markings came from every director the choir has had over the years. Since directors don't interpret pieces the same way, sometimes the markings conflict. The younger folks in the choir think the whole thing is hilarious and entertaining.

    Now do you understand why I think IMSLP is the greatest thing in music over the last several hundred years? When they lose copies, mark them to the point even they can no longer read them, or hoard copies creating shortages, it is wonderful to go to IMSLP and print more copies. We certainly don't have the money to replace the choral library.
  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 986
    I'm grateful to all who have responded. Right now, I'm drawing up the list of choir "woes and solutions." Anything you'd like to add? This is the time because I'll check back in a couple of days. Thanks. Mary Jane
  • Ben YankeBen Yanke
    Posts: 3,114
    My rule number one for new conductors is:

    Don't be afraid to take charge and mean it. Some people try too hard to let everyone have their say vis. the interpretation of a piece, and that doesn't work (in groups larger than an octet) and wastes time at rehearsals


    Good advice. I had this exact problem with my first schola.
  • StimsonInRehabStimsonInRehab
    Posts: 1,655
    Ran across a good quote by Dr. A.E. Tozer in an old church music manual (not verbatim): If your choir is talkative, be assertive with them, occasionally reminding them 'Kindly allow me to do the talking and you do the singing.'
    Thanked by 1ClergetKubisz
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,912
    Always have a pencil in your hand. If not, one will be provided to you upon request.
    You should have your music in hand before we start the rehearsal.
    Rehearsals start on time...not five minutes later.etc.
    Rehearsals end on time unless we all agree otherwise.
    I decide the music..do not question. You may complain, but thats it.


    Good Stuff, as Shaw once said to Wagner!

    Never worked with solfege for the singers; they learned by rote. Fortunately, music-readers were scattered throughout my choirs, which helped immensely. The 'count-it-out' thing is Shavian; I just asked my people to always sub-divide the beat when singing. (For very nasty rhythmic stuff, we did go to count-it-out.)

    As to music distribution/collection: we had a library of all the music in file cabinets in the rehearsal room (or choir loft, whichever.) AND I always had a volunteer librarian. The music to be rehearsed was distributed at the rehearsal and collected immediately thereafter; same for the music for Sunday. No music ever went home, nor did it remain in a choir member's folder. EVER. The octavo-sized music was kept in 8X12 envelopes; the larger books (e.g., Gradual) were simply put into the cabinets/file drawers. And the music was numbered so the folks always got their own markings back.

    Choir members always were interested in "why" composer Joe Blow wrote the line that way and for the most part that was information we endeavored to give them. We ran tightly scheduled, 2 hours, with a 15 minute break halfway through. (Less time and zero break for the group which sang Chant only, and only 1x/month.)

    After only two seasons the "Christmas singers" got the hint (we asked them to leave and come back in January so they could participate through the entire choir year.)

    Always had friendly banter and cheesy puns at hand, but when necessary, the Hairy Eyeball was administered liberally. Used all the tried-and-true vocalization remedies, hammered unified vowels.

    Seemed to work. No one shot me.
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 1,643
    I currently have one of those who recently by-passed talking to me, the pastor, and took his "grievances" to the diocesan vicar. Apparently s/he thinks s/he's operating under an oppressive, racist bully.

    That's not an attention whore. Attention whores like to be liked. They can even be sweet in a daffy sort of way. But they're high-maintenance, soaking up lots of attention and rehearsal time. Whether you indulge them depends on how badly you need them. They're distinguishable from divas in that divas are usually talented and AWs usually not.

    What you have is more malignant. The type has recently been labelled (by a controversial person) "diabolical narcissist". The vicar should see right through them, but nothing is guaranteed. Interact as little as possible.