Operating a Symphony Chorus
Date: Sat, 26 Jul 1997 12:56:51 -0400
From: Hank Dahlman
Subject: Orchestral Choir Questions Compilation
Several weeks ago, I posted a query on some questions and issues that I
have concerning membership, musicianship, and rehearsals with a
professional philharmonic orchestral choir that I took over last year.
There were many answers, all helpful. Also, there were many requests
that I post the results. Here they are. Hope they are of as much value
to you as they are to me.
Dr. Hank Dahlman
Associate Professor of Music Phone 937.775-3721
Director of Choral Studies Fax 937.775.3786
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435
> Congratulations, and more especially, best wishes. Community chorus work can
be very rewarding, but also very taxing. I directed a church-based comm. chorus
for two years, then, in another city, a community chorus
> which only occasionally sang with the local symphony, for seven years.
> When I began, there were about 24 members, only half of whom were
> dependable. My first chore was to let them know that I started rehearsal
> on time, and that if there weren't sufficient people there within a
> reasonable period (10 minutes, I think), they would be looking for another
> director. That was drastic, but needed, and it worked.
> Governance: You need an executive to look after all non-musical aspects
> of the group. It takes a load of you, and gives them some ownership.
> They should also be encouraged to develop some bylaws which will deal with
> many of the areas you mention, including attendance, dress, etc. Perhaps
> president, vice-pres., business mgr, treasurer, secretary, and one or two
> members at large. You would be a member ex officio. Section leaders are
> also a good idea.
> If it is still in print, Stanton's The Dynamic Choral Conductor, Shawnee
> press 1971 has a great appendix dealing with governance. The rest of the
> book is pretty good, too.
> As to faithful members who've "always" been there, I always felt I
> couldn't ask them to leave. With gentle encouragement at auditions, they
> may be helped eventually to see that they should spend more time with
> their grandchildren. If not, they probably contribute in other ways.
> Just be sure that any new ones you accept after audition measure up and
> assist you along the way to the balance you want. This may necessitate
> having a waiting list of sopranos or others, who can be encouraged to find
> tenors or whatever is needed.
> Choral handbook--no doubt you'll get some by mail. Take a look, if you
> can, at "The Choral Singer's Handbook" by Rowy C. Bennett, pub. by
> Marks/Leonard. It was 6.95 when I had my singers get it, and well worth
> There is much I could add about sight-singing, general running of
> rehearsals, etc., etc., but I don't know your background or experience. If
> you haven't studied conducting, take some courses, and attend every
> workshop you can.
My name is Doug Pulse and I am the past president of the board of
for the Yakima Symphony Chorus and also currently the director of the
Barbershop Chorus. I have sung with the Symphony Chorus since 1985.
the Symphony Chorus and the Barbershoppers perform in our local theater
is a beautiful civic facility which seats approx 1500. Cost of rental
around $1500 to $2000 per performance
Let me answer your questions in the order that you asked them:
1. Musicianship. You are doing what you have to do. The workshops are
good idea. I did the same thing with my Barbershoppers, who had been
neglected for a number of years. They gained much from it and were very
pleased with the results. It gives the membership a feeling of
standard by which to assess their own performance. It's also something
should be done regularly during rehearsals. Musicianship is something
needs to be repeated over and over. Even people who've "got it" need to
reminded periodically. It's a continual, ongoing process. As you
new members you can tighten up the requirements.
2. The Yakima Symphony Chorus, although affiliated with the orchestra,
board of directors of its own. We have the regular corporate officer
positions plus section representatives (Soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and
at large member. The music director and the director of the orchestra
voting members of the board. The board takes care of the production
involved with a concert: ticket sales, rental of venue, advertising,
program. Frankly, we weren't as effective as we could have been. They
do the hiring of the music director, make attendance and dress code
They develop the budget and do some longterm planning
My experience with the Barbershoppers has been an eye opener - those
have it wired. Last year was my first concert with them and it was
unbelievable. I was not involved with the production in any way. All I
was direct. The membership did EVERYTHING. They designed the program,
the script, arranged for other groups to participate, sold tickets (60 -
are sold by the membership), sold advertising for the program, designed
printed the program, organized the Afterglow (an after-the-show party
is a show in itself)....you name it. Ideally, this is what you want in
3. Usually we will have one or two programs a year with the orchestra.
plan around the activities with the orchestra. 'Usually' then, we have
for two presentations of our own.
We have begun a tradition of presenting a "Christmas at the Capitol"
two weekends prior to Christmas. The chorus presents traditional
music, we have members of the chorus sing solos, the chamber chorus (a
of the chorus) sings a bit more difficult fare, the accompanist gets to
a solo or two, and the audience is invited to sing christmas carols.
has become very popular with the community, although last year we
from some incredible weather (over 50 inches of snow from 25 Nov to 25
people were in shock). We plan to present this concert again this year.
We have done theme concerts - "American music", "Gloria". etc.
use orchestra, sometimes not. Instrumentalists add significant expense
program. We have presented major works. Mozart "Requiem", Brahms
Vivaldi "Gloria" + others.
We have done Handel's "Messiah" as a part of the Orchestra season, with
choral director conducting. When we do this we do not do the "Christmas
We have an exchange program with the Washington-Idaho chorus (commonly
the I-Wash Chorus). This is usually done with the symphony orchestra
and theirs) Last April we did the Verdi "Requiem", one weekend here and
next weekend there (there being Pullman WA and Lewiston ID). Both
get about 60% of their membership to travel (its a long trip) and it
in a much larger chorus that we would normally have. Three years ago we
the Beethoven 9th and it was spectacular.
The Chamber Choir also has done an exchange with the Bellevue Chamber
The concerts have been beautiful. Many combinations of forces...their
women, our women, all women, their choir, our choir, both choirs, all
did the Biebl "Ave Maria", a personal favorite). The logistics of the
production alone is rather amazing, but if you're into that sort of
can be very rewarding. We did two performances in a church in Bellevue
then a couple weeks later did a performance in the Catholic Cathedral
Yakima...it was wonderful!
4. We have a core group of around 60 people and a transient population
to 40. Our music director auditions everyone and usually asks those of
who are directors to sit in. The audition is usually done after
and does not take long. Ability to hear, sight read, match tones is
Our dues are very low, amounting to $20/year. This is currently under
and it is likely to go up significantly in the near future. I believe
$50/year is more common and realistic for choruses. We have been able
keep dues low because we have had to purchase very little music and
we do not pay our director. Music has been available through the local
community college and other resources. The music director has been paid
the community college and the orchestra, although the pay has not been
adequate. It has not been an issue with him so it has not been an issue
the chorus. At some point down the road, however, this will become an
so we are beginning to address the problem now.
We do not have periodic test or reviews.
We allow up to three absences from rehearsals for a particualar
ask that members notify section leaders if they are going to be absent.
People have to understand the importance of being at rehearsal and know
the consequences are if they miss too many. I once sang in a choral
in Germany and faithfully attended all the rehearsals. Frequently there
so few tenors I had to sing tenor. I thought "wow, if this is all the
there are how will we do this?" Came the night of the performance and I
could barely find room on the risers. They came out of nowhere...guys I
never seen before. They all boomed out the music as if they had known
years. But lack of rehearsal was apparent, especially in transitional
I understand your frustration with the old timers....By all means, hang
them. Its true that they can detract some from the production but they
people in. They are the beloved, the faithful. KEEP THEM. If you want
Robert Shaw type group, audition a group to sing in a chamber choir.
- 20 or more of your best voices and do those special things you want to
But make regular attendance of chorus rehearsals a requirement to
the chamber choir.
5. yes. yes.
6. Chorus rehearses Tuesday nights from 7 - 9. We have a break which
have found to be a very important part of the rehearsal routine.
to slurp punch and eat cookies and gossip. The Chamber choir rehearses
the chorus rehearsal, although sometimes we have used every third or
Tuesday solely for chamber choir. Chamber choir personnel should be
to know the music when they come to rehearsal, so this should cut down
time requirement for them.
7. We're pretty formal...tux's for the men and Black full length
white blouses for the women. We will be discussing going to all black
the women. Chamber choir is a bit more colorful, although not much.
a blouse of another color for the women is about as far as we go.
I hope this helps some. Each chorus has its own character and I know
will have many ideas of your own. If you have any more questions feel
to email me. I'll get a copy of our by-laws and dress and attendence
to you as soon as I can. I just turned all that over to the new
last month so it may be a week or two before I get it to you. Good
Read John Bertalot's (Princeton Singers, and BIG Episcopal Church
book entitled "Immediately practical tips for Choral Directors". It
reads really quickly and is very easily applied. He addresses all the
issues you have talked about (including some about orchestral repor). I
cannot stress enough how helpful this book is for your worries.
You know about Chorus America, I assume--the community/professional
for choral ensembles like yours. Alice Parker is a member of the board,
other professional names--Robert Page, Dale Warland, et. al. They are in
PHL, PA 1811 Chestnut Street. They have a site on the WWW and Email--but
have either address in front of me.
Judging from your questions, I think you know where you want the chorus
to go - - it's just a matter of how to get there - how much and how
thought your remark about letting things "go fallow" showed a certain
of wisdom - - perhaps a stepwise improvement plan would work for years
As far as the re-auditioning procedure, it is good to do this either
year or every other year - - Sir David Willcocks re-auditions the London
Choir members every other year. Regarding the procedure for weeding out
singers who really don't belong, as audition criteria are tightened and
performance demands are more rigorous, some might self-eliminate. For
others - again, according to Sir David - - during auditions, just tell
that the current season should really be their last with the group -
they aren't performing up to par - - and to save face, ask them to write
a short letter of resignation which you can graciously accept - and read
the choir. This is what he has done, and evidently it works - - they
message, they are still accepted as contributing members (at least for
current season) - and they get recognized for their years of
However you sugar-coat it, it's not easy to do it, but once done,
enjoy things much more - and things really do improve - - This alone
create a climate of accountability. Also,,,, most of the members know
these resignations are requested, but it's a way to preserve individual
dignity in the process.
1. Re-audition the group every year. It's a pain in the neck, but it
gives them the impression that you're looking for improvement and that
you have standards, even if you don't actually reject anyone. I do this,
and it has two beneficial effects: (1) it scares away some of the real
losers, and (2) it gives me a chance for an instant voice lesson for
each person, or a chance to nag them about sight-reading. After all,
many people have production problems that can be quickly fixed by proper
breathing or posture. Include a sight-reading audition (handled by
someone else), which will encourage your singers to show up for your
workshops (an excellent idea, by the way). With such a large group you
don't have to totally eliminate the dead wood, just intimidate some of
it into going away on its own.
2. Extend the choir's concerts into a continuous "season," including
some concerts without the orchestra, so that you don't have long breaks
without rehearsals. Even if the season is only five months long, it
gives a better sense of belonging and continuity. You should be able to
use the orchestra's publicity apparatus to promote the choir's other
performances. Try to get them to print a brochure (or even sell a
series) with only the choir's concerts. It will help psychologically if
the chorus thinks of itself as a concert group which often performs with
the orchestra, rather than an adjunct like the 3rd bassoon player.
3. Recruiting the good people is going to be difficult. Some choirs pay
them (talk to Chorus America about this). My way is to recruit them into
a select chamber choir (for which membership in the larger chorus is
mandatory), so they get their own challenges in return for being the
leaders in the larger group.
Thank you to all who responded to my querry.
All are listed below.
First is my original request.
Any new responses would still be appreciated.
I am planning the start of a community chorus of sorts. To help me get
started, I would like to pick your brains for anything that might help this
project be more successful at the outset. Any help is appreciated.
Please send the following information;
My situation is as follows.
My community is about 500 thousand people.
a junior college
a large (60) symphony chorus
a small (24) community chorus
one other community chorus connected to the University
strong choral music at the 12 high schools in town.
I am a HS director in town. (16 years)
I plan to focus on "new music" but not to the exclusion of the standards.
I am torn between starting with a small group (8-12) or opening it to a larger
group if there are singers interested.
Thanks for any help that you may have. I will post a compilation if the
Your best bet is to contact CHORUS AMERICA, the organization for professional
and community choruses
in Philadelphia is (215) 563-2430.
Rochester Oratorio Society
I am a member of and volunteer for a community choir in a community VERY
similar to yours. We are the oldest adult choir in Western Canada and we
performed in Carnegie Hall two years ago. I can't give you detailed
information on the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir because I have only been with
the group for three years, but I offer some ideas you may not hear elsewhere:
Membership: We perform three or four major concerts a year and membership is
based on the number of concerts sung:
Full member - (we have about 75 of these), auditioned, sings all concerts,
pays $100 per year
Auditioned associate member: auditioned, sings one or two concerts per
season, when we need a larger number of voices, pays $75 or $50 per year
Unauditioned associate member: unauditioned, sings only when we require very
large forces (such as Beethoven 9, which we do with the symphony orchestra
almost every year), pays a lesser fee
The conductor auditions all members every second year during the summer.
May I suggest that social events figure largely in your plans; we have a large
and loyal membership in part because people are welcomed and find friends
easily within the choir.
Our e-mail address is phil(a)escape.ca, and I encourage you to contact Nancy
Newman (Executive Director) or Mary Jo Farrell (President) at that address for
Happy New Year,
Heather MacLachlan St. Amand
Programme Committee Chairperson, Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir
I am doing the Visalia Community Chorus, it meets through the college, so I
run it just like another of my choirs. No by laws , auditions were not a
problem, everyone made it. If I had someone show up who couldn't match pitch
however I would have to tactfully suggest they try something else. We meet
Tuesday nights 7 - 9. A minimun of 15 must be enrolled for credit, the rest
are enrolled through community service $26 a semester. I have a nice core of
about 40, but there were at times 60 at rehearsals. I filled in with a few
ringers from my daytime choir for the concerts. We are doing 2 each semester.
Let's assume you have checked with your state's ACDA. They are of infinite
Our little group operates in a 30-mile-radius area at the mouth of the
Columbia River, one state north of you. Population in this area probably not
Membership currently stands at about 24 and we pay a per appearance fee to our
very good accompanist and $50 a month to the director, who also does most of
the admin work. The choir has incorporated as a non-profit and is writing
bylaws: simple ones. We also offer the chorale as a one-hour continuing
at the community college.
I audition incoming singers for ability to match pitch, noticing a few other
things to help me help them. Very low key. I generally suggest a section to
sing in but let someone who's convinced he's a tenor, for instance, start
there and re-convince himself that baritone range is more fun.
Members pay $10 a month, which pays for music, accompanist, concert costs
(partway, anyway). Full-time community college students pay no fee beyond
their tuition, and the college pays us nothing. Not even an instructor's
We perform three full concerts a season (September through June) and have a
couple of smaller appearances that vary by year and invitation. Tickets to
concerts are $8 at the door, less for special populations and in advance. With
grants we are awarded -- I don't find time to write many proposals -- and
local business and private donors in the $50-a-year ballpark, we have always
broken even over the year.
Recent full concerts:
Gloria (Vivaldi) and holiday music, Dec 97, with orchestra, local soloists
Passion (Nelson), March 98, with orch, local soloists, several local choirs
The Creation (Haydn), June 98, orch, paid solosists, guest conductor
Messiah Straight--&Jazzy, Dec 98, orch, paid soloists
Recent small appearances:
community choir clinics, autumn 96, 97, 98
regional summer arts concert series, July 98
caroling at parties, Dec 95, 96, 97
Struggle to Hope (music of developing counttries, Mar 99, no orch
Opera Studio, Jun 99, paid soloists, no orch
Ode to St Cecilia etc., Dec 99, orch, paid soloists, depending on companion
Schubert Mass in G plu ?, Mar or Jun 2000, orch, paid soloists?
Alleluias, Mar or Jun 2000, chamber ensemble
Kinda gives you the flavor.
It'd sure be fun to contemplate your resources and the dilemma between a
really good 8-12-voice group and the possibility of a 40-voice one...lwj
FRIENDS: PLEASE NOTICE MY NEW EMAIL ADDRESS. MY INTERNET
SERVER IS COMING UP IN THE WORLD AND ASKS THIS CHANGE.
North Coast Chorale
North Coast Chamber Ensemble Warrenton, Oregon
I started a community Choir in Toronto in the Fall of 1997, so I know
the "agony" you are going through. Maybe not quite the same, but you
will understand the dilema in a city with such a wealth of chotal
tradition. I opted for a group of no more that 30 and originally made it a non
audition group. After a wonderful first season I changed it to an audition
choir, due to the large interest and I had to get rid of some "dead wood".
Initially membership fees were $50.00 Cdn which was to cover costs of
rehearsal space, music etc, but that too increased to $ 100.00 in the second
year to be able to start a library of our own. Our focus has been on Baroque
(easy to borrow) and 20Century (not so easy to borrow - hence the increase).
We also wanted to work with an orchestra and needed the funds to pay them.
My best advice for starting a group, is to get a nucleus of people who
are interested and the rest is pretty much by word of mouth. Having a liaison
with a church (our rehearsal venue) also helps tremendously ad it gives a
potential audience when it comes to concerts. I was luck enough to recruite
the minister of the church to sing in the choir, and you will appreciate the
I wish you the best of luck and do let me know how things turn out
Keith F. Muller
The Millennium Singers
I started an adult choir this past Fall here in the Minneapolis area and we
have had tremendous success. Coon Rapids is on the Northwest edge of the
Minneapolis/St.Paul area and there is really no choral ensemble up here. My
goal was to have a choir of 40-60 singers so we could do all kinds of music.
I started by advertising in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and in our local
newspaper. Then I secured the choir alumni lists from St. Olaf, Concordia in
Moorhead, Bethel College, Bemidji State, Augsburg, and Moorhead State, all
known for their strong choral programs. I sent out over 500 letters to people
who live in this geographical area inviting them to audition. I started the
audition process in April building the chorus
one singer at a time. By the time our first rehearsal rolled around in
September, I had 53 singers in the chorale.
TWO RIVERS CHORALE got off to a fantastic start. We rehearse Thursday nights
from 7:00 to 9:30 beginning the Thursday after Labor Day. We had our Fall
concert on the Sunday before Thanksgiving and then we shut down for December
as I knew many of my singers would be involved in church choirs and other
holiday priorities and besides, nobody needs another holiday concert around
here. We resume on the 14th of January and have our Spring Concert, Sunday,
the 18th of April. Then we are done for the year. We will sit down at that
point and see if we want to be more aggressive or stay at this level of
participation. Our first concert was at the Benson Great Hall on the Bethel
Campus - one of the three finest performing halls in the metropolitan area.
We drew about 800 people so were very pleased with the response to our effort.
As for repertoire, I try to do a little of everything. I find that both
singers and audiences do not like to focus on one style. We did a set of
sacred, then some Brahms secular including 10 of the Liebeslieder, then some
folk songs and finished with a set of King's Singers things. We did not
memorize the music and some things went better than others. The morale of the
group, however, is very high and all are excited about coming back which
means I must have done something right this first time out.
I asked $50 from each singer as start-up fees to purchase music, supplies,
etc. Then each was asked to purchase their own tuxedo and long black dress.
I had two that could not afford to so we took it out of the procees of the
group. Not an issue with me. We had many concert expenses, accompanist,
musicians, reception, hall rental, programs, etc. but we still came out ahead
so I have money to buy music for our Spring Concert and then some. I have
access to my high school and church libraries from which I borrow music but
when I don't have it, I purchase it. So, we the beginnings of a choral
library in my basement.
For auditions, I did not allow singers to bring a prepared piece as I
wanted to hear everybody on a level playing field. I had them sing up and
down scales, did some memory patterns, had them read their part in a choral
score of my choosing, had them sing arpeggios stacatto to hear how they
handled pitch and found out if they could control their vibrato. I spent a
lot of time talking to them trying to find out why they wanted to sing in the
chorale. The people I have are absolutely wonderful and Thursday nights are
the highlight of my week so I got lucky.
We are incorporated as one of my members is an accountant and offered to be
our treasurer. He just happens to be a former student of mine also. We don't
really have any bylaws as I don't feel it necessary to "lay down the law" with
these people. They are all adults with choral experience. They know what it
takes to put together a quality product. The reason I wanted a larger group
is because I know that all the singers will not be able to make all the
rehearsals. By having 60 people in the group, we had a quality rehearsal
every night. We were never short of tenors, for example.
Unless you can get the commitment from your singers, I highly recommend a
larger group. These are not paid singers - strictly voluntary. I do not take
a salary. We did hire an accompanist for our Fall Concert. I also have
people within the group who play piano and have offered to be rehearsal
accompanist. I ask them to take only a couple pieces and spread it around as
I want them to sing.
Well, I have rambled on. Oh, by the way, I have added 6 singers for our
Spring season. More people have called me and inquired about singing. There
is a lot of interest in this area. I have also turned down a number of people
because of lack of experience or poor voices. That is hard but this is my
group and I want it to be good.
Your piece, "Go, Lovely Rose" is one we will be singing in our Spring
concert as it fits my second set really well. I am anxious to start
working on it. The recordings help, by the way. I highly recommend you
continue that marketing proceedure. Was that your high school choir?
I could go on and on and tell you how we marketed, how I select music, etc.
but enough for now. I wish you good luck in your venture. Take your time.
Now is a good time to start planning for next Fall. Be selective in your
singers. Keep your singers, your audience and yourself in mind when planning
repertoire. Find people who want to sing with you for the right reason. Be
aware of those who are resume builders. Enough
Happy 1999 and let me know how things work out for you.
Director of Choral Activities
Anoka High School
TWO RIVERS CHORALE
United Methodist Church of Anoka
Coon Rapids, MN