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Choir Attendance

Hello Collective Choral Wisdom,
I have recently moved into a new job as Director of Worship and the Arts for a mid sized church (650 on the books, 400 in worship). The traditional choir (60 on books, 45 in worship) is well established and has had little turn over in its recent history but it has also had little growth. I am finding myself in weekly conversations of "Well I can't make it..." "I am away next week..." "I have Broncos tickets..."
There is currently no attendance policy and I am considering establishing one even at the cost of losing half the choir. This is my fourth church job in as many states and I am astonished to hear these excuses over and over again. The net result is that rehearsals become catch-up sessions for the habitually absent and it is nearly impossible to make any choral progress or from a selfish perspective plan worship effectively.
I have serveral thoughts.....and a few questions that I would love to have help processing.
1. In this day and age with crazy schedules and family responsibilities (I have three kids under 9) is it resonable to ask members to attend weekly rehearsals to sing on Sunday?
2. What should the attendance standards be?
3. In your experience is recruiting easier or more difficultwith a set time commitment?
4. Has anyone inherited a choir with a lax ateendance culture and changed it for the better without being skewered and set aflame?
I welcome any thoughts, comments, suggestions, and anecdotes that you have.
on September 18, 2009 10:46am
1.  Members of a choir have a responsibility towards the choir as a body.  They also owe respect to their singing colleagues and to the choirmaster.  Not least, if it is a church choir, and they owe a duty towards the One they come to worship through their music.  These points should settle attendance matters.  Alas, they will not.  There will always be excuses for one reason or another - some very valid., some not.
2.  As a choirmaster (non-church) I have, in a very neutral way, posed the following question to my choirs: how would you feel if one evening I just decided I had something else to do and sent along an excuse instead of taking rehearsal?  The looks I got made it perfectly obvious that I must be quite mad, and that Ihad no right ever to miss a rehearsal.  Sauce for goose - sauce for gander?  Still, I feel that the expected standard for singers should be no less than that for the choirmaster.
3.  My choir regard their evening singing as fun and enjoy what they do.  Consequently, if I have reason to overrun the normal two-hour period, they are fine about it.  They also travel long distances (as do I) to get there.  So, I make a point of starting on time and finishing on time.  On the occasion of a necessary overrun, I always obtain their agreement first.
4. It is important to remember that people attend on a voluntary basis.  The only sanction is that persistent absence or lateness can be drawn to the attention of the group - subtly.  I make a point of looking down the lines and asking if anyone has had contact from whoever is missing at the beginning of the rehearsal.  It's amazing how many apologies are then delivered.  Did I not ask, then I might get none of them!  :-)  But by doing this,  persistent infractions are brought to attention under the guise of getting apologies.  And members do notice who is not pulling their weight.  That is usually enough, so that I don't have to say or do anything.  Another tack I take is to get members to shift positions, on occasion.  This can come as a surprise to someone who returns after an absence.  And again, it is not a direct comment.  But such a member is faced with a situation into which they have had no input.  Note, however, I don't change positions just to antagonise absentees.  There is always a valid choral reason which I am careful to explain.  There is, of course, the option of allowing a memeber leave of absence.  I have not found this useful.  It usually means the member leaves for good.
Above all, when someone returns, I make them welcome and say how much they were missed.  This is sincere, but does rather pile coals of fire on the head of the returnee.
Here in France there is the established convention of the Répétition Générale.  This is the final rehearsal before a performance.  Missing this is unthinkable.  It also could lose a member a place in the line at the performance.  It is engrained, and I have only once known a member to miss it, and for the gravest of reasons.
The only time I departed from my relatively light regime was when I was taking a choir that worked the competition circuit.  The rule there was that the only acceptable excuse for an absence was death.  This precluded would-be Lazaruses from joining.  So no problem.
One therefore has to decide what is the nature of one's choir, and what that entails for rehearsal protocol.  However, a heavy hand can often achieve far less that being relaxed.  There is no absolute answer as all choirs are different.
on September 19, 2009 7:02am
Before I say anything, you should understand that I am a graduate Church Music, Choral Conducting student and just recently took my first Music Minister position. I do, however, have years of experience singing in both church and collegiate choirs.
I think that, a volunteer setting, David's approach may work well. A rather passive acknowledgement of absentees, but a very deliberate and heartfelt acknowledgement when they return.
I would, however add one thing. Perhaps a signout sheet would work well. This would allow a person to miss, if needed, without being publicly called out. You could make personal contact with people who signout if needed.
Robert offers a very good perspective, and should be highly valued. You must ensure that your rehearsals are enjoyable. Using an attendance policy, or even guilt, to make people come to a rehearsal they don't enjoy will never work.
I'm sure I didn't offer any advice you didn't already know. But good luck!
on September 19, 2009 8:36am
A thought, merely a thought:  the emphasis should be on the team and how absences weaken the team effort.  If you are a paid director, you get paid notwithstanding absences.  (I admit, continued absences may ultimately affect your paycheck.)  I like the approach of Mark Checkley on the "gentle, good-natured nagging," which, be it said, only the English can do so darned well!  (Spent two years in England - love that approach!  So much more effective than harping.)   Emphasizing how this affects you (not fair to me) isn't really effective, and isn't the point:  it's how these absences affect the performance of the entire group.
Ron Duquette
Catholic Choir Director
Fort Belvoir, VA
on September 19, 2009 9:57am
Hi John,
I have been away from church work for several years, so that may give me a different point of view--hindsight is always 20/20.  My church choir attendence always hovered around 12 to 25, depending on time of year (I live in the Midwest, with rough winters and lots of snowbirds), the holiday (lots for Christmas, with numbers varying for Easter, depending on when it fell)and what else was happening (there are several Cancer walks around here in the fall and many of my singers did them--always on Sundays--and if the Bears are having a good year, well, anything can happen,  we'll have to see if Jay Cutler is worth the trouble!).
Like others, I had an absence sign out sheet--most helpful when half the altos left for Florida within days of Christmas and like others, I used guilt for good!  One other thing I did was to program good, challenging music and that helped my attendence, believe it or not.  For those who came for the music, it helped them WANT to be at rehearsal and Worship. We usually sang two pieces for services, an anthem and an offertory--and during Ordinary time, always tried to program one familar piece and one new piece. I welcomed all to rehearsal and was grateful for them to be there--and acted like I was grateful.
I also explained to my choir, since we didn't have as big a choir as you do, I needed to know who would be be gone, both for Sundays and rehearsals, so I could program appropriately.  I made it about me and helping with programming rather than having them locked into a committment every week.  My last church job, I did try to institute a rule about rehearsals and singing in Worship but it fell flat within months.  This was a very good choir I had "inherited" from my grad school voice teacher and they felt they knew what they were doing and were slightly insulted by my new rule.  The situation I found myself in made me really focus on creative ways of programming music, tightening up rehearsals and being so much more organized.  As has been mentioned, church choir volunteers are there because they WANT to be, not because they HAVE to be and I created a situation to make it easy for them.  The only times I ever reverted back to requiring folks be at rehearsals was when we were doing a big work, such as an Advent canata--then, it was the choirs members who thought I should--see, guilt may be used for good!  I didn't  want to just do difficult music but to improve vocal sound and that takes time and regular attendence at rehearsal.  My choir became motivated when members of the congregation remarked how beautiful they sounded and THAT made a difference.
Also, most choir members understood we were worship leaders and we needed to be in worship.  Once a month during Thursday rehearsal, we had a  homily--I found a book of short ones just for church choirs--and we always prayed before we left the choir room on our way to the sanctuary.  Focusing on what we were REALLY there for also helped attendence.
Hope these thoughts help you.  It isn't easy to establish rules when folks don't want them. 
Marie Grass Amenta, founder and music director
the Midwest Motet Society
the Chamber Choir for Chicago's Southland
on September 20, 2009 7:11am
With over 25 years of directing experience of volunteer church choirs, let me add my two cents.  At the start, I kept attendance.  The adults felt like I was treating them like children.  They were right.  I also realized that I could not expect them to have the same priority for choir that I had.  They have lives.  They come to rehearsal for different reasons: The music, the director, the evening away from the children, helping the church, to socialize with each other and more. 
What I have done is to stress the importance of choir in worship.  We give our best to the Lord.  I have a legal pad with the rehearsal and Sunday dates listed.  I ask that if someone knows they are going to miss (vacation, jail, whatever) that they sign out.  This way I can effectively plan ahead.  If they do that and do their best to make rehearsal, then I don't hassle them about missing.  Mutual Respect.
Unless your church is close to a university (where you can get music students) or paid, you have to put yourself in their situation.  Make their experience worth coming to rehearsal and Sunday.  It is worth it.
on September 20, 2009 9:25am
In addition to all the good advice that's been offered, I'll add another strategy that my choir director uses, to good effect. This is a very good volunteer choir of 30-35 voices, with a core of 5 professional section leader-soloists (of which I am one). He uses the sign-out sheet, too, and also asks that if any singer must miss two weekly rehearsals in a row, that the person not sing on the following Sunday. Thus, only the singers who are fully prepared (that is, who have attended the past two rehearsals) sing in worship. He starts rehearsing each anthem 3-5 weeks in advance of the date on which it will be sung in worship, So, if a singer misses one of those rehearsals, it's usually OK. We section leaders are charged with checking in with the singers in our sections who miss rehearsals, to ensure that musically they are keeping up. Also, well prior to the start of the church year (July!), the director distributes a calendar with all rehearsal dates/times/places, worship dates and times, and any special events that we need to get into our calenders for September through June. This helps, too, I think, since the choir events are the first items that get into our calenders.
I should add that this director has held the post for 38 years, and is deeply respected and loved by his choir, and I know that in large part this is because he sets the bar very high for personal responsiblity, musicianship, and commitment. People just don't skip. In fact, I think that if people DID skip repeatedly without notice or without a really good reason, they would not be invited back the following year. Three new members joined this sure was crowded in the choir room on rehearsal night. Our choir is exceptionally fine and our good attendance is a big factor.
Final thought: I think it is entirely appropriate -- no, necessary -- that you establish the standards that you feel are right, whether for attendance, musical ability, etc. You don't want to be held hostage by a less-than-satisfactory tradition that was in place before you got there. It's possible to take control in a positive, professional, and uplifting way. By definition, a choir is a group of individuals that come together for a common purpose and to unite as a single voice. That means that every member must commit fully to presence and participaton. I've touched on these issues in some of my writings, which you can read here:
and here:
Good luck!
Sarah Johnston
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