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Rebuilding a Church Choir - Recruitment

I am a co-director of an adult choir at a medium size church with a great tradition of singing.  Within the past 15 years, the size of the choir has dwindled, and the average age has gone up, as any "younger" people invovled have opted to either discontinue singing in choir or sing with the contemporary choir. 
I'm looking for suggestions on how to rebuild the choir - trying to appeal to younger people, and still retain our older members.  One of the problems we run into is losing our warm-weather members who go to Florida for the winter (they miss more than half of the "singing season").  Another issue is that people have a hard time making comittments to being part of a group that has every-other-week rehearsals and scheduled performances.  They don't like being tied down.
We have tried going in front of the congregation at all services one weekend in the late summer and making a plea, while expressing all of the positive reasons to participate.  We also have tried putting notices in the church bulletin.  In addition, we have tried to do a blend of music that would appeal to a wide variety of people.
So...I'm very interested in suggestions of ways to rebuild, or start over.  Does anyone have any great ways to recruit?
Thank you ~
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on March 19, 2011 1:36pm
Hi, Sally.  No words of wisdom, I'm afraid, since these are problems that are shared by a great many and are simply a sign of the times.
Regarding the loss of younger folks to the contemporary choir:  that, of course, is a clear result of FORMING a contemporary choir (and presumably a contemporary service), whether it was your idea, your pastor's idea, or came from somewhere else.  And for the overall health of the church, the real question seems as if it should be whether the total number of participants has gone up, gone down, or stayed the same.  Things do change over time, and while it may not be inevitable it shouldn't come as a big surprise, either.  But providing a choice is going to force people to make that choice, so it's ALMOST inevitable.  Why do I say "almost"?  Well, is there a mechanism for someone to sing in BOTH choirs, or is that logistically impossible?  If it can't be done, then yes, someone has chosen to split the choir, and now you have to live with the consequences.
Regarding people not wanting to feel "pinned down," we always have to keep in mind that everyone in a volunteer organization participates IN ADDITION TO all the activities of their normal life, including families, work commitments, emergencies, and all he other little things that make life so interesting.  And there's simply no way around that unless you're willing to drop people who can't be there every single time.  (You can't "fire" volunteers!!)  The only way around that is to have a professional, paid choir, and that usually isn't in the cards.  People learn to prioritize the various demands on their time, and there's no way around that. 
Of course I assume that you're doing your best to make choir enjoyable, fun, inspiring, a great musical experience, a valuable social experience, and an important faith experience, since all of those things will tend to raise the priority of choir for at least some people.  And that's about all you CAN do.
All the best,
on March 19, 2011 1:58pm
a. Where is it written in stone that your "singing season" has to coincide with the academic year? If there are a lot of snowbirds in your group, why not have them sing through the summer instead and take a break in the winter?
b. If they think rehearsing every OTHER week is too big a commitment, that isn't their real reason.
c. ChoralNet has a bunch of resources on recruiting.
It would be helpful to know whether the "younger" people you mention are teenagers, single 20-somethings, or young families. Since you put "younger" in scare quotes, maybe you mean that young means anybody under 50. The strategies for attracting those groups would be pretty different.
on March 21, 2011 6:50pm
The "younger" people are those in their 20's and 30's.  In our Worship Choir, the youngest members are in their late 40's, but the average age is much higher!
Thanks for directing me to the ChoralNet recruiting resources!
on March 20, 2011 4:49am
Something I considered a couple of years ago was a "quarter" system, dividing up the year into multi-week chunks of time. I'd then ask people to commit to (some logical, percentage-based attendance) of the rehearsals and Sundays in that block. The benefit is that they'd see the "light at the end of the tunnel," and not mind the commitment as much, knowing they could take the next block of time off, and return for a later one when possible.
This was motivated by such things as snowbirds, and people who have some seasonal busyness (like tax specialists) with some insane months but otherwise reasonable availability.
I abandoned it because of the major work we were starting for Christmas at the beginning of October. I realized that the first "Block" would be three weeks of September, while the next would be October through Christmas; similiary, January would stand alone, while Lent-Easter would be another huge chunk. Maybe there's still a way to make that work.
After many years of church choirs with empty-nesters and retirees, I realized that the singers are no more likely to be gone on Sundays in the summer than in October, January, or March, and rehearsing in the summer isn't out of the question. In my current church, we do 3-4 "summer choir" Sundays a year, where folks who are in town show up early on Sunday and we do something easy, 2-or 3 part, often out of the hymnal. This can be used for recruiting too, since it gives new people a chance to "Try on" the choir.
Just some thoughts.
on March 21, 2011 6:26pm
See the reply above about what we tried two years ago that is similar to your "quarter" system.
Our reasons for trying that approach was also in response to snowbirds, seasonal busyness (my husband is a CPA), and the desire for less commitment. 
During summer, it is very difficult for us to get groups together.  It seems that everyone is gone.  However, I like the idea of "summer choir" on a few Sundays.  I might just give that a try - if nothing else, to give people a chance to give choir a try.
Thanks for the suggestion!
on March 20, 2011 7:52am
Honestly, the single best recruitment technique I've ever found after 25 years of church choral direction is just plain old time, that and the snowball of success (defined as a happy-looking choir singing music beautifully), which eventually draw people to come and look for you and ASK if they can be members. Unfortunately, that takes years, and one still has to start the snowball.
However, the SECOND best recruitment technique I've ever come across, similar to Kevin's "quarter system" but even easier: have a special "Christmas Choir" to sing for one of the services.  Make sure the veteran choir members know that you will be absolutely counting on them to not bail on you and even let them in on the secret that this is your big mmbership push to give people the chance to sing in the choir without committing to a whole year, and get them onto your recruiting team.  
Set aside a certain number of existing rehearsals, or portions thereof (if you rehearse 7:00-9:00 every week, say that 7:00-8:00 will be Christmas music for these particular dates) to work solely on Christmas music. Give people a clear schedule and clear expectations for how much you require people to be there. It gives folks a chance to see how they like it. 
Repeat for Easter. And any other major moments in the church year.
I've had people sing in the "special events" choirs for years regularly, I've had people do one of those and then just never leave come January, and I've had folks make the switch whenever they've felt ready.  I've also had people who would otherwise have completely retired from the choir when life got busy, who instead stepped back to "special events" level instead and thus stayed connected.
It may mean letting go of some of the more ambitious repertoire for the first couple of years, but once the snowball is going you can build on the successes and move forward.  
Good luck!
on March 20, 2011 11:41am
A brave pastor/priest conducted a "Views from the Pews" poll inviting criticism as well as suggestion and comment. The people were asked if they would be interested in an adult
choir and a children's choir. Seventy, yes 70, indicated interest in a choir. Given the schedule of commitment, forty some materialized and we maintained around 28 on a regular basis.
A smaller number of children responded. The point I am making is that the pastor talked enthusiastically for weeks before the "poll" was taken, and then responded warmly whenever the
choir sang. He had the gift of "segue." Some time later the pastor was transferrdd to another parish.
A Monsignor who liked this church and the school, was assigned to become pastor. The other priests asked the choir to participate in welcoming the new pastor. We sang the hymn setting of Panis Angelicus and something in English. One of the men, eager to please the new pastor as we all were, asked him how liked our choir. The new pastor answered, "You people will have to update your material." I soon moved to another parish. Some time latrer, I visited the old parish and sat in the balconey. While the "Praise Team" sang, each on his/her microphone, the sound "blasted" and not one person in the balconey opened the mouth.
I have waxed eloquent here to demonstrate my opinion on the success or discouragement of a choir. The pastor can make a huge difference in your success or not, and who will benefit more than he/she?
A visiting priest asked me if i knew the principal reason for the invasion of what many churches have now, (you name it) and gave me ten guesses as to who is responsible for the trend.
I immediately said, "The Clergy.' He said, "Sad, but true!" Sad, but true. So get the pastor behind you somehow and
Good Success,
Ed P
on March 21, 2011 6:43pm
A brave pastor/priest conducted a "Views from the Pews" poll inviting criticism as well as suggestion and comment. The people were asked if they would be interested in an adult
choir and a children's choir. Seventy, yes 70, indicated interest in a choir. Given the schedule of commitment, forty some materialized and we maintained around 28 on a regular basis.
A smaller number of children responded. The point I am making is that the pastor talked enthusiastically for weeks before the "poll" was taken, and then responded warmly whenever the
choir sang. He had the gift of "segue."  
I think you've hit the nail on the head here!  We don't have a huge supporter in our pastor, and perhaps that's something I can cultivate.  I would like to be able to count on him to talk enthusiastically about choir - both contemporary and worship choirs.  He himself is musical and plays the guitar on occasion to accompany a song, but doesn't understand the time involved in preparation and practice to keep the quality in the experience.
I should also mention that we have a Ladies Choir and a Sängerbund Male Chorus (I direct both).  I came to the church with all of these choirs in place, and have only tried to keep them going.  I have a distinct group that only come to one choir, but there are quite a few that are involved in both Worship Choir and either Male or Ladies Choir.  Dropping any of the choirs right now would mean that I would lose people.  I have tried to encourage all of the men and women to participate in the Worship Choir, but most that don't, just don't want to commit to every week.  (Yes, we only rehearse every other week - not too much of a commitment!)
In addition to all of this, my co-director isn't too interested in doing anything different.  Neither one of us is the "music director" (there isn't really one at our church), but she is nearing retirement, and I think she just wants to continue things the way they have been.  (It took quite a bit of convincing to get her to agree to try the 3-week-rehearal-one-service schedule.  Throughout the entire year she continually commented on how it "wasn't working".  Needless to say, probably not much will change until she retires.
Thank you for your comments on the support of the pastor.  I'm going to work on that...
on March 21, 2011 5:00am
Let me also endorse the seasonal choir – Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. It lets folks get a taste of choir, of the director, of the singing experience.
I just stated this last year: a ‘once a month choir’. It is basically a chamber choir. The singers – who are invited to sing in the choir or audition - get the music ahead of time and are expected to show for rehearsal with the music well learned. We just polish it prior to the service. As the group keeps working with me we are creating our style and the polishing time is taking less time. It takes a bit of organizing but I believe it will be worth it in the long run. 4 years from now.
I was fortunate that my church was also starting an evening service (once a month meditation/Taize/Iona service) and this choir found a home/purpose.
This does not solve the problem of attendance/commitment in the other choirs but it does give you the director a group of committed singers to work with once a month. It has given me hope cause me to hang in at my current post.
The long term goal is that this group might play larger roles in our regular services and maybe in time replace the other volunteer choir as it fades.
This is the 'start something new' idea. Don't try to fix what has gone before you - much to hard a road. A wise frined gave me this tip years ago.
on March 21, 2011 6:55pm
Thank you all!
on April 19, 2011 10:21pm
I have had success through offering opportunities that call for a very limited commitment and using those as a gateway into more regular participation.  This past summer we did a men's barbershop group that met for several rehearsals with the intention of singing on one specific date.  4 men who were not in the regular choir participated; at the end of the summer I sent a note to each of those 4 men inviting them to join the regular choir, and specifically addressing the note to the individual man, trying to address his personal needs.  of those 4 men, 3 of them joined the regular choir.
on April 21, 2011 3:28am
Dear Sally,
I grew up in a church with an extraordinary choir director/organist named Francis Judd Cooke.
At Christmas, the congregation came early and he taught everyone the HALLELUJAH CHORUS, then during the service we all sang it.
In other words, the congregation was his choir and the choir that I sang in was simply a select group from the big choir.
It's a different mindset, one that is truly welcoming of everyone while also challenging ALL people to become amazing (through hard work).
That's my two cents.
Nick Page
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