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be happy church choir leads

Hello: Lets hear it from the singers about what makes and keeps them happy as a paid church choir lead/soloist.
Fire away! The good stories and the bad stories are welcome. I am listening.
I finally landed a church organist/director of music post with paid leads and I want to start off on a good foot.
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on June 6, 2011 4:54pm
I've been a paid section leader at a couple of churches and a regular volunteer choir member at several others over the years.  The two factors that most determined my satisfaction were 1) was the director an effective musician who was able to get the choir to improve as time passed? and 2) did the director use time effectively?  Musical ability is (hopefully) a given, but not always organization.  Announcements and other administrative tasks are necessary of course, but it is obvious fairly quickly when a director doesn't have a rehearsal plan.  The more organized the director, the happier I am.
on June 7, 2011 5:43am
Experiencing choral and instrumental music from both sides of the podium/keyboard, I totally agree with being organized and efficient.  One can never be "too prepared" or "too organized" for a rehearsal.  Only having 60 minutes of preparation time a week (usually with varying percentages of members in attendance), makes the use of time a great priority.  Luckily (or unluckily), I am both director and accompanist for choral rehearsals, so that somewhat streamlines the communication process which ocassionally hampers an efficient rehearsal [actually, I would rather think that every moment, every note, is not just a rehearsal but actually an offering to the Creator of this wonderful form of communication we call music].  Although I'm sure I've wasted far too much time in the past during rehearsals, my goal is to constantly improve rehearsal techniques [maybe it's time I go "back to school" after 28 years since my last "degree"].
on June 7, 2011 8:09pm
Hi L,
Happy to hear about your new job--congrads!  I usually direct but I also have filled in for various ringers, most recently for this past Holy Week for a friend's wonderful choir in a High Anglican Church--talk about singing gorgous music!  Since I now direct a semi-professional chamber choir, most of what I do, my friend did for me when I was singing for him.
Both Cory and Bill have mentioned being organized and that is important for sure.  The thing I appreciate the most when I am singing is to have the director RESPECT MY TIME. This is important to me--and to my own singers--whether I am paid or not.
That means:
*Cut down on the chatter and get down to business--I'm chatty by nature and I force myself to SHUT UP most of the time when I'm conducting.
*Have a rehearsal plan and stick to it as well as tell me in advance what is happening when--and give me the music if there is something special you want I may not know.  Assume I like to practice and GIVE ME THE MUSIC.
*Start on time and END ON TIME--of course, right before Christmas and Holy Week/Easter, rehearsals are expected to go over--but normally, END ON TIME
*Have a time scheuled in rehearsal for housekeeping--music pass outs, annoucements and don't let it get highjacked by someone else's issues about church politics or committees or something --that MAKES ME CRAZY. As an example, if we are expected to sing for an Agape service during Lent--tell me, don't let some choir member explain why the congregation decided to do this TWENTY YEARS AGO.
*Be prepared--musically, season-wise, and if there is something beyond your control like a funeral or wedding or Church School program, let me know.  I'll forgive you if I think you are human.
*Use email or texting to keep me informed about rehearsals.  I don't want to show up for a rehearsal and find out it's only tenors and basses--I have a life (and it's a busy one) and need to know.  I'll pull my "Soprano Shtick" if you do!
Have fun.  I love my singers because most of them are such pros and come prepared.  I really respect their time and they know it.  Make sure your singers know it.
on June 8, 2011 3:27am
Thanks for these great replies. I am organized by nature but can easily be hijacked by the right kind of people/announcements. A church choir is a social animal as well so I understand the need for some humanness but totally agree with the absolute requirement to stay on track and focused.
on June 9, 2011 8:44am
Also, what does your job description say about solos?  I think this should be understood at the outset.
  My job morphed, with bascially no discussion,  from " Staff always does them.  We don't have folks who are qualified or want to." to "I have to give ___ and ___ these solos because they need them emotionally/won't stay in the choir otherwise/help with organizational duties/are popular...".
Ask your staff singers individually whether they have opportunity to hone solo skills in other situations, or do they actually need that experience in your choir.  If you want the policy to be flexible, state that, and let them know what they might expect.  My guess is that most staff singers, especially if they have one or 2 degrees in voice, will not just want, but need at least 2 solos a year, preferably more.
Be clear and reasonable about the issue of vibrato.  Of course, vibrato needs to be well-controlled to support quality blend and pitch, but if you expect a 2-hour rehearsal with no vibrato, many trained singers would agree that this is neither realistic nor healthy for anyone.
Also, consider your policy for occasions when the singer is invited elsewhere.  How much notice do you require?  My favorite directors just said, according to how full the section was, "We'll be ok this once." or  "Get someone to come in for you." and I got them a qualified person.   Also, who pays the sub in this type case? If a singer stays in the same church/school/community group for 2 years or more, the rest of the community may forget them, and their career can stagnate.
Another situation to consider is vacation policy and when the singer must miss for a family situation - sick child, failing parent, etc.
Will they be expected to lead sectional rehearsals?  How much responsibility will they have in seeing that the section knows their part, expression, etc.  What is considered a tactful constructive comment about support, pitch, vibrato, vowels, etc., and what is taboo/cruel?  (You might think this is common sense/knowledge....but I could share some stories!)
In summary: Clear, respectful, fairly-frequent  communication is appreciated.
I think it's great that you asked this on Choralnet.  I have been on "Both Sides Now" of the podium, too - director and Staff Singer.
on June 9, 2011 10:46am
I think Lucy deserves thanks for bringing up some points that can make a difference between a successful collaboration and an unsuccessful one.  And a young singer might not have the experience to think about these things in advance.  Spell out your needs, but also spell out the procedure IN ADVANCE for modifying those needs as things change.
Especially have clearly in mind whether you are advertising for a Section Leader or for a Section Leader & Soloist.  You might think it's obvious.  It might not be.  Or a Section Leader & Assistant.  Or any other combination of duties.
And I sort of cringe at a couple of Lucy's comments, while at the same time acknowledging that they are absolutely realistic.  "Most staff singers ... NEED at least 2 solos a year, perferabley more."  And "their career can stagnate." 
Part of the mutual understanding that needs to be established:  Does the choir director consider this position to be in part one in which the choir provides opportunities for professional development, or one in which there is a specific need and the staff singer is simply expected to meet that need?  I ran into unexpected incomprehension in a young man in one of the All American College Singers casts I directed for Disney.  He complained that the show he was in "did not take advantage of his skills."  I tried to explain that he had not been selected to show off his skills, but to perform in the show as it had been written.  I'm not sure he ever "got it."  And unfortunately, Disney was famous for hiring over-qualified entertainers, simply because they COULD!
On the other hand, Disney did not consider its theme park jobs to be careers.  They paid well, but not excessively, and they EXPECTED their young contract entertainers to move on at the end of their contracts and to keep developing their own careers, with Disney's blessings and pride in their accomplishment!  In fact, in the College Program I was involved in, they would not accept a student unless they had at least one more year in school to take back and share what they had learned in the program, and they would not give them a professional audition until a year after their College Program experience.
So if a staff singer considers the job simply a stop-gap to earn some money while moving forward in a career, that's fine, but it should be mutually understood.  And Lucy brings up one other important point:  if you want to be treated as a professional, ACT like a professional, and be prepared to provide a substitute if you do need to miss a commitment--at your own expense, of course, unless it is covered contratually.
Thanks for some important thoughts, Lucy.  Much appreciated.
on June 10, 2011 6:04am
Thanks Lucy. This is perfect timing as the ministry and personal committee is reviewing some of these vary questions and trying to make things clearer for all concerned.
on June 10, 2011 7:11am
I started a new system this year which is more work for me but saves rehearsal time. Previously, I set out new music on the piano along with the music list and any liturgy music that was needed. Then when people came in, they went to the piano to pick up everything needed. But this didn't work. Some folks would come in late and be a nuisance standing at the piano. Another problem was some folks would forget to pick up something, or else the next week pick up the same anthem again. So I knew this system didn't work.
Now, everyone has a numbered folder that goes in a numbered slot. Before rehearsal, I number all copies of music and put the anthem in the box with that number. I also put copies of the music list and any liturgical music in everyone's slot.
This has saved a huge amount of time. Yes, it's more work for me, but the rehearsal works better, and that is the goal. Now last night one singer claimed she didn't have the anthem. She searched the room and never found the anthem with her number. After choir, I went to her folder, and of course there it was--hidden behind a bigger piece of music.
Singers all know to go to their slot before they sit down to pick up their folder and anything else in their slot. It took a few weeks to train them to do that, but they know now and so rehearsal starts out much better and I don't have a crowd around the piano. Every once in awhile someone gets mixed up and looks over the piano, but for the most part, this system works so I don't mind the extra time it takes me.
Obviously distributing the numbered music and other items would be a perfect task for a volunteer. I don't have a volunteer right now, so I just do it myself. The choir is too small, and I know everyone and what their lives involve, and so I can't ask for help. Maybe eventually . . . but I think avoiding confusion at the start of rehearsal is a boon to the paid section leaders.
By the way, my paid section leaders, particularly my tenor who is more experienced in vocal music than I am, sometimes offers suggestions during rehearsal. I am not hampered by arrogance so I almost always take the suggestions. As a pianist/conductor, I cannot see or hear everything, especially when I'm playing a complicated piano part. However, my paid alto then started offering suggestions too but hers were never good so I privately suggested to her that she stop doing that and she did. (She is only 20.) But my tenor is very helpful, and my soprano often is too, and now my new bass can be helpful. I love my paid singers.
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