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The attendance dilemma

Seems like every rehearsal I have 3-4 singers absent, which from a 40ish voice group is about 10%. It's a different 3-4 people every time (although there are some repeat offenders), but overall it acts as a drag on learning, since those few people didn't learn whatever music we were working on and didn't get the markings, etc. No amount of cajoling ever gets most of them to take any steps to make up what they've missed; we've tried sending postcards saying "here's what we worked on," emailed newsletters, posted rehearsal recordings online, etc. 
Most of my singers are busy professionals and they typically miss due to work travel or illness. I think they all have legit reasons to miss; it's not like they're skipping rehearsal to drink with buddies or watch Monday Night Football. Lecturing them about not getting sick is a big waste of time.
And of course we have rules in the singer handbook: if you miss more than X rehearsals, you can't sing the concert or have a performance check or whatever. But it's not always the same people, and inevitably some of the major offenders turn out to be key section leaders whom you can't afford to cut. And since we're not in school we can't threaten their grades or make them do detention; there's no way to sanction them short of expulsion, which there are many obvious reasons to want to avoid. 
Last night we had what my concert manager calls our "coming to Jesus rehearsal" about three weeks before the concert when the group realizes they barely know some parts of the music. I've worked on everything in rehearsals, but for each section there are those 3-4 people who missed those rehearsals and are essentially sight-reading it. Can't rehearse everything every week. (The good news: many of my singers will do last-minute cramming as a result of this weak rehearsal, and anyway the orchestra will cover up a multitude of sins.)
Anyway, I don't expect there are any magic bullets to solve this. Just venting.
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on April 30, 2013 9:31am
Hi Allen,
With my chamber choir, it's the same, only worse since when you have one or two or three on a part, it's a WHOLE PART gone!  I have one, excellant tenor whose wife thought their 14 year old had strep a few weeks ago....told him to stay away until they knew for sure.  My choir agreed with my request of him.....even though we ended up being behind in what we needed to do that week.  BTW the kid didn't have strep, *just* a bad sore throat but's hard and would have been awful if the kid HAD had strep and my tenor exposed us all......this was right before Easter and many of my singers are church choir directors/organists!
I won't have an orchestra to cover up stuff but our spring concert is solos and choruses from operettas and the music is NOTHING like our usual fare, this is much we should be fine.
I gave up with the "miss 3 rehearsals and you're banished" you, it's the good people who are sick, have work committments......I have a fabulous mezzo who's working on her PhD in Philanthopy and teaches grant writing (mostly arts grant writing) at a local university and she can be out for a few weeks at a time because of projects....I want her on my team, so I CAN'T kick her out!
Next week, we begin at our venue and are doing a bit of staging so I NEED them there the last four weeks......sigh.
Like you, am venting......miss you, Allen!
on April 30, 2013 9:56am
Take comfor from the fact that you are not alone in this.  It happens with my choir too.  Since Christmas the soprano and alto lines chose which week most would be absent.  One week it was full altos and two sopranos.  Next week the opposite and so on.......
I wonder what would happen if I sent along a note saying I had to mind the cat for the evening?  Or it was raining too heavily?
I think this is something that choirmasters just have to live with.  Feel free to vent, and leave some venting space for me too, please.  :-)
I love the 'Coming to Jesus' comment.  so apt!
David Monks
Le Choeur d'Alzonne
on May 1, 2013 7:30am
Oh David, how often I have felt the same about people who seeminly just don't show up.  I have been tempted to "mind the cat" at times but as you and most of us feel, we can't let down those who do come so faithfully.  I try really hard to focus on the wonderful people who are there and if they have to miss make certain I know.  It is so easy to let the negatives rule and it is essential that we not let that happen.  Even as I am typing this, I am giving myself a talking to.  One of my tenors resigned and when doing so said some hurtful things.  What I had to remember is that he is just one.  I made certain to check that others didn't feel the same way by asking obtuse questions and never of course referring to the person who resigned.  
Having a forum for musicians to share ideas and frustrations even is great.  I think now that we have realized how it can be used, we will be more cognizant of its being there.
Kitty Babcock
Ontario, Canada
on May 1, 2013 10:16am
Hi Kitty,
Actually, as I live in a very rural area, I have two cats.  They keep the rodents and the reptiles under control, and mainly out of the house.  So having two effectively doubles my need to mind the catS.  LOL.  But seriously, I do have a 22km journey to travel to choir, and the same on the return.  This costs, as fuel is heavily taxed here.  I am paying Euro 1.40 a litre.  And I have not costed wear and tear and kilometrage on the car!
The only thing I can think of that eases the problem of absenteeism is having a larger group.  This does lend a certain small amount of flexibility, and makes a rehearsal with absences more viable and less wasteful of time as those missing can 'lean' on those who attended.  But this 'leaning' is hardly fair either.
Then there is the vital need to avoid preaching at those who are present.  So many times I have bitten my tongue for fear of saying anything that would be unfair to them.  But there is no denying that missing members, particularly in a small choir, cause a lot of worry and frustration.  I remind myself that the people in the chairs have more right to be annoyed than I do.  Even so, when 6 of my sopranos are missing on the same evening, and the next week it's 6 of my 8 altos, I begin to wonder if there isn't a plot afoot.  How does one manage to keep 2 persons usefully occupied when they are going to be timid about singing out because they miss the support of the rest of the line?  (This is actual experience in the last two months)  In a more formal choir with readers and other luxuries this wouldn't be such a problem - actually, it probably wouldn't happen or memberships would be terminated.  But in a community choir one is dealing with volunteers.   And here I am in a very underpopulated region with hardly a good choral tradition.
Of late this problem has been on the agenda of every meeting of the management committee.  We have come to the conclusion that the only way we can fight this is to give lots of concerts and massage egos and will to perform.  More work for the director, of course.
on June 12, 2013 3:48pm
The best way I have discovered to maintain high attendance is through a combination of factors...
  • Establish, maintain, communicate, and expect high standards of performance from all singers.
  • Have a reasonable attendance policy and enforce it. A policy without teeth accomplishes nothing.
  • Require members to communicate a tardy arrival or absence to their section leader.
  • Keep rehearsals fun.
  • Sing through lots of different songs on any given night. Our average rehearsal involves work on nine songs.
  • Have performances scheduled regularly throughout the year. We average one performacne per month and are usually preparing for something right around the corner.
  • Publicize your rehearsal plan four days in advance of each rehearsal, so they can have a chance to (work on their own) be at their best on those songs.
  • Maintain a large and diverse repertoire and an agressive new music introduction/maintenance plan. Many of our arrangements are very challenging (5-7 part "tight" harmonies) and the singers must memorize ALL OF THEM in a short period of time. We only have 40 rehearsals annually which yeilds less than 100 hours of rehearsal time per year. We take the last Thursday evening off each month. Having a night off each month gives our singers a chance to MISS SINGING. Our 10 new songs get 24 minutes of rehearsal time per month. Our "A List" older repertoire (nine songs) get touched an average of 15 minutes per month. Our "B List" repertoire (19 songs) get touched an average of just six minutes per month. If you miss one night, you may not have another chance to sing that song again for another 4-5 weeks. Many of my members do not like to miss because if they do, they will feel woefully behind the preparation level of their fellow singers. Peer pressure and high expectations works wonders.
When we tracked attendance year-round, we averaged 85% attendance at all rehearsals, performances and recording sessions.
We now scrutinize attendance closely in the three three months leading up to our annual concert. Admittedly, this less demanding policy has seen attendance slide 5% to 80%.
I've got 18 singers, with 17 of those 18 active. One guys is on a leave of absence. We've got two first tenors, six second tenors (lead singers on many charts), five baritones, and five basses.
I hope this helps.
Todd Wilson
on June 12, 2013 6:25pm
One thing I have done with my small (35) amateur community chorus is institute a point system. This works like grades, but without the word 'grade'. At the end of each season we have an awards banquet and the person with the most points gets an award and recognition. 
Here is how our points work:
Attendance: 3 points per rehearsal you attend
Community Events: 2 points for going to a concert for the local schools, other community groups
Ticket Sales: 1 point for every ticket sold to one of our concerts
Recruitment: 5 points for each new singer
I usually miss 2 rehearsals per year due to conventions so I bring in a substitute (usually a local MM student). I give extra points for people who show up when this sub is there.
This really seems to work with my group because they are competitive in a fun way! Hope this helps!
Joe Mendolia
Plant City Community Choir
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