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Church Children's Choir Attendance Incentives

My choristers are, by and large, faithful in attendance, but something happens in the springtime, and attendance drops off dramatically.  Like, from having only one or two out of 25 absent in each choir to 8 or 9 from each rehearsal.  One choir is for 2nd-3rd grade, a choir for 4th-7th, and a choir for 8th-12th.
Have you used incentive programs for attendance, and did you see a difference?
I am thinking for next year I will pay for those with only ## absences (3 perhaps?) to attend the end of year party (usually ice skating, bowling, etc).
I would also have a visible attendance chart with stickers.
Do I need to do something on a more regular basis to keep the attendance going?  A monthly drawing for those with perfect attendance?  Each six weeks?  It is primarily a springtime issue, it seems (I have been here 3 years now).
Thank you.
Replies (16): Threaded | Chronological
on March 19, 2014 2:37pm
My crew and their parents are motivated by a big project. I generally do not use extrinsic motivators. We just completed a children's musical (ages 4 through 5th grade) and attendance has been good.
Hope this helps. I look forward to seeing other directors' ideas!
Amalie Hinson
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 19, 2014 6:38pm
Personally as a parent AND as a director I am not in favor of the use of incentives for regular participation.  I think that it is used too frequently these days.  We are teaching children that they must "get" something with everything they do, and that things that do not result in some sort of incentive prize are not worth doing.  I also feel that it lessens the value of simply attending because you have made a commitment to do so.  This, however, is a philosophical issue and I realize others may not share my opinions.
We as directors have to recognize a few things:
1.  Springtime is a challenge in ALL areas, and families are pulled by increasing activity in other areas of their lives.  I think that we have to adjust our planning and expectations in the wake of this, because it is a reality of our current culture.  I find this not just with my children, but also with my adults, and especially those who work in schools or have children of their own.  As an example I will be missing 2 people from one of my adult ensembles this Sunday because a child in the family has a 9:30 am sport game. 
2.  Children are dependant upon their parents to bring them to choir.  Michael Bedford talks about this in his workshops; he makes a point of always greeting his child choristers by name and welcoming them to choir regardless of whether or not they have arrived on time, becuase oftentimes it is not the child's fault that he or she is late.  So in the same way, sometimes the child might not be attending choir not due to his or her own choice, but rather because something else is going on and the parent had to make a choice.  If this is the case, then incentives may or may not have a positive impact, and may be punitive for children who want to be at choir but might not always be able to be there due to family choices that are outside of their control.  When I email parents for any reason I oftentimes end my email with "thank you for making choir a priority for your family" as a way to remind them of their role, and also as a way to show them that I recognize and appreciate that commitment that they make as parents.
Just my 2 cents :)
Julie Ford
Applauded by an audience of 4
on March 20, 2014 8:31am
Julie, that really resonates with me.  It highlights the way I feel about this and I am glad to hear that expecting a committment for the sake of committment is not passe.    I was/am also exploring different ways to expand the 'choir experience', but not because I think that 'just' singing at liturgies is not enough, but in the interest of wanting to really build community among my choir kids. 
I do stress the importance and expectation of a weekly rehearsal committment for the entire choir year at small-group registration meetings - I have had many parents share that they appreciate the expectations of committment, behavior, and 'Sunday best' attire for the kids.
And, le sigh, I was a child who was regularly tardy for choir rehearsal and received many a (gentle) talk from my director about the importance of being on time.  This is why all my tardy Martys receive a smile and a 'glad you are here'.  :)
I guess similarly, do you have a strict attendance policy?
on March 20, 2014 10:20am
I have not needed to set a strict attendance policy with my kids thus far.  My group is VERY small but has been very committed.  Perhaps it helps that every single one of my kids has other family members who are involved with music, so there is an understanding of the importance of regular practice.  I have one child who has missed for periods of time due to other activities but during those seasons she does not sing with us in worship either.  Fortunately her mother is very direct with her about the importance of making choices so it has not been an issue.
I do have an attendance policy with my adults.  Their policy is that if they miss more than 2 rehearsals in a row they are asked to refrain from singing for Sunday worship.  This policy is based on the fact that the adults sing every week and thus learn a large volume of repertoire.  I'm not sure I would establish the same policy with my kids If I were to establish one.
One thought comes to mind for me.  I utilize the "Voice for Life" curriculum published by the Royal School of Church Music, and part of that curriculum involves progressing through levels of training.  As the chorister progresses through a level he or she earns a wearable item.  The first item is the white cotta that they wear over their black cassock.  From then on out they earn a colored ribbon on which is hung a medal for them to wear over their robe.  I guess that in some ways this IS an incentive; but not the same kind of incentive as earning a piece of candy or a toy.  My kids will regularly show up early for choir and tell me that they came early so they could do their book work.  I like that the incentive in this case is tied to learning accomplishment rather than to simple participation.  I have been at this church and utilizing this particular curriculum for 4 1/2 years now and I have seen a significant progression in my older kids.  Maybe the lesson in this is that the more we raise and expand the expectation of what happens within our choir, the more we will see the benefit through participation?  Maybe other folks can expand upon this idea.
Julie Ford
on March 20, 2014 2:57am
I wrote about this question a few years ago - focusing more on adults, but some of these ideas may be useful:
Julie has a good point that incentives only work where the people they target have the power to control the outcome (note to self). 
It would be labour-intensive, but telephoning the parents of children who miss rehearsal to ask after them would (a) give you a much greater insight into why people are missing rehearsal, and therefore a better idea of what you could do that would make a difference, and (b) signal to both the children and their families that they matter to the choir and that it makes a difference when they're not there. That in turn may influence their priorities when juggling busy schedules.
Amalie's point about big projects being motivating is also a good one, but if the problem is that families are struggling with too much on their plates already, may need handling with care.
Will you let us know how you get on? 
on March 20, 2014 8:55am
Liz, excellent article.   I will definitely be looking for more ways to implement these realities into my rehearsals and yearly calendar.  It is also comforting to read them while keeping in mind our generally very strong attendance and seeing what I am doing right (it is just too easy to focus on what is 'wrong', hm?).
If a parent has not made previous contact (as they are to per their committment form), I do email or call to follow up on the absence.  (....most of the time....)  And, yes, it is labor intensive, but the personal contact, like you say, I believe shares the message that they are important to the group.  It is hard, though, when the 'good excuse' absences come several weeks (or a month) in a row, the singer seems to enjoy the experience, but it severely affects the ensemble when this happens with a family of singers or within a smaller ensemble.
on March 20, 2014 9:25am
Some excellent comments so far. If I may add another thought...
In many schools it is "testing season." The kids are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Sometimes they just need to take a break from a few things. I try to keep my rehearsals focused for short periods, and inject frequent Fun Breaks. (Jump like kangaroos and try to sing. Sing the song with your tongues hanging out. Tell some jokes. Stand facing away from me and see if you can still sing the song. Record their singing on your phone and use a voice changer to get funny effects. Anything novel to refresh their emotions works.)  I don't announce it's Fun Break Time, I just slip it in there. Besides choral goals, I want them to enjoy our time, get a break from stress, and leave feeling refreshed.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 20, 2014 11:20am
I love these ideas.  Thank you, Susan.
on March 21, 2014 8:04am
I remember doing a sticker chart in children's choir at church.  I just started one with my HS advanced choir for their after-school practice attendance.  You would not believe how excited they are about stickers.  I also remember that my church director made (had made?) wooden cross necklaces with a large enough hole for double/triple strands to be attached.  We would wear them at each performance, it was our "uniform."  New students don't have any beads, but at the end of the school year, we would get a bead for another year of service and a bead for each "special" performance we attended.  So, there was christmas tree bead for singing the kids program at the "Hanging of the Greens" service, for example.  I thought it was a really nice way of commorating what we did and were able to display proudly.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 23, 2014 1:09pm
After seeing that some other choristers wear medals as part of their attire, this year I instituted an incentive with these. We purchased medals which were cast off of a drawing of the front of our church, and attached colored ribbon. Points are given for attendance at rehearsals, Masses, and other events, and ribbon colors correspond to the # of points. This seems to have a positive impact, especially with our younger choirs. I see Julie has the same system. I just need a place to store these medals and a better system for having the children check their points. Chime in, if you care to! Like you, I call (most times) if I have not heard from a parent about their child's absence. The children either walk to rehearsal, or are dropped off by a parent or caregiver. Following up is probably easier tolerated by parents since I am in a big city and if their child is missing it is a safety issue as well. I'm sure I am not saying anything new here, but attendance, committment, and the fact that other young singers are depending on each child to be present are all highlighted at the parent meeting at the beginning of our season. Likewise, I ask them to seriously consider if this activity is the right one for them if they like to go away on the weekends. We have a built in incentive in the spring, since the children are included in our parish concert, a really big shoe with our adult choirs, pro choirs and professional instrumentalists. If they miss too many rehearsals prior to this, or they miss the dress rehearsal, they cannot sing. Thankfully, the importance of this opportunity for young people is appreciated (by most) in my community. Good luck to you and good post!
on May 22, 2014 6:25am
I am trying jr. choir at church in two 10 week blocks this year. These blocks are carefully scheulded to include a Christmas event and an Easter event. I twigged on this idea when I kept hearing about sports 'seasons'. Oh... "it is soccer season so I will be missing a few rehearsals"... etc. etc. Ok, it is 'choir season'.
For this year we are going to give it a try and simply insist that if you sign up for jr. choir... 10 weeks is the program. We have yet to come up with a plan if someone misses. Perhaps singing the scheduled song in front of the choir to prove they know it... not sure about this yet.
Julie, I like your idea about the RSCM cirriculum. How do you co-ordiante the book work with learing music to sing in church?
on June 2, 2014 8:16am
L Pike, I would make singing in front of the choir a requirement, even to prove they know the piece - I received strong feedback from my singers this year (I did a survey, lol) that one of their favorite things about our choir is that they are not required to sing by themselves.  There is such a safety in singing in a group, and there is such an incredible vunerability in singing alone in front of people.
To update my situation, I sent an email with a gentle reminder that each singer is important at each rehearsal.  Attendance did improve - my panic was unneccessary since it seems the couple of weeks of low attendance was a fluke of everyone having dentist appointments the same week. :P  I will not be doing attendance incentives, per se, because with the strong dedication I have from the vast majority of singers, like was discussed above, I think it would cheapen the committment.  Plus, just one more thing for me to keep up with.
I do give candy occasionally at the end of rehearsals, and it is a nice trick to have in my back pocket if a rehearsal is lagging.  "Wow guys.  We really need to learn xyz today.  Tell you what.  Get it learned well, and we'll celebrate with candy."
At Christmastime, we have a pizza party after our 'big' CHristmas rehearsal and I have a small craft for them to do and take home.  In the spring, we celebrate a year of hard work with an off-campus party (this year, it was ice skating.  the singers pay, we had great turnout, and they loved it).  At the last rehearsal of the year, I have them a small gift that is music and/or church related and a certificate that I print out thanking them for their service in ministry.
When I started here in 2011, we had abotu 35-40 singer total in the the choirs.  This year, we had nearly 60.  At our summer choir camp, there were 30 children my first year, and this year we have nearly 60.  So, something is working, and people are interested, coming back, and bringing their friends.
Oh, and I have heard of many people doing this kind of program successfully - a Christmas Choir and an Easter Choir.  I think with so few rehearsals, I would be very insistent and strict on the attendance policy.   I generally consider one absence a month 'passable', since kids (and parents) do get sick.  Two or more, and they start having trouble catching up to what the choir has done without them.  With 10 rehearsals, I would set the absence policy at no more than 2.  More than 2, and I would charitably say 'maybe next year'.
Thank you for the discussion on this!  It gives fresh ideas and perspective and confirms in my head what I am doing that is working.
on July 3, 2014 8:12am
Whoops - kind of a major typo in my above statement -- I would *NOT* make singing in front of the choir a requirement (in case that did not come through with the rest of my paragraph, lol)
on June 25, 2014 2:02pm

~~"Julie, I like your idea about the RSCM cirriculum. How do you co-ordiante the book work with learing music to sing in church?"

That is a GOOD question!  It is a challenge, because our rehearsals are only 45 minutes long.  I have thought about lengthening them slightly just because we never seem to have enough time.  Along with the book work and learning repertoire, we also have a three year study cycle - year 1 is the psalms and different ways of singing them; year 2 is hymns (including a hymn memorization program with incentive); year 3 is liturgy.

I cover some of the material applicable to the book curriculum in class, but the choristers do the actual book work on their own and know that they are welcome to ask me questions before or after choir.  Some of my kids regularly come early to work on their book material, oftentimes as much as 15 or 20 minutes early!!!  They are very eager learners.  I try to build the concepts they need to master for the book work into our regular routine.  I'm still mastering my approach but each year it gets a little better :)  I don't by any means think that we cover the material as thoroughly as say a cathedral choir school but the great thing about Voice for Life is that it can be adapted to your unique situation.




Applauded by an audience of 1
on June 26, 2014 3:09pm
We, also, use a major event to close the year, alternating between a musical one year and a "road trip" (singing a few anthems at another church) the next year. As well, we stop in the first week of May. That way we don't force parents and children to have to choose between soccer, etc, and choir. We get good attendance because of the event. The kids who can still come out to rehearsal after the first week of May are invited to two drop-in sessions at the regular rehearsal time for beginning handbells for a different musical experience. 
It's good hear all the great ideas!
Karen Schuessler
on December 29, 2015 10:40pm
I remember doing a sticker chart in children's choir at church. I just started one with my HS advanced choir for their after-school practice attendance.  You would not believe how excited they are about stickers.
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