How Do You Recruit And Retain Choir Members?

By: Bonnie Finley

What is the most important quality to look for in a prospective choir member? Ability to sight-read, harmonize or hold pitch? Or is it willingness to follow directions, sing expressively or enunciate clearly?

After 20 years of directing a choir, I am convinced the most important quality a choir member can have is the ability to make and keep a commitment. I will choose a committed person with no music background over an uncommitted but musically excellent person. Someone who misses frequently can actually throw off an entire choir.

Discovering Commitment

Determining who feels this commitment is a challenge. I sit down with prospective choir members and ask a few questions to discover what their commitment is. First, I ask if singing in the choir will work out well with their families. I even get specific and ask, “What will your husband or wife do while you’re singing in
Sunday morning and evening services, and in Sunday afternoon practice?” “Who will look after your children?” Choir members have been in practice with babies on their laps! Our church provides babysitting now, for infants to three years, but someone must be responsible for older children. Family cooperation is the most essential factor in a choir member’s commitment.

To help families cooperate, I only schedule one 45-minute practice on Sunday afternoon. We dropped Thursday evening practice because family and work commitments interfered. I must keep family balance.

Another question I ask prospective members is, “Are you a Christian?” Our choir is part of our church ministry. Members are part of our evangelical function.

Another question is, “Can you come regularly to services and practice?” I have learned that jobs and habits have changed since I started directing. Now people often work Sunday morning or afternoon and can’t sing at both services, as well as attend practice. There may be 28 people rehearsing, but fewer during service. This happens regularly, so I developed a system. We rehearse a wide range of music, four-part, three-part, or two-part. If the arrangement we rehearsed won’t work because we lack certain voices, I pull out another, or even go unison.

Our choir is used to this last-minute switching. I explain my reasons, and they know they will always sound good. It’s no blessing to anyone if the choir sounds bad.

For the last 16 years we were broadcast on radio. We stopped a few months ago for administrative adjusting. But before that, the choir never missed a Sunday morning or evening service. We played an important role in the radio service. Music always sounded good, whether it was the congregation singing with the choir, or the choir alone.

Stress-free Auditions

Prospective choir members must audition, and this can be stressful. If someone is anxious or frightened, I ask them to sing while my pianist plays, then I leave the room. Either I can hear from the next room, or I ask the pianist’s opinion. It seems easier for people if their “judge” is in another room.

Another technique is to ask the person to hum the note I hum-to match my tone. If they match me, I know they hear the tones, and will be able to follow other choir members.

Turning someone down after an audition is hard. Usually the situation involves someone new in the church. If they sing for me and it sounds as if it would be difficult for them to sing well with the choir, I ask them to wait for awhile and listen to the choir. I ask them to get used to the kind of music we sing. Usually
people discover their own singing inability, and they don’t feel rejected.

People who sing well but fail to attend regularly are a problem. After repeated absences or lateness, I ask people to drop out until they can work out ways to come more regularly.

My biggest challenge is tardiness. When practice is scheduled to start, I move people closer, to fill empty seats. This means everyone sits next to a different person every time, if people come late. To combat this, I take roll, discuss problems privately with chronically late members, and give a lot of speeches. It’s hard to be strict since we are a voluntary group.

Another big challenge is “helpers,” those well-intended people who correct others’ mistakes. This breaks concentration and makes everyone irritable. When this happens, I announce I will handle any problems, then I discuss the situation privately with the “helper” after practice.

My ideal image for a choir member is a person whose children are eight or nine years of age and whose families take care of them during choir. Mothers with young children have the hardest time meeting choir commitments because they cope with feedings, naps and illnesses. Yet they are the very people who want most to sing the choir. They need to be involved in something outside the home that makes them feel good about themselves. Our church provides babysitting.

There are few experiences afforded on earth that are more heaven-like than singing God’s praises as part of an anointed choir. So I think it is important to open this door of opportunity to all those singers willing to make and keep the necessary commitment. Of course, the singers must possess minimal musical skills, and the choir’s end-product must truly minister to the congregation and lift them into heavenly places.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

Christian Information Network