How do I start a choir?
February 11, 2015 4:14 PM   Subscribe

A friend and I want to start a (casual, fun) women's choir, but we don't really know where to start. How do we find people to join? Where do we meet? How much work is this actually going to be? We are in Chicago.

We are both longtime choir people who have not found a choir home in Chicago (there seem to be VERY SERIOUS choirs that are way beyond us, and then church choirs, and while I loved loved my church choir here, my work schedule doesn't accommodate it). So we want to start a more relaxed choir for women! We know such a thing exists (there is something called the Prairie Fire Lady Choir in Minneapolis which is basically what we want to accomplish), so it is possible, but we don't know:

1. How to find people - this is the big one. We know a few people who would want to join, but do we advertise? Can Craigslist do this? What other avenues are there for meeting randos who have a specific hobby?

2. We are okay singers and good musicians. We are not trying to be a super amazing choir, we just want to have fun and sing things in multiple parts. So, what are we actually looking for? I feel like we need to audition people, but also that can seem really snobby which is not what we want! How do we balance non-snobbery with not having a choir full of people who can't match pitch?

3. Where does a choir rehearse? Can we just call a church and pay them money? Is it expensive? Will they have a piano? All we have is a very non-portable keyboard.

4. If we were to arrange our own music (a thing we are capable of, I promise), do we need someone? Like, assuming that we only ever ended up performing for friends and people we bribed to show up, is someone going to sue us for performing an arrangement of some pop song? (My understanding is that if we buy sheet music, that mostly includes performance rights, but please correct me if I'm wrong)

5. Also any other advice, I really don't know anything about this
posted by goodbyewaffles to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
1. How to find people - Craigslist, meetup - post it on facebook too. You may start with a smaller handful and add more people as you find them.

2. I think it's ok to audition people. In my choral auditions I've usually been asked to sight read something very easy and to sing something I've prepared. You need to know if people can match pitch, and you also need to make sure you don't find yourself with 20 tenors and no altos.

3. Rehearsal space will take some legwork. Churches are a good place to start.

4. Can't speak to arrangement, but you can find public domain works in several places online if that helps.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 4:45 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

You might want to use, I have seen choirs on there.
posted by radioamy at 4:45 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd also post some flyers in local coffee shops, community centers, and college music departments (if you can get permission).
posted by mysterious_stranger at 5:15 PM on February 11, 2015

Is it possible to contact the Prairie Fire Lady Choir and pick their brains about this stuff?
posted by mon-ma-tron at 5:35 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can also let people self-select to some extent, by saying in your recruiting materials, "we're looking for people who can match pitch and improvise harmonies, and who will take responsibility for learning music outside of rehearsals," or whatever's important to you. You could also try informally auditioning people via open rehearsals, open sings, jam sessions, stuff like that. It's a bit lower pressure and also they get to audition you at the same time you audition them.

I used to belong to a small acapella group (10-15 members) that just had rehearsals at different members' apartments. They had auditions at a community center, though. Even if you're going to be small at first, it's probably good to have your recruitment events in public spaces.
posted by mskyle at 5:56 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hi there, fellow crazy person! I started a community choir in 2008, and it is going strong today! We were in the recording studio on the weekend, in fact!

The people will come, if you set some stuff up properly first:
1) know what your choir wants to do, and be able to explain it in a very short sentence. You seem to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, which is great!

2) Auditions are one way to do things. Another is to devote some portion of the rehearsal to exercises designed to help improve pitch-matching, tone, etc. There are lots of resources online for this, btw. I do the latter, and while the tone-deaf can be a trial in the beginning, it's great to see them work and progress.

2) Rehearsal space. It's funny, but most people think of churches when they think of choirs. I tried initially to rehearse in the basement of a local folklore centre, and it really, really didn't work. Once I switched to a church, things worked better. Most churches are set up for choir singing, with a piano in either the sanctuary or the hall. Usually you pay rent, but if you're starting up, you'll need to keep your overhead costs low. See if one of your friends is on the board of a church or something, whereby you could get it for free. Or see if you can do a deal with a local church somehow, to do music for service once a month or something in return for a reduced rental rate.

3) If you follow the letter of copyright law, you need to purchase full sets of commercial music for all performers. The vast majority of little community choirs don't do this, and frankly, hardly anybody polices that kind of thing. Your own arrangements are always good.

4) Other things to think about:
-Set expectations right away about things like how many rehearsals someone can miss before they can't take part in a performance. It's not easy to tell someone no, but being clear right from the outset about where the boundaries are will really help a lot.
-Be prepared for dilettantes. There are people out there who will dip a toe in, and then wander off after a couple of months. Don't take it personally, it happens.
-Set stretch goals for the choir. Plan that road trip! Do that video! Whatever. Give your choir members something to look forward to and to work towards.
- Set up a monthly or yearly fee. This will give you a financial buffer for things like printing posters and tickets, rental, paying an accompanist (if you need to) and making photocopies of music.

Mefimail me if you have other questions, I am happy to answer them!
posted by LN at 6:11 PM on February 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Where do you work? My office of about 1000 people has a small choir. We rehearse in a conference room and occasionally sing at company events (holiday carol type things). It's super casual and a lot of fun.
posted by town of cats at 9:58 PM on February 11, 2015

Have you considered checking with the Old Town School of Folk Music? I know they have some singing classes, maybe a) their students would be interested in joining an informal choir, and b) they might actually be interested in helping you start this thing up.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:20 AM on February 12, 2015

You might find some of the resources/forums here of interest: They tend to teach choirs that are really very much for fun, often taught without any printed music being seen by the singers themselves. I sang with a big chorus in the UK taught like this and it was immense fun. We could be a bit scrappy sometimes, but it was very relaxed and good fun. We worked hard at things too, but I'd say that by going for this approach we attracted a wider variety of people. E.g. me. Like the majority of singers in the group, I'm unable to read music but I can easily sing what's required and have a great time doing it. It must be hard work for the choir leaders but it is worth it from my perspective. We are always packed and with 150 of us (spread over two rehearsal groups) we tend to even out okay without auditions.

The leaders for this sort of thing exchange arrangements a lot between themselves, which helps with the copyright stuff, and helps select things that work for this sort of teaching. (I'll watch this question with interest as I'm moving to New Jersey shortly and have encountered the same super seriousness, with some choirs just not getting back to me at all. Coming to the conclusion I will need to learn to read, and audition, and strive mightily for perfection etc, which is fine but it all feels soooo much more like work.) Good luck!
posted by aesop at 7:51 AM on February 12, 2015

If there's a school nearby with a decent music program, they may also have rehearsal space available (my amateur choir rehearses in a high school's music room; we pay churches twice a year to use them for concerts).

For auditions, we let people come to the first couple rehearsals and decide if they want to join the choir. At that point, they meet the director before or after a rehearsal and sing a little. He has never said no to anyone (we have people who cannot read music). But I think that very minor hurdle keeps the truly tone deaf away, while being gentle enough that people like me, who want to start singing after a 10-year hiatus, are comfortable showing up.

New York has the Vocal Area Network, on which people post audition information, concerts, etc.--there may be something similar in Chicago?

Have fun!
posted by loolie at 10:24 AM on February 12, 2015

I'm not trying to talk you out of founding a choir (MORE MUSIC IN MY TOWN YAY), just responding to the sense in your question that what you want isn't available in Chicago. As a sometime member of several choirs in Chicago, I wondered if you had tried either WCPA's treble group or Artemis. WCPA was a little more "serious" when I was there, but that is so dependent on who's conducting, it might be a completely different story now. There are also community choirs associated with the local universities, just call up the music department and ask when they rehearse. And one more option is the once-monthly-rehearsing Chicago World Music Chorus. Full disclosure: conducted by a friend of mine.

To actually answer your question, in addition to all the great advice above, you might try networking at your local Shape Note/Sacred Harp sing, and definitely go to the U of C Folk Festival this weekend - lots of great singing workshops with people who would like to join your future choir!
posted by katya.lysander at 1:00 PM on February 12, 2015

As a follow-up, I cannot recommend enough the Sea Shanties workshop by Tom Kastle (at the U of C Folk Fest, Sunday 12-1pm). If you wanted to start a women's pirate choir, that's where you would start, and sign me right up now please.
posted by katya.lysander at 1:06 PM on February 12, 2015

This is so helpful! Thanks everybody.

LN, THANK YOU. What an awesome informative comment. I am totally going to pick your brain later.

We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese, I hadn't thought about Old Town! Silly, given I've taken a bunch of classes there. I will definitely reach out to them.

katya.lysander, I'm familiar with Artemis & WCPA, and while they're great, my impression is that they are specifically aimed at lgbtq women, and I don't want to infringe on other folks' spaces (correct me if I'm wrong though!) Also we've both done the 150-voice community choir thing, and we're looking for something a little bit more intimate than that, though again, those are super wonderful. The Folk Festival sounds amazing!! (& we LOVE sea shanties)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:29 PM on February 12, 2015

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