Three Reasons Why Choir Enrollment is Down… (and what we can do about it)

By Jaime Babbitt

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While we’ve come a long way regarding technology’s ascent and its influence over our musical lives, we’ve also lost some vital “human” elements. TV shows and their devotees are clamoring to find “The Voice” and the “American Idol”, we can hear virtually anything we want for free (or for a nominal monthly subscription) and…we can ask a robot to play it for us. This is an amazing time to be alive, for sure, but what it signals for choirs and their declining member rosters doesn’t always seem quite as amazing. Here are three of the main reasons for the decline, and ways to counter it:

The Cool Factor – Let’s face it; today’s up-and-coming singers are able to watch videos on singing and playing instruments, giving them serious proficiency at much younger ages. (Check out Dylan Beato, his dad Rick and the app Nuryl…mind-blowing.) They can download myriad apps that train their ears, let them sing duets with people across the world or find any karaoke track of any song they want on YouTube (with incorrect lyrics lots of times so please check them!). This makes their extracurricular musical lives pretty cool, so…why should they join a choir? Where’s the “cool” in that? Here’s where choir directors and their big, beautiful imaginations come in. I hate the phrase, “think outside the box” but…in order to grab the attention of potential choristers, you have to offer more dynamic and exciting…everything. Take a page from the book of PS 22 Chorus in Staten Island, New York, engaging kids on every level: singing, movement and emotional connection. This choir director has raised the bar pretty darn high: (www.youtube.com/channel/UC19wHqb_vnglAFaFF3a7DNA). So, offer up lightly choreographed pieces, mine for songs with punch and deeper meaning (do not rule out classical pieces, just choose wisely), book concerts, use multi-media to film rehearsals/concerts and social media to share. Make chorus an event. Events are cool.

The Choir Director Factor – Teachers, along with nurses, have it rough. They should be highly paid and well respected, but that’s not always the case. So how do music teachers feel good about putting their best ideas forward?  In my humble opinion, I think that we as educators must do our best to fight for salaries, we feel good about and come to the acceptance that our reward for this type of work is not necessarily going to be that of wicked monetary value. As I tell my vocal students when they moan about not making money or getting famous quickly enough, blah blah blah: it’s not about you and what you’re getting, it’s about them and what you’re giving. So do your best as a choir director to choose to be content with what you give, what you pass along.  Pay attention to your singers; know who they are as people and always point out the good they do, even if you need to point out the not-so-good. Don’t play favorites. Rekindle your own passion for music and the power it has to transform lives. And keep improving: vocally, instrumentally, and spiritually. Take refresher lessons if you need them. And, while I know that not everyone does, I’m of the mindset that choir directors must play a chordal instrument with some degree of proficiency…so, get on that if you need to.

The “There is no I in team” Factor – Today’s younger generation is overbooked. They run from school to sporting event to dance class to tutoring, sometimes without time for meals. Having unstructured time is clearly a thing of the past for adults and kids alike…so how do we present choir as one of the best “clubs” for them to join? By example. We convey as passionately as possible the impact choir has had on so many people, from Terry Bradshaw to Axl Rose to Barbra Streisand to Anne Hathaway to Aretha Franklin to Wayne Brady…you see where I’m going with this. Also, we can remain alphas of the group, but perhaps we can take votes on repertoire, making it a bit more of the peoples’ choir? Do we have any somewhat-famous or super-proficient musical pals who would be willing to come to a rehearsal and talk/sing/play/Q&A, et cetera? Can we make sure to be inclusive of all races, genders and neurodiversity? Can we offer vocal technique pointers to everyone, so they can see incremental improvement? Can we book short gigs at grammar schools, nursing homes…or pick neighborhoods for caroling, giving choristers a deadline/something to look forward to?

In closing, I’m posing that when we recruit for choir, we keep in mind a template of a mini-musical-community, with shared interests, common goals and acceptance for all members. Grab the NBC TV app and take a peek at a show called “Friday Night Lights” (2006-2011). Coach Eric Taylor was no pushover, but he loved the sport, and he cared deeply about his kids. Not every choral director is going to embody his headstrong, über-alpha style, but the idea that your choir is a team you’re building, voice by voice, personality by personality, and that you’re stronger together… that can change choir from a boring obligation to a life-affirming journey for everyone to truly get excited about.

Jaime Babbitt coached voice/performance for Disney and wrote Working with Your Voice: The Career Guide to Becoming a Professional Singer (Alfred Publishing). As a session singer, she’s “jingled” for Coke, Pillsbury, Chevrolet and hundreds more. She’s sung thousands of gigs and toured with Leon Russell and Sam Moore. Jaime sang background vocals with George Strait, Courtney Love, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb, Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus, and Johnny Mathis. For info, please visit workingwithyourvoice.com

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