What do we mean by 'community choir'?

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    Apparently singing is the UK’s second most popular activity after sport.




    According to The Guardian from December 2006:


    “there are more than 25,000 choirs and over half a million singers in the UK*. They get some of the health benefits of the sporty types — increased lung capacity, better posture and so on. But they also get the sheer joy of singing in a group with friends.”

    *These figures are supplied by TONSIL (The Ongoing Singing Liaison Group) which

    “represents 14 organisations promoting choral singing across a wide variety of genres, supporting over 25,000 members choirs and over 500,000 singers, who each year perform to audiences totalling nearly 3 million.”

    (In stark contrast to this, Cindy L. Bell of Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY wrote a paper in 2008 entitled Toward a definition of a community choir in which she contends that “many community choirs [in the US] are either facing a declining membership and ageing singers, or have evolved into semi-elite performance machines that are no longer characteristic of the community”).


    We’ve had plenty of coverage on British TV with various Gareth Malone choir programmes (the latest being the Military Wives’ Choir), the BBC’s Last Choir Standing in 2008 and the biennial Choir of theYear competition.


    So … choirs are cool, and more and more people seem to want to join singing groups. An excellent time to set up your very own community choir. But before I can start on that, I have to ask: what do we mean by community choir?


    Let’s start with Denis Donnelly, and his musical partner Shivon Robinsong. In the promotion for their training programme for community choir leaders, they say:


    Imagine … a world where every city, town, and neighborhood had a community choir, one where the music of many cultures and faiths was celebrated. Imagine … a non-auditioned choir in your community where all were welcome. Imagine … that this choir could support and engage in powerful community-based activities.”


    For me, they have hit on the two essential defining points of what a community choir is:


    • open to all
    • a sense of community


    open to all


    A community choir should be open to anybody who wants to come and sing. Basically, everyone is treated equally and nobody is excluded. This means that:


    • there are no auditions (everyone is able to sing)
    • the choir is not affiliated to any particular idea, culture or organisation (e.g. church or other faith group, particular style of music)
    • no prior musical knowledge is required (e.g. the ability to read music)
    • people are not excluded on the basis of age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc.


    In practice, however, it may well be possible to call a choir a community choir even though it only targets a specific (possibly otherwise under-represented) sub-group of the local community, e.g. community gospel choir, gay men’s chorus, barbershop group, women’s choir, youth chorus, etc.


    sense of community


    A group of people singing together, united by their love of music, will inevitably create a strong sense of community. This is definitely something that any community choir should strive for instead of being a group of anonymous voices who are simply there to serve the needs of the music and/ or the musical director. To this end, many community choirs often have some kind of organising committee which represents the views of the choir as a whole, and which also helps to run social events for the choir.


    Any community choir also exists within a wider community from which it draws its members. Such a choir can become a focal point for a local community by offering public performances, raising money for local charities, setting up concerts for local schools, care homes, etc., and representing the local community on a wider stage by, for example, entering choir competitions or performing at national choir festivals.


    Even though a community choir might be initially set up by an individual or a local arts organisation, eventually there should be a sense that the choir is a result of “people grouping themselves together — not from policy on high.” (Community singing doesn't need bureaucracy).


    what do you think?


    What do you think defines a 'community choir'? Are there more than the two essential elements that I've outlined above? Do leave a comment and let us know what you think.


    Chris Rowbury:


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