Extreme Makeover: Community Chorus Edition I

For nearly half a century, Voices of Omaha has presented annual performances of Handel's Messiah without admission charge. In 2010, artistic director Edward B. Hurd laid out a challenge and a path forward: “We can do even more for our community.” Part I of this two-part series takes a look at the chorus's image makeover and efforts to attract a younger and more diverse community.

Voices of Omaha gave its first performance of Handel’s Messiah on December 14, 1969, in the Omaha Civic Auditorium with soloists and orchestra. The chorus has performed every year since then.

 “One of the things that attracted me to the group was its long tradition of presenting this great classical work free, every year, to the community,” says Hurd, who was appointed artistic director in 2009. To offset expenses for the annual event, which for 2014 total $33,858, the chorus members pay dues, hold a fundraiser, and even pay for the poinsettias on the stage. The audience is invited to assist with a voluntary donation.

 Voices of Omaha could have continued on with this straightforward and noble mission for another 40 years. But in 2010, after conducting his second Messiah with the group, Hurd began to wonder if there was more the organization should be doing. “The group was getting older and they were nearly all of one ethnicity,” Hurd recalls. “And the audiences were shrinking in size and also getting older and not very diverse.”

 “You could sort of see the handwriting on the wall,” he says.

 So Hurd and the group’s all-singer board collaborated in what they came to call the Seven-Year Growth Project. They created an expanded mission statement to guide their efforts:

 “The mission of Voices of Omaha is to present an annual performance of Handel’s Messiah without admission charge as a gift to the community. Voices of Omaha is committed to development of a diverse audience and chorus membership by maintaining relevance in the present, and nurturing musicians of all ages to assure an audience and chorus for the future.”

 They then set a goal of 2018, the group’s 50th year, to achieve a series of objectives that would help them realize their new mission. “We worked backwards from 2018,” Hurd says, “and asked, ‘What do we need to do to build capacity to reinvigorate the group?’” A strategic plan was formulated to overcome their three major obstacles: image, chorus and audience median age, and ethnic diversity.

Making over the chorus’s image

Voices of Omaha began the project with a complete makeover of the organization’s image. The board enlisted outside help to create a new, modern logo, build the group’s first website, and establish a presence on social media, including Facebook, Google +, and LinkedIn. They hired professional graphic artists to assist with logo design and initial website construction.

 The new website included an online registration system for choir members, replacing manual registration, which helped to boost chorus membership from 118 members in 2010 to 164 in 2013. The chorus expects 195 singers to sign up for the next Messiah concert on November 23, 2014. The seven-year goal is to have a chorus of 300 by 2018. “We are right on track,” Hurd says. “We realize that not everybody returns to sing in the chorus from year to year. It takes work to maintain our numbers, but concentrated effort to increase them.”

 The new marketing and communications effort also helped keep choir members informed and engaged during the months when they were not rehearsing and performing Messiah. “One of our obstacles is that we surface in October, have seven rehearsals and a performance, and then disappear for a year, like The Flying Dutchman,” Hurd says. “So we keep Facebook going and newsletters coming out once every couple of months and have resources available through the Chorus America website for our singers.”

 In order to raise its profile in the Omaha business community, Voices of Omaha also joined the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The chamber holds regular seminars to give its membership tips on the latest business and marketing trends. More importantly, the chamber hosts monthly networking events before and after business hours. “These networking social hours have proven invaluable to us as a means of raising our visibility in the community,” Hurd explained. “Not only are we busy passing out business cards, we are making connections which will prove valuable in the future.”

Voices of Omaha performs Handel's Messiah in 2013.

Tapping younger singers

The group knew that maintaining a vibrant and growing organization would require adding new and young singers to the group. To address that challenge, Voices of Omaha initiated educational outreach area high school students. Hurd tapped his contacts through the Nebraska chapter of the American Choral Directors Association and Nebraska Music Education Association, and sent email blasts to all of the public high school choral directors in the Omaha metropolitan area. He also connected with the homeschool associations, which spread the word through their own extensive email networks. That outreach effort has resulted in a 25 percent increase of high school members in Voices of Omaha each year for the past three years. For the coming Messiah performance, two youth choirs have indicated that they want all of their singers to participate.

To make it easier for students to join, the organization waives the $25 annual dues that adult members pay, provides the Messiah score, and pays the tuxedo rental for boys who don’t have one or can’t afford the fee.

As a value-added benefit of chorus membership, 10-15 minutes of every rehearsal are dedicated to a lecture and demonstration on a musicological aspect of Messiah, ranging from in-depth examination of Handel’s career to Baroque performance practices. The mini-lectures are accompanied by audiovisual examples and outlines which chorus members can refer back to year after year. Weekly topics spanning six years have been outlined, and lecture notes are available on the organization’s website.

“Some of the chorus members think I’m a frustrated college professor, which may be true, but it’s important that they understand where Messiah came from and why it remains popular after 242 years. When we are finished with this six-year course, they’ll all be experts on Handel and England in the 1700s,” Hurd explained.

Measuring and increasing diversity

Voices of Omaha offers its annual performance of Messiah as a gift to the community―the entire community. But the chorus and audiences had been trending toward less ethnic diversity for some time. To achieve the vibrant and diverse mix of people so necessary to a healthy, credible, relevant, and influential arts organization, the chorus initiated a multi-year outreach strategy.

In the first year, the chorus focused on the local African-American community. They established a partnership with the New Era Baptist State Convention of Nebraska, an association of 29 African-American churches with a long history in the state. “Collaborating with the president of that organization,” Hurd says, “we have been able to dramatically increase the number of African-Americans in the choir and in our audiences.”

Invitation packets are sent to the New Era church pastors and choir directors which include a letter of introduction signed by the convention president and VOO artistic director, FAQ sheets, and recruitment posters for the music room and church bulletin boards. “Gospel music and the traditional oral/rote style of learning music is alive and well in these congregations,” Hurd explained. “Many of the church choir members don’t read notation which was a definite obstacle to participation. So we offer free practice CDs to anyone who wants to learn the work by rote.”

In the second year, Voices of Omaha added a focus on the Latino community was added to its diversity outreach efforts. They work with Pioneer Publishing, which publishes a weekly newspaper in Spanish called El Perico (The Parrot) aimed at a younger demographic. “That publishing company has incredible reach into the Latino community,” Hurd says, “and we have capitalized on all of those connections.” Pioneer Publishing has become the chorus’s annual media sponsor, donating over $10,000 in print and online advertising in El Perico and its sister publication, The Reader.

All advertising for chorus membership and the concert itself is now in English and Spanish. The organization’s FAQ sheets are bi-lingual. curtain speeches, the printed concert program, and even the lobby announcements are now in English and Spanish. Translation of the website is next on the organization’s agenda.

Now in the third year of concentrated diversity outreach, Voices of Omaha is holding to the course ―letting the partnerships strengthen and word of this musical opportunity spread. The chorus is building bridges of understanding between the various segments of the community. New friends of the chorus are appearing everywhere; for the past two years, Voices of Omaha has been invited and participated in the local Martin Luther King Day observances.

Voices of Omaha set its goals and gauged its progress toward greater diversity by using data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 survey of participation in the arts. “Omaha is 15 percent more Caucasian than the rest of the nation,” Hurd says, “but rather than apply some sort of correcting factor to the data, we decided to aim for reaching the national participation levels among different minority groups that are in that 2008 NEA report. Last year we were equal to the national participation levels for African-Americans as far as chorus membership goes.

“We have learned from this project that patience and perseverance is key,” he says. “The diversification process is happening more slowly than we thought it would, but growth is taking place.”

There was some unexpected push back from audience members about including Spanish translation in the programs, which was discouraging, Hurd says. But having a clear mission about building a chorus—and audiences—that are more reflective of the diversity of the community, helped the board stay the course. “I guess the lesson is to not be discouraged and hold to your guns,” Hurd says. “We’re doing the right thing.”

Learn how Voices of Omaha grew the revenue brought in through funded grant applications and gifts by ten times in just three years, as well as the organization's "words to the wise" in Part II of the series here.