Keeping the Choral Singer Pipeline Flowing

Singers are the lifeblood of the choral field. Ensembles from coast to coast are anchored by veterans of school and youth choral programs who found the experience rewarding enough that they continued through adulthood. But as choral leaders know all too well, many choristers can’t or don’t stick with it; they drop out of choral singing when they hit significant life transitions.

Transitions and their accompanying conflicts are inevitable. But a number of choruses are finding ways to encourage more singers to continue through these key points—approaches that keep what we might call the singer pipeline flowing. Choral leaders are realizing their role is essential in confronting the challenge. As Andrew Minear, director of choral activities at the University of Alabama, and a former high school chorus director, puts it, “Choral directors have a responsibility to help our singers find their next choral home.” We asked Minear and other leaders in the field to share their strategies.

Sustaining the Source of the Pipeline: The Transition from High School to College

When high school singers enter college, deciding whether to sing is suddenly in their own hands. The first obstacle is often a lack of awareness that there are opportunities available to them. “Many of them don't know that you can continue if you're not a music major,” says Minear.

Or, their minds may simply be focused elsewhere. “They just don't view it as part of what they're doing next,” says J.D. Frizzell, who directs vocal music and fine arts at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Another big factor is fear of overcommitment.

In researching her doctoral dissertation, Doreen Fryling, who teaches chorus at South Side High School on Long Island, found that vocal “self-efficacy” beliefs are an essential, often overlooked, factor in continuing to sing beyond high school. Self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s own ability, contributes to increased vocal skill, which in turn leads to persistence, “meaning it matters more that a person thinks they are a good singer than whether they actually are.” The takeaway, says Fryling, is that directors should empower their singers to self-evaluate. “Helping a singer be savvy enough to recognize good singing is actually what helps them realize that they are in fact skilled, and should continue to sing.”

Fryling believes this approach helps to send the message that there’s a place for everyone at the next stage, not just those likely to be music majors. She says that even small gestures, like mentioning auditions for scholarships to all students, can reinforce this message. Frizzell asks all of his graduating seniors where they’re headed, and connects them to the choral directors at their new schools.

In 2014, Minear developed a tool to make connecting easier for college directors and singers alike. During his doctoral studies in choral conducting at Michigan State University, he was mulling over how to recruit more students for the Campus Choir, which he directed. “I knew that on a campus of 50,000 students, there must be singers out there who sang in high school, and they're not singing now for whatever reason. But I didn't know how to find them.” With help from the Michigan State Vocal Music Association, Minear launched a survey enabling students to indicate where they would be attending college and to share their contact information with those directors. When the idea caught the attention of his colleagues in other states, the Keep Singing Project started to expand. In just its third year, students from 31 states and 209 colleges and universities participated.

“One thing I've learned about recruiting is the power of an invitation,” Minear says. “The heart of the project is giving choral directors an opportunity to extend that invitation to singers that they otherwise wouldn't know about.”

A Critical Juncture: Building on the College Experience

If the transition to college is a major shift, the move from school to the “real world” is an even bigger one. Research indicates the number of singers that leave choral singing is even greater at this stage, says Fryling, as recent graduates worry about future careers, homes, and relationships. “Life’s uncertainties” during this overwhelming period are a central obstacle to continuing choral singing, Penn State University professor of music Anthony Leach has learned.

In response, some choruses are emphasizing the social aspect of group singing. “People coming out of college yearn for community,” says Benjamin Olinsky, artistic director of the 18th Street Singers, a group of young professionals founded in Washington DC in 2004. He believes opportunities for social bonding enhance music-making, so the Singers have instituted traditions like Friday happy hours and once-a-season weekend retreats. The choir has grown from about 15 members at its inception to more than 50.

Singers looking for a new home are also likely to join choruses where they already know people. University of Alberta professor of music Leonard Ratzlaff has seen young alums of his conducting program successfully found new chamber choirs by recruiting their recently graduated friends, which in turn has grown the local choral scene. “There's a lot of choral activity in Edmonton that wasn't here 20 years ago,” says Ratzlaff.

Some recent graduates hesitate to continue because they believe their college choral experience was “the pinnacle of what they would ever experience,” says Martha Kunau of Minneapolis-based Magnum Chorum, founded 26 years ago by alums of the St. Olaf Choir. Magnum Chorum attempts to build on the St. Olaf tradition, recruiting auditionees while they are still in school, almost like recruiting at a job fair. “From the beginning, we’ve given presentations to the choirs, and held auditions on campus,” says Kunau. “The more we get an influx of young singers, the more likely their friends will audition in the future.”

Though their St. Olaf roots are clear, Magnum Chorum founders distinguished the group from their college experience, basing the ensemble on four core values: music excellence, sacred music and faith, fellowship, and stewardship. “We hoped to create something new from the incredible foundation we were given,” Kunau says. The chorus has also expanded on-campus auditions to other nearby colleges.

Kunau believes the right opportunities exist for recent graduates; it’s just a matter of reaching them with that message. “It's important for the choral community to make it known that there is a rich, full life after college choir. There are more options now than ever.”

Those increased options include diverse—and often more contemporary—repertoire choices that commonly draw young professionals. By being intentional in incorporating folk music, spirituals, jazz, and pop into the 18th Street Singers’ programming, Olinsky has not only successfully recruited those who sang a wide variety of music in their college ensembles, but also members of many singing backgrounds outside the normal choral footprint. “Many people have never sung classical music,” he points out.

New Energy in the Pipeline: Contemporary A Cappella

Eclectic tastes in repertoire and a broadening range of singer backgrounds point to a force, born on college campuses, that is adding a different kind of fuel to the pipeline—the rise of contemporary a cappella culture.

“I view a cappella as the greatest gateway drug to choral singing,” says Olinsky. Thanks to visible platforms for singing like the Pitch Perfect movies and television shows Glee and The Sing-Off, vocal ensembles are enjoying a pop culture renaissance.

FrizzellJ.D. Frizzell uses contemporary a cappella as one tool to attract singers to diverse choral repertoire in his program at Briarcrest Christian School

Partnerships at the college level are poised to become a gamechanger. Says Frizzell, “Some of the most successful university choral programs in the country are now bringing a cappella groups into their fold,” which should keep driving the artistic quality of a cappella upward. “Eventually this will play out in the funnel when those thousands of students enter the adult world,” Frizzell says.

For singers transitioning from college to young adulthood performing popular repertoire might once have felt like mere nostalgia for college, but now contemporary pop ensembles that fit the adult schedule and culture are becoming much more common, says Amanda Cornaglia,president of the Contemporary A Cappella League, which works to connect this growing network of post-collegiate a cappella groups.

That is not to say that the pipeline is diverting all future choral singers to pop music. Says Olinsky, “Many singers came to us from a cappella groups, and now they are avid classical music singers.” Frizzell uses a cappella as “a musical dessert” in his 12-voice advanced ensemble, OneVoice, to help his singers develop an adventurous musical palate. “My rule of thumb is the pieces that they dislike the most when they start are the ones they like the most after they've learned them,” he says. Though OneVoice is known nationally for its a cappella exploits, Frizzell says graduates of his program join college choruses more often than a cappella groups. Cornaglia says openness to teaching a cappella at the high school level is growing among directors of traditional choral programs, compared to even five years ago. I think there has been hesitation that if we teach pop music, students will never want to learn anything else,” Cornaglia says. “I think that’s been proven wrong.”

While many singers seek ensembles that offer variety, choruses that have a more traditional focus have also continued to attract members, especially if they offer unique opportunities. “The Richard Eaton Singers has had success recruiting singers from the university partly because there aren't that many outlets for large-scale performances,” says Ratzlaff.

A Big Bottleneck: The Increasing Demands of Adulthood

For those that fit choral singing into their routine after college, early adulthood introduces major life changes that make that routine increasingly complicated. Having a child poses the most obvious and significant challenge, but there is a sea of other transitions to navigate.

Says Cornaglia, “I got married, had a baby, got divorced, I moved around, I changed jobs—at any point, I could have said, ‘I don't have time for this.’” Even for couples without kids, weekly rehearsals and concerts on weekends can be a sacrifice. “If the spouse isn't supportive of you having a hobby that takes up time every week, it becomes a stress,” she adds.

Some singers cannot continue despite their best efforts to push through the transitions. Christina Lewellen dropped out of her Sweet Adelines chorus in northern Virginia after she had her first daughter. But it wasn’t because she didn’t want to sing anymore. Lewellen occasionally had to bring her young child to rehearsal and watch, which she figured was better than staying home. But her chorus let her know that they had a problem with it, so she left the group. “I just assumed that's the way it was,” Lewellen says.

Lewellen eventually grew more confident there could be a chorus that would facilitate lifelong singing for women with all sorts of demands—mothers, frequent business travelers, caregivers to elderly parents, and so on. After a nine-year absence from barbershop, she founded a new chorus called Bella Nova—the first Harmony, Inc. chapter in Virginia—and is now the international president of Harmony, Inc.

Bella NovaIn Bella Nova, school-aged girls can join their mothers in the group if they can stay focused and keep up.

Bella Nova schedules rehearsals on Sunday afternoons, avoiding long commutes on school nights and church commitments. Lewellen also realized it isn’t imperative to hold rehearsal every week. The chorus rehearses primarily every other week—allowing families to fit vacations and other obligations around the chorus schedule—meeting weekly when a big performance approaches. On off-weeks, members access learning resources through a chorus management platform. The group streams all its rehearsals—which incidentally has proven to be “a fantastic recruiting tool,” says Lewellen. “We just put a phone in the corner and hit record.”

Bella Nova’s use of streaming technology also lessens the impact of absences, making it easier for the group to function without an attendance policy. “We don't think that signing in on a clipboard is the atmosphere our members want,” says Lewellen.

Bella Nova makes another accommodation that appeals especially to singers who want to get back into the pipeline after taking time off. Because singing alone while being judged—and possibly rejected—can be unusual and intimidating, the group does not require an audition to join. “There are many women in our group who have said if they had to audition, they never would have joined,” Lewellen says.

As another strategy to help adults who juggle many priorities, some choruses are breaking up projects into shorter bursts. Fryling and her husband, David, started a chorus on Long Island called eVoco Voice Collective, which allows members to commit to six-week concert cycles, rather than entire seasons. “If you have to negotiate with a spouse, that becomes an easier time horizon to get people engaged,” says Fryling.

Ratzlaff takes a similar approach in the symphony chorus context. He has developed policies that encourage flexibility while fulfilling contract obligations that come with Edmonton Symphony engagements. “We've been able to keep some of our singers with families because they've been able to pick and choose which programs they can sing,” he says.

The Prairie Fire Lady Choir, a Twin Cities-based chorus that sings music by local and alternative artists, plans for membership ebbs and flows during the year. “We take the temperature of everyone's availability for the season,” says Lisa Heyman, who serves on Prairie Fire’s planning committee. “Are you having a baby? Changing jobs? Moving? Often there will be people who lay low for a few months, and pick it back up when they’re able to.”

In some fortunate situations, a flexible chorus doesn’t just afford family time—it is family time. Ruth Palmer, director of music ministries at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, leads a women’s ensemble that spans in age from sixth graders to women in their 80s. “It became an intergenerational pipeline rather naturally,” says Palmer. “Middle and high school girls could sing with their moms, young mothers felt they had a place, and women near retirement age wanted to connect.”

Maintaining the Flow: A Matter of Balance

Perhaps the enduring challenge, especially when trying to retain singers who are at critical junctures, is one of balance. How does a chorus allow for the unpredictability of members’ lives, yet provide enough structure to maintain expectations?

Prairie FireLisa Heyman (second from left) and the Prairie Fire Lady Choir leadership stay in close contact with each other to manage flexible membership.

Even as they make accommodations like relaxing the time commitment or eliminating auditions, these directors emphasize setting artistic standards. “I've found that if you keep the standard high, people self-manage their participation for each project,” says Palmer. “If you move that median point too low, they'll feel they can come in and out without a sense of integrity to the group.” A similar philosophy has worked for Leach and his Essence of Joy Alumni Singers, an ensemble composed of his former students. Their model of rehearsing just a few times a year—almost exclusively during performance weekends—allows for a fluid roster, but requires members to know the ropes of individual preparation. “Whenever my chorus gathers, they come ready to sing,” says Leach.

 “There are tradeoffs,” Lewellen admits. “Certainly there is a decades-long track record in choral singing that shows rigidity delivers a certain level of performance. With the flexible model, perhaps you don't get as good as fast, but I think you can get there.”

Flexibility also requires chorus leadership that is willing to handle shifting logistics. “We have to be in constant communication about availability for any particular event,” says Heyman.

Lewellen acknowledges the hardest thing for a chorus looking at this issue may be changing the status quo. “Introducing more flexibility is something that probably scares many choral leaders. Though honestly, it might better promote the lifelong singing that these organizations are trying to accomplish.” She believes there's room for both models. “I think the more flexible model can work for more people and organizations than they think.”

Whatever the model, understanding how to make singers feel engaged goes a long way. “If you put the power in the hands of your membership, there's more ownership,” Lewellen has found. When they feel motivated, Leach has learned, singers are far more likely to make choral music a priority in their lives. “They are going to figure out how to do it,” he says. “My goal is for the time that we share to be productive, energizing, and as positive as we can make it.”

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.

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