What Every Singer Should Know About Their Chorus

There are a few things we could all benefit from knowing about how a chorus functions as a nonprofit organization.

No, this is not some sordid tell-all a la Kitchen Confidential—come on, we're talking about choruses here. No need for admonitions to "stay away from buffets on Mondays," thankfully. But as a choral singer who's also worked for a significant time in the administrative offices of a chorus, there are a few things we could all benefit from knowing about how a chorus functions as a nonprofit organization.

Let's preface this by saying that you, as a singer, are essential to the success of any chorus. That's a given. You and the conductor(s), staff members, whether paid or volunteer, and the board of directors are all in this thing together. You already know the ways that you think the chorus organization could be a better partner to you, I'm sure! (If so, don't hesitate to use the proper channels of communication to share your thoughts.) So here are some thoughts on how you can be a better partner to them:

Singing Staff and Board Members Just Wanna Have Fun

You may come to find that you sit next to the Board President in the tenor section. Or that the alto behind you is, in fact, a development staff member of the chorus. How tempting it is to turn to them at the break and say, "You know, I have a few thoughts about the spring gala," or "I don't agree with the recent board decision to do away with the free coffee during rehearsals." They're right there, it's chorus time, why not?

Here's why not: the reason they sing with a chorus is the same reason you do. They love to sing. They look forward to it as a way to think about something different, to share beautiful music with friends, to challenge the left side of their brain. It's an extra-curricular activity. They are not there to work. Respect their time, and call them the next day in the office or send them an email after rehearsal. That way, they can continue to look forward to coming to rehearsal each week, just like you do.

(Note: Obviously, there are many choruses with chorus leadership: president, vice presidents, etc. Those people have indicated their willingness to serve in an administrative capacity during rehearsal time, similar in function to a chorus manager staff position. Feel free to ask those people your questions and provide them with your feedback—they got themselves into it!)

The Schedule Is Not Designed To Intentionally Frustrate You

Though it may seem like it, the 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday rehearsal or the concert on Christmas Eve or the only dress rehearsal taking place 10 days before the concert are not decisions made to force you to use vacation time, or miss vacation time, or because someone is dumb. Well, not usually...

Not to be a buzz kill, but even a full house can be a net loss financially for a chorus.

Usually, the decisions are driven by a desire for success. The most prestigious venue in town—always in high demand—was open, but only on a Sunday afternoon and a Tuesday night two weeks before that. Should your chorus pass up the opportunity to perform there and give up the added ticket revenue its size allows, as well as the cachet of performing at such a respected location?

You have been invited to perform with the local orchestra and there's a Friday morning performance as part of the orchestra's regular subscription series. Should your chorus pass up the opportunity to collaborate with one of the leading arts organizations in town (and the presentation fee the orchestra has offered)?

Local arts revenue studies have shown that Christmas Eve is one of the most lucrative concert dates available because everyone has visiting family members in town and nothing to do. Should your chorus pass up the opportunity to capitalize on that spending power, which could go a long way towards a positive bottom line?

As a chorus administrator, it's pretty hard to answer yes to any of these questions. But administrators also have the responsibility to explain these kinds of decisions to you as singers, as they are looking to you to make it possible. A little of your understanding goes a long way, though!

With Instrumentalists, It's All About the Union

Ever sit at a dress rehearsal with orchestra and seethe as the instrumentalists blithely depart at 10 p.m. while you are kept until 10:30 p.m. to rehearse the a cappella selections? Or find that you've been called 30 minutes ahead of the orchestra? It's not because the director doesn't respect your time. In most cases, it is because the instrumentalists are part of the American Federation of Musicians, which has strict guidelines for rehearsals and performances. A two and one-half hour service is typical, with a required 20-minute break. A minute over 150 minutes and every single instrumentalist gets paid overtime. Even with just a brass or string ensemble, that one minute can be incredibly costly.

Or wonder why you aren't rehearsing in concert order? Probably because the conductor has arranged the rehearsal in the order of most instrumentalists required to least instrumentalists required. So, you'll start with the piece for 30 instrumentalists, and then the brass will all leave, and then the strings, until you're left with the harp, oboe and organ. The chorus can save significant amounts of money by effectively managing instrumentalists' time.

(Note: Feeling in a rush to organize a singers' union? You already have a couple of options, most notably your AFofM local chapter and the American Guild of Musical Artists. The Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, for example, are made up of union singers.)

Concerts Are Almost Always a Financial Loss

Not to be a buzz kill, but even a full house can be a net loss financially for a chorus, depending on ticket prices, venue size, artistic costs, or budget projections. It's fairly typical for ticket sales to cover less than 50 percent of artistic costs. One of the principal reasons is that so many concerts are just one-off performances, so it's exceedingly difficult to recoup the overhead. Naturally, this is particularly true if you don't charge for your performances.

Local arts revenue studies have shown that Christmas Eve is one of the most lucrative concert dates available because everyone has visiting family members in town and nothing to do.

Ah hah, you think, let's just have multiple performances and spread the cost out among them. But can you sell double the number of tickets to support that equation (especially if instrumentalists are involved)? And can you find venues with that much open time on the schedule? That's why so often there are multiple performances of your holiday concert—because everyone loves carols—but not of the concerts featuring less familiar repertoire. No one enjoys performing to undersold houses.

A lot of choruses look to other earned revenue streams—charging dues, selling recordings, or creating a "for-rent" group to perform at special events to supplement ticket income, for example. Or to cost-saving options: asking singers to purchase their own music or attire, limiting the number of concerts with orchestra to one (or none!) a season, choosing venues where a personal connection leads to free rent, etc. But in the end, most choruses rely on contributed income to make up the difference, and many times the bulk of those gifts come from the people who know the organization the best and care about it the most: you, the singers. So, don't be offended if they ask you to contribute to the cause over and above all that which you already contribute in time and talent. Make an administrator's day by volunteering a gift without being asked!

Conductors Are the Ultimate Multitaskers

All she does at the end of the day is wave her arms in the air, right? Now, let's hope no one actually thinks this. Stop to think about all the things that you are aware of missing in a typical reading of a piece—the dynamic marking on page three, the accidental on page seven, the proper word emphasis during the melismas, the fermata on the penultimate measure. Oh, and then you're aware that the singer next to you screwed up the rhythm on page four, don't forget.

Now, multiply the number of things of which you're aware by the number of singers in your chorus. Then add eight, for all potential voice parts as sections that can go astray. Then multiply that by the number of instrumentalists performing with you. Then add one, for gesture (which should in all rights be about 20 considering all the tools at the conductor's disposal: fingers, wrists, eyes, arms, carriage, etc.). And another 10 for things like diction, rhythm, intonation, blend, emotional projection, which the whole chorus should do as one. And now you're coming CLOSE to the number of things that your conductor thinks about while she's on the podium. Never mind the work she's done before even getting on the podium, like studying their scores in order to know that the piccolo needs a cue a half-beat before the altos at measure 272.

And that's just the artistic side of things—for one chorus. Research conducted by Chorus America has shown that choral conductors, in particular, usually direct more than one chorus. Seventy-five percent of respondents to the 2005 study reported leading two or more choirs, in fact. The study also showed that 64 percent of these conductors play an administrative role with their chorus. So, if your director reverses himself on a breath marking, or forgets to give the sopranos an important cue, or doesn't seem to hear the egregious pitch problem during the quiet section, cut him some slack. In all likelihood, something else is his top priority at that moment, like making sure the tenors enter on time and the dotted rhythm is crisp. He'll pick it up the next time around.

And one final thought: we are all responsible for the atmosphere at our rehearsals. An atmosphere of mutual respect is the most enjoyable, it seems safe to say. Respect the singer next to you, even if she has made the same error four times tonight. Respect your conductor's wishes, even if you might have preferred to do it differently. Respect the person who stands up to make announcements by politely listening, even if it's cutting into break time. Respect your fellow singers' time by making your suggestions about the way to get on and off stage to the appropriate person before rehearsal, rather than during. And in turn, you'll find that you're everyone's favorite singer!