In a survey of my newsletter recipients, it was no surprise to find that the topic over 63% of responders wanted to be covered first was that of choir recruitment. From my own experience, I know that the challenge to maintain and grow a choir is a very big one!
I have some bad news for all those who thought I would provide all the answers – I have no ‘silver bullet’ solution for you. What I can share is an approach to the challenge based on marketing best practice and some examples of ideas that have worked for other choirs. I would really like to add to these ideas with any that you have tried – so please do comment on the post.
The ‘who’ and ‘why’ of choir recruitment
Before you undertake choir recruitment projects you need to have clear answers to two key questions – “who are you trying to recruit?” and “why should they want to join your choir?”
Who are you targeting with choir recruitment?
Don’t fall into the trap that some commercial companies do. No matter how good their product not everyone would love to buy what they have on offer. Their marketing style is ‘spray and pray’. What they really should be employing is a ‘rifle shot’ approach focused on specific profiles of an ideal customer.
The same thing applies to your choir recruitment. For instance, it is highly unlikely that the same choir will attract everyone from teenagers through to retirees. Just think about their different desires and needs around:
- Rehearsal location and time
- Type of music
- Image or style
- Time commitment
Then think about how you would reach them in a choir recruitment campaign. They don’t all congregate physically or digitally in the same place. You need to define the profile of your ideal choir member. Take a look at my article “Understand your target audience” for a handy tool called the ‘Buyer Persona’ that you can use to describe the demographics, desires and behaviours of a target chorister. Your best bet would be to complete a Persona that is equivalent to the majority of your current choir members.
“But I want to go for a different age group/demographic”
It is very common to hear the cry “but we need to get youngsters into our choir”. This is particularly the case in Male Voice Choirs. Here, sadly, the average age tends to mean you are very frequently having to find new members.
Stop and think though – do you really mean that? If you were to go for a wildly different age group – can you cater for them in terms of the logistical and style items I listed above? Will any self-respecting 20-year-old want to be alone in a group of 70/80-year-olds? But then, if you change everything about the style of the choir to cater for younger members will that lead to existing members leaving?
I had a boss early in my marketing career who said “If you have not got 15% of your existing market there is no point in trying to grow into a new market. The grass is not necessarily greener” Do you have 15% of the adults of ‘a certain age’ in your area as members of the choir already? If not – it might be worth focusing on them rather than finding elusive new young blood.
If you really want to encourage a younger age-group, you’re probably better off creating a brand-new choir tuned specifically to their needs. If that is too much work, and it may well be, why not partner up to provide support to an existing younger person’s choir? I’ll talk more about this idea in “Feeder Choirs” below.
Why would choir members join and stay?
By describing the ‘Persona’ of your ideal choir member you will have already identified what they are looking for in joining a choir. You do need to make sure that what your choir delivers to them actually matches up to their desires and needs.
For instance, why does your choir exist? Is it to become an elite choral group and win competitions or is it a social choir providing a pleasurable pastime and perhaps raise money for charity? Both are laudable aims – but will have a different impact on your choir. It will, as an example, help you decide whether you need to have auditions, and perhaps the level of difficulty of the pieces you should be attempting.
You need to be able to express what a choir member will get out of joining your choir in terms that will attract them. In my article “Why should they come? Build your choir promotion value proposition” I outline a tool called the ‘Value Proposition Canvas’ that you can use to describe how your choir matches the needs of your choristers. It will help you put together compelling choir recruitment messages.
Why would someone not join your choir?
As well as promoting the reasons for new members to join your choir you will probably also have to combat some of the reasons they have for not jumping at the opportunity. More often than not these will be fears that, as an established choir member yourself, you know are unfounded – but are oh so common, for example,
“I can’t sing”
This really infuriates me (I know, I should not get so stressed, but…). A whole generation of potential choristers has been led to believe that singing is a unique skill you either innately have or do not. Whether it be from parents, teachers or television talent shows, many people think they just cannot get to a required standard.
That could not be further from the truth. There is a very tiny percentage of people who literally, and physically, cannot sing. With practice, most of us are able to join in with fellow choir members making a pleasant sound. That is what singing in a group enables. We are not talking about recruiting operatic soloists.
The “I can’t sing” brigade is probably just nervous about looking foolish in front of strangers, or even friends. For that reason, unless your choir is looking to be in competition a lot, you may like to affirm a “no audition” policy – at least for initial try-outs. Alternatively, you might like to hold a few “taster” sessions that are aimed just at people who have not sung in a choir recently and are nervous about it. Why not even promote them, for example, as “Too terrified to sing?” sessions?
“Choirs are not my sort of thing”
This will be the more diplomatic comment, usually because they do not want to offend you as someone who sings in a choir. The blunter will say “they’re full of stuffy old people singing ancient boring music". And (in the case of Male Voice Choirs) “they look like a crowd of bus drivers from OAP coach tours”. Although there can be a grain of truth in this (choirs tend to contain an older generation), if you are talking to someone in your target “demographic” then you need to promote that fact that your choir is a group of people just like them. Highlight the musical items that your choir love singing. And… yes, re-examine the choir uniform – does it really suit the people you are trying to attract?
“I can’t read music”
A reasonable concern. Unless you are expecting your choristers to be of a standard that they can sight-read a new piece without any practice, then stress that, although it may help learn new items, it is not essential. Regular attendance at rehearsals and use of practice tools you provide can easily make up for a lack of ability to read music.
“I don’t know the songs”
This is connected to the previous concern. You should assure all would-be choir members that it will be easy to pick up the music with regular rehearsals. The joy of singing in a large group is that you can “hide” a bit until you are confident in singing the piece.
The ‘how’ of choir recruitment
As I said earlier – there is no one sure-fire solution for choir recruitment. I strongly believe that you have to operate a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, there needs to be an ongoing drive to promote and recruit for the choir by all choir members. This can generate a ‘drip-feed’ of the odd one or two new members. In addition to that, you may well want to try the odd targeted recruitment project.
The continuous drive
Appoint an owner for your choir recruitment
I would recommend that, whether you just go for an ongoing drive or also include recruitment projects, you should appoint one person as the ‘Recruitment Officer’. It is not that they have to do all the work. It just means that someone can focus attention on keeping the recruitment push going. Choir recruitment is something you do not want to just do occasionally.
The ongoing choir recruitment drive through your existing members
In business, the best sales leads are known to come from referrals. Existing customers, who know the value you give them, are perfect sales reps. And they tend to mix with like-minded individuals who meet the profile of your ideal customer.
The same goes for choir recruitment. Your existing choir members, if motivated to do so, can become the best recruiters. They probably mix socially and professionally with others of similar tastes and will be able to wax lyrical about the joys and benefits they get from singing in a choir. If you provide simple relevant promotional material, such as a flyer, and perhaps a regular “open rehearsal evening” for prospective new members then get your existing members to promote it. Think about providing more tangible incentives to your members, such as choir fee discounts or awards/gifts for members who introduce the newcomers.
Promote yourselves at every concert
Every time you perform you can show what a great thing it is to be the member of your choir. Make sure that it is obvious that you are all enjoying yourselves, and that you are able to produce quality entertainment that your audience enjoys and of which you are all proud. Having shown how great it is – promote the drive for new joiners by announcing that you would welcome prospective new members at your next rehearsal. Then make sure your recruitment officer stands by the exit with a pile of recruitment flyers.
Choir recruitment projects
The following are examples of ideas for activities to help with choir recruitment. Some of them are tactics that I have seen being used by various choirs and others are just suggestions.
The male voice choir I am a member of is known locally as “The Odd Fellows”. This name originated because when the founder was looking to pull together a local choir to enter a competition he wrote to various churches in the area to find interested male singers and took an odd fellow from here and an odd fellow from there…
This approach can still work. Decide on the type of institution your ideal choir member could be part of and research who to get in touch with (your existing choir members can help here). It could be churches, it could be colleges, adult education and cultural centres or even workplaces. Then carry out a coordinated plan of letters, emails, social media advertising, local press/radio and leaflet drops.
Open rehearsal ‘Taster Sessions’
It is all very well saying that newcomers are welcome to turn up at regular rehearsals, but for many prospective newbies that could still be a somewhat scary idea. By having special open rehearsals aimed at those who would just like to have a go, with no further commitment, you can take away some of the worry. Make the event more social by organising refreshments and opportunities to chat with others. You can select practice items that are popular and not too complex from your repertoire so that you don’t put anyone off!
You could even take the taster sessions “on the road”. Depending on the demographic of your ideal choir member you could organise taster sessions in churches, colleges, village halls and bring your choir to the community rather than expect them to come to you.
Learn to Sing group courses
Address the “I can’t sing” objection head on. Offer a no-charge course of lessons that takes those who would love to sing, but have no recent experience or confidence, through a programme that builds their confidence and basic choir singing ability. Obviously, this will take quite a bit of work and relies on having someone who can run the classes – but most choir Musical Directors I have seen are very good at that. Don’t force any sort of commitment to join the choir at the start, just let their enjoyment through the process make them want to sing more.
You could include a target concert at the end of the programme as an incentive to join in. That would need to be a commitment for anyone taking the course, though. Make it in a venue that they would be proud to say they have sung at, and to raise funds for a popular local charity to add that extra pride in their achievement.
Don’t underestimate the work involved in such a project, but it has been used to good effect by, for example, Peterborough Male Voice Choir (MenUnitedinSong) and Bournemouth Male Voice Choir (Learn2Sing).
A one-off concert or scratch event
The concerts put on at the end of the courses run by Bournemouth and Peterborough MVCs address not only the “I can’t sing” objection, but also the worry about long-term commitment in a busy working life. A finite end point means that, in theory, nothing further is required of the member. That is unless they enjoy it so much that they are then prepared to take things further by joining the main choir. Success in your recruitment drive! You could also use a one-off concert to the same effect. Set a concert date and a finite number of rehearsals, or even stage a ‘scratch event’ which involves a day of rehearsing followed by the concert in the evening.
A choir for non-singers!
As a slight variation on the last two ideas, there are a growing number of choirs set up under the “Tuneless Choir” brand. These are choirs particularly aimed at people who want to sing but do not consider themselves good enough. You may like to consider setting such a choir up in your local area if one is not in existence already. Be aware that this is a franchise business, albeit not a huge cost, and would need a choir leader and manager.
Find ‘feeder choirs’
The previous project ideas of one-off concerts, singing courses and non-singer choirs are all examples of ‘feeder’ projects. You hope to drive recruitment to your main choir from them.
Most major Premier League football teams these days have one or more “feeder teams” that they partner with. Spurs has San Jose Earthquakes, Arsenal has Colorado Rapids, Man United has Royal Antwerp and so on. They will often have a financial stake in those clubs, but their main objective is having somewhere that they can place untried young players or find new talent – without having to throw the newbies into the full Premier League before they are ready.
Why not try to find an established ‘feeder choir’ for your choir? Think about what you might be able to offer another choir – it doesn’t have to be financial support. Could you offer vocal tuition from your MD? Do you have guest spots in your concerts where you could offer chances for the other choir to perform? You could even offer the chance for members of a choir type to sing a new type of music. Find a choir that has a membership, and style, that means established members of that choir could easily grow into your choir. It could be a university choir, a church choir or works choir.
Flash mobs and street singing
In order to encourage new members, you do need to make your choir visible to them. One way to do that is sing in areas that people naturally walk past. Places such as street corners, shopping centres and hospital entrance halls all provide locations where you can sing a few numbers, having obtained any relevant permissions beforehand. You can either turn up as a surprise ‘flash mob’ or set up for a longer session. Have a simple pop-up banner that says you are looking for new members and you have someone to hand out flyers and take details of anyone that shows interest. You can also have bucket collections for a chosen charity at the same time (this also can help get requisite permissions to perform).
The run-up to Christmas is an ideal time for this sort of thing as shoppers often enjoy hearing some festive music sung while they are out and about.
Think about running a fun day or even weekend that is aimed at socialising and enjoyment, like a local fete. You could have a ‘tent’ that holds taster sessions for would-be singers, and your choir could perform numbers during the day. Although this is something that requires quite a bit of effort you could partner up with other groups, such as schools, churches, village committees, to run it. I have recently discovered an extreme example of this - Blokefest that has been running for 6 years. A fun weekend that aims to encourage, and develop, men singing.
Retirement Fairs and other common interest exhibitions
As retired men looking for new interests is a key target demographic for our male voice choir, this year we are taking part in the “Refreshers - a festival of retirement” organised by the local Council. It includes stands manned by all sorts of organisations that might be of interest to new retirees. If your choir membership tends to be of a similar age you might like to research whether events such as this take place in your area. Even if there are none – why not get in touch with other interested bodies and run one yourselves?
If your target demographic is not the retired – are there exhibitions targeting the sort of people you would like to recruit? These days there are events run with all sorts of themes and one of them might just attract the type of person you are looking for.
They won’t come just because you build it
The often-misquoted line from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” is used to suggest you just have to create something and it will be a success. Not correct. You need to let them know it exists. So whichever choir recruitment projects you undertake you will need to promote them using all the relevant marketing tools at your disposal, just like you would for a concert. Posters, flyers, email campaigns, local press and radio plus social media can all have a part to play. I would suggest you look at Facebook advertising in the mix because of its ability to target individuals with particular interests.
I am sure that there are plenty of other inspired, creative ideas out there for choir recruitment and I would love to hear from you about any you have seen work. Please do share your ideas below.