What Are the Chances of Building a Really Great Choir?

A random choir from 1993. Were they really great? Credit.

Building a great choir is simply not easy! A great choir requires a sufficient number of sufficiently-skilled and a well-managed organization. You can build an OK choir with less, but really, who wants to build an OK choir?! I want choirs that don’t just get by and survive, but that thrive!

One way to measure this success, of course, is whether you can really excite your audience. And I’m not talking about their polite applause, but about comments you’ll hear from audience members after the show, like these two surprisingly-candid ones I’ve heard over the years:

“This was really great—a kids’ show that didn’t suck!”


“I didn’t hardly recognize this as the same lame choir we’ve been coming to hear all these years!”

Yes, these are actual comments people have made to me! And it goes further, still! This kind of excitement will prompt some of them to donate time or money to the cause, because they recognize the excellence in it and want to take part, even if they don’t sing!

Audiences seem to get excited when there’s a greater energy and excellence than they’re used to seeing. And that’s not every member, of course, but enough of them to make a difference! So that’s a really good indicator, whether you’re trying to turn an existing program around, or start something new.

Even if the audience doesn’t happen to be sophisticated enough to realize what’s excellent and what is not, the more musically-advanced members of your ensemble will. And what you want is an experience that makes them happy. But what does it really take to do all this?

Sadly, it seems that many who have a choir will never think this through carefully. And having a great choir can make for quite a tall order—which I believe is why so few choirs manage to achieve a size and quality sufficient to gather a large and enthusiastic audience, and to recruit and keep skilled and enthusiastic singers.

So, what are the chances?

What does it take to build a choir like that? Well, I’m not smart enough to understand it all, but I’m glad to share some of the things I think I’ve got figured out so far. So let’s start at the beginning, and look at how many things have to go right to make for a great choir:

  1. There exists a choir to join.
  2. The singer is available at the right times.
  3. The singer likes the idea of the choir, and wants to join.
  4. The singer has, and successfully executes, these primary singing skills:
    • Can match pitch accurately.
    • Learns the words of a song accurately.
    • Learns the pitches of a song accurately.
    • Learns the rhythms of a song accurately.
    • Follows the director as to timing.
  5. The singer has, and successfully executes, these secondary singing skills:
    • Sings with a resonant tone, and not an airy or otherwise-unpleasing tone.
    • Maintains his or her part accurately in a multi-part ensemble.
    • Matches the required vowel sounds accurately and consistently.
    • Manages sibilants and other consonants as directed.
    • Keeps vibrato to a minimum.
    • Sings with expression.
    • Matches the appropriate vocal tone for the piece at hand.
    • Executes dynamics as per the score and the director.
    • Reads music.
    • Has sufficient harmony skills to handle intricate harmonies, such as one may find in Barbershop, Jazz, and other styles.
  6. The singer has the right life situation and disposition to:
    • Be coachable on all the aforementioned skills, and make all the improvements required to be a good ensemble singer.
    • To attend all the rehearsals and performances.
    • To get along successfully with the others.
    • To view the choir as a team, and not just a class—and to understand a sense of obligation to that team.
    • To be the sort to be constantly working on improving his or her own skills, and;
    • To be the sort who loves the music and the fellowship enough that all the work is worth it.
  7. There are enough such singers to make a good ensemble of sufficient size.
  8. There are enough such singers to cover all four parts sufficiently in an SATB choir.
  9. The choir is managed and directed well enough to keep up the morale and make it successful.
  10. There is enough help with the ancillary logistical tasks to keep from wearing out the director(s) and manager(s). (Load-in, load-out, setup, preparation, music library, printing, roll-taking, etc.)
  11. The choir is funded well enough to support the effort well enough to maintain a sufficient size and success, as singers will naturally drop out for various reasons at some rate.
  12. The choir is publicized well enough to get enough audience members at the concerts.

Things could go wrong at any point on this list. And when they do, the ultimate quality of the group will suffer. This is why I believe many choirs never achieve a high level of excellence—even for the age range of the members. Whether it’s the 7-year-old showing up for choir, not yet having learned to match pitch, or the 50-year-old showing up never having learned how to achieve an attractive vocal tone, these deficits will certainly add up into some crippling compromises on the quality of the ensemble.

If you study the list above, you’ll see that a great deal of it comes down to details regarding the individual singers. It seems to me that most choirs don’t do a great deal to improve the quality of the singers they’ve got—even if they wish they had better. And this is quite understandable as it takes quite a lot of time just to get a concert ready.

So why not just stick with the basics (#4) and hope for the best?

Well, the reason not to do that is that it’s not going to make for a great choir, unless you have auditions, and find a sufficient number of the best singers. And unless you’re in a very large market area, you’re not going to find enough skilled singers to make a choir of substantial size. And in case you don’t know it, the bigger a choir is, the better it sounds—provided the sections are nicely balanced.

What is the most important thing on the list?

I don’t mean to sound like a smart aleck, but if you want to have an excellent choir, the most important thing on the list is everything on the list! (How I built the list is by reviewing what all I’ve seen keep choirs from being great!)

So I’m pretty adamant that all of it has to happen (except that item #5 may not be possible for younger choirs). But if you want to know where to start, I have developed an opinion on what’s really crucial for a singer to have the day he or she first walks through the door. In the list above, I highlighted three items under #6 that make a huge difference. I’ve met hundreds of singers of all ages in my choral career so far, and the ones who always seem to do the best are those that have all three of these qualities:

  • They view the choir as a team, and not just a class—and to understand a sense of obligation to that team.
  • They are the sort to be constantly working on improving his or her own skills, and;
  • They are the sort who love the music and the fellowship enough that all the work is worth it.

If a singer walks in the door at 7 years old and has these qualities, they’ll likely to have a very successful singing “career” in well-run choirs. But not everybody has that mindset. And experience has taught me that it’s easy to get too excited when a new prospect says, “I just love to sing!”, for that doesn’t necessarily mean that they love to do the work of being a great singer. So you’re going to need both. And you’ve got to have a well-run organization that’s capable of facilitating a bunch of singers like that, so that it remains a joy to them, and not a burden.

And that means that it’s not just the singers that need to have these three qualities; the director(s) and manager(s) need to have them, too! In fact, a director or manager who lacks these things can quite effectively smother these qualities in the members of the choir! And surely, there are a great many choirs that have two few people like this.

It’s about the spirit!

I’m convinced that the whole thing has to start with having this spirit of beauty and excellence and camaraderie. And I’m so convinced of it now that I would personally find it a waste of time to be involved in a choir that lacked that spirit. As I’ve written elsewhere:

“Life is short; why not do something extraordinary while we are here?”

And that’s what a great choir (of any age) is: Extraordinary! It has long been my desire to build just such a thing, and now it seems that Sing Montana! is well on its way to that goal!