So you want to start a Children’s Choir?

Starting a children’s choir and guiding it to success is one of the most exciting challenges that a choirmaster can face.

Many musicians “learnt their trade” in a children’s choir – often a boys’ choir – and developed a deep love of choral music there, especially church music. Such youth choirs are the natural nursery of church choir music. If you have one in your church you are guaranteed a steady flow of well-trained, committed singers in your senior choir as time goes by, and the chance to turn your church into a thriving and lively local music resource.

The argument rages on about girls’ and boys’ voices, and the colour they lend to a children’s choir. Having worked with both, I can say that the vibrance and tone of young voices can be harnessed to develop an individual choral sound, regardless of the gender of the singers.

Your children’s choir is going to need a home, and it’s best to begin one in conjunction with another organisation – a church is ideal. It’s very hard to start a junior choir in isolation, but most clergy will be delighted to have a children’s choir associated with their parish. So get the whole-hearted approval of your Minister and follow the advice he gives. Check that you won’t be stepping on the toes of the church organist or any other parish leader.

Your Minister is the ideal person to help you find recruits. He or she will know everyone in the parish and a straight appeal from the pulpit will be invaluable, particularly if he has the respect of the parishioners.

You can also start a children’s choir in conjunction with the local school, but you’ll have to be a music teacher or very well known to the Principal. It would, however, be very worthwhile seeking the advice of a head-teacher – he may have other ideas as to your best way forward.

For a base you’ll need a rehearsal room and keyboard. If you’re attached to a church this shouldn’t be difficult – indeed there are advantages to rehearsing in the church itself. Imagine how hard it could be to rent space yourself – yet another reason for aligning yourself with a church or school for your venture.

There’s one other thing that may stand in your way – you don’t feel you have sufficient keyboard skills. Look for someone who can accompany for you.

Before you start your choir, ensure that you have police clearance – the Minister or Principal will know how to go about this. You must take care to protect yourself as well as the children who will be in your care. Be very careful about who you allow in to assist you.

For Love or Money?

What do you hope to get out of all the hard work you’ll be putting in to building your children’s choir? If you want a salary you’ll be better off in a Cathedral or parish job where a children’s choir already exists. If you’re starting a choir you will not make money out of it in the beginning – I’m afraid the contrary will probably be true! If your choir becomes very successful you’ll earn wedding and other fees.

Concert promoters, broadcasters and opera houses are always looking for good child choristers but this will be a long way down the road. You might also be able to to make some successful CDs. And If your motives are entirely altruistic … you’ll find them well repaid with genuine love and appreciation. The children will grow to be adults who will remember and value all your efforts.

Now down to business …

You can opt for a boys’ choir or a girls’ choir, but for a mixed group aim for about 20 boys and girls – ideally ten of each. When you’re auditioning find out if any of the applicants can offer something to the children’s choir apart from their voice. Is there a keyboard player who could do the occasional accompaniment? Some recorder players or dancers? These will all add variety – essential for keeping young people’s interest!

Your choir won’t function without the complete support of the parents. You can agree rehearsal times with them, and they’ll let you know what’s practical. Set out the outline of a simple performance schedule from the start. Even though your children’s choir is a church choir, be sure to include the occasional secular performance – and it’s a great idea to put on a regular – short! – recital for the parents and families.

How much input do you think the parents should have? I would caution against a parents’ committee unless you have a very clear idea of what you want it to achieve. Don’t encourage the parents to have too much of a say – this can cause problems as their priorities are different from yours, but do be completely open to their suggestions.

Consider carefully if there should be a subscription for your children’s choir. In a church context this may not be acceptable – but someone will have to buy music and there will almost certainly be other expenses. Deep down, people tend to put more value on something they pay for.

At some stage you’ll need the parents’ help over the thorny question of choir dress, and the Minister will have ideas too. There can be more arguments over the colour of cassock, or length of skirt, than over the entire repertoire and training schedule put together! So be forewarned, and give this some thought before it becomes pressing.

Two points about children’s choir rehearsals: ensure that there is always another adult present – preferably a parent – and never allow yourself to be alone with an individual chorister. Make sure parents know that they are welcome to sit in on rehearsals as long as they stay quiet at the back. You’ll find that very few will actually take up this offer after the first week or two, but your openness will be appreciated.

Set out some behaviour guidelines for your group of youngsters. Build in a supervised period during break when they can let off steam and hurtle about in safety. Always insist upon courtesy and have a clear understanding with the parents about absences and lateness. Parents should always be expected to explain un-agreed non-attendances. Lateness should not be tolerated without an acceptable excuse. If you have a mixed children’s choir decide on a firm leaving age for the girls. Boys obviously leave when their voices change.

At last, the Music for your Children’s Choir!

Now that you’ve established your children’s choir with the enthusiastic support of parents and Minister, you may decide what music it should sing and how the choristers should be trained to sing it. Singing lessons from a good teacher are invaluable, and it’s worthwhile persuading parents to send their children to a vocal teacher of whom you approve.

Start off with some fairly simple pieces. If you choose music which is too difficult it can be disheartening, but you do need pieces which will challenge your choir. It’s essential to include some contemporary music – choose items which speak to your children’s choir in their own language. By all means give your choir traditional music but this must be leavened by the more popular. How about putting on a staged musical? This has tremendous social as well as musical benefits. You’ll get plenty of ideas for repertoire from our List of graded pieces for Children’s Choir.

Your choristers should always leave choir practice in a happy frame of mind and with a sense of achievement, so your rehearsals must be inspirational – you must fill your singers with enthusiasm and excitement.

In our country town we ran a small children’s choir for two years. Four years later the Spotlight classes for song and dance, who put on performances of Grease, Annie, Bugsy Malone and so on, were giving a performance. Out of the hundred or so children, there were about eight principal players – seven of whom had been in our little children’s choir! This indicates both the outgoing nature of many of the children attracted to a choir, and the kind of self-confidence all children can gain from such an education.

You can read about choir discipline and choice of music for children here but in the meantime enjoy what you’ve started! You’re giving your young people something that they will treasure for the rest of their lives. It’s wonderful to have the chance to pass on an appreciation of great performance and powerful music.

These articles may also be of interest to you:

Children’s Choir – Children’s Choir – a list of favourite church music

About Colin – Colin Mawby’s biography

Choir Development Skills – Forming a choir – the skills you need

Gregorian Chant – Gregorian Chant

Choir Practice – Taking a Choir Practice