Community Choirs: A Legacy of the Failures of Choral Societies

Forty thousand choirs in the UK! Choral directors of the UK rejoice. Voices Now have finally published their Big Choral Census. They’ve put hard data to something we knew was true: there are loads of choirs and loads of people who love singing in them. Finally we can present government with solid evidence that meaningful investment into the art form will be money well spent. Surely a cause for celebration? Yes… but not entirely.

I’ve lost count of the numbers of choirs I’ve come across that barely survive on their current membership. For non auditioned choirs, dwindling numbers mean choirs can no longer perform the repertoire they were previously able to. I would argue that we actually have too many choirs in the UK and our amateur choristers are spread too thinly.

In the census, the most popular category choirs chose to define themselves as was ‘community choir’. I still can’t quite figure out exactly what this phrase actually means, but presumably community choirs are in existence as they attempt to fill a niche of prioritising inclusion and having fun at rehearsals. Fine… but did this niche exist in the first place? Surely all open access choirs aspire to be fun and inclusive?

It looks like the appearance of the community choir has actually come about as an apology for our shortcomings in properly advocating choral music. Had classical music not been chained to it’s clapped out elitist stereotype, we might not have seen the arrival of so many so-called community choirs. What this census has shown us is that there is an appetite for choral music, but novices are still too intimidated by the old stereotypes of a typical Messiah-loving (as in the oratorio!) choral society to join.

There is no reason why all open access choirs can’t be both musically ambitious and fun to sing in. The choral societies (in the traditional sense) that I’ve worked with absolutely have community at their core but are desperate for more singers! What concerns me about the rise of the community choir is that people feel they have to sacrifice challenging themselves in order to have fun. This is not good. We need to do more to advocate quality choral singing as an enjoyable experience in its own right and not just set up new choirs to avoid outdated stereotypes.

Let me be clear in saying I have no issue with people joining a community choir. It can be impossible to tell the difference between community choirs and choral societies today as the phrase is so meaningless. We simply have good practice and bad practice. Let’s not let bad practice dilute the pool.

All opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own. Please leave comments below.