Choir leaders: who’ll replace you when you’re gone?

Listed on August 3, 2015 in Blogs!

Nothing lasts forever. There will come a time when you will leave your choir and need someone else to take over.

When you're gone

Who will you hand over to and how easy is it to do? Let’s look at some options.

At some point you will need to hand your choir over to someone else. Maybe you’ll want to focus your energies on something different, or you’ll be too old or ill, or you’ll move away from the area. Whatever the reason, you’ll need to find somebody suitable to hand over to.

what to look for in your replacement

In my choir leading career so far I have handed over two choirs to new leaders (and also inherited two choirs from others).

The first was a choir that I had created myself from scratch, WorldSong. As it was my first ever choir it meant a lot to me and it was important that it continued so I needed to make sure it was left in a safe pair of hands. So long before I was due to leave, I began to look around for a suitable successor.

I needed someone who:

  • was free on a Wednesday evening – if the rehearsal day changed we’d lose a lot of singers
  • lived not too far away – so wouldn’t have to travel far
  • enjoyed the same kind of repertoire – basically world music in our case
  • approached choir leading and song teaching in a similar way to me – the Natural Voice approach
  • was committed to the long haul – I didn’t want someone who was going to leave in a few months
  • respected the ‘flavour’ of the choir – it’s culture and way of doing things
  • was suitably experienced – taking over an existing choir is not good for beginners!
  • would take on the administrative responsibilities – there is a lot of admin and I had done it myself up to that point

But I couldn’t find anyone!

In the end I was extremely lucky that a highly experienced choir leader moved just down the road from our rehearsal space and was looking for a choir to take over. Phew!

The person who ended up taking over didn’t tick all the boxes, but we made allowances. For example, admin is not her strength so we set up a committee to support her.

But what if I hadn’t been so lucky? What are the other options?

The two main ones (that I have experienced) are:

  1. advertise far and wide
  2. train an existing choir member

finding a suitable candidate

You will know the best places to advertise for a new choir leader who will be suitable. It may involve some expense, e.g. taking out ads in trade magazines, but much can be done through word of mouth and social media.

If you’ve not been lucky enough to find someone local who you know, this implies that you are going to have to ask someone to relocate or to commute a considerable distance. Neither are stumbling blocks, but it’s not an idea situation.

Imagine you’ve been lucky to find several potential candidates, how do you decide between them? It’s up to the choir in the end. A choir is nothing without its singers and they are the ones who are going to have to work with the new person. If they don’t get on or don’t like their approach, then it’s not going to work.

Have an initial meeting or interview to make sure you’re on the same page, then get them to run a choir session. Give them free reign to show off their strengths. It’s probably best if you don’t stand on the side-lines and watch, but take part if you want to observe. Remember, it’s not you they’ll be working with.

Afterwards get feedback from the choir and discuss it with others (maybe you have other choir leaders you know locally or a choir committee).

training up a choir member

I’ve been lucky in the past that I’ve had an experienced choir member who has done some teaching (in another sphere) and who has expressed an interest in leading a choir. They’ve learnt a lot by being a long-term choir member and by attending other singing workshops regularly (so have seen a range of different teaching styles).

If you have someone in your own choir you might think they have the skills required already or you can spend some time training them yourself or maybe send them off on a course if you think it’s necessary.

Let them have a few trial sessions with your choir to see how they get on. Sometimes things can be a bit sticky with particular singers when someone is ‘promoted’ in this way. They might find it hard to take instruction from someone who used to be one of them.

choosing the right person and setting the ground rules

Be clear on who makes the final decision. Do you have a committee? Sponsors? Does the arts centre ‘own’ your choir? Make sure the decision is accepted by everybody involved – especially the singers.

It may be that you’ll need to write some kind of contract, even if it’s not a formal, legally binding document. It’s good to have in writing what the agreement is. For example you may decide on a probationary period, or you may insist that the old repertoire is kept alive, or there may be some concerts coming up and you need to honour them.

Some people handing over choirs can be quite possessive and insist that none of their arrangements can be used and the name of the choir must be changed.

Whatever the situation, make sure any conditions are made very clear as it will help the new person ease into the job.

handing over

You as the (old) choir leader want to make the hand-over as smooth as possible, but then you want to get out of the way and let the new person get on with it. The hand-over will probably involve physically handing over sheet music, recordings, arrangements, etc. You might want to write up a simple document on the way that you’ve run the choir in the past. This will be something they can use as a basis until they’ve got around to doing it their own way. It’s a good idea not to change too quickly!

Different people will need different kinds of support. Make sure the communication channels are open between you so if they need your help it’s easy to get hold of you. You don’t want to be hovering over them offering advice all the time, but you also don’t want to just run away.

settling in

It’s obvious that the new leader will not be you. But your singers will want them to be!
It’s quite a pressure for any new leader to be at least as good as the old leader and be able to put up with “Chris didn’t do it like this” or “We always used to do X when Chris lead the choir”.

It will take some time for both the singers and the new choir leader to get used to each other’s ways. Advice to new leaders: try to keep things the same as much as you can when you start and make changes slowly. Advice to singers: give the new leader a chance, you may be surprised by the new things they bring to the choir.

Having a new leader can be really good for a choir. It’s so easy to settle into habits and particular ways of doing things. Over time it gets harder for a choir leader to introduce new ways, but singers are more open to innovation if it comes from someone new. A new leader may also have a different skillset and be able to take the choir further than before, adding to what was already there.

your final legacy

None of us like talking about it much, but we’re all going to die one day. You may be lucky enough to die on the job, in which case finding a successor won’t be your responsibility!

Whether you’re still leading your choir or not when you shuffle off this mortal coil, you will almost certainly have a rich legacy that will be useful to others.

I have a room full of sheet music, songbooks, CDs, instruments, books, etc. as well as MP3s, song lyrics, background information, links to videos, music notation, etc. on my computer.

I would love all this to go to a good home where someone will make good use of it.

I’ve put a section in my will that will ensure that all my music and singing stuff goes to a proper home. Maybe you should give that some thought too?

Chris Rowbury



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