Season Beginnings, Part One

The start of the season is so thrilling, isn't it? I mean, once we get past the rush of registration and auditioning and organizing everyone to arrive in the same room at the same time the first night...

I love the potential of the beginning of the season, this new untested combination of voices and these crisp unopened octavos, concert titles and descriptions that hold the promise of the musical moments to come.

 A wee selection of those crisp new octavos... I love me some Santa Barbara Music Publishing!

A wee selection of those crisp new octavos... I love me some Santa Barbara Music Publishing!

The longer I conduct, the more I come to recognize that there's huge value in beginning as we mean to go on, in terms of our choral culture. In the next few weeks, I will spend some time sharing how I try to set my groups up for success right from September.

I'll start with one of my most successful strategies in recent years. (Like most of my successful strategies, this one has been shamelessly adapted from my brilliant artistic director, Scott Leithead.) Here goes:

The Returning Members' Meeting

The week before my choirs officially kick off for the year, I gather all my veterans who are returning. We do this during the usual choir time in the usual choir place, for simplicity's sake. The purpose of this meeting is threefold:

get the start-of-year social energy out of the way before your new members can be overwhelmed by it

My choir members love each other and it seems like no number of parties and barbecues over the course of the summer can keep them from yelling with joy when they meet up again in September. This can be very intimidating for the newbies, who may know nobody except me. By meeting separately, we have a chance to get some of this energy released in a relaxed environment.

 I think it's fair to say there are a lot of inside jokes happening in this choir photo...

I think it's fair to say there are a lot of inside jokes happening in this choir photo...

rehash last season: successes, highlights, challenges

So often, the end of the previous season happens in a big rush. I really value the insights and input from my members after concerts are over. This is a way to chat about what went well last year, and what didn't go well. Again, new members would probably feel alienated or left out of this discussion because, well -- they weren't there! It's good to have this discussion without having to stop and explain so nobody misses what everyone is laughing or groaning over.

mistakes are a learning opportunity
— one returning member's observation about last season's challenges

set the choir culture for this year

Have you heard of the "founder effect"? It's a biology term, actually; it's where the characteristics of a population of a species are impacted by the characteristics of the original organisms who colonized the area. It works the same way in choir, I find. The characteristics of my choirs from year to year are really determined by the culture of the returning members.

Honestly, I used to just trust in my veterans' good spirits and intentions to carry this off with panache – and mostly, they have – but now I take the time to have my members set some explicit intentions for the season ahead. These can be really practical ("I want us to memorize music sooner") or more esoteric ("I think we need to pay more attention to how we connect with the audience") but discussing them with my returning members helps us plan out loud what we want to see this season. Come the new members next week, I find we don't have to reiterate these goals. Having stated them with returning members, we can work towards them as a group with our newbies simply learning the culture by osmosis.

find someone who loves the piece you find challenging
— a returning member's brilliant strategy for appreciating every piece

and one more (fun) thing

I always bring a few of the pieces for the new season for a little sneak peek. My singers love this secret preview of what's to come, and it's a bonus when those pieces are just a little further ahead when we officially start them! 

So, that's the returning members' meeting. This season, both my groups focused their discussion around our organization's core values (which I will probably post about at some point) but other years, I come up with a motto or idea for our focus. One year, it was being "complaint-free". (And what a year that was!)

Do you do a returning members' meeting, or do you have another strategy to set the tone for your choral season? Would your membership resist doing this kind of exercise? Would you do something differently to make sure new members feel included right from the start?