Recruiting New Choir Members

In the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, a senior stockbroker drills his mantra into his charges: A-B-C: Always Be Closing! 

True story: A colleague once told me that they used to have a chorister program, but all the kids grew out of it. 

A-B-R: Always Be Recruiting.

Recruiting is a lifestyle; it’s a state of mind. And you can’t do it alone. The minute I stopped focusing on numbers and begin focusing on attracting the sort of people who would attract other people (and letting people who were negative and backward-looking leave by attrition) is the minute my choirs started growing. I have never stopped actively or passively recruiting- in the back of my mind at every encounter with a new parishioner or non-singing child I am considering the possibility of engagement in the music program. But I stopped obsessing over numeric growth, and I started using the following techniques:

  1. I prayed for our choir and choristers and for new members, and I encouraged current members to do the same. 
  2. I put the burden of recruitment squarely on the shoulders of current members. Even (especially) with choristers and their parents. 
  3. Go outside of your church! 65% of my choristers are not church members. They may become church members, but that’s not my immediate concern. One chorister and her family are devout members of the Baptist church down the street, but they all come to support her on the Sundays when our choristers are scheduled. This resulted in a few great pulpit swaps. 
  4. For first rehearsals for new members, I try to remove any anxiety obstacles. I guess about their vestment size and have it ready to try on; I have a folder and pencil prepared; I have a “mentor” ready to show them the ropes in rehearsal. 
  5. We developed an “elevator speech” covering why someone would get involved in about 30 seconds. For instance, each adult singer was asked to have a ready answer to the following prompt: It’s 7:30pm on a Thursday. You’re exhausted from work, you’re a little hungry. Why do you come to choir for an hour and 45 minutes? 
  6. I developed attractive values and  incentives that set our program apart from other competing activities and spoke to what I believe people are really looking for: character, teamwork, resiliency, connection, excellence, and challenge. 
  7. I go out of my way to treat siblings as distinct people with distinct gifts and abilities. I even have a set of twins for whom this is quite challenging, but it’s worth the effort. 

And here’s the thing- there have been periods of steady growth and periods of decline. That’s the way organic entities work. Maintaining consistent rules and expectations is the best way to keep a solid core engaged. The worst thing you can do is bend the rules to try and keep someone involved. Sure, pastoral flexibility is needed from time to time, but being held to a commitment makes everyone more eager to do their part. 

I follow up with each visitor or newcomer in a hand-written note. This is particularly meaningful to children. I would say that over 75% of people I have written to get back in touch to say how meaningful the note was to them. Maintaining active one-on-one communication during the first month is crucial. For adult singers, this means individualized emails checking in, seeking them out before or after rehearsal for conversation, and making sure other adults are connecting with them. For choristers, this means regular communication with parents at pick-up or drop-off, and meaningful conversation with the child. This all creates an immense amount of work, and I’m an introvert- but it’s worth the effort. 

I spend a significant amount of time in both chorister and adult rehearsals teaching the art and habit of prayer. This helps the singers get to know one another not only as friends but as “spiritual colleagues.” Habit shapes belief- it’s hard to overstate the importance of repeated, consistent texts and prayers for faith formation.

Finally, a word about VBS. I am such a huge VBS fan! When done right (avoid the boxed kits- make your own!), there is huge outreach opportunity here to grow your chorister program. Offer a free “music enrichment” hour before or after with free food. Make connections and follow up with parents telling them about your program. Even if you have 10 kids in the enrichment and 2 join, that’s a win. If you can get your formation person to let you lead the music in the opening and closing assembly, even better. Most of the kits come with karaoke back-up tracks to insipid pop songs. Even if your church is using a kit, go to bat for using live, unaccompanied songs with motions. The ones we all learned in Sunday School and VBS are still winners. A church neglects VBS at its own peril- I firmly believe this. 

Most of this stuff may seem like common sense, but we all sometimes need permission to do the thing we know we ought to do. If your rector and parish are on board (and they must be), you can do this. If the long-term energy and financial support of the parish are not behind  you, then you need to do that work first. As the gospel from a few weeks ago said, “Consider the cost before building a tower.” My hope for all of you is that this will result in a strong tower! 

Michael Smith is the Minister of Music at St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, located outside of Philadelphia, PA. The program includes a semi-professional adult choir and a chorister program. Prior to this appointment, he served as Chair of Performing Arts at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, where he oversaw all aspects of the PreK-12 Music and Theater programs while serving concurrently as Organist/Choirmaster at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont. Michael earned his undergraduate degree in organ performance at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He went on to earn graduate degrees in organ and conducting at Yale University, where he served as graduate assistant conductor of the Glee Club. He has performed recitals and accompanied and conducted choirs internationally.