Recruitment Strategies for Children's Choruses
Growing challenges in recruiting singers has led to creative tactics and new successes
With the economic recession bearing down on nonprofits everywhere, it is more important than ever to have solid strategies in place to ensure that your chorus continues to thrive. Recruitment is a perennial issue that all choral directors and administrators face, but children's choruses, in particular, are up against additional challenges when filling their rosters because of growing demand on students' time, turnover rates due to age restrictions, and even demographic changes within communities. Some children's chorus leaders say it is too soon to tell whether the economy will drive down roster numbers for the 2009-10 season. Others are already seeing it. At a time when everyone is cutting back, unfortunately, extracurricular activities have proved to be some of the first things to go, especially the activities that cost a significant amount of money every month," says Lauren DeWitt, general manager of The Youth Choral Theater of Chicago. Whether or not your chorus is projecting losses in membership for next season, here are four strategies to keep in mind for current and future recruitment efforts.
1. Connections with Schools
Many children's chorus leaders emphasize that connections with schools are the most effective vehicles for reaching out to new singers. The Central Dakota Children's Choir, for example, invites students in area elementary schools to attend a free CDCC concert series during one school day each year, funded in part through corporate sponsors. The concert series is held in the school's auditorium, which CDCC uses free of charge, and classroom teachers sign their students up to attend one of the concerts. "We always have a full house for each of the concerts. We have teachers whose classes attend every year—they feel it's an important part of their spring calendar," says CDCC executive director Karen Traeholt. Auditions for the following season are scheduled soon thereafter while the experience of the concerts is still fresh in the minds of the attending students. "I cannot tell you what a difference the concert series makes," says Traeholt. "It is instant exposure to the children who are the right age to audition." Other directors, like Rudolf Heijdens, founder and director of the Hastings and Prince Edward Children's Chorus, have found success by going into schools and auditioning students on-site. "This year I listened to 1,600 students individually," says Heijdens. From that large pool, Heijdens invited 131 new choristers to his program, 52 of whom signed up. Sylvia Munsen, artistic director of Ames Children's Choirs, says that reaching out to area home-schooled students has steadily produced new members over the years; for the 2008-09 season, over a quarter of ACC singers were home-schooled. These students in particular may be more inclined to join a community children's chorus because they may not have access to regular singing or other musical performance opportunities. What does this strategy require? Above all, making connections with schools requires good relationships with and support from school administrators and teachers. "We are very fortunate to have a school district that values what we do and makes it easy for their students to attend the concerts and for us to use their facilities," Traeholt says.
2. Events and Outreach Programs
Hosting an event, such as a festival or camp, or developing a community or school outreach program may also allow you to find new singers. The Colorado Springs Children's Chorale holds several festivals each year that involve schools. Their district honor choir festival, co-sponsored by the area school district, draws in students from 13 elementary schools, and their Adopt-a-School festival works with eight schools, in low-income neighborhoods specifically, to give support to each school's music program. Berks Classical Children's Chorus has also established a program that engages students in low-income schools. The program, Neighborhood Duets, gives students the opportunity to learn more about vocal production and music theory fundamentals at weekly sessions. Both CSCC executive director Marcia Hendricks and BCCC executive director Dail Richie say that while singer recruitment is not the main purpose of their programs, these programs have helped their choruses to develop a greater presence in their communities and to build partnerships with music educators, which has then served to bring in new choristers. Holding an event during the summer may help you reach children at a time when they are more available than during the school year. Project Opera, a chorus and opera program of The Minnesota Opera, hosts a one-week summer camp every year that often yields new recruits to the school-year part of their program. "We typically have about one-third to one-half of participants stay with us," says community education director Jamie Andrews. What does this strategy require? Staging an event or launching an outreach program requires advanced planning, staff or volunteers to run the program, time and resources to develop program materials, and collaboration with partnering schools or sponsors. When reaching out to children from low-income families in particular, you may also want to ensure that scholarships are available so that these children are not deterred by the cost of joining.
Broadcasting your messages via printed materials like postcards, brochures, posters, flyers, and classified advertising is a tried-and-true technique, but with hit-or-miss results. "We tried one year to advertise our auditions in the papers and through posters, etcetera, but ended up with only 14 students trying out," says Heijdens. While print marketing can be effective in some arenas, electronic publishing and messaging is becoming easier, faster, more cost-effective, and more dynamic when compared with printed alternatives. The advantage of email, in particular, is that it is simple and quick to pass on to others—or even many people at once. So, though you may only have an email list for the members of your chorus or their parents, you can encourage them to forward your messages on to their friends and school mates. What's more, emailer programs like PatronMail and Constant Contact enable users to send email blasts in HTML format, which allows messages to look more aesthetically appealing than plain text emails. Most emailer programs provide users with HTML templates that they can use in case they do not have access to other web production software. Another benefit of emailer programs is that they let senders track messages—senders are able to see how many emails were opened and which links were clicked within the message, thus measuring the effectiveness of different appeals. One avenue in electronic marketing that helped the Bach Children's Chorus to recruit new singers was a commercial presentation that aired on a local cable station for one year. With programs like YouTube and some production software, your chorus can create its own video and link to it in your emails or on your website. Your video could have a clear marketing message, or it could simply present audio or visual clips from your concerts. "Giving someone the opportunity to hear your music is one of the best recruitment tools I know," says Robert Rund, president of the American Boychoir School. Another way to make your marketing messages more salient is to include data from Chorus America's 2009 Chorus Impact Study, released in June. Whether asked about teambuilding or social skills, academics or the more general skills required to excel, teachers were virtually unanimous about the positive impact chorus participation can and does have on children. Parents of children in choirs ascribed virtually every positive quality tested to their children at significantly higher rates than parents of children who have never joined a chorus. Using compelling data such as these may add impact to your marketing messages. To access the complete study, visit www.chorusamerica.org/publications/research-reports/chorus-impact-study. What does this strategy require? Creating electronic marketing messages requires staff time, as well as access to and knowledge of production tools. Distributing your messages may be costly, depending on where and how you do it. Using an emailer program, for example, or placing a display ad in an online newspaper or magazine will generally cost money. However, you may be able to find free online community bulletin boards on which to post your messages, like your local chamber of commerce's website, local school district and arts and culture websites, or Craigslist.
4. Social Networking Websites
Social networking websites allow users to connect with one another and to share information. There are many social networking sites on the web, but some of the most popular are Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube. These sites are attractive because users have the potential to reach large numbers of people. But if you are considering using them as recruitment tools, keep in mind that social networking is largely driven by grassroots activity, as opposed to direct campaigning, so establishing a presence on them may only serve as a supplementary activity to help circulate your program and audition information. "We have just recently established our presence on Facebook and Twitter," says Dan Mattinson, executive director of Coastal Sound Music Academy Society. "Early feedback tells us that we may be on to something in the sense of advancing our organization's profile and presence in the community and beyond." One caveat: Many social networking sites stipulate that users must be at least 13 years-old to hold an account, so developing a presence on social networking websites is not the best recruiting tool if you seek choristers younger than 13. Adults, however, are increasingly creating social networking accounts. You may be able to reach parents who are interested in choral opportunities for their children. What does this strategy require? This is a potentially low-cost strategy because many social networking sites are free to use; however, it does require time to set up an account and maintain a dynamic page. Some sites offer targeted advertising opportunities for those wishing to pay to become more directly visible in the network. Running ads, of course, will cost money. Ideally, you will accumulate "friends" or "followers" quickly and with little effort, but you may want to spend some time cultivating a base of friends in the beginning by inviting current choristers and their parents to your page. An easy way to do this is to provide a link to your social networking page on your chorus's website, in the signature block of your emails, and in other e-communications. The more friends and followers you have, the more likely it is that you will increase your visibility within the social network. Bottom line: "People sign up for things that their friends trust and endorse," says Paul Caldwell, artistic director of The Youth Choral Theater of Chicago. *** There are numerous strategies for capturing the attention of potential singers, and it's likely that you will need to employ several different methods (and be tireless in your efforts!) to recruit new members. What works for one chorus, however, might not work for another. "There's no one silver bullet to success," says Sylvia Munsen of Ames Children's Choirs. But above all, the most effective strategies will present your offerings in ways that are engaging and personal. In order to do this, says Robert Rund of the American Boychoir, you'll first need to "understand who you are and what you do better than anyone else." With that in mind, you'll be better equipped to promote your value to new singers and their parents, and to show them what they will gain by joining your chorus.This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2009.