A little about the process of going from one concert season to another and the logistics involved.
MCKNOTES ON CHRISTMAS IN JULY
I am occasionally asked about the process I go through to put together concerts. Actually, I’m asked about my process for a number of things I do, but I’m going to focus on this aspect for now. The last concert with the Kirksville Community Chorus was May 13. The next one is scheduled for December 9th. I simply can’t wait to put this concert together until department stores prematurely display Christmas items shortly after Halloween. I have to start now, so I have to think of Christmas in July.
Actually, some of the work has already been done. All of the music we used for the concert in May has to be collected and sorted. I had some help with this, and it’s still not completely done, but it will fall into place before the end of the month. For a chorus with 50 to 60 singers, it takes about one thousand pieces of music in to produce an hour and a quarter performance. The music has to be numbered so that we are able to track down the copies that are not turned back in. Each title is separated into a stack and then arranged by number, 1 – 60, or however many copies we have in our rather extensive library. Each title is put into a manila folder with the date of the last time it was performed noted on the folder, and then in a data base that is maintained from one semester to the next. The folders are then filed alphabetically by title. We have about 45 boxes of music in our library.
At the same time, I need to decide what music I will need for the coming concert. Sometimes additional copies need to be obtained. This year we will go through the library files and get rid of some of the music that is no longer usable. That’s because the title is out of print and we haven’t enough copies on hand to use that title again. This is a difficult part of the process because it’s so hard to discard music. For those of you who do a lot of reading, you know that getting rid of a book is something we just don’t like to do. Much like abandoned pets, we try to find a home for books that have outlived their place in our personal libraries or music that we no longer have room to store.
As I said, I aim for a concert that lasts about 75 minutes. Even an hour and a half is acceptable but not much longer than that. I once worked with a colleague who was my superior. Her concerts lasted two and a half hours. Clearly that was in conflict with my personal paradigm for the construction of a program that can hold the attention of an audience and leave them wanting slightly more.
I don’t have a specific number of songs that will meet this standard. Every song has a predictable duration, but over thinking how to put together an entertaining performance can render the whole process a bit too mechanical. I’ve been putting programs together long enough to have a sense of how long they will last, and I always end up within the time frame I like. Another consideration has to do with how much music my chorus can learn. In the fall we have 13 rehearsals. I never call for additional rehearsals and I almost never run overtime. Even if I do run a rehearsal a bit longer than an hour and fifteen minutes, it’s only by minutes. My philosophy is that if the singers will give me their attention, I should be able to do the job in the time I have allotted. In the spring we have more time. This is partly because the months of January through March can force us to cancel some rehearsals, so I build in extra time to allow for snow dates.
All of the new music needs to be numbered and then put into packets. I try to distribute the music in the order in which it will be performed. This helps the singers a bit of confidence regarding their responsibilities from the beginning. I have created a form which serves as a sign up sheet for each semester. It’s always the same, so I only need to print off new copies for each new semester. I need the correct spelling of the names of chorus participants so that I can have them all correctly printed on the program. I need phone numbers, email addresses and mailing addresses so that information can be disseminated to them throughout the semester, when necessary.
I have to line up accompanists. I start each semester from behind the keyboard myself, but some of the pieces need piano players more competent than I. I also like to include additional instrumentation from time to time. Here, in Kirksville, we are exceptionally blessed to have some wonderful musicians from the university. I often invite Jesse and Katherine Krebs. They play clarinet and flute respectively. They are both extremely talented and most gracious. They have always been willing to help out.
Once I have all the decisions made regarding what music I will use for the program, I can start my personal preparation.
We charge $20 per member each semester for participation in the chorus. This is used to purchase new music, pay accompanists a small stipend and meet other expenses that come along from time to time. We have an ad hoc committee that makes the decision regarding whether or not to increase the dues. This will be my tenth year as chorus director, and we have yet to increase the fee for participation. Students are not expected to pay dues. No one has ever been turned away from the chorus for lack of funds. We have a number of choir members who will gladly donate additional money to make sure that anyone who wants to sing can do so. This is done privately so as not to embarrass any individual who finds himself in financial difficulty.
We do have a treasurer, so I don’t have to keep track of the finances. I do keep an eye on our balance so that I don’t buy more new music than we can afford. As I said earlier, I can draw on an excellent library that has accumulated over the past fifteen years.
We get some help from the Arts Association for publicity, programs and some incidental expenses. This all may sound simple, but I can tell you that there are many details that have to be attended to. I’m sure I’ve left out some important steps in this explanation, but I manage to get everything done that’s necessary when I’m really responsible for putting a concert together.
We have wonderful support from the community. Without an audience, we’d feel a bit silly. The people in the chorus really love to sing. I enjoy it and they enjoy it. That’s important to me. I can manage all of the logistics. When I need help with something, members of the chorus always come through. It’s a great group of people. That’s my process. I try to make each concert different, and I also make an effort to get better and better.
One final touch is the announcers for the performances. The announcer gives the singers a few short breaks when they can sit and rest their legs a bit. I write the scripts for the announcers and choose people I think will do a good job. I have always been happy with my choices.
If you have never enjoyed one of the community chorus concerts, you’re missing a really nice experience. The program for December 9th will be fun and really put you in the Christmas spirit. The rest is up to you.