SWOT Analysis of Choral Music

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Introduction

The Australian National Choral Association (ANCA) is a national organisation with branches in all states. It has approximately 1,000 members, of which five-eighths are choirs, the other members being choral conductors and a small number of choristers. The main object of the Association is to stimulate interest and participation in choral and vocal music in Australia. The main activities of the organisation are the provision of:

  1. Workshops providing professional development for teachers, choir trainers/conductors, accompanists, composers and choristers who wish to extend their expertise in the choral art form.
  2. Networking opportunities for choir conductors and choristers through meetings, festivals, concerts, training sessions and print media, both at a state, national and international level.
  3. Information about choral and vocal activities and on specific concerns of choirs such as insurance, copyright, performance venues, repertoire and other practicalities, through regular state publications, national bulletins and national magazine and through a website and a central national administration phone and contact service.
  4. Organise festivals, concerts and other vocal activities to encourage the growth of choral programs in schools, churches and the community at large.
  5. Regular communication and the development of positive relations with choral, vocal and other associations in Australia and overseas.
  6. Advocacy - to represent the interests of choirs, conductors, accompanists, composers and choristers.

Strengths

  • Growth area of the Arts: The growth in the community choir movement has been a significant feature affecting the sector. The numbers of people involved in choirs throughout Australia has increased dramatically over the past decade and is possibly the fastest growing and largest sector (involving the highest number of active participants) within the music community. It would be interesting statistically to ascertain the numbers of people currently involved in choirs.
  • Choir participation as a social benefit: The Choir of Hard Knocks, recently a celebrated television series of the ABC, epitomises the value of choir singing for the individuals involved. The Choir illustrates how the collaborative nature of singing together is not only a bonding and community-making experience, but offers numerous personal benefits, such as increasing self-confidence, self-esteem and the ability to work in a group or as part of a team. The value of the choral experience of The Choir of Hard Knocks is duplicated weekly in the many school, community and church choirs throughout Australia.
  • Singing skill is taught and the skill increases with effective teaching: Most people can be taught to sing. Participants do not have to be gifted in co-ordination or sporting prowess, academically-oriented or socially-skilled or popular to experience success or a sense of achievement in choir participation. The activity is inclusive rather than exclusionary. It is eminently healthy when taught effectively. Choral music has the capacity to dramatically change the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Australians (Morton 2004 - see references following article).
  • The social benefit of choral singing: in which virtually anyone can aspire to be involved in, is a healthy activity for anyone of any age. At a time when increasing leisure time is available and years of retirement await, the growth in choirs promises to continue. Choirs play a large part in strengthening a sense of community and enhancing the quality of life. This has been illustrated in the huge success of the initial 'Seniors Choral Festival' held in Armidale in 2006, and again this year in Sydney (curated by the Universities of New England and Newcastle), which consisted of a one-week camp and gave a sense of inclusion and achievement to all who participated.[1]
  • Choirs are highly valued in many school communities throughout Australia: They can instil school pride and bring kudos to the school. Choirs of young children bring much joy to their parents, grandparents and relatives. Choirs make communities of schools and help students achieve a sense of belonging in a way few other sectors can.
  • Choirs as promoters of cross-cultural understanding: Easily portable across countries, choirs can promote cross-cultural understanding. There are numerous exchanges taking place across Australia where schools with choirs exchange with similarly-aged students overseas, putting on musical programmes for audiences and combining choral forces for some items and singing songs from their own tradition and in their own language for others.
  • Choirs can take on advocacy roles: there are several recent examples in Australia of choirs from minority cultural groups producing CDs that tell of their plight and draw attention to their cause and, in some cases, the persecution experienced by members. Most ethnic / cultural groups have a choral ensemble attached to them, which further adds recognition of Australia's diversity. While there are some instrumental groups that draw attention to their cultural uniqueness, choirs have an important role in that they also include linguistic and literary-based aspects to the performance through the use of text.
  • Advocate of Australian artistry: An increasing number of Australian choirs are now travelling regularly overseas and gaining international recognition for their artistry. They act as international advocates. For example, the Adelaide Chambers Singers won the adult mixed choir section and the overall prize in the International Kathaumixw Choral Competition in Canada in 2007, a competition comprising choirs from all over the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Its guest appearances include the Tokyo Festival, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, the National Convention of the Association of British Choral Directors, the Asia South Pacific Symposium on Choral Music in Singapore and the 6th World Symposium on Choral Music in the USA. Similarly, the Young Adelaide Voices (formerly Adelaide Girls Choir) achieved first prize summa cum laude at the 1996 European Youth Choral Festival. Both choirs tour regularly, bringing Australian music and a high quality standard overseas. The choirs have also produced a considerable number of CDs. Australian Voices is an internationally recognised choir dedicated specifically to Australian repertoire. It has brought Australian music to countries throughout Europe, Great Britain, Asia, North and South America. There are many other Australian choirs that tour and produce quality CDs, bringing Australian music to an increasingly wider audience.
  • Encourages Australian composers and stimulates creative output in the community: The increasing number of choirs that tour internationally bringing Australian repertoire overseas has stimulated creative activity. Australian composers now enjoy a considerably better market than at any other time in Australia's history as illustrated in the quantity of choral music found in the Australian Music Centre. This has resulted in less of a cultural cringe about anything Australian in terms of choral music. The South Australian Public Primary Schools Festival of Music has, for example, commissioned Australian composers and arrangers each year since the early 1980s to write choral music, which is then rehearsed and performed by thousands of primary school students throughout the state. Many choral Eisteddfodau[2] throughout Australia now insist on the performance of Australian repertoire in their competitions.
  • Choirs as an economic force: Choirs as such are becoming an economic force in, for example, their purchasing power (scores, equipment, venue hire, instrument and uniform purchase etc.) and offer employment possibilities to conductors, accompanists, instrumentalists, orchestral forces and support staff. This area is an untapped and unstudied element of choral activity that requires further work.
  • Accessibility of choral music is increasing: The high interest (and large concert attendance) in, for example, the ABC Classic FM Choir of the Year program, demonstrated to anyone choosing to turn on their radio or computer that a range of excellent, high quality work is being undertaken in all parts of the country. The profile of choral music, through the ABC FM competition and the Choir of Hard Knocks for example, continues to rise in Australia. Granada Productions, for example, recently invited ANCA to assist them in contacting choirs, again with the end result of profiling choirs.
  • Some growth in the area of employment: With the growth in the number of community choirs, there is an increasing demand for conductors and choir trainers and skilled accompanists. Correspondingly, with the growth of interest in Australian choral music, there are more opportunities being created for composers to work in the area.

Weaknesses

  • Inadequacy of Training for Conductors/Choir Trainers/teachers: The majority of those who are currently conducting school, church and community choirs in Australia have received very little training, specifically in:
    • rehearsal technique and teaching technique of training a choir
    • conducting technique
    • voice training
    • vocal health

These four areas are essential areas to training a choir.

Most choral conductors/choir trainers catering for community and church choirs have learned from watching others and from being in a choir themselves rather than specific training in the area. While there is value in this experience, there is greater value in being able to access a broad range of teaching expertise and having critical feedback other than learning by trial and error. Without critical feedback and understanding the nature of the human voice and vocal health, choristers become ‘guinea pigs' with sometime [missing words???]

  • Lack of Availability of Tertiary Training in Choral Conducting and Choral Singing: There are very few universities and tertiary training institutions in Australia that offer students a course in ANY of the areas needed to be covered for adequate training of a choral conductor/choir trainer. Furthermore, few universities have choirs where students can sing at a high performance standard[3] and learn the heights of excellence that can be achieved through training in this area. Considering that most music teachers sometime in their teaching career are asked to take a choir, this lack of training at tertiary level is in urgent need of addressing. Teachers/conductors who encourage singing or take choirs can have a great deal of influence on vocal development. Not understanding the development and care of the human voice by trainers can have significant ramifications.

    For example, several speech pathologists in Adelaide have reported a rise, to this researcher, in the number of primary school students presenting to them with vocal health issues (eg. nodules on the vocal folds) often around the time of the public primary school music festivals that run choral programs for three terms of the school year in that state. The speech pathologists attribute this to teachers who have instructed children to sing loudly or have not understand the need for some ‘warming up' period and training in singing in the lower or upper ranges of the voice, occasioning students to ‘force' the voice beyond its capabilities.

  • Inadequately skilled trainers have the ability to detract future singers: by telling them at a young age not to participate in a choir or excluding them, without understanding that singing 'in tune' is a learnt skill that can be enhanced by training and it is NOT an attribute towards which one is genetically endowed.
  • This need for more education at tertiary level in the area of music instruction: which pertains even more so to choral training, has been raised in numerous Commonwealth reports and studies, most recently in the NRSME (National Review of School Music Education). There have been no changes in funding (except to decrease it) to remedy the situation during the two decades of reports and the situation has deteriorated rather than improved.
  • Lack of encouragement for teachers to seek professional development in choral training: ANCA, the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME) and the Kodaly Institute run some professional development workshops and occasionally some short courses for teachers/conductors in the area of choral training. ANATS (Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing) also runs workshops addressing vocal technique and vocal health. This provision of training helps address some of the inadequacies of programs offered at tertiary level, but the number of teachers involved in taking choirs and who access these programs is limited.
  • There are disincentives for teachers accessing professional development in some states: Courses cost money, and some schools do not support their teachers financially in areas they undervalue, such as music. Since most courses or workshops need to be run at weekends or out of school time in some states, teachers find their energy levels to attend another weekend on work-related activities is more than they are able to cope with to balance their family and personal needs.
  • The Federal Government and many state governments have left professional development in the music area to not-for-profit organisations: (usually run by volunteers), without offering funding or providing incentives for teachers to attend these.
  • Lack of trained and skilled conductors to lead choirs: In the last few years, State Presidents of the Australian National Choral Association and the National Administrator are regularly contacted with requests from choirs for conductors. Currently in South Australia for example, there are four large choirs offering remuneration for their choral conductors, but have had no applicants to take the positions. While the number of choirs has expanded, it has become increasingly difficult to find adequately trained and skilled conductors to lead choirs. Choirs report the difficulties they have in finding any willing person to even consider taking on the responsibility of the choir and bemoan the fact that there are so few who have any knowledge of leading a choir or training a voice from within their own ranks.
  • Lack of understanding of the skills required to train choirs: Unfortunately, sometimes when willing people step forward and offer their services to train choirs, they lack an understanding of the skills required to train a choir well. Furthermore, those who have been training choirs for a long time are often too confident in their abilities to conduct and do not seek professional development or any further learning to address their lack of skills. While they attract loyalty from their choristers after many years of working together, they do their choirs a disservice by their overconfidence and lack of willingness to extend their skills. The quality of their choral product deteriorates and the concert-going public cease to support the local choral scene.
  • Lack of employment pathways, lack of career structure, lack of co-ordinated pay and work conditions:
    • Employment for Choristers: The Australian Opera Chorus is the only full-time choir that ANCA is aware of where singers are able to gain full-time employment. Contract work is available for singers in the various state opera companies around Australia. Singers in the smaller ensembles such as Idea of North (quartet) and The Song Company (sextet) are almost in a position to live from their earnings. In the past, various ABC-attached choirs located in most states were able to obtain a living from singing in those choirs.
      There are various quality chamber choirs that may on occasion be able to offer choristers some remuneration for participation in concerts or larger events. Church choirs (restricted to the capital cities) may offer a limited ‘scholarship' or some small payment to choristers for regular singing at the weekly church services, but these are the exception rather than the rule and the remuneration is low.

      In general, however, if choirs as a group are paid for their services, it is rare for choristers to receive any payment, since the money is usually placed into general choir revenue, which helps pay for the conductor and the accompanist and perhaps the purchase of new music or other projects necessary for choir maintenance.

      In general there are few possibilities for choristers to be remunerated for participating in a choir. Singing in a community or church choir is regarded as a leisure activity and most frequently choristers involved in community choirs pay for the ‘privilege' of singing in a choir rather than being paid for their performances.

      Further inhibiting a change to the remuneration of choristers is the general attitude within the Australian community that instrumentalists deserve to be paid for concerts and choristers do not. General community education that singing is a skill and education countering the notion that choristers are lesser musicians is necessary.

    • Employment for Choral Conductors: Research is currently underway as to the extent to which choral conductors can make an income from conducting a choir in Australia. It appears that the situation for choral conductors has improved since the last time research was conducted by ANCA a decade ago. The number of choirs in Australia has increased, particularly in the community sector.

      There are few opportunities for full-time employment in the area, but this is changing as the growth in popularity of community youth choirs increases. There are a number of community youth choirs and programs in each state of Australia where a person has been employed full-time to manage the affairs of the organisation; this person may also help in conducting a number of choirs attached to the program the organisation offers. In some of these organisations, non-conductors have assumed responsibilities for management and organisational issues, which has enabled the artistic director to spend more time on conducting and searching for repertoire to the extent that they can earn enough to live on for a year. Parents have willingly paid fees to these organisations for their children to participate in what is perceived as a ‘quality music program.'[4]

      The organisations usually employ, part-time, a number of conductors and accompanists to train the choirs under the organisation's umbrella. These organisations vary in their reimbursement policies to their part-time conductors. Most conductors of these fee-paying youth community choirs are paid at an hourly rate (between $40 to $60 an hour) and may or may not be paid for time they give at choral camps and for performances. Rehearsals are in the vicinity of two (sometimes 2½) hours a night after school, which means that income is unlikely to be sufficient to live on. Rehearsals do not usually take place over school holidays, resulting in employment payments that rarely extend beyond 40 weeks in a year.

      In the not too distant past, the conductor of a community adult choir was expected to provide his/her services voluntarily. There appears to be some shift in attitude in this regard comparative to data a decade ago, in that the majority of conductors currently would not be expected to provide their services for nothing. Payment may take the form of an hourly-paid rate or an honorarium, but the rates are often lower than those paid to conductors of youth choirs, where income from parents is usually well in excess of payments extracted from adult choristers who attend choir for leisure rather than an ‘education' as associated with youth choirs. Again, the policy of payment for adult community choir conductors varies with the choir and there is no standard practice, with amounts varying depending on the generosity of the community choir.

      Income from a community adult choir would rarely be sufficient to enable a conductor to be self-supporting, unless the organisation comprised more than one choir and concerts were regular and well attended.

      Within the church sector, there remains an assumption that conductors (and organists/musicians) will give their services for nothing in service to the church.

      Primary and secondary school teachers comprise the largest sector of employed choral conductors. Schools throughout Australia vary considerably in their support of choral music. In general, it is still the norm for most private and most public and primary secondary schools to timetable choir rehearsals in lunchtimes or out-of-school times and for performances and concerts to take place out of school hours.

      • The South Australian Public Primary Schools Music Festival choral program is an exception, in that the majority of choir rehearsals for this program (which encompasses up to 80% of the state schools in the state) are conducted during school hours and timetabled.
        • While the majority of choir trainers involved in the program are drawn from music teachers or generalist primary school staff, 12% of choir trainers (in the year 2000) were hourly-paid instructors employed by the school for the purpose of running the choral program (Pietsch 2002). A further 60 accompanists were employed in schools affiliated with the program. The number of hourly paid instructors for the choral program has increased as the program has expanded and as the availability of trained and/or willing staff members has decreased. The program offers up to 20 hours of employment to choir trainers in a year so can hardly be considered a secure financial proposition. Furthermore, the stretching of the Festival's resources to incorporate more schools without any increase in funding has had a negative impact on the quality and effectiveness of the program itself.
      • The NSW branch of the Australian National Choral Association noted the following in their assessment of the condition in schools now of the status of choir trainers or teachers in schools taking choirs:
        • Most choir rehearsals, especially in high schools, are held outside of class hours. Students receive no academic credit for their participation. The hours spent by teachers preparing for and conducting rehearsals and performances are not taken into consideration when determining teaching loads and salaries.
        • Prohibitive timetabling and school organisation, as well as a lack of understanding about the benefits of choral singing, contribute to the low status of choral singing in schools.
        • Ensemble activities such as choirs lack recognition when assessing and reporting on individual student achievement.
        • There are vast inconsistencies across schools as the success of a choral program is mostly linked to the individual teachers involved, rather than an effort by schools to support choral singing.
  • It is clear that working conditions, pay structure, recognition of amount of work involved and lack of agreement across the sector as to fair remuneration and fair working conditions hampers the treatment of choirs trainers and conductors in schools, churches and in the community.

Opportunities

  • Expansion: The expansion of the sector is very possible - the lack of trained personnel being the main difficulty. There is a ready opportunity for employment, for greater involvement of choristers and for greater social benefits for all those involved. The opportunity to involve older members of our society in choirs giving them meaningful and worthwhile activities is a growth area waiting to be tapped.
  • Spread of music education: Singing is the cheapest instrument of all. It does not require a massive injection of cash to train singers comparative to say an instrumental programme. Singing in a choir is a possibility for any student whether they live in the country or the city. It just takes trained personnel. Parents and family members are always a ready audience - and the sense of achievement that follows from a performance well-done is unrivalled. Many of Reimer's key tenets of achieving a satisfactory music education can be tackled through a well-constructed choral programme with adequately trained staff (see bibliography below). Music education is available to so few but it could be made available to so many with a little insight.
  • Economic force: Choirs as such are becoming an economic force in, for example, their purchasing power (scores, equipment, venue hire, instrument and uniform purchase etc.) and offer employment possibilities to conductors, accompanists, instrumentalists, orchestral forces and support staff. This area is an untapped and unstudied element of choral activity that requires further work.
  • Creative force: Australia has an abundance of creative talent waiting to be tapped. A further growth in choirs and the continued tradition of overseas travelling choirs offers numerous opportunities for Australia to benefit. The growth of a marketable music publishing industry, giving opportunities for local composers to compete in an American- dominated market, is both an opportunity and a challenge.

Threats

  • Lack of trained personnel: The growth of the sector and quality of the choral product in this country has been limited by a lack of adequately trained and skilled conductors/choir trainers. The number of choirs has expanded, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for choirs to find adequately trained and skilled conductors to lead the choirs. The lack of conductors is due in no small part to lack of tertiary training and teaching preparation in the art of choral conducting.
  • Inaction by state and federal governments to tackle music education: The inadequacies of music training and education have been documented regularly by the federal government over the past twenty years. While there has been recognition of the inadequacies in musically-skilled teachers by state and federal governments, little has been done to address the issues involved and assist with adequate funding to alleviate the problem.
  • Lack of regular employment opportunities and good work conditions: The lack of regular employment opportunities and inconsistent working conditions in the sector also militates against a growth in the numbers seeking conducting as a profession. Without conductors, there would be fewer choirs and the sector could die.
  • Public liability insurance: The need and cost of public liability insurance is a major concern for most choirs attached to the Australian National Choral Association.
  • Dangers of an amateur profession: Because choral music in Australia is still predominately amateur, it lacks the organisational structure and advocacy support that is attached to instrumental and orchestral music in the country (Morton 2004). Choral music needs assistance structurally and organisationally in Australia. Choral conductors are too busy trying to eke out an existence from conducting and/or teaching and have neither the time nor skills to become the lobbyists and protagonists necessary for choral music to be lifted in status.

Bibliography

  1. Morton, Graeme. 2004. Churchill Fellowship Report.
  2. Reimer, Bennett. 1989. A Philosophy of Music Education. [1970]. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  3. Reimer, Bennett. 1996. "David Elliott's "New" Philosophy of Music Education: Music for Performers Only." Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. 128: 59-89.
  4. Reimer, Bennett, 1997. "Should there be a Universal Philosophy of Music Education." International Journal of Music Education. 29: 4 - 21.
  5. Pietsch, Helen. 2002. "Is the choral program of the South Australian Public Primary Schools Music Festival effective?" J. Rosevear & J. Callaghan (eds) Research Matters: Linking Outcomes with Practice. Proceedings of the 24th Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Music Education. Melbourne: AARME: 138 - 147.
  6. Pietsch, Helen and Suzanne Rogers. 2002. "South Australian Report: Trends in School Music Education Provision in South Australia". Unpublished report findings included in Robin Stevens . 2003 Final Report on Trends in Music Education Provision in Australia. A research project of the Music Council of Australia in collaboration with The Australian Society for Music Education.
  7. Smith, Rosalynd. 1997a "The Children's Choir: A Research Project." Kodaly Institute of Australia Bulletin: 17-22.
  8. Smith, Rosalynd. 1997b "The Effectiveness of Children's Choirs in Music Education." E. Gifford, A. Brown & A. Thomas (Eds.) New Sounds for a New Century. ASME XI National Conference Proceedings. Brisbane: Australian Society for Music Education. (Qld. Chapter Inc.) 285- 290.
  9. Smith, Rosalynd. 1998. "Changing Voices: Recruitment in Victorian Children's Choirs." Sam Leong (ed.) Music Education Research and Development for a New Millenium. Australian Association of Research in Music Education XX Conference Proceedings. Sydney: AARME : 82 -86.
  10. Smith, Rosalynd. 1999. "Parent Involvement in Children's Choirs in Victoria." Margaret S. Barrett, Gary E. McPherson, Rosalynd Smith (ed.) Children and Music: Developmental Perspectives. Proceedings of the 2nd Asia-Pacific Symposium on Music Education Research and the XXI annual conference of the Australian Association for Research in Music Education held in Launceston, Feb. 4-7, 1999. University of Tasmania, Launceston: Uniprint. 288-293.
  11. Smith, Rosalynd. 2000. "Inaudible Dischords: Ordinary Children and Choral Singing." Marlene Taylor & Barbara Gregory (eds.) Music of the Spheres. Conference Proceedings of the International Society for Music Education 2000. Canada: ISME. 338-349.


References

  1. Sing Out (Autumn 2007 edition of the bulletin for the Australian National Choral Association) carried reports of the sense of achievement and personal satisfaction gained from participants involved in the ABC FM Choir of the Year Competition.
  2. Rose Park Primary School is located in Adelaide's inner suburbs and caters mainly for a parent community of a large business/professional background. As a paid instructor at the school, Helen Pietsch conducts its senior choir. In June 2008, it won the Adelaide Choral Eisteddfod under her baton! (ED)
  3. The only courses of which this researcher is aware that offer a semblance of choral training are: Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide; Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University; University of Newcastle; University of Western Australia.
  4. The area of children's community choirs has been researched by Rosalynd Smith. See the bibliography for details.

Author

Helen Pietsch on behalf of the Australian National Choral Association (ANCA).Submitted 29 February, 2008.

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