by John Gardner
In a random passing in a hallway just outside a high school backstage area, a parent stopped me and asked,
“You’re the guy who writes the
blog, aren’t you?”
He went on to tell me how similar the workings of show choir are to those that I tend to write about on the instrumental side of music. He was spot on. So…
As a two-time show choir ‘dad’ and former volunteer director of a backup ensemble, I’m going to re-tool some articles with a vocal focus, like this one, based on a highly read band-focused post called, “14+ Ways to Volunteer for a Marching Band to Appreciate and Applaud what is Good about Teenage America“. Please read, comment and share.
Nearly all choirs have a Choir Parent Organization, but in some cities, or with smaller choirs, finding enough help is a challenge. Most of the adults volunteering with a show choir have children in the group, but very few organizations would limit help to ONLY parents. Jump in. You’ll be accepted, appreciated, respected and even loved.
“The payback from watching the result of the commitment and search for excellence demonstrated by some of the best representatives of what is good about teenage America – is, as they say – PRICELESS!”
Some schools have multiple show choirs, usually a girl’s group and a mixed group. Double your contribution — and your reward.
COSTUME DESIGN. Many competitive show choirs have 2-3 separate costumes for BOTH boys and girls. Long skirts, short, ballroom style, rock style, bright colors, layers that come off. Costume changes happen back stage at a furiously fast tempo and the design must account for that. Velcro vs buttons or zippers at times, for example.
If you are a creative type, get with the director, show designer/choreographer and match the imagination to the show theme.
ALTERATIONS / SEWING. Even when students are individually measured for custom outfits, they never EVER come in fitting everyone “off the hanger”. Groups order early Fall for delivery late Fall. Students have gained and lost weight, freshmen have grown an inch, there were errors in the original measurements — or in production. Then there are rips, tears and other damage that happen during the course of the season.
Are you good at fixing, repairing, sewing? Show choirs need you.
CONSTRUCTION / PROPS. You’ve seen the stages for musicals. Show choirs can also use props. When I was a show choir parent a little over a decade ago, we were using specialty stages that had trap doors, pull apart sections and 6 levels. Each year the stage was different. And it took about 15-20 men to help get the pieces to the edge of the stage where the student performers had stopwatch time to put the pieces together and take them apart pre/post show. More recent trends are to use the host school’s risers, but then add a back wall, doorways (stage exits/entrances for costume changes), special lighting and more. If you are creative, work with the director or choreographer to put together what they want — or be one of those who construct per instruction. Days before the season opener performance, it is not unusual to see parents wearing construction belts full of a variety of tools.
The pay is lousy but the reward terrific.
ELECTRONICS / SOUND / TECHNICAL. Once they go to competition, there are people at the host schools taking care of electronics. But for rehearsals, or for when the show choir is hosting a competition, there are microphones, monitors, stage and performance lighting. And if you are more of an electrician than a carpenter, there are often lighting effects as part of the show stage prop setup to design, install, maintain and operate. The group’s stage crew will run things during most rehearsals and all performances, but they need training and some supervision.
Teaching teens who want to learn is amazing.
BACK STAGE / STAGE CREW HELP. The official group’s stage crew are students and they are the only ones permitted on or around the stage during competition performances. But especially early on, they could use some help maneuvering and manipulating equipment and props….SAFELY.
If your specialty is grunt work, this could be for you.
INSTRUMENTALIST: PERFORMER / DIRECTOR. One of the awards at competitions is for “Best Band”. Only student ensembles , with the exception of the pianist (typically), can win that award. They need a director, however, and that is difficult (and inefficient) for the vocal director who is more effective watching and listening to the bigger picture (band, choir, crew). If you have band or church choir experience, have worked in musicals and with ensembles, volunteer to rehearse, mentor or direct the show choir backup ensemble.
When my son was a senior singer/dancer in his high school show choir, I was the parent volunteer who directed the backup band. As it turned out, I was the ‘transition’ between the choir director as instrumental director (up to that year) and a paid staff director (ever since).
Increasingly, groups are using paid instrumentalists (college students, professionals) for their ensembles. Reasons vary:
- Not enough student instrumentalists available. In a small school the crossover between instrumental/vocal groups is significant, and it could be that there are too many of the better instrumentalists who are also performing or participating in the choir. It could be a lack of interest. Marching band students who sacrifice so much of their time in the summers and fall may not be willing to continue that schedule another three months.
- Not enough GOOD instrumentalists. A weak instrumental ensemble can negatively impact the choir.
- Lack of cooperation between instrumental and vocal departments. This shouldn’t happen, but unfortunately too often it is the case.
- Paid performers can add extra punch to a performance and many choir directors are willing to sacrifice the opportunity to go for a “best band” award (professional groups are usually excluded from consideration for that award) to get the extra musical support from (usually) higher level playing.
If you are willing to be a volunteer instrumental performer in the backup group, you will save the program hundreds of dollars they would have had to pay a ‘professional’.
FOOD. Like to cook/fix foods for big events? Like to see smiles on teen faces? Want to serve?
Show Choir Competitions are all-day events, including a solo contest, multiple ensembles (all girls, mixed, concert choir), requiring most groups to arrive early and stay the day. THEN… after the announcement of the top six groups, there is a championship round in the evening. Since all activities are inside the school (vs out in the parking lot with trailers and semis for food prep at marching band competitions), groups get through the day on snacks and concessions. But there is still a food component.
When the choreographer is in, the group may rehearse from after school until 9pm, or all day on a Saturday.
C’mon, you’ve always wanted to cook for 70, right? But hey, all those smiling, appreciative faces will make YOU smile too.
CHAPERONES. Unlike the general population of the school, music students understand the behavior expectations and how they are held to a higher standard. They understand that travel is a privilege that can be lost. Music students are the cream of the crop, the best of the best, and riding the bus with them, helping them in rehearsals and as they travel…. is really a fun job. Many chaperons are “Mama [insert name]” to the students. They understand chaperons are a reality and they do not make it a hard job.
Chaperones get in free to competitions.
DRIVERS.The bus drivers are school corporation employees, but most show choirs have a truck or trailer to carry outfits, props, instruments, etc. Do you have a trailer they can use? If it has your logo on it – consider all that free advertisement. If the group already has a trailer, can you use your truck to pull it — or volunteer to drive whatever vehicle is available for that?
Drivers get in free too!
FUNDRAISING. In most high school music programs, both instrumental and vocal, the financial requirements involved in funding a competitive ensemble (show choir / marching band) are staggering. The girls’ three specialized, razzle-dazzle outfits for the show can easily top $800 — and they change every year. The guys in the choir won’t spend that much, but half that is reality. The backup musicians are often in tuxes and formal dresses. Students are expected to raise or pay that every year, a cost prohibitive obstacle for many.
The choreographer costs a couple thousand and the music composer/arranger another grand. Add another couple thousand for paid musicians in the backup band.
Are you good at organizing events, making calls, creating publicity, motivating people? Your skills would be invaluable.
CONTEST/EVENT ORGANIZER. A show choir competition can involve two dozen ensembles from groups travelling hundreds of miles. The host group is flying in judges from all over the country, housing and feeding them — as well as providing hospitality for directors and drivers, concessions, advertising, announcing, timers, people to help each group through their event schedule, score tabulators and so much more. Competitions are large fundraisers, but also massive undertakings. Can you help with parking, crowd control, first aid — or as a runner to take care of all the highly stressed and sometimes demanding directors?
Whatever you like to do, there is probably a job for you at a show choir, marching band, winter guard or indoor percussion competition.
GRANT WRITING. There is money out there, but the competition for it is great. Are you an experienced grant writer? They could certainly use your help.
BUSINESS MENTORING. Do you run a small business? Have a business degree? Music Directors are trained educators, not necessarily heavily trained in the business skills involved in running the “business” of a travelling competitive program. And the band parent volunteers are always well-meaning parents who want to help, but don’t always have the organizational or motivational skills that could make them more effective and successful contributors to the program.
Especially in programs organizing “competitions” as fundraisers….the organization requirements are huge — and most would accept constructive help from a local business professional.
MEDICAL. Students with asthma have prescription inhalers. There are those on behavioral modification medicines (including narcotics) or with medically prescribed ankle or knee braces. An intensive performance in costume with the added stress of competition, some students need real help when they come off the stage. It is not unusual for students to get a variety of injuries (twisted ankles), wrenched backs (from picking up the girl — or from landing the wrong way after a dance move. The local show choir was fortunate for a several years when a chiropractor parent would travel with a portable examination table to competitions to work on injured dancers.
If you are a medical professional, your advice and services could be put to good use.
LEGAL. Increasingly, band and choir parent organizations are incorporating — and part of that process involves legal services. Can you help? Music groups and directors make contractual commitments to designers, instructional and expert staff, choreographers, and more. Perhaps they are building sponsorship relationships with local business.
Help them use the right words.
FINANCIAL. Choirs often have an individual participant financial requirement (in addition to outfit cost). In addition to the general fund expenses, there are individual student accounts. On a major trip year, responsibilities are magnified as families make scheduled payments into an account, or where the band treasurer must coordinate with the travel company on all those individual accounts. If you can’t be the day-to-day person, perhaps you could help set up the spreadsheet or recommend the program to use — and offer financial or bookkeeping advice.
A competitive music ensemble should be run like a business, but that is hard to do when most of those in the operation are untrained and unpaid. If you can help, please do.
ALUMS can volunteer.
BACKGROUND CHECKS. Anyone working with students must get a background check. Locally they are free and non-intrusive. If you’re building props, you may not need one. But if you are teaching students to build them, you would. If you are sewing you might not — but if you are measuring or helping students try on outfits – you do.