“Hearing three-part harmony sung acapella is magical” says Annemarie Sharry. “Teaching singing one on one just isn’t my bag. I come into my choirs, we do a quick little warm up and then I get them to sing in triads and I get tingles and I say, ‘hear that? This is why we do what we do and it’s pure energy!’ What a gift to be able to teach this and then get it come right back at you.”
For the past sixteen years and counting, Annemarie has run ‘South of the River’ a community gospel choir of around 40 voices, together with a number of workplace choirs around Melbourne, including at World Vision, Department of Human Services, Allen and Unwin, and the Victorian Bar.
“Sue Johnson asked me to fill in for her at the Allen and Unwin Choir, and my first thought was ‘good grief I can’t do that’, but of course I made myself do it and had a great time. At the end of that session, children’s author Elizabeth Honey came running out as I was leaving and asked if I’d lead a choir at her house. I said, “ooh no, I couldn’t possibly do that…!” The rest is history.
The beauty of running a workplace choir as a self-employed singer or musician is they are generally held mid-week and during the day. The challenge of running a workplace choir is having to be malleable in finding repertoire that can fit with all different ability levels and levels of attendance.
“Workplace choirs tend to be small and you’ll get intermittent attendance for all sorts of reasons. With an established choir you get more of a sense of ownership, it’s in the evening and it’s a different kind of commitment.”
There are obvious time constraints when you’re working with people on their lunch break, and the contact time spent with a workplace choir is often actually quite short. “It’s a bit of a hit and run” laughs Annemarie. Obviously you’ve got to travel there, let yourself in (which often involves waiting for security), pull out a keyboard, and then at the other end of that hour people are chatting, so while you might picture an hour’s work you have to include getting there and back, and then of course there’s the preparation.”
A tip from Annemarie for anyone thinking of starting a workplace choir is to find a business that has a lot of employees which gives you a huge pool of potential singers to work with. “You might get an excited ‘yes great let’s do this’ type of initial response but the reality is attracting enough numbers to sustain things financially and to keep a good sound happening! It’s also really important to find a champion for the choir who works in the place, to liaise with you. “
Getting a workplace choir up off the blocks can be a slow burn. “The choir at the DHS developed through a contact with my mum’s friend who was connected with the DHS social club . From the moment I made contact to the point we had a choir up and running took a full year. HR is usually the first port of call, however at the end of the day, it’s who you know. Talk to your friends, ask if they’re keen and then offer your services.”
In her experience of running workplace choirs, Annemarie has been struck by the high number of male singers who turn up to sing each week. “This means I usually keep it to 3-part harmony rather than SATB so I can get most of the blokes on the melody, then have low women behind them and high women above them.”
Quick and easy cookin’ gospel mixed with African tunes, some familiar Beatles and classical rounds always go down well. Annemarie has collected and fine-tuned a selection of songs over many years spent gathering repertoire, which she cross pollinates along the way by sharing sessions with other choirs, and song swaps. At the end of this term, South of the River will be hosting Flip Case’s ‘Flip the Table’ choir and Richard Lawton’s ‘Soulsong’ choir. Annemarie finds this type of collaboration works really well for everyone, leaders and singers alike.
TIPS for SELF-PRESERVATION and SUSTAINABILITY
Running 3-4 choirs a week, self-care is important. To assist herself with this, Annemarie doubles up on repertoire across some of her choirs and plays an instrument during sessions, for example a ukulele to keep time and pitch, which she finds a useful way to open up the repertoire.
Other pieces of advice include having breaks between the choirs, and identifying somebody passionate in place in each workplace choir who is willing to take on the administration. This prevents emails coming directly to your inbox from the singers, otherwise you’re just opened up to so much correspondence and, while this might sound easier said than done, Annemarie recommends anyone starting a workplace choir to stipulate it at the start. “Don’t give out your email or phone number, even though when you’re all keen and excited, it’s a very easy thing to do.”
Another simple thing it took Annmarie a long time to realise was not to sing with everyone, every time. Teach the part, then protect your voice. Also, be in touch and/or meet up with other choir leaders, as often as you can. Even if there’s just one or two of you, rather than a whole gang, you’ll get insights into things with a friend or colleague who’s doing similar stuff to you.
For the past eleven years or so, Annemarie has met regularly with Sue Johnson and Lisa Schwabe for peer support. “We get to workshop ideas and just talk about things because it can be hard to compare what you do and as a result to determine your market value as well. When I started South of the River, I was getting $30 a week to run that. Then I had to be proactive and say, ‘this is the deal’…” This isn’t an easy conversation to have, but getting thick skinned and being clear about what you want to do with your choir is something Annemarie recommends.
“You’re always going to have a mixed bag of people, some who want to perform, some who don’t, some who don’t like singing ‘that’, some who do, so you need to get a little bit thick skinned and stay true to what you want to do, because there are plenty of other choirs out there if it doesn’t seem like a good fit for somebody in particular.”
Lastly, don’t take too many things to heart; do be spontaneous! With a choir you’re a part of that group, you’re reaping the benefits straight off, and you’re in it together.
Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, with huge thanks to Annemarie Sharry for sharing her experience!
Annemarie Sharry is a Melbourne-based musical conductor of workplace and community choirs and a former board member of Community Music Victoria. For further info about South of the River Community Choir, email firstname.lastname@example.org