Starting a Choir

Thinking of starting your own singing group? Group singing can provide a safe, supportive space for people living with chronic illness or suffering from feelings of social isolation.

There are many different ways of setting up and running a singing group. It’s important to first consider the goals or objectives you’re trying to achieve. These goals can be musically oriented (e.g. performance), non-musically oriented (e.g. health or community), or both. To help practitioners interested in starting a choir or group singing program, we asked the choir directors in the SingWell network for advice on setting up a choir. On this page, is a summary of the information they provided, including important things to consider during the planning process.


Getting Started

Choosing a Time & Place

Meeting time

The choirs in this study meet either in the afternoon or the evening. Choice of session time was determined by the following criteria:

  • Availability of space
  • Availability of staff and volunteers involved with running the choir
  • Accessibility to transportation
  • Medical considerations (such as low blood pressure in the morning so avoiding that time of day)


Possible venues include community health centres, university campuses, hospitals, office spaces, multi-purpose rooms, and arts centre rooms. Criteria for choosing a venue:

  • Cost
  • Availability
  • Location & proximity
  • Size
  • Accessibility of the building
  • Parking close to the building
  • Ability to provide refreshments

Budget & Sustainability

Funding for the choirs in the SingWell study comes from various sources depending on the origins of the choir including:

  • Research grants
  • Community grants
  • Donors
  • Participant fees
  • Fundraising
  • Hospital funding

Some choirs charge a semester or per-session fee to participate in the choir; others have no participation cost because of access to grant funding.

In the current study, the cost of choir participation ranges from $10 per session to $50 per semester. Those choirs that charge participants have mechanisms in place to help participants with the cost if payment is a problem. One of the choirs that charges for sessions does not charge caregivers who attend.

Roles & Responsibilities

Choir leaders come from varied musical and healthcare backgrounds. They’re not one type of music leader. They include singers, choral conductors, music therapists, speech language pathologists.

It is important that the expectations of the group leader match the expectations and goals for the group – ensuring a balance between musical and extra-musical goals and needs. Matching the strengths of the group leader with the musical taste and health goals of the choir is likely to be most successful.

The role played by volunteers varies depending on the choirs’ needs and availability of volunteers. Some of the duties performed by volunteers include:

  • Helping to set up and clear up the room
  • Printing choir materials
  • Supporting choir members by singing along with them
  • Helping to distribute sheet music and lyrics
  • Helping to organize, purchase and serve refreshments
  • Assisting participants with mobility issues
  • Socializing after the singing or during breaks

In some choirs, students volunteer with the group, providing an intergenerational dimension to the choir experience which is mutually beneficial socially and musically.

Some choirs have additional support from speech language pathologists and physiotherapists.

Most choirs in this study have a paid or volunteer accompanist who plays the piano – but a guitar, ukulele or other accompanying instrument or recorded music could also be used to accompany and support the singing. While it is possible for a choir leader also to accompany, it is preferable for the choir leader to be able to be more actively involved in leading the warm-ups and singing without also accompanying. This enables the group leader to respond to and encourage choir members more easily. It also allows the choir leader to demonstrate and lead any physical warm-ups, while also having music playing as an accompaniment or distraction.

Inclusion/exclusion criteria for choir membership varies depending on the choir. Inclusion may be based on having a particular health condition or minimum age. In one of the choirs in the study, members needed to be over 55; in others, choir members are living with lung disease, Parkinson’s, aphasia.

One choir specifies that participants must be able to toilet themselves or bring a caregiver to help with their physical needs.

It is important when establishing a choir to determine the criteria appropriate to the particular group. The group leader should consider the target population and any requirements around that group including social, health and musical considerations.

It depends on the choir! With one exception, friends and family are welcome to attend the choirs in this study.

Reasons to have friends and family members in attendance

  • To boost confidence for some participants
  • To make it a more social activity – nice opportunity to spend time with family member or friend making music together – it can be an equalizer – an inclusive activity
  • To provide one-on-one support to family member or friend when needed

Reason for NOT including family members or friends

For participants in an aphasia choir, for example, attending without a caregiver can help build independence by encouraging more independent conversation.

  • When the caregiver is present, participants rely on the caregiver to talk for them
  • The choir leader of an aphasia choir commented, “I find that people with aphasia participate less in conversation when the caregiver is there”

Running Rehearsals

Choir Sessions

Setting Expectations

Most choirs do not require choir members to have any prior experience with singing; nor are there expectations to be able to read music – even when sheet music is used. The goal of these choirs is to maximize participation by choir members so offering alternative ways of accessing the music/lyrics may encourage greater participation.

In choirs using sheet music, the songs are often taught using call and response so it is not necessary to be able to read music.

Most of the choirs in the SingWell study have registration; all but one of the choirs require regular attendance and they keep track of attendance. In one choir, requiring registration and weekly attendance was felt to be a barrier to attendance. Many core members in that group attend all the sessions so, other than not knowing how many choir members will attend each week, this has not had a negative impact on running the choir.

The repertoire chosen for each choir varies depending on the musical goals and preferences, health-related goals, and the expertise of choir leaders. In some of the choirs, choir members are actively involved in choosing the repertoire by suggesting songs; in others, the choice is made entirely by the choir leader.

Consideration is made of the musical suitability of songs, such as the vocal range. One choir leader specified that songs must remain within the range of an octave and a half. Since many of the choirs comprise mainly older adults, vocal range is often quite limited so choosing songs with an appropriate range as well as choosing comfortable keys is important. Having access either to an accompanist who can easily transpose songs into a comfortable range or an electronic keyboard or music software is useful to provide flexibility to support the singing.

Consideration is also needed of the ease or difficulty of the songs, such as whether the repertoire is already known by participants or the type of intervals that might make the singing more challenging. Some choirs sing only in unison; others include simple harmonies. Many choirs sing rounds or medleys to easily create satisfying harmonies.

For choirs with a focus on breathing, songs are often chosen to emphasise breath control – long musical phrases where the lyrics encourage singers to continue through the phrase with increasing awareness of breath control. For aphasia choirs, song choices may be used to address speech exercises.

Choirs designed for seniors will often draw on well-known popular music participants’ youth and as young adults. Choir leaders should, however, be mindful of not making assumptions about the type of music familiar to all participants. This is particularly important in choirs that are designed for participants living with dementia where song repertoire may be related to a focus on rekindling memories. There needs, however, to be an awareness of how songs can elicit powerful positive and negative emotions when connected to memory, so a choir leader needs to be mindful of participants’ reactions to songs.

For choirs that perform, the choice of repertoire will also be in part directed by programming. One choir leader noted that “repertoire was chosen to be nostalgic, positive, and uplifting. Repertoire was also chosen to create a cohesive concert program with varying tempos.”

Whatever music is chosen, it is essential that choir members enjoy the music as this encourages full participation! While it is not possible to please every member of the choir all the time, choir leaders should aim to include enough variety that everyone enjoys something!

Running Choir Sessions

The setup for the room is partly dictated by the space being used, but also the specific considerations for musical and therapeutic goals. A variety of setups were used:

  • rows
  • semicircle or circle
  • sitting at tables
  • using music stands
Other Thoughts on Seating & Room Configurations
  • Most participants sing sitting down for at least part of the session. Choir leaders need to be mindful that some choristers need to be seated for all activities – some in wheelchairs. To ensure that the choir experience is fully inclusive, sessions should be designed to ensure full participation from seated.
  • One choir leader noted that they “tried sitting around tables in a u-shape with music on the tables, but it felt like tables were a barrier between people. Tried a circle, but it didn’t fit the space. With a smaller choir, I think a circle would be ideal because in connects people more.”
  • In another choir, tables were useful as a means of support, allowing participants to rest their arms on the tables for support and maintain better posture.
  • If participants are reading the lyrics from a screen rather than sheet music or lyrics sheets, then the positioning of the chairs is important, as is the height of the screen.
  • If instruments, such as hand-bells are being used, it is important to have the space to use them and somewhere to lay them between songs.
  • In some choirs, choir members choose their own seats and in others they are assigned seats based on musical, physical and social criteria.
  • Where volunteers are an integral part of the choir experience, they are usually interspersed throughout the group so that they can provide support where necessary.
  • There needs to be appropriate space to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers where these are used by participants.
  • One choir divides men and women in order to facilitate part-singing.
  • Some choirs opt for a semicircle or circle as this allows participants to see each other and interact visually. This works in a small setting, with a small group. In a larger group, it is possible to have a couple of rows in a semi-circle so maintaining some eye contact between participants while using the available space effectively. This also has the advantage of creating more of a sense of musical support as participants can hear more voices singing around them, as well as sing other choristers.

Most of the choirs in the SingWell study include some sort of warm-up, chosen depending on the focus of the choir and the particular health needs of the group. Exercises include physical, cognitive, communicative and vocal warm-ups. For example, a choir designed for participants with lung disease or breathing difficulties has a particular focus on breathing exercises and physical warm-ups; an aphasia choir will focus on communicative warm-ups; a Parkinson’s choir does tongue-twisters.

Most of the choirs use at least some of the same exercises every week – with the addition of new ones to provide variety. All the choirs have an inclusive approach to the exercises, with modifications provided, such as participating standing or sitting.

Examples of warm-ups used by the choirs in the study
  • stretching
  • facial massaging
  • relaxation, particularly neck and shoulders
  • posture
  • upper and lower body movement
  • breath control and awareness
  • pitch control
  • lip trills
  • vocal slides/glides and sighs for range – using different syllables
  • dynamic variations
  • melody playback
  • melody clap back
  • counting exercises
  • vowel exercises
  • tuning exercises – singing chords
  • tongue twisters
Physical Movement with Singing

Some of the choirs include physical movement not only as part of the warm-ups, but also in conjunction with singing. Such choreographed movement provides physical and cognitive benefits. Some groups also use clapping or conducting rhythms. Some of the choirs include the additional use of instruments, such as hand bells or kazoos.

A variety of techniques are used to teach the songs and warm-ups depending on the goals and experience of choir members, including:

  • Call and response
  • Sheet music
  • Lyrics only – either printed sheets or projected for ease of reading

Some choirs reinforce learning with mp3s or other audio-visual material to enhance practising at home. Material is made available through a choir webpage, SoundCloud or CDs. Most of the choirs expect singers to practice at home.

Many choir leaders use call and response with choir members repeating music phrases or warm-ups modelled correctly by the choir leader or volunteers either at the piano or singing.

In most health choirs, social time is a fundamental part of the choir session, providing support for choir members. Some choirs serve refreshments – organized by choir directors and volunteers.

In this study, directors commented that social time included:

  • Social time before and after the choir
  • A break half way through for water/catch up – often with coffee and other refreshments
  • Socializing encouraged throughout, not just at breaks

Many choirs give performances – though not all. Most performances were casual and informal, offering an opportunity to share music with family and friends; some were sing-alongs. Reasons given for including an end-of-semester performance were:

  • An opportunity to showcase their work from the semester
  • A sing-along with family and friends
  • Seemed like an appropriate goal for the choir
  • Gave choir members something to work towards, and an opportunity to share the songs they learned with the public
  • A great opportunity to raise aphasia awareness
  • Social bonding is facilitated by working together towards a common goal

Some health choirs opt not to give public performances because choir members are not comfortable with the idea of performing either because of lack of musical confidence or an unwillingness to disclose publicly their medical condition; others gave individual choir members the option whether or not they wanted to perform in public. Even where choirs were involved in or many community choirs, emphasis is placed on the process of making music together rather on an end-product.

Concerts were organized by the choir directors, along with volunteers or facilitators.


Challenges & Suggestions

Common challenges choir directors have faced

Choosing a song that everyone likes

Finding suitable rehearsal space

Regular attendance can be challenging, as choir members had complex health challenges and can often be away due to illness

Finding an accompanist


Ask for feedback
Have fun! You can have fun and work on therapeutic goals
Learn what communication strategies are most effective for each choir member. Everyone is different.

Special Considerations

For some choirs, there is a need to be attentive to specific considerations. For example, in choirs for individuals with respiratory difficulties, there may need to be additional breaks between verses of a song while choir members recover their breath. The accompanist can play a really important role in providing these necessary and immediate breaks to allow for breath recovery before continuing. Music directors in the SingWell study outlined some special considerations for working with people from your specific population:
Less use of pedal from accompaniest for a dryer sound
Single voice songs (hearing aid choir)
Ensuring communicative accessibility by using communication strategies and aphasia-friendly documents (aphasia choir)
Simplified music (one or two-part)
Relaxed pace (eg. only 4 pieces for 12 weeks of rehearsal)
Use a paper flip chart for key-wording/drawing where you are in the music
Provide the option of singing “da da da” instead of the words (if the words are too difficult)

Quotes from choir directors

In their own Words

“While the goal of the choir is participation, I feel strongly that this is an opportunity for many people with aphasia to learn and master a new skill, so I wanted it to run as similarly to any other choir as possible–meaning sheet music, challenging repertoire, an accompanist (not karaoke tracks), and practicing until we get it right, even if it takes a long time. I want them to feel proud of their product. Members have risen to the challenge! We even went down from 5 pieces to 4 at the choir’s suggestion because they wanted to perfect the pieces we had started rather than add a 5th.”
“Attendance was challenging as choir members had complex health challenges and were often away due to illness. The final concert was a huge success. We had a great turn-out and it was a memorable evening for choir members and their families.”
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