The Music in Communities Network’s research agenda includes filling some statistical gaps in our understanding of the community music sector. We know that there are an enormous number of community-based groups but there is no statistical information about how many people are in them, how often they perform, what music they play, what issues they face, or their demographics.
The second in a series of surveys focuses on community choirs.1 For the first time we have a statistical picture of the demographic and gender makeup of community choirs, how they are supported, some information about budgets and revenue streams, and an indication of the contributions that choirs make to their local community.
The survey took place in 2012-13. It was analysed by Alex Masso, manager of the MCA’s Music in Communities Network. The 19 questions (see Appendix 2) cover a range of topics including demographics, leadership, budgets, and repertoire.
- Almost all Australian community choirs sing Australian music (Figure 2)
- Most Australian community-based choirs have been running for less than 10 years (Figure 3)
- There is a gradual increase in choir participation with each age bracket, 45-54 year olds being most likely to sing in a choir (Figure 5)
- Over 80% of choirs are ‘mixed’ but only 30% of singers in community choirs are male (Figure 7)
- Almost two thirds of choir directors/leaders have a degree related to music and most of those have a degree in music education
- The number of choirs where ‘singers must be able to read music’ is only 8%, in 57% reading is ‘useful but not required’, and in 36% of choirs ‘singers don’t need to be able to read music’ (Figure 10)
- Almost all community choirs give their time to the local community, with three quarters giving free concerts and even more performing at community events (Figure 12)
- About a quarter of Australian community choirs have annual expenses of under $1000 (27%), a further 10% have between $1000 and $2500 in their annual budget.
- Besides the choir director or leader, the highest expenses for community choirs are Venue Hire, Sheet music, Public Liability Insurance and Accompanists (Figure 13)
- More than half of all community choirs receive some form of support from local government, 13% receive support from state governments and 5% from the federal government (Figure 14)
- Besides local government, the next highest level of support for choirs comes from churches and religious organisations (Figure 14)
Genres, and the Role of Australian Music
The Music Council of Australia’s Music in Communities Network conducted an online survey between September 2012 and January 2013, open to any choir to complete. Over 200 choirs responded to the survey which was distributed through the Music in Communities Network with the help of the Australian National Choral Association and others. All of the choirs included in these results fall into what we consider “community choirs”. A small number of school and professional choirs were removed from the responses because there were too few to compare results (for example, between “community” choirs and “school” choirs) and because in some cases these results would alter the overall results (for example, directors’ fees for professional choirs).
The survey had 19 questions, listed in Appendix 2.
As an indication of the field of responses, the largest categories were Classical (20%), Multicultural (14%), Folk / traditional (13%) and the group of choirs that indicated “many” or “various” (16%) (Figure 1). A very small proportion identify as a “musical theatre” choir, this may be the result of reaching fewer theatre groups than standalone choirs, or may be an indication that “musical theatre” is one of a number of genres that some choirs sing but not the primary genre.
We treat this result with some caution as an indication of the overall breakdown of genres chosen by choirs.
Almost all Australian community choirs sing Australian music (Figure 2). Our question was about the place of Australian music in the choir’s repertoire, based not on a proportion of repertoire but the effort or priority placed on Australian music. Almost none (0.5%) indicated that “it’s all we sing”, but a third (34%) indicate that they “make a conscious effort”. A much larger group sings some but doesn’t make a conscious effort (58%), bringing the total number of choirs that do sing Australian music to 93%.
Participation, Concerts and Rehearsals
Based on respondents, Australia’s community choirs have an average of 37 members, rehearse 43 times per year and perform an average of 11 concerts per year.
Age of Choirs
Most Australian community-based choirs have been running for less than 10 years. The highest proportion have been running for less than five years (39%), followed by five to ten years (19%), with fewer choirs as the number of years increases. (Figure 3)
One observation here is the comparison with community orchestras, which we have found to show the opposite trend (Figure 3). The majority of orchestras have been running for more than 20 years with a small percentage being created in the last five years, while choirs appear to be more recently established. There are at least two possible explanations for this: one is that there has been a new burst of activity in recent years, to the point where one in three choirs has been running for less than five years. Another possibility is that choirs naturally ‘come and go’ more frequently than other kinds of community music group (orchestras, for example), perhaps because that is the nature of the sector or because they are less established and not sustainable. We estimate that there are far more community choirs than orchestras (Appendix 1), it is possible that there are just as many long established choirs as there are orchestras but the high proportion of new choirs includes less established groups.
Another observation is that the age of a choir might be determined by the style of choir.2 We have found that choirs identifying as “classical” are far more likely to have been running for over 20 years; in fact half of all respondents that have been running for over thirty years also identified as “classical”. Pop/contemporary choirs, on the other hand, are far more likely to have been established in the last five years.
Age of Members
The most startling observation about the age groups included in choirs is the gradual increase in participation with each increasing age bracket. The highest proportion of participants are in the 55-64 age category (24%), with a gradual increase from the 18-24 age category (6%). 25-34 (9%), 35-44 (13%) and 45-54 (21%). In total, almost two thirds of choir members are over 45 (65%) with a very small proportion of people under 25 (Figure 5).
Our 2012 survey of community orchestras found that different age groups are represented more consistently, and in more orchestras, than the balance of age groups in community choirs. We treat this with some caution since the surveys were slightly different, but Figure 6 suggests a clear trend.3 While a consistently high number of orchestras include members from each age group, choirs are increasingly more likely to include people from age groups as they increase.
This suggests that relatively few people continue group singing after school, many more return to it or commence group singing later in life.
One issue that affects choirs in a different way to other music groups is gender balance. Unlike orchestras, brass bands, jazz bands, rock bands, ukulele groups, pipe bands and so on, the voice is the primary instrument and therefore the combination of voices is a matter of ensemble balance as well as the social makeup of the group.
There is a clear gap between the numbers of men and women in community choirs. We estimate that 30% of all singers in community choirs are men, 70% are women. Our research found 81% of choirs being ‘mixed’, 6% ‘male only’ and 13% ‘female only’.
As Figure 7 shows, the largest group of singers in community choirs are women in mixed choirs (60%) followed by men in mixed choirs (23%), then women and men in gender specific choirs (12% and 5% respectively).
The proportion of participation in mixed and gender specific choirs is approximately the same (about 81% of male singers and 80% of female singers are in ‘mixed’ choirs), although the number of women is much higher. It is also very rare for a ‘mixed ‘ choir to have a majority of men; Figure 8 shows that mixed choirs are most likely to have 20-40% male members, somewhat likely to have fewer than 20% male members, but only 4% have over 60% male members.
Approximately 95% of respondents said that their choir’s director or conductor has some form of musical training, with only a small proportion having no musical training (5%). Almost two thirds have a degree related to music (62%) and most of those have a degree in music education (58%). Almost half have a degree in music other than education such as performance (45%) and 7% have a music therapy degree.4 Of those with no formal qualification, nine out of ten have a ‘non-degree education in music’.
In total, 59% of choir leaders are paid while the remainder take on the role voluntarily. There are a large number in both categories and a wide range of fees for those that are paid, ranging from a modest stipend through to ‘per rehearsal’ fees and even salaries. Choir leaders with a music degree are twice as likely to be paid for their role as they are to lead a choir voluntarily (67% vs 33%). Choir leaders with no music degree are just as likely to be paid as to take on the role voluntarily (49% vs 51%).
Figure 9 shows that a quarter of paid choir directors/conductors receive less than $2500 per year and approximately 16% of directors receive more than $10,000 per year. The largest bracket is between $2500 and $5000.5 It is important to remember that this figure only represents respondents who stated the annual or weekly payment of the director/conductor, and that these figures are for individual choirs. We know that some people run a number of choirs and are paid by each separately, therefore these people will have higher earnings from choral conducting/directing.
Entry to Choir Participation
Audition and Reading Skills
About one in five choirs audition their members, which means the vast majority have an ‘open door’ policy. The number of choirs where ‘singers must be able to read music’ is only 8%, in 57% reading is ‘useful but not required’, and in 36% of choirs ‘singers don’t need to be able to read music’ (Figure 10).
The auditioned choirs are far more likely to require singers to read music (Figure 10). In a third of all auditioned choirs reading is ‘required’ in a further 60% it is ‘useful’, while in non-auditioned choirs the number where reading is ‘useful’ is almost the same (56%) but almost half do not require singers to read music (43%). Only 1% of non-auditioned choirs require singers to read music.
The vast majority of community choirs involve some fee for participation (79%). These range from an annual membership fee or contribution through to weekly, term-based or activity-based fees. About one in five choirs have no membership or participation fees and a similar number of choirs fall into the under $100, $100-$250 and $250-$500 categories. Approximately 10% of choirs have participation fees of over $500 per year. (Figure 11) The fee per rehearsal is between $5 and $10 for approximately a third of the choirs with fees, $10 – $15 for a further 17% and 10% pay more than $15 per rehearsal, on average. Approximately 43% have a fee so low that it probably isn’t collected or calculated on a weekly or rehearsal basis, these annual fees are under $5 per week on average.
Contribution to Community
The contributions made by community choirs to their local communities are diverse and significant (Figure 12). Almost all respondents (92%) indicated that they perform some kind of community service, the highest ranking of the options given being ‘performing at community events’ (87%) followed by ‘free performances’ (75%). Many other activities were mentioned as ways in which choirs contribute to their community: mentoring generalist teachers in local primary schools, singing for church services, promoting the work of Australian composers, singing at political demonstrations and events, and supporting music students through scholarships.
Finance & Support
About a quarter of Australian community choirs have annual expenses of under $1000 (27%) and a further 10% have between $1000 and $2500 in their annual budget. While the survey does not cover budgets in more detail, these findings suggest that choirs cover a wide spectrum of financial capacity and that a significant number operate with a very small annual budget.
Besides the choir director or leader, the highest expenses for community choirs are Venue Hire, Sheet music, Public Liability Insurance and Accompanists (Figure 13). There are some differences between choirs with very low budgets (27% of choirs with an annual budget under $1000) and those with higher budgets.6
More than half of all choirs list sheet music as being one of the highest expenses (54%), even more so among the choirs with less than $1000 in their annual budget (64%). This suggests that the cost of sheet music has a major impact on community choirs. Venue hire is the highest expense overall and particularly for choirs with over $1000 budgets.
Support from Community & Government
Institutional support for community choirs comes from a range of sources, with both financial and in-kind support coming from the government, private and community sectors. While 64% of community choirs indicated that they receive some form of financial or in-kind support, only 41% overall indicated that they receive financial support from institutions in their community or government.
By far the highest level of support comes from local government, with 35% of choirs receiving financial support and 28% receiving in-kind support, in total 57% of choirs receive some support from their local council (Figure 14).7 The other tiers of government are far less likely to support community choirs, with 13% and 5% receiving some form of support from state or federal government respectively.
While almost all community choirs receiving financial support from their local council also perform at civic or community events (93%), only 26% of choirs that perform for community or civic events receive financial support from their local council.
Churches are the non-government institutions most likely to support community choirs although this is more likely to be in-kind support such as use of spaces for rehearsals and performances rather than financial support. Businesses, Clubs and Philanthropists follow local government as the most common financial supporters of community choirs (15%, 13% and 13% respectively), although more choirs receive in-kind support from businesses than cash (19% in-kind).
Schools and Arts Organisations are similar to Churches in that they are far more likely to provide in-kind support to community choirs than financial support. While about one in twenty choirs receive in-kind support from an Arts Organisation, almost none receive any financial support from these organisations.
Appendix 1: How many choirs are there?
The question of how many choirs currently exist in Australia is well beyond the scope and methodology of this project. Anecdotally we know that there are over 1000 members of the Australian National Choral Association (ANCA), many of them are community choirs.8 In 2012 there were 152 Sing Australia groups across Australia.9
There are many choirs that fall into very specific categories, such as the 30 chartered choruses registered with Sweet Adelines Australia.10 or that simply operate independently.
Without more data we are reluctant to estimate the number of choirs in Australia but it seems likely that there are well over 1000 choirs, there may in fact be several thousand.
Appendix 2: Questions
Please note that the term “choir” is used throughout to cover any kind of group where singing is the main reason for being.
1. What best describes the style of your choir?
Options: African-American Gospel; Barbershop / Sweet Adeline; Classical; Folk / traditional; Multicultural; Musical theatre; Pop / Contemporary; Religious; Other (please specify)
2. What best describes the pathway to membership of your choir?
Options: By audition; Non-audition / Open Door
3. What best describes the musical demands of your choir?
Options: All singers must be able to read music; Being able to read music is useful but not required; Singers don’t need to be able to read music
4. How would you best describe the place of Australian music in your choir? (ie. music by Australian composers)
Options: It’s all we sing; We make a conscious effort to include Australian music; We sing some but we don’t make a conscious effort; Not appropriate to our type of choir
5. What best describes the training of your music director? Please select one.
Options: Degree in music education; Degree in music therapy; Other degree in music (eg. performance); Non-degree education in music; No music training; Other (please specify)
6. How much is the musical director paid per year? (if it is an unpaid/volunteer role, please type “0”)
Options: Text box
7. Apart from the cost outlined in Question 6, what are the choir’s costs per year?
Options: $0; up to $500; $500-$1000; $1000-2500; $2500-$5000; $5000-$10000; $10000-$50000; $50000+
8. Apart from the cost of your musical director, what are the three biggest expenses? Please select three of the following:
Options: Venue Hire; Public Liability Insurance; Professional Development / Workshops; Travel; Recording; Production management for performances; Marketing/publicity; Sheet Music; Commissioning new works; Accompanist; Other (please specify)
9. During the last year, has your choir received support from any of the following? Select any that apply
Options: Two columns (“Cash” and “Non-cash / in-kind (eg. waived venue hire, free printing)”) and 8 rows: Business; Church / Religious Organisation; Federal Government (or agency); Local Council; Local Club (eg. RSL, Bowling); Philanthropy; Professional Arts Organisation; School; State Government (or agency)
10. Annually, what does each singer pay to be in your choir? (if they don’t pay anything, please type “0”)
Options: Text box
11. How does your choir contribute to your community?
Options: Fundraising for charity; Free performances (in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, etc); Performing at civic events (eg. ANZAC Day, Citizenship ceremonies); Performing at community events (concerts in the park, carols, multicultural festival, etc); Singing workshops for the community; Other (please specify)
12. Name of choir
Options: Text box
13. Which of the following best describes your choir?
Options: Community-based Choir (adult / all ages); Semi-professional or Professional Choir; Institution-based Choir (eg. workplace, church); School Choir; Community-based Youth Choir (ie. outside school)
14. How long has the choir been running?
Options: 0-5 years; 5-10 years; 10-20 years; 20-30 years; 30+ years; Don’t know
15. How many people from each age group sing in your choir?
Options: under 18; 18-25; 25-35; 35-45; 45-55; 55-65; over 65
16. What percentage of your singers are male/female?
Options: Male; Female
17. How many times each year do you rehearse, on average?
Options: Text box
18. How many times each year do you perform, on average?
Options: Text box
19. What best describes the, town, city or area in which your choir is based? (eg. “Inner Sydney, NSW”, “Toowoomba, QLD”)
Options: Text box
20. If you would like to hear about the findings of this survey and join our mailing list, please provide your email address
Options: Text box
Alex Masso. Survey design: Alex Masso and Tina Broad. Report published 2 December 2013, by Music in Communities Network, Music Council of Australia. Entered on Knowledge Base 16 January 2014.
- The first survey was Community Orchestras in Australia.↩︎
- This comparison should be treated with caution statistically since it has a smaller sample than other results in this study.↩︎
- For the Community Orchestras in Australia survey we asked whether the group includes members from each age group; for the Community Choirs in Australia survey we asked how many members of the group fall into each age category. Therefore, in both surveys we asked whether any members fall into each age category but the questions are not identical and should be compared with caution.↩︎
- Some people have more than one degree, this total does not equal 100%.↩︎
- Salary brackets are chosen for the purpose of demonstration; four ranges of $2500 for up to $10000, then two ranges of $5000, then ‘over $20000”.↩︎
- These figures are based on the expenses other than the choir director or leader.↩︎
- The ‘total’ figure for this section is not the sum of cash + in-kind because some choirs receive both kinds of support but are not counted twice.↩︎
- Australian National Choral Association (Accessed 20 November 2013) http://www.anca.org.au/find-choir.↩︎
- Sing Australia (Accessed 20 November 2013) http://www.singaustralia.com.au/Information-About-Sing-Australia.↩︎
- Sweet Adelines Australia (Accessed 20 November 2013) http://www.sweetadelines.org.au/about-us/about_choruses.↩︎
Alex Masso manages MCA's Music in Communities Network. He is a Sydney-based drummer, educator, advocate and managed the events program at Wollongong Conservatorium of Music before joining MCA in 2012. Alex plays with The Vampires, Slide Albatross, Kinetic Jazz Orchestra, The Splinter Orchestra, and others.