Rachel Staunton shares her experiences of setting up the London Youth Choir.
In 2012, Suzi Digby and I set out to bring together young Londoners from every tribe and tongue, from every corner of the capital, and unite them in the best way we knew how, through singing.
The mission was to create a flagship youth choir for London with a membership drawn from all 33 London boroughs. We were striving for choral excellence, but with equal endeavour for inclusivity. Now in our fifth year, I’m reflecting on ten elements that made this idea a reality, in the hope that it will inspire and encourage others.
1. Be dedicated to your vision
It was tempting at the start to gather up the ‘choral kids’ - the ones already enjoying opportunities singing in strong choirs or taking part in choral courses. Of course, we inevitably attracted some of those gifted young people, and what a blessing they were, but it was those who had not had any previous opportunities that we set out to seek. That’s the special thing about LYC. We wanted to provide amazing opportunities for kids with potential, who didn’t have the means. The quick fix was tempting, but we knew it would compromise the long-term vision of being inclusive.
2. Oh yeah, I’ve heard of LYC
In the first few days I opened an @LonYouthChoir Twitter account. I was pretty much a social media virgin, but after only a few weeks almost everyone I met up with had heard of the London Youth Choir! It’s free, easy and has a bigger voice than sometimes we realise.
3. The currency of time
In the first year we went to meet people from every London Music Education Hub and there was one crazy week when I visited nine London boroughs on a workshop tour of schools in deprived areas. There is no substitute for going out and meeting people, be it sponsors, singers, Music Hubs or school choir leaders. It’s hard work but is always fruitful.
4. Don’t fly solo
Start-ups take a lot of time, energy and dedication. It’s unlikely that you have the ability to run and organise everything yourself. Identify people who share your values and vision and get them involved.
5. Be a motivator
I decided that our weekly meeting would start with a ‘word of the week’. I wanted to make sure the vision of the organisation was fresh in people’s minds. I was able to share inspiring stories, like the one about the kid who ran away from home but returned in time for choir rehearsal. It was my responsibility to motivate the team.
To begin with LYC hardly felt like a prestigious choir, so why did everyone keep coming back? Why did they stick out the difficult start-up period? It was, in my view, because of the people. Our choir directors had some special qualities. They were passionate about youth choirs. They had a gift for working the singers hard but making it enjoyable. They knew how to get the most out of young people and make each choir member feel valued.
7. Big ears
Listen! There is often something to learn from criticism. For every person who will express it, there are probably others thinking it, so listen carefully and take feedback into account.
8. Don’t make yourself indispensable
Of course in the first season, when I found myself being librarian, conductor, concert promoter, marketing manager, saleswoman, fundraiser, administrator, recruiter and ambassador it would have been tricky to step back. However, as we grew I quickly learnt that I needed people in the team with skills different to mine. It’s not the Rachel Staunton show, it’s The London Youth Choir!
9. Nothing is new under the sun
In our early days we struggled to recruit boys. Gillian Dibden, who I knew from singing under her leadership in the Berkshire Youth Choirs, came and gave an inspiring seminar for our staff. She told us her story of setting up Taplow Youth Choirs. She didn’t pretend it was easy, she confessed the challenges and inspired and encouraged us with strategies. Nothing is new under the sun, so seek advice from those in the know.
10. Keep going
We are on a mission to make singing in a wonderful choir accessible for any young person living in London. We can’t make it happen overnight, but we are, importantly, enjoying the journey and are striving towards the day when we can say that LYC is outstanding and represents the full diversity of the city.
Find out more about the London Youth Choir at www.londonyouthchoir.com.