Working with your music director to deliver online activities

The brave new world of online rehearsal has taken off in a way we couldn’t have imagined just six months ago. While it can be great it isn’t always plain sailing and we know some groups have decided against online rehearsals, whilst others have had limited success.  

Groups that have been successful have told us their Musical Director or conductor (MD) has been central to this, and equally where groups have struggled it is often because their MD has not been able to offer support as much as they would like.

The long-established ways of working have changed for your MD, your committee and your members, and the online world presents new challenges and requires news skills. As such taking some time to re-set the parameters and establish new expectations is a good idea.

If your group has not done anything online previously and is now contemplating online activities for the autumn, or if you have already tried going online and are concerned about maintaining momentum through the coming months, this resource will help you to redefine that all important relationship with your MD, and make a plan for keeping activities online.

Ask your members

This should be your first port of call. Finding out what your members want will help you put together a structured programme of online activities to see you through to 2021. A survey of a few questions could be done quite easily over email, but there are also free online survey platforms, such as Google Forms and Survey Monkey, that can help collate data and save time. To reach your members who are not online, consider a quick phone call so that their opinions are included.

Here are some suggested questions that you might like to ask. You don’t have to ask all of these, and you may have your own questions that you would like to add.

  • If your group has already tried some online activities:
  • What do they enjoy about them and what do they get out of them?
  • What do they enjoy least or find most difficult about them?
  • How do they feel about their musical development?
  • What music have they most enjoyed? Are there any pieces from your back catalogue that they would like to revisit online?
  • Which social activities do / don’t they enjoy?
  • Do they have suggestions for other online activities?
  • For members who have not participated in online activities, ask about their barriers and what help they need to take part

If your group has not done any online activities:

  • Are members interested?
  • Do they have any concerns?
  • Do they have internet access (if you are speaking to them on the phone) or do they need help to get online?
  • What device would they use to access an online rehearsal (e.g. laptop, tablet, mobile)
  • (this might be useful to know as joining a rehearsal via mobile can be a less rewarding experience)
  • What sort of music would they like to perform?
  • Would they be interested in including social activities (e.g. quizzes) as part of the mix?
  • What days and times suit them?

Speak with your MD

The committee and the MD being on the same page and having the same understanding about what you are trying to achieve with online activities is vital. If you can get this right, then you have a good chance.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this might be completely new to your MD and they will have their own concerns. We have listed some common concerns we have heard below, together with how you might try and allay them.

Musical Considerations

  • A drop in musical standards
  • Not knowing how much they’re helping members to improve.
  • Having no shared purpose/goal to work towards.

There is no doubt the musical side is not as good. The technology does not exist that recreates the musical benefits of an in-person rehearsal.

This makes the MD’s job harder. They are professionals who want to know their efforts are beneficial and worthwhile and to take some job satisfaction from that. Some of the main problems are:

  • You can’t tell whether people are singing or playing what you are trying to teach them
  • You can’t hear any mistakes and have no idea how fast or slow to move through the material
  • You can’t work on group cohesion
  • You have no sense of the overall progress of a piece of music because you can never hear everyone playing it together

In addition, you may not necessarily have the common goal of an event to work towards to help bring purpose and focus to your rehearsals.

All these are fair and legitimate musical concerns. Agreeing on the purpose of the rehearsal sessions and being clear about the musical expectations is a good starting point.

  • From your members’ point of view the musical aspect might not be the most important thing; some music is better than none, and often the social side is just as, if not more, important.
  • From an organisational point of view it’s about keeping members engaged so when you can get back to ‘normal’ you have some members and momentum, and you’re not starting from scratch. Being hardnosed, it’s in the MD’s long-term interest to help now.

Whilst the online environment is not ideal there needs to be an acknowledgement that it’s a new world for everyone, and some adjustment is required so that everyone gets something from the experience. Tell your MD what members have said they want. If your survey shows that members really value the social side, it might help your MD to understand the value they can bring by simply facilitating meeting and singing/playing each week.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t recognise an MD’s concerns about musical standard and try and find some middle ground. Technical accuracy and proficiency might not be possible, but members can give feedback so the MD knows if something was taught well or if something was too difficult or too boring or slow.

  • Asking members if they have ‘got’ something or what they are struggling with is the simplest way, but not everyone will be comfortable voicing their opinion, or admitting they are struggling, in front of others, and allowing everyone to speak will also take up a lot of time.
  • You could also give members the option of sending a private message to the MD during the event with feedback, e.g. by using the chat function in Zoom.
  • You could ask members to complete a very short mid-term survey to get some feedback. It doesn’t have to be long and you don’t need to do it each week.
    • it will give an MD a fuller picture of progress and potential problems and overall engagement.
    • don’t focus just on the musical side, knowing that members got something from it personally and socially is just as important

It’s also worth noting that musical development and teaching is possible online. The MD could do some sessions on specific techniques like breathing and bowing for example. Smaller group sessions might help create an environment, and the time, where people are more comfortable performing on their own for the MD to hear. Some members might like a one to one session which the group could help facilitate. See our Making the most of online rehearsals resource for more ideas. 

In terms of having a shared purpose or goal to work towards, you might consider a virtual performance, putting in some groundwork for a future live performance, or offering members the chance to learn and develop new skills. See our ‘Making a Plan’ section below for more on this.

However, always bear in mind that sometimes it is not necessary to have a project to work towards, and the social connection and the chance to sing and play every week without any added pressure might be all members want. As ever, it’s important to be led by your members and ensure that the experience meets their needs.

Practical considerations

Lack of experience / uncertainty over online rehearsing

Much of this is new to everyone and your MD may not have done any online teaching or rehearsing before, and could be understandably concerned.

Setting the musical expectations and aims as above might help alleviate some of this. It’s also worth reinforcing that as it’s new to everyone, no-one is expecting expertly run online rehearsals from the get-go. There are also some practical things you can do to help your first rehearsals to run more smoothly:

  • Do some trial runs with a small group of people first, to help your MD get used to how your chosen platform works and what is possible musically. You could do several trial runs and build up in numbers gradually, first with just the committee for example, then invite a few more members along next time.
  • Your MD could join another group’s rehearsal to see how they are doing it – there are many groups who have been doing this since March and who can pass on their learnings. We can help put you in touch with some groups so your MD can join a rehearsal for some tips.

Time commitment

Lockdown has impacted people in different ways. Some MDs might be teaching online or having to focus on other sources of income, they could have family commitments or something else that means they are finding it hard to find time for your group. All these things are understandable.

Try and find time to talk to your MD and provide some clarity over expectations, your reasons for wanting to do something and what your group could do to help your MD to achieve this (see 'Extra work involved' below). This will at least allow them to make an informed decision about what they do or don’t have time for, and hopefully you can find a way forward.

If you can’t find time to have that conversation, or if after it the MD can’t commit any time to rehearsing online, then you need to think about other options. Your MD’s reasons will be valid and fair, but if your group wants to move forwards you need to make their wishes the priority. See 'Have difficult conversatins' below.

Extra work involved

If delivering online rehearsals is all new to your MD it might involve extra work and preparation time. Try and think through together what this might involve, for example will learning tracks and sheet music need to be created, will these need to be sent out to members ahead of rehearsals?

Consider how the group can help with the workload:

  • Can others in the group help prepare rehearsal material, or could section leaders take some rehearsals or run breakout rooms in a rehearsal?
  • If you’re working on a project such as a virtual performance, can someone other than the MD take on the task of receiving recordings and editing the final product?
  • Set up a group account on whichever platform you use, rather than using the MD’s account. This means the committee can take charge of managing the account and setting up rehearsals, as well as running the technical side of a rehearsal, allowing the MD to focus on the music only.
  • Someone else in the group can take charge of the social aspect, such as hosting/welcoming as everyone joins, or planning activities for breaks or organising a virtual pub after the rehearsal has finished.

Once you have an idea of what might be involved on each side, talk about money and make sure everyone is happy with the arrangements. It is worth noting that if this is all new to your MD – or to you! - you might not know exactly what is involved, so some flexibility from both sides might be needed initially.

Talk money

Delivering online activities is still providing a service to your group and MDs deserve to be paid for it. What goes into providing that service will be different to your usual activities, so the fee might need to be different too.

Some things you should consider when deciding on a fee structure: 

  • If you pay a fixed fee per rehearsal is the prep involved for online rehearsal the same as a ‘normal’ one? If not should the fee be adjusted?
  • If you are working towards something such as creating a digital performance you might prefer to agree a project fee to include any preparation, rehearsal and digital performance production that the MD needs to do
  • An hourly rate might be more appropriate – make sure you set expectations around the number of hours clearly
  • Some groups pay a fixed retainer rate for all preparation plus an extra hourly rate for rehearsals
  • Be flexible and mindful of adding extra work – if rehearsals are going well and the group decide they want to do more or have a project to work towards, you will need to review the fee rather than just adding work on.

Consider temporarily changing your MD’s contract too. A short-term month-by-month contract specifically for online activities might work, this will allow you to review it regularly and means you can easily switch back to your usual contract when you are able to get back together in person.

Have difficult conversations

If you MD isn’t engaging with online activities, then you need to make a decision about what is best for the group. If the committee and members want online activities, there is no reason your MD should block that.

Most groups will engage an MD on a freelance basis which means they are paid to provide a service. If they are not providing the service personally, they are still responsible for making sure it is being provided (e.g. by a replacement/dep MD). If they are not doing this, you are under no obligation to continue working with them. Refer to your contract and the role description:  

  • If the nature of the online role is significantly different to the one the MD is engaged to provide you could consider creating a new role – which could be filled by anyone.
  • If the nature of your contract and role description means they can still provide the service online, then they should be providing the service, and if they aren’t you can end the agreement.
  • If you don’t have a contract or role description to refer to then you can have these conversations based on your established way of operating, and it could be a good chance to start afresh and introduce a contract especially for online activity.

If your MD can’t help your group to get online, then you are within your rights to look elsewhere. Some possible options:

  • Appoint a temporary MD for online activities only – you could offer a short-term contract, perhaps even a rolling monthly one. 
  • You could have one or more guest MDs do a session or two each. It’s potentially a lot of work to organise unless you have good networks, and doesn’t lend itself to a longer project, but could also help keep things interesting and varied for members. 
  • Do you need an MD at all? Depending on what members want you might be able to deliver a good programme of online events, mixing some basic musical sessions and some social ones, without an MD. Ask members if they would be willing to lead a simple sing- or play-along session, or if they have any particular skills or interests they could share.

We know some groups are paying their MDs partial fees and retainers, even if they aren’t providing a service. Whilst we understand wanting to support your MDs this should not be at the expense of the group and your members. If you can’t afford to pay your existing MD a retainer whilst also paying a different MD for online activities, then it’s time to make a call.

We appreciate these are not straightforward decisions or easy conversations, but if you are not getting anywhere they are ones you need to consider. Remember:

  • The group’s best interests is your primary concern, not the MD’s best interests.
  • You are in charge – you engage the MD to provide a service.   
  • This is a pause not an end: you can pick up where you left with your MD when you are back ‘in person’. Remember that as your activity is online any new MD could be based miles away and so would not be an option when you get back to meeting in person.

The counter argument: we know some groups and MDs have relationships that go back a long way.  These can be tricky decisions; each group is different and there is not always a right or wrong answer.  A new MD for online activities might be in the short-term interest of the group, but if it means losing your MD, which would then impact your ability to get the group going again when you can meet in person, perhaps the long term interests are better served by maintaining that relationship with your MD. This should be balanced against the potential loss of momentum, and you should still put the financial needs of the group first (can you afford to pay an MD for doing nothing?).

Make a plan

Once you know what the members want and have the MD on board (or know that you need to look elsewhere) you can put together a plan of what a term’s worth of online activity will look like. Having a well thought through programme and structure can help bring focus and purpose to your activities.

In ‘normal’ times you would probably have the shared goal of working towards a live performance.  Creating a digital performance can be a great way to recreate that online. It does require a fair amount of time and some technical ability but is definitely doable, and we have resources to help. The final product can be a great promotional tool, and can also be submitted to our Virtual Concert series which will now also have concerts in September, October and November. It is worth remembering though that it doesn’t have to be any of these things, and can just be a fun project for the group. 

Work towards a live performance – without knowing when you might be able to perform live again you could use online rehearsals to practice some tried and tested repertoire so you are ready to go at short notice should the opportunity arise.

Having some structure doesn’t just have to be about a shared goal. It could be about having a varied programme. So some weeks are online rehearsals that offer a chance to sing or play, others could be purely social, or a talk by a professional musician. See our Making the most of online rehearsals resource for more ideas

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.