The “Professional” Choir

choirprof.jpegAn interesting question came up over tea this morning with Helene Whitson, the creator of the useful and exhaustive Bay Area Choral Archive and one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable choral bods I’ve ever met. The subject under discussion was to do with professionalism in choral singing, but you could just as easily apply the same thoughts to professionalism in any field really.

What makes a choir “professional”? For Chorus America, and many other organizations and individuals, the distinction between amateur and professional choirs is largely related to finance. If you get paid for what you do, you’re pro. If not, that makes you am.

Helene fervently disagrees with this definition and is in the process of trying to come up with a better way of categorizing choirs. “For me, professionalism is defined not by the amount of money that a chorister makes, but by his or her abilities as a singer,” she says.

Helene’s ideas come from years of watching choirs in action. She thinks that there are many paid choral singers who don’t deserve to be paid and many others who don’t get a dime for what they do, but are worthy of being compensated for it. It is this discrepancy which makes her want to change the way in which her own organization categorizes vocal ensembles.

I agree with Helene. I sing in a volunteer chorus. Many of its members are as good as anyone that gets paid to sing in, say, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. But at the same time, I wonder if it’s time to do away with the professional/amateur categories entirely. They’re just not all that useful anymore. And even if Helene changes her definition in the Choral Archive database, it doesn’t mean that the people who use her resource will adhere to her meaning.

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  1. MWnyc says

    I certainly can understand the impulse to eliminate the implied distinction in quality between professional and amateur choirs.
    But how else would an umbrella service organization like Chorus America distinguish them?
    Pretty much every other classification system except for size would involve some sort of subjective judgment as to a given group’s quality. You can imagine the Pandora’s Box that would open.
    The amateur-vs.-professional distinction is at least based on verifiable fact. And with that distinction, ensemble singers who are trying to earn a living know which groups they could audition for in order to help make that living.
    And thus we leave assessments of quality in the realm of the subjective, where they necessarily belong.
    PS – I’m reminded of the term “major American orchestra,” which was used so widely in the press coverage when Marin Alsop was named music director of the Baltimore Symphony – “the first woman to be music director of a ‘major American orchestra’.”
    And what of JoAnn Falletta in Buffalo and Virginia, some observers asked? Well, the Baltimore Symphony has its players on a 52-weeks-per-year contract; the Buffalo Phil and Virginia Symphony do not.
    However inexact the term “major” may be in this context, the distinction it makes – a year-round orchestra versus a part-or-most-of-the-year orchestra – may just be the only objective criterion one could use for classifying the professional (there we go again) orchestras of the US.
    (Damn. This oughta be a blog post of its own. Sorry for the length, folks.)

  2. oldpro says

    I don’t think that it is a very useful distinction. I’ve been a very active professional choral singer since I was a boy soprano 35 years ago; the job is all about skills such as sight-reading and ensemble awareness.
    A pro should be able to show up at a recording session and sing anything put in front of her in two or three takes. She should keep her voice in shape, and probably have a voice teacher and/or vocal coaches. (Pros are often also soloists.) She should be committed to making rehearsal meaningful by coming prepared, learning music that she can’t just read on the spot, etc, etc.
    Ultimately, it is the performance that people care about, however, and plenty of amateur choirs can sing a fine performance. Such performances demand simply more time and effort in their preparation. Some repertoire can only be sung by a group of highly trained voices, but virtuosity is hardly a reason to create a category – some virtuosic choral music is transcendent, but most, in my experience, is gratuitous.

  3. says

    Chloe, I’ve always enjoyed reading your articles, especially those about singing. I’m a former member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus and American Bach Soloists, and other ensembles on both coasts. I have taught singing for 30 years, and still do. These are my observations on the subject of your article.
    Professional singers (as soloists or in choruses) know how to focus, sustain, and control the volume of the voice. Professional singers should be able to read music, know how to prepare a part for a good performance, and understand that the conductor’s beat is what they should meet. All this takes training.
    In my opinion, amateur choirs generally have a breathier quality, are less in tune, (especially in the high range), and have a murkier rhythm due to lack of knowledge about how to attack a note cleanly.
    One time, during one of my “ringer” gigs at a large church in San Francisco, singing with its volunteer choir, I was carefully following the conductor, who was trying to hold together a piece in which the group was not rhythmically together. The soprano on my left tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re a little ahead of us.” I replied: “I’m with the conductor.” That explains the difference between amateur and professional.
    For focus and precision, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (especially singing the music of Arvo Pärt) is one of the best examples of a professional chorus.

  4. Matthew Scott says

    Speaking as someone who has sung in professional, amateur, church, and semi-professional choirs, the main thing that sets a professional choir apart is not necessarily the level of musicianship but the structure and strength of the organization supporting and promoting the singers. The professional choir with which I sang paid only enough, really, to compensate the singers for time missed at day jobs, gas to get us to rehearsals/performances, and uniform costs. The *real* payoff of being in such a group was the instant credibility I had with other local musical organizations; a member of my group was automatically paid more for area church gigs, considered first for local directorships with less regard to his/her formal education level, and generally assumed to be a musician of the highest caliber.
    A professional choir, whether profit or non-profit, operates on a civic level, like a symphony, opera, or ballet company. Their board is comprised not primarily of singers from the group, but of civic leaders and financiers, who work tirelessly to promote and strengthen the group and its ties to the community it serves. This enables the group to survive not on ticket sales, but on grants and donations. Thus, the singers are rarely called upon to fundraise, except casually on social media. Thanks for letting me put in my 2 cents.


  1. […] Most symphony orchestra-affiliated choruses are amateur (unpaid) but the quality is exceptional. If what you want to do is "collaborate with a good choir," you have many options. My US-based affiliated choir has sung in Europe with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic in Prague and at the Salzburg Cathedral celebrating Mozart’s 250th birthday. We have also performed in New York City at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. food for thought.…ssional_choir/ […]