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Issues with school choirs singing in a local church venue for concert?

Hello all,
I am in my second year at a small high school of 750, and have two choirs of around 30 members each. Historically, attendance for our performances are relatively low (100-120 people) in our beautiful, giant auditorium that seats the entire student body. My theatre colleague and his sound engineer students set up our stage with mics and monitors for my choirs to be heard, but understandably it is not a very natural sound. Just a few weeks ago my choirs sang at a local church and sounded absolutely fantastic,  having finally experiencing the natural resonant quality that comes from singing in an acousticly forgiving space.
     I have a meeting with my administration in the next couple of days about changing the venue from our auditorium to the local church. I expect Separation of Church and State issues to arise with at least one of my admins, does anyone have  advice or experience performing a concert in a 'religous space' and how to present it sympathetically to my administration?
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on March 3, 2015 4:41pm
I think it really depends on the community you are in. One of the schools I taught did not have a true stage, and the choirs always performed at various local churches when it came to concert time. (The bands performed in the gym.) It was a small, rural and conservative community in the Midwest, and it was completely normal and totally accepted that those church venues would be used for performances. We would even walk over to the church for rehearsals during the school day as performance time approached.
Now, here in upstate NY, I would be shocked if local public schools were regularly holding performances in churches.
I would feel out your colleagues and community members a bit. Is it a new theater? Will the administration be appalled that you want to use something other than the place they just built? Would your parents and families balk at performing in a church? As far as presenting it sympathetically, lots of choirs from small public colleges perform in local churches. Presenting that as a precedent might get you somewhere, especially if you can find local examples. Also, perhaps you could spell out the specific acoustical problems in your auditorium and the cost of solutions (acoustical shell, etc.), and offer using another venue as a cheaper solution.
Applauded by an audience of 4
on March 3, 2015 6:34pm
Jeff, I think the church/state issue would only be an issue if your choir were singing for a worship service or an event sponsored by the church. It sounds like for this concert you're just wanting to rent out the church as a performance space just like you would rent any auditorium/concert hall.
Applauded by an audience of 9
on March 4, 2015 5:09am
on March 5, 2015 7:25am
Many churches serve as concert venues, and even as recording locations due to favorable acoustics. It shouldn't be hard to document that. A positive side is that such an occasiion can aid in audience-building, as some church members might attend who otherwise might not be aware of the choir's concerts.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 3, 2015 7:30pm
What else is on your schedule for the year?  I suspect if you billed it as outreach to the broader community you might have an easier sell.  Suggest a visit to a local nursing home, an elementary school, look for chances to sing at the local summer art festival or peach parade.  If it's part of a package, it would go down easier.  It would mean you'd have to plan other events, and put up with well-meaning, but inappropriate suggestions of other venues from the administration, but it would probably be a good experience for your kids to get to sing under a variety of circumstances and for audiences other than their parents.  Your choir would be more of a community performing choir, with more frequent performances, (which can help build a stronger program), as opposed to the more common, singing-at-assemblies-for-the-other-students-who-really-don't-want-to-be-there choir.  (:
Applauded by an audience of 6
on March 5, 2015 2:45am
Look at what else the church is hosting - do they host concerts by local orchestras, other choirs, etc. with no religious content? If so that would be a good argument on your behalf.
on March 5, 2015 5:06am
For the same reasons choirs need to sing sacred texts they need apporpriate, acousitcal concert venues.  It's not about the place.  It's about the space.
Best of luck with this situation!
on March 5, 2015 7:59am
My guess is that you will meet a lot of resistance from at least some of your administrators and school board members, despite the many common-sense suggestions and justifications here by previous posters.  During my years of teaching at the elementary level, I have heard time and time again from other teachers the tiresome refrain, "I won't do any sacred Christmas songs, it's against separation of church and state, we'll get sued, etc. etc."   In reality, most states, including AZ and NY where I've worked, have specific education regulations permitting use of sacred materials in any subject area, so long as they are part of an inclusive curriculum and not used to promote religious practice.  There are at least two national legal firms that specialize in these kinds of cases involving "religion in the public square."  Probably you don't want to get involved in a legal battle, but it might reassure administrators and board members to see copies of the exact regulatory language in your state, along with summaries of practices in other districts and related state ed. decisions and court cases. 
Does ACDA have this type of supporting documentation to help music teachers in this situation?  If not, this would be a great service.....would make a great retirement project for someone!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 29, 2015 10:11am
My middle school choir program has been having choir concerts at a local church for about 5 years now. When we first started having the concerts there, I was worried it would be an issue, but so far it has not been. People have appreciated hearing their kids in a beautiful space with good acoustics as opposd to hearing them in our school's multi purpose room. They have also appreciated not having to pay to enter the concert. Since the church lets us use the space for free, we don't need to sell tickets to recoup the cost of the space. We are beginning the process of building a theater on campus and while I am looking forward to performing in a more professional space, the church has been an excellent venue for us.
on May 29, 2015 12:25pm
Same here - my school has no auditorium.  We can perform in the local professional theatre that seats 1200, I usually have around 250-300 in attendance at my concerts, but it's an old vaudville house, so the acoustics are awful and it costs around $2500 to rent.  So we perform in a local church as well. I've never had an issue with anyone, but again, since we don't have a dedicated space, there have been no issues.  The only programming issues that I've had is that I have a jazz group, and sometimes, their stuff isn't "church appropriate" so we do a different venue...smaller group. Smaller audience...
on May 29, 2015 1:33pm
Barron-Collier High School in Naples Florida had issues with this last year. You can do a search on my blog to read about the struggles they went through because ONE parent objected and called ACLU. This is a school that does not have a suitable auditorium and had been singing in local churches for years and yet, one parent brought it all to a screeching halt, at least for awhile. They are now dividing their concerts between a local church and another area high school auditorium.  Be prepared for battle.
on May 30, 2015 5:18am
Putting aside entirely the issue of church-state separation (which has been discussed in another long thread here on ChoralNet - which, to be brief, is a red herring, based on a misunderstanding of what the First Amendment really is for), the real issue, at least to me, is that of a brand new auditorium....that is unsuited for a smaller group.  Duh!  Who, in his right engineering mind, built a space that would REQUIRE a smaller group to have to use artificial sound enhancement?  Clearly, when the specifications were put out there, no one gave a thought to what happens if you have less than an 80-member band (right?) or a 65-piece orchestra (maybe?) that can pretty well fill a hall.  So now we have kids doing their darnedest to fill a space that was never meant for them - but because millions (?) were spent building this palace, you guys rattle around in it like a marble in an empty bucket - and that marble probably makes more noise, relatively speaking, than you all do.  So if you don't use it, it looks like a slam against the administrators/school district.  "Oh, typical choral people; too hoity-toity to use the space."  Well, truth is, not all spaces are created equal - but we can hardly expect benighted administration from seeing that.  So, how do you sell the use of a space that is at least more sympathetic to choral music than some big, honking, bowl of a place?  Well, talk to the your band and orchestra colleagues - they may be having (secret) thoughts about the space for their smaller groups.  Outreach, mentioned above, is a FABULOUS idea.  Use the thought that if you are successful in going out into the public - a much easier proposition for a very easily transported chorus, as opposed to all the hoo-ha attendant on the band getting out (tho' that would be a good idea as well, at least for a smaller group) or even the orchestra (gotta bring all those stands, etc., etc.), it can help to fill that howling void of an auditorium for other concerts (but not in those words, exactly!).  See if there are other venues that are cheap (that's another issue), acoustically acceptable to great, and which have built-in audiences to which your chorus can be an ambassador from the school - and which can bring in (paying?) patrons (can't really do that at the school, though, if it's public, and supported by tax payers - you can only do that for theater because of the costs for renting the play, etc.).  Talk to a sympathetic administrator and see if you can get behind the head of the anticipated troublemaker among them - not mentioning that part of the problem set, obviously, but at least addressing the concern you think will arise.  This is an opportunity to show all them STEMmers out there that the only way to move forward is if you have STEAM - that what we A-Arts sorts bring to the table is creativity, thinking outside the box, for the good of the community.  Go get 'em!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 31, 2015 4:30am
In my experience, there might be two other issues that you could face:
1. School pride. There might be a view that school things should happen at school. Not for separation reasons, but for community-building reasons. If a lot of dollars were invested in a beautiful auditorium, there is likely a great deal of pride in seeing it used by school organizations. This is not a reason to hold all concerts in the auditorium, especially if it is Ill-suited acoustically for your groups. However, it might be wise for you to acknowledge the path someone took to arrive at this conclusion: Because this is a school group, and because we have this beautiful space, we should have groups perform in this space because it builds the school community. 
2. Liability insurance. More and more churches are getting the squeeze to require liability insurance certificates from organizations. My former school would not provide one, and a local church wouldn't allow us to perform without one. I wouldn't bring it up unless someone asks, but it can be a sticky wicket. 
You have some solid ground to stand on, but don't let that cause over confidence in support of your desire. Singing in a local church can imbed the choir into the community even more than it already is, and could in return draw a larger audience. You may also want to think down the road about a program that had 150 singers and could create a 60% capacity audience. To have a plan that says "when ensembles reach this size, and when audiences are this size, the auditorium becomes a viable venue to use."
Best wishes in your meeting!
Garrett Lathe
on June 1, 2015 12:22pm
I'm not an insurance expert, but a one time "rider" for an event like this might cost as little as $60.  That's what our local historical society pays to the town or school for each event on town or school property which is considered to involve a hazard, like horses and vehicles in a parade, or a demonstration by a blacksmith.
on June 1, 2015 5:22am
Here is Arizona and specifically Prescott, our churches are used as concert venues due to the lack of viable concert venues in the schools.  The local Jr. College has a wonderful building that does not support choral singing without electronic help.  I have taught at the school but much preferred to use local churches.  I am also choirmaster at a local Episcopal church that welcomes outside groups to use our facility.  In a manner of speaking it is outreach without being billed as such.
My suggestion: Create a list of pros and cons and present the list as your argumnet for taking the group off campus.  After all, does the football team play in the gym!
Your singers deserve the best possible venue to display their work with integrity.
You should prevail!
Dennis Houser
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