Start your own Street Choir!

A Message from Jonathan Palant, founder/conductor

How do I start my own street choir?

This question requires me to share how the Dallas Street Choir got its start. Not long after I moved to Dallas in 2007, I was asked by someone affiliated with The Stewpot* if I would be interested in, and comfortable conducting a choir of homeless people. My answer was, of course, yes.

* The Stewpot is a social service agency servicing Dallas’ homeless and disadvantaged. On most mornings, there are 100 or more people gathered in the common area awaiting assistance of some kind.

On those 2-3 days a year when The Stewpot Choir convened, this was the usual rehearsal schedule:

9:00 am An announcement was made in the common area – The Stewpot Choir is meeting today. Anyone wanting to sing in today’s concert is asked to come to the counter now. A free pizza lunch will be served for those who sing.
9:00-12:00 Rehearsal
12:00-1:00 Pizza lunch together
1:00-1:45 Dress rehearsal in the church sanctuary
2:00-3:00 Concert begins featuring several guest artists (most often these would be friends of mine who were willing to donate their time to perform 1-2 pieces). Concert concludes with The Stewpot Choir singing 3-4 numbers accompanied by piano.
3:00 Audience and choir members depart with a new backpack filled with small necessities e.g. toothbrush, soap, lotion, hand wipes, pencils, gloves, etc. (These were supplied by The Stewpot.)

 

The audiences for these concerts are always members of the street community, i.e. other homeless men and women.

Repertoire was always different, but here is one such program (prior to the formation of the Dallas Street Choir):

  • Guest Artists
    • Cello Suite #1, Prelude by J.S. Bach
    • Revolutionary Etude, Chopin
    • Interpretive dance
    • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations, W.A. Mozart
    • Nothing’s Going to Harm You from Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim
    • Interpretive dance
  • The Stewpot Chorus

Having worked with The Stewpot Choir and earned the trust of Stewpot staff, I felt comfortable approaching them with a new idea – to rebrand The Stewpot Choir and perform a large-scale work in a public venue. With this endeavor, the Dallas Street Choir was born, and on January 25, 2015, the Dallas Street Choir, along with Credo Choir, the Richland College Chamber Singers, and soloists Frederica von Stade and Jonathon Welch gave the North American premiere of Street Requiem by Australian composers, Kathleen McGuire, Andy Payne, and Jonathon Welch. The performance sold out and received wildly favorable reviews. Moreover, the media attention surrounding our concert helped to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless in our community.

Where to start a Street Choir?

A Street Choir can be started in any city, town, or village with a street community. It’s easiest to begin where there are social service agencies already serving this population, e.g. a shelter, but locating the gathering places for the homeless is where to begin. Assuming there is a shelter or care facility in your area, I suggest beginning there. Make contact with the trained staff manning the agency, share your intent/goal/wish, and ask for both permission and guidance on how best to go about starting your ensemble. The Dallas Street Choir rehearses at The Stewpot – a known facility serving Dallas’ homeless.

How much money does it take to start a Street Choir?

Items you may need to pay for if not donated:

  • Sheet Music (purchased, but word sheets handed out to singers)
  • Rehearsal space
  • Incentives (see below)
  • stipend for director and accompanist
How do I get singers to join and attend rehearsals?

The Dallas Street Choir was launched using an “Earnings Program.” Some might call these rewards, but that term implies something quite different. I believe singers who attend regularly have earned their DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transportation) pass, gift card, or a new pair of socks. Below is the earning chart that was posted in the gathering room at The Stewpot – the vinyl poster was 4′ x 4′ and prominently displayed.

Having used the above incentive chart for the first three months after launching the Dallas Street Choir program, we learned that keeping up with the various incentives was more complicated than it was worth. Imagine: rehearsal #4 has 10 new members, 8 second timers, 2 third timers, and 5 who have attended all four rehearsals. There had to be a way to be equitable while still enticing singers to attend on a regular basis.

Here’s the system we use today:

At the conclusion of our weekly rehearsals, singers are given a choice of receiving a crisp $2 bill or an an all-day DART (city transportation) ticket. When we were still actively recruiting new singers, any member who brought with them a new member earned one of each! This is was a hugely productive tool and helped us triple in size quite quickly.

Things I’ve learned along the way:
  1. Create word sheets using 14 point font – double spaced. Most singers will want to use these, but a few may have seen sheet music before and prefer to try their hands at that.
  2. The Dallas street community is very spiritual and singing about God is a good thing. In San Francisco, however, this topic was taboo to some degree. Know your audience and program for them and not you!
  3. Be as kinesthetic as you can in your teaching. Street singers want to move and stay active. Attention spans are often short and movement helps to keep focus.
  4. With regard to movement, some singers can’t move as easily as others. Be considerate and aware.
  5. Learn and use first names as often as possible in the rehearsal. These are people too and they want to be seen, as well as heard. Knowing their names is the first step – and a big one at that.
  6. Do not be afraid to shake hands, high five, tap one’s shoulder, or fist bump. I would, however, caution against hugging or any other form of entering a singer’s personal space. Affection is something many homeless people struggle to accept, and therefore it’s best not to cross the line. There are always exceptions once you get to know your singers and they get to know you.
  7. Do not expect all your singers to have good hygiene. In my time working with the Dallas street community, I’ve encountered those with open wounds, bruises, bloody bandages, severe body odor, incontinence issues, missing or no teeth, singers in wheelchairs, and various levels of mental illness. Treat everyone equally regardless of what you encounter.
  8. Mental illness is common among those living on the street, as is addiction. Do your homework and know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to say to your singers.
  9. I do not have my singers touch each other at all, e.g. massages. Referring to number 7, personal space is important.
  10. Even your most devoted singers may have attendance issues. I had one singer who didn’t miss for 12 weeks straight, but then one day disappeared. Perhaps she got a job, or maybe she moved; perhaps she was arrested, or maybe something or someone in the Dallas Street Choir triggered a negative response and she decided to quit without telling anyone. Whether it be mental illness, social instability, a lack of professionalism, or just plain flakiness, I find that the most predictable thing about attendance is that there is nothing predictable about it.
  11. It will take a very long time to earn the trust of your singers. Love them and they will [eventually] love you back.
  12. Only make promises you can and will keep. My singers remember EVERYTHING I say and hold me accountable. For example, if I say, “You’ll get a prize for singing it correctly” then I had better have a prize ready. If I say we’ll start a new piece next week, I had better have a new piece next week. Keeping the promises you make will go a long way to number 11, earning the trust of your members.
  13. Stay focused on the job you set forth for yourself and the choir. Singers will likely approach you requesting help with things unrelated to choir. For example, I’ve been asked to give private voice lessons. I’ve also been asked to facilitate recording contracts, provide gas money, mediate housing disputes, and even set up a date between two singers! For the record, I agreed to none of these requests.
  14. Do not be afraid to ask for help! Case managers, social workers, shelter attendants, and those who have directed Street Choirs before are great resources. Chart new territory, but there is no need to do it alone.
Dallas Street Choir Repertoire:
  • Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell)
  • —Beautiful City (Godspell)
  • —Climb Every Mountain
  • —Deck the Rooftop (Glee version)
  • —Don’t Give Up (Josh Groban)
  • Electricity (Billy Elliot)
  • Everybody Rejoice (The Wiz/Diane Ross)
  • —Go the Distance (Hercules)
  • —God Help the Outcasts (Hunchback of Notre Dame)
  • Heal The World (Michael Jackson)
  • How We Love (Beth Nielsen Chapman)
  • I Ain’t Mad (David Broxton)
  • I Got Love (Purlie)
  • —If I Can Dream (Elvis Presley)
  • Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
  • —Lean On Me (Bill Withers)
  • —Let It Be (The Beatles)
  • —Let the River Run (Carly Simon)
  • —Love Train/Put A Little Love In Your Heart Medley
  • —Make Your Own Kind of Music (Mama Cass)
  • Perfect (P!nk)
  • Please Stay (Jake Runestad)
  • —Seasons of Love (Rent)
  • —Shall We Gather/Deep River Medley
  • —Somewhere (West Side Story, Bernstein)
  • —Street Requiem (American Premier)
  • —The Climb (Miley Cyrus)
  • —The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly)
  • —Tomorrow (Annie)
  • Up, Up, and Away (Fifth Dimension)
  • —Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker)
  • —Way Over Yonder (Carole King)
  • We Shall Be Free (Garth Brooks)
Street Choirs & Performers Known Around the World (past and present) 
Be sure to view the Archives page for our performance history, audio interviews, photos, and more!