Toolkit: Start a Chorus


Rehearsals are where most of the Giving Voice “magic” takes place, where singers and their care partners experience joy, social interaction, and the satisfaction of working toward a goal.


During the fall and spring sessions, our chorus rehearses two hours weekly for about 14 weeks at the same location and time on a set day of the week. The summer session includes eight weeks of rehearsal and an informal concert in week nine for family and friends.

Before Rehearsal

Each rehearsal is scheduled for a total of 2 hours, with 20-30 minutes of social time before and after the working rehearsal. The staff or volunteers greet everyone warmly upon their arrival, making sure the participants have their notebooks. (Keep extra notebooks on hand.) During social time, singers talk with other chorus members and volunteers while enjoying snacks and beverages. The sound of a soft gong or tambourine signals that social time is over and the rehearsal is beginning. Volunteer singers are assigned to singers with dementia and help them manage their printed music, follow instructions, and generally help make sure the rehearsal runs smoothly.

Typical Rehearsal Schedule

All times are approximate

  • Opening ritual song & warm-up (5 minutes)
  • Work repertoire (40 minutes)
  • Move & Groove” stretch break (5 minutes)
  • “Music & Me” (5 minutes)
  • Announcements (5 minutes)
  • Closing ritual song (2 minutes)


As with any choral group, regularity and structure help singers come together as an ensemble and learn the repertoire. Unlike in a sing-a-long or drop-in choir program, the  music director and singers work over the course of many weeks to learn and prepare a program for public performance.

After about 45 minutes, the singers take a ten-minute break in place or “Move & Groove.” Walk-around breaks tend to be disruptive and time-consuming. The music director leads the group in basic stretches and fun movement as the pianist plays a medley of chosen music that is seasonal or topical tunes (for example, Elvis songs during his birthday month in January or Irish songs in March). Announcements follow the stretching, and then a pair of singers (care partner and person with Alzheimer’s) offer their “Music & Me” stories illustrating how music has affected their lives.

The rehearsal ends with a closing song, typically the same song each week. Our chorus has enjoyed closing each rehearsal with “Happy Trails.”

Rehearsal Planning

  • Establish objectives for the session (e.g. musical growth, social interaction, singer confidence)
  • Select a familiar ritual opening and closing songs
  • Plan call and response warm-ups
  • Identify some songs or exercises that will help you assess singers’ abilities
  • Identify short vocal exercises targeting anticipated challenge areas in rehearsal music
  • Select instrumental music for “Move & Groove”

Tips from the Music Director

Retaining information from week to week can be a challenge for singers with dementia, but don’t underestimate their abilities! The following techniques have helped Giving Voice singers retain rehearsal information and improve from week to week over the course of an entire 14-week session:

  • Rehearse 4-6 songs each week as the chorus is learning
  • Sing through the songs after working on specific sections
  • Anticipate the passages where singers will be challenged, and work on those challenges from the beginning
  • Make sure the music director’s instructions are consistent from week to week
  • Use a microphone so you can easily be heard. A headset mike will leave both hands free.
  • Establish a system of visual and physical cues that your singers clearly understand to remain focused on the music director
  • Establish an adaptive conducting style (e.g., with index fingers point the rhythmic syllabic division) and use of some exaggerated facial features
  • Identify one or two main ideas that the singers can associate with each song (e.g., rhythm, the story, or dynamics) and reinforce them each week
  • Encourage the use of practice CDs
  • Select repertoire so at least 80% is songs that are already familiar to most of the singers
Consider what mode of learning is most appropriate for each piece. For example, a gospel piece might be best learned by ear, rather than using printed music. Be flexible!


The opportunity for singers to socialize informally before and after rehearsals is essential to the full chorus experience. For many singers, this will be their only social time of the week, and they value it dearly.

Volunteers plan, procure, and serve refreshments served during social time.

We have found that singers with Alzheimer’s also enjoy socially appropriate physical touch–shaking hands, welcoming hugs, holding an arm for support, or a pat on the back for a job well done—things that are often lost in the isolation of dementia.

Three Stages of Chorus Development

The experience of the Minneapolis Giving Voice Chorus has been that during each 14- or 8-week session, the group evolves in three phases between the first rehearsal and the final performance

Stage 1: The singers are becoming familiar with new music, new members, and for some, a new environment. Singers need patience with each other and the music director needs flexibility and adaptability in teaching the music and maintaining a joyful atmosphere at rehearsals. Careful planning by the music director ensures a smooth rehearsal.

Stage 2: After a few weeks of rehearsal, the singers understand their musical parts. The routine of the social hour, opening song, warm-ups, singing, stretching, and the ending song are now familiar. Personal relationships are formed among singers, volunteers, and music director. Rehearsals become more relaxed as the singers begin to master songs and become accustomed to the routine.

Stage 3: Once the music is familiar, the rehearsals focus on the scheduled performance. The singers understand the balance of their parts and listen to each other, mastering the dynamics of the song. Repertoire for the next week’s rehearsal is announced so singers can practice at home. The last rehearsal before a community performance is the dress rehearsal. Songs are performed in order and are introduced by the singers.


How do you maintain a calm, structured environment during rehearsals?

Everyone understands the challenges singers are facing. Volunteers help singers keep track of their music books, follow the music director’s instructions, find their way to the restrooms, and generally keep things moving smoothly. The rehearsal environment is flexible, inclusive, and focused on the music, so singers can relax and simply enjoy singing.

Do rehearsals feel like “Groundhog Day,” with the chorus having to re-learn everything each week?

Like a rehearsal with any chorus, there is some repetition from week to week, but there is also a learning process that occurs over the entire span of weeks. Most singers practice at home during the week to retain what they have learned and to be prepared.