Why Choirs Are Lazy

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dobelliA friend once told me about a time when she was playing in an orchestra and there was a rather busy and complex passage for the cello section. The conductor kept asking for more from the cellos, and eventually asked to hear that section alone. That was when they discovered that they were all miming...

This anecdote came to mind while I was reading a chapter in Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly on social loafing. This is the phenomenon whereby the more people you add to a team, the less effort each individual commits to the work. It was first identified in 1913 by a French engineer who noticed that two horses pulling a coach did not produce double the force of a single horse. Further experiment with men pulling on a rope revealed a progressive slackening off of effort from each individual as more people were added.

Now, this resonated with subjects I’ve pondered on round here before about the social dynamics of choirs. It’s relevant to both choir-management - the challenge of inveigling people into volunteering for committee posts and jobs to keep the choir running - and the actual business of singing - why doubling the number of singers doesn’t double the volume of sound a choir makes.

I’ve considered before what kind of leadership behaviours from a director may encourage people to retreat vocally and/or emotionally, and thus how to avoid encouraging disengagement. But Dobelli’s point is that the social loafing effect is likely to happen anyway, through the sheer addition of people.

This is why rehearsal tactics that reduce either the texture (such as duetting or section practices) or the ensemble size (such as splitting into semi-choruses) are effective, as they specifically counter this effect. Likewise, approaches that single people out, or otherwise raise the stakes address the diminished accountability people experience in larger groups.

But, still, it does make you wonder how huge choirs manage to make any sound at all. I think there are two factors involved here. The first one, Dobelli identifies: notwithstanding the cello example, the returns stop diminishing after a certain point. We reach a plateau of laziness whereby adding more people won’t make us reduce our input any further. Which means that adding more people will actually still increase output. Both existing members and new additions may all be significantly underperforming what they might achieve in a one-to-a-part ensemble, but they will still be making a net contribution.

The other is a contradictory tendency that Dobelli does not consider at all: the exhilarating effect of mass participation. There comes a point where a crowd is big enough to stimulate and excite its members into a state of heightened awareness. It is a significant factor in the charismatic encounters of major choral events. The euphoric loss of self people experience in (some, though not all) massed-voice occasions is a qualitatively different effect from the kind of reduction in engagement identified in the term ‘social loafing’.

It could be, therefore, that the hardest size of choir from which to get the best out of your singers is the medium-sized. Small groups give little scope for coasting; large groups facilitate a higher emotional temperature from sheer weight of numbers. It is in the normal-sized groups - that is, the majority of them - that the director will have to work harder at bringing their singers out of their comfort zones.

This is just what we were talking about at rehearsal yesterday evening, Liz. Delyth Knight (and Dick) came to coach us at Avon Harmony and we are a small chorus. We therefore all have to work harder to produce a beautiful, continuous sound.

Thank you for reinforcing our way of thinking.

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