The Problem of the Post-Charismatic Choir, Part 3

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In the first two posts in this series, we looked at the problem of ageing choirs (or indeed voluntary organisations in general) and how their difficulties recruiting the next generation of members can be analysed in terms of the routinisation of charisma. We've got to the point of addressing what we can actually do about this.

I should possibly add at this point (maybe I should have done earlier!) that whilst I'm writing these posts in largely theoretical terms, I am mentally testing them out on a whole bunch of real-life case-studies as I go. But I'm not citing these very much, except the odd anonymised anecdote, because I don't think it is the kind of thing where commenting publicly would be kind to the groups involved. We all know groups to whom these comments could apply to a greater or lesser extent - it's not going to help them overcome their challenges to point the finger at them.

More helpful, I hope, are the following points.

First - and I think this point emerges from the initial thoughts about identity and attitude before we even got into charismatic questions - there needs to be some handing-over of power. It is pretty much impossible to recruit and retain people coming into their prime and expect them to carry on doing things the way they have been done for 30 years without them wanting to make changes.

One of the things that was joyful for those now elderly people when they first got involved was the feeling that they were making a difference. So you've got to offer that feeling to the people you want to recruit. And then accept that this means things will be different. You can't offer people the chance to make a difference *and* have things the same.

That sounds very obvious written like that, but any twenty-something who has taken over the direction of a fifty-something-plus choir will recognise the heart of much they have struggled with.

But here is where the charismatic analysis comes in useful - not just for identifying aspects of the problem, but also to offer ways out of the impasse. Because what will both persuade long-standing members to change and attract new members is a renewed commitment to a cause in response to a crisis. Galvanising the group afresh will turn attention back outwards to the world at large, and thereby facilitate a new state of flux in which all can forge bonds with all.

The vampiric flavour of attitudes to the young I touched on in my first post is associated with an excessive focus on two things: recruitment, and youth.

With regard to the first: recruitment is too often framed in terms of the choir's need for members. You'll have a better time of it if you frame things more in terms of what joining the choir will rescue potential members from. What need will joining the choir fulfil?

Rock Choir - one of the fastest growing choral franchises in the UK of recent years - is very good at this. They are saving people from a life of isolation sat in front of screens, and from a fear of 'traditional' choirs with all the anxieties that stereotype can bring. They are selling the joys of making music - a classic charismatic cause in that it is a relatively abstract, moral good - via the crises of modern life and perceived exclusionary practices of other choral genres.

Of course Rock Choir wants to recruit. That is its life-blood, both as a choir and as a business. But that's not what it projects to the world. It's not about the choir needing singers, it's about what the choir can offer people by transforming them into singers. (And if 'traditional' choirs feel threatened by this, it's not entirely unreasonable, since they are being cast in the role of one of the problems that need solving.)

With regard to the second: people don't want to be valued because they're 'young' - that is arbitrary and temporary - but because they are people. Being young may look great from a distance, but at the time it is at least moderately problematic, as it brings with it dismal pay and frequent condescension.

From a more specifically charismatic analysis, the problem with a focus upon youth is that it sets up different groups within the whole. It is effectively trying to recruit a clique - if you succeed, you are setting yourself up for schism in a couple of years' time. Flux relies on a sense of 'we're all in this together' - where 'we' are the insiders who are battling as one against the forces of darkness outside. Focus on attracting people rather than obsessing about what kind of people you most want.

It is also worth making specific interventions to encourage equal access to mutual relationships. As well as making sure recent and long-standing members work together in the power structures of the group, make sure the activities themselves facilitate the growth of flux. Choirs have so many opportunities for this kind of thing - just getting people sitting/standing next to different singers each week makes such a difference.

This is all possible. It happens any time a choir has a life beyond its first generation. The choral society movement of the 19th century was a deeply charismatic movement, and it has succeeded in renewing itself repeatedly over the last 150 years and more. If many of those venerable institutions are struggling now, it's not because they're inherently anachronistic, it's because their last burst of expansion has run out of steam and lapsed into ossification.

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