How to Catch the Butterfly?

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butterflyThe title of this post is the subject line of an email I received recently from a friend who is grappling with the question of how to inveigle visitors to/potential members of her chorus to return and become actual members. This is a question that all choirs face, but it is exacerbated in this case because it is a group whose members are spread over a wide geographical distance, and who only meet once a month. So the opportunities for people to 'go off the boil' (as my correspondent put it) are significantly higher than for those choirs that meet weekly.

What they do so far is to 'pamper while they are at rehearsal, follow up once or twice between rehearsal (designated officer does this).' What they don't do is issue any music or learning materials until people are paid-up members, and the email implied that not being able to practise was a significant obstacle to ignition.

There are thus two distinct but related issues lurking in here: how to keep people's enthusiasm between rehearsals, and the pragmatics of giving out chorus property.

I'll deal with the second first, because it is more vexed. Anyone who has spent weeks chasing someone who came once, seemed very keen, then disappears off the face of the earth will understand why an ensemble requires an ongoing commitment before issuing materials on which they may have spent a lot of money, and may be licensed for their use only. On the other hand, the first thing a keen potential member who has been lit up by their first rehearsal will want to do is to go home and do more.

So, the challenge is to find some way of meeting that need while mitigating the risk to the ensemble of losing their resources. Ways I have seen this managed include:

  • Issuing music in return for a deposit (which may take the form of a cheque that would only be cashed if the singer left without returning the music).
  • Issuing music in return for signing a form that acknowledges that the materials remain property of the chorus, must not be copied or lent to other groups, and will be returned on request. If someone is really determined to make off with your stuff, this won't stop them of course, but most people probably aren't - the problem is more people who wander off without thinking that it's very important. These kinds of receipts primarily work by engaging people's desire to be self-consistent - if they say they'll do something, they are more likely to do it.
  • Issuing out-of-copyright repertoire only until fully-paid-up. If you don't have any, it may be worth adding a little to the repertoire for this purpose. Rather depends on your choral niche of course.
  • Issuing one piece only until full-paid-up. This has all the same risks as issuing a complete set, but limits the downside of loss to replacing the one piece.
  • Issuing a set of incomplete copies, so the singer can start getting familiar with the music, but if they wander off, they can't use the music with any other groups. This one is a bit on the windy side of copyright law, but is very good for mitigating the risk of someone causing you trouble by reproducing your music.

You'll have noticed that these are not mutually exclusive - you could combine several at once.

So, apart from giving access to stuff to practise, what else can a choir to do keep the connection with a potential member?

The contact between rehearsals is a good idea, but it may be more effective if instead of a designated officer having the task, each potential member has an individual mentor. This is both more personal, and does more to integrate the newcomer into the choir's social world, not just its admissions process. When you have members spread over a small country, the between-rehearsal contact is likely to be by email and phone, but if a newcomer does live near an existing member, then setting up the possibility for them to have face-to-face contact in the meantime is good. Actually singing with someone is going to be a much stronger hook than simply a nice note.

It's also worth getting potential members plugged into the communication structures of the choir as soon as possible. It's easier enough to rescind access to a private area on a website or remove a name from an email list or private Facebook group if they end up not joining, but the sooner they get integrated into the groups' social world, the sooner they will adopt it as part of their own musical identity.

And all these practical tactics are fundamentally about giving someone the means to feel like part of the group, helping them generate a self-image as 'one of us'. It's relatively easy to do this when they're actually with you (although it is also possible to fail to do this), but once someone has gone back to their real life, their previous world, the new one you opened up for them will seem less real, especially if there's a long time before the next time they get to reconnect with the new world. Indeed, it can happen that the more invigorated and lit up they have felt by the first visit, the more insidious is the doubt that creeps in when they get back home. Did it really happen? Was it really that good? Dare I go back again - what if I'm disappointed in the experience, or they're disappointed in me?

So the goal is to offer both an ongoing social validation - yes, you can do this, and you are welcome with us - and a means to connect and integrate this new world into their everyday life.

Running any group on a monthly basis is always going to be hard. It gives people plenty of time to go off the boil. Also, life intervenes and statistically, the less often you meet, the more disruptive other commitments become.

For me, the single most successful element in corralling butterflies is to get people to pay in advance. It's not a guarantee of attendance, but it does focus the mind on a cold, rainy Saturday when there's something good on telly. If you've paid already, it can help you get out of the house!

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