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Choir Recruitment: Organic or Factory-Farmed?

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The email I mentioned in a recent post that asked about how to manage the distribution of resources to potential members who have not yet committed to join a choir also included another good question in a p.s:

Another issue is whether to grow a chorus organically or via open days... should there be a set quota, are open days good or bad ideas where you get an influx of new people who may or may not stay in the long run - have you wasted a precious rehearsal?

(By the way, the metaphor of factory farming in my title simply came out from the phrasing about 'organic' growth in the question. I don't really think that open days are comparable to keeping chickens in cages.)

As with many 'how-to' questions for running choirs, I don't think that one approach is necessarily inherently better than another, but they do provide different problems and opportunities, so you may find one or other better suited to your particular way of working.

Organic growth has the advantage that new members will generally be integrated smoothly. Business as usual can carry on while new members find their feet. This makes things easier for the director in that they can keep focused on performance goals, and have a clearer handle on the overall skill level of the ensemble for development needs. It also allows the newcomer to get a clear idea of the kind of group they are joining, as they experience what constitutes normality, both in terms of performance standards, and working methods, from Day One. Organic growth is also a great performance indicator: if people just turn up wanting to sing, then you know something is going right in the choir.

The downsides of this approach can be the extra distractions involved as the new person doesn't yet know their way round the repertoire and rehearsal habits. They'll need extra time to process instructions, and will often need multiple small interventions from fellow choir members to help them. This can slow the rehearsal down and - worse - give space for other choir members to start distracting each other. Conversely, if they don't get enough help, the newcomer can feel quite lost and overwhelmed.

Recruiting by open days has the advantage that you can plan for the disruption caused by the influx of newcomers. You can prepare a structured induction programme so that the new members are fully supported as they are inculcated into the group's specialist skills and social mores. Having the company of other newcomers also offers a specific form of social support while people find their feet. And you can control the first impressions of potential members more carefully too when you're focused on their needs. (Though planning a rehearsal as if it's going to be someone's first impression of the whole choir is not a bad way to keep you honest.)

The downsides are that the needs of the new can rather overwhelm the ongoing development of the whole. If 25% of your singers have no background of singing together, that influx can significantly disrupt the choral sound, making it harder for the new singers to grasp what's expected as well as potentially undermining the progress of the existing members. This style of recruitment needs to be scheduled carefully so there's time to integrate the new singers before any major performances.

The question also worried about whether it was a waste of rehearsal time to use it for recruitment events when there was no guarantee you'd get a significant number of new members. My correspondent feels a particular urgency over this since she belongs to a group that meets once per month. But even for those who rehearse every week, it's a valid question.

And I think the key here is to think of the open day type event as part of the choir's marketing in a wider sense, not just recruiting. The people who come along may not have space in their life to join full-time just now, but give them a good time and they will remember you. They'll tell a friend, or they'll join someone else's choir in a few years' time. They might buy a show ticket, or they may mention you to someone who then wants to book you. Friends are good to have, as well as new singers.

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