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Coping with Membership Churn

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One of the conversations I had several times during my recent visits to the London City Singers was about the challenge of dealing with a high turnover of membership. This is something that all choirs face to some extent, but LCS are particularly affected by it because of the demographic of their membership: young professionals working in an international industry.

So, having a significant change of membership from one year to the next presents difficulties with maintaining both skills and repertoire.

You are constantly having to cover the basic ground for new members, which leaves less time for building on them to develop advanced skills. And a piece you worked up to a good performance standard just a few months ago loses its polish much faster if 25% of the chorus who did that work have been replaced.

At the same time, though, there are commensurate advantages. People learn at the fastest rate when they first join a choir, so having a constant new influx keeps the pace up and stops people getting into too much of a rut. And newcomers slot in at a group’s current level. They look around them to see what other people are doing and join in. So the loss of skills from people leaving is to an extent balanced by a dynamic in which it is easier to effect change.

Since the London City Singers’ challenge of membership churn is simply an exaggerated version of the situation every choir faces, it occurred to me to look to an even more exaggerated situation to see how people cope there.

Student societies are predicated on seeing at least a third of their members change every year. Most students are only at university for 3 years, and whilst some may join a society in their first year and stay with it until graduation, many others will try different activities over the course of their studies. And yet student societies are very good at building and perpetuating traditions.

They do this using both formal and informal mechanisms. The society folklore is passed on actively from continuing to new members both at the recruiting stage and in and around the first few sessions of the year. The ritual of going to the bar after meetings plays a significant role in this, and there will often also be an organised social event within the first few weeks which ensures that all newcomers can be exposed to this oral tradition whether or not they are regulars in the bar.

This folklore is only marginally about the techniques of the activity, but rather revolves around the shared experiences the activity offers. Old-timers’ tales of their first encounter with a significant event are just as (or possibly even more) effective for inculcating new members when the old-timer is only one year ahead of the newby. This oral tradition also involves explaining in-jokes and retelling significant tales from before the current generation of students that continue to affect how the society operates.

The formal mechanisms consist of the constitutional apparatus of the society and the means by which the knowledge of its operation is handed on. The constitution itself will define things like objects of the society and the committee posts that make it happen, but the details of how to do those jobs may also be recorded formally by each year’s holder to pass on to the next. When I was a student, this used to entail a book for each office-holder containing checklists for the society’s yearly cycle, and each year’s holder would up-date it with notes about changes to contacts or procedures, or how they had solved problems that hadn’t been covered by the checklists. I imagine today’s students may use different technology; indeed society websites perform both formal and informal functions in maintaining their traditions.

So, much of this is no surprise. But the big thing that leaps out at me having thought through the detail is that student societies manage churn well (a) because it’s built into the nature of what they do and (b) because they have a clear cyclic structure within which to manage it.

Having a bunch of new people start together is useful for three reasons:

  1. It makes it easier to plan how the induction phase for new members interacts with the ongoing development of continuing members
  2. It is more likely to mobilise continuing members into actively passing on the choir folklore
  3. It gives the new members a cohort of people to share the experience with

Choirs that work in seasons will have an this kind of structure around which to hang their induction processes, but community choirs that welcome new singers at any time of year probably have to work harder to make this work for them.

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