Soapbox: Hands Off My Choir!

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soapboxI recently received a letter from one of my city's fabulous arts organisations about a major musical event planned for 2014. I am going to have a grump in a minute, but it's not about the general wonderfulness of this organisation or the specific value of this project, which looks genuinely artistically exciting. The letter was inviting me to a meeting to learn how choirs from across the city could participate.

Now, maybe I am just feeling jaded because I live in a city that has a lot of great arts organisations, and so I get a lot of these invitations, but they are starting to irritate me, and I have taken a little time to work out why. On the face of it, what could be wrong with the chance to join up with other people with whom we have artistic interests in common to make a special event happen? Massed voice events are inherently exciting, and it's good for our sense of civic community to do stuff together.

But the thing is this: these are high-profile events, run by funded organisations, but effectively subsidised by the unfunded community groups upon which they rely for participants.

I don't have any problem with recruiting to the projects through local choirs - this is, after all, where the concentration of people self-identified as liking to sing hang out. Though, if I were really to cavil, I might point out that many choirs have to work hard at recruitment and retention, and it might do the musical life of the city a bit more long-term good if the funded organisations did more to introduce people who don't already sing to music than simply piggy-backing off these efforts.

But many of these projects - including the one that has precipitated this post - don't just ask for volunteers from the choirs they recruit from. They also propose to use the choir's own rehearsals for the preparations, sometimes over many months. There seems to be an assumption that choirs will just divert from whatever they would normally have done to do this other event.

This is not only profoundly disrespectful to the choirs' regular activities (well, you might normally waste your insignificant little lives preparing for the regular concert programme that helps fund your rehearsal and music costs, but that's just because you don't normally have the wonderful benefaction of a professionally-led Project ). It is also leeching on the resources such as rehearsal space that the community groups largely fund themselves.

Symptomatic of the way that these projects fail to value the time of the people whose cooperation they seek is the way they are so often launched with a meeting, called at short notice, at which they propose to reveal the practical details. So, they expect us to invest a return bus fare and an hour of our time, plus travel time, just to find out what kind of commitment this would involve. The people running the meeting are, of course, paid for their time.

(The other method of recruitment is the 'we'll come and visit your rehearsal' tactic. This has the advantage of not expecting the desired recruits to go out of their way just to find out if they might be interested, though my observation is that once the project promoters are in your rehearsal room, they tend to feel they need to make their journey worthwhile by holding the floor at length.)

Now, if you held a gun to my head and made me guess, I would imagine that the intention of these city-wide projects is to form part of an organisation's community outreach programme. They are probably funded on this basis; indeed, the organisation's core funding is probably conditional upon a certain level of community involvement. And I know that the people who run them are well-intentioned: they are my friends, my colleagues. Those of them who are reading this are probably rather appalled, and I want them to know not to take this personally - I know you are good people!

But that doesn't mean this approach to building a project isn't problematic. I guess it got used once, and worked fine, and so people keep using the same model. And the first time you encounter it, the ambition of the artistic aim distracts attention away from the way it is drawing sustenance from the communities to which it is supposed to be contributing. The essentially parasitic nature of the structure only starts to become clearer when it is repeated in project after project.

So, for people wanting to engage the city's communities in the arts, here are some things it might be useful to think about:

  • How many people does this project involve in the arts who were not previously involved? (That is, what are you contributing to the community groups' recruitment efforts?)
  • How does the funding that pays for the project benefit the community groups upon which it draws?
  • If you reimbursed your volunteers for all the resources they pay for as part of your project (travel, no. of hours usage of rehearsal space, etc), would your project still look economically viable? Where in your budget do you acknowledge the in-kind donation from community groups that this represents?
  • If you were paying all your volunteers by the hour, would you still use their time in the same way? (This is a useful thought experiment for anyone in the voluntary sector actually - just because people are donating their time, doesn't mean you can waste it.)

Those "invitations" seem to be very demanding indeed. We have never been asked to do anything like that. We sing at various events that fund raise for charities but most are run by volunteers. We sing music of our choice that is usually part of what we are regularly practising.

Perhaps, these massed productions have become a cultural norm in bigger centres but not here in our corner of Canada. Perhaps, suggesting more appropriate use of your choir rather than the massing of choirs would help. I would imagine you have spoken to other choir leaders in the area to get their take on these events. There is certainly power in numbers and if the majority were to feel as you do and suggest more choir pleasing alternatives, the invitations would change or cease.

All good things must come to an end especially when the good they do for all involved is no longer working. Best of luck.

Thanks for your comment, Kitty, it is useful for perspective. I confess I posted with some trepidation, wondering if I were just being churlish, but I have had several expressions of support in response.

As I say, I don't want to seem ungrateful for the concentration of really good arts organisations you get living in a major city. But it's useful for those organisations to realise that their requests for participants likewise don't exist in a vacuum. I can think of 5 such projects my choir has been approached about since 2008, and it's getting a bit silly!

Hear, hear Liz!

From the Front of the Choir

Agree entirely... I have my rehearsals mapped out for the year and recently received a similar request to join in with a joint celebratory music event that would have meant diverting precious rehearsal time to learning new songs to be sung by all attending (and as SATB, unuseable again). The icing on the cake though in small print was also asking for £5 per singer for the joy of taking part. So as well as the hidden costs of rehearsal time etc mentioned above, multiplied by the number of singers, that's commensurate with what we normally charge other people for performing for them, so feels like a double insult. And the usual PRO/recruitment arguments for taking part have never before yielded anything, as all the participants are already wedded to their own groups and style of music (as they should be). There must be a better way!

Oh my indeed, there must be a better way. Although I live near a number of large centres nothing like this ever happens. Choirs perform and donate the funds. Choirs perform as part of the larger whole but not as a mass venture. As I mentioned, this must have become an expectation and by the sounds of it, you all need to "find a better way".
Imagine, on top of the amount of time and effort involved you would be asked to give money!! Oh my.
I truly think people have no idea how much work goes into putting a concert together. A massed choir is SO much work. On top of that, the individual choirs lose their identities as do the choir leaders.
Liz, I think you have hit on something that needs a massive shift. The charities or causes you have supported though wonderful and deserving have become accustomed to this grandiose result. Minds have to change as does the pressure you all seem to feel.
Oh so glad I am not having to deal with this one. But by the sounds of it, you must and soon.
If I think of something helpful, I will pass it on.

To be fair, we do have the option we routinely take of politely ignoring these invitations. But if we never point out what the problem is, nobody will necessarily realise, will they?

There is strength in numbers. If a number of the directors start saying the same thing as one voice, they will have to listen. Perhaps, if as a group you come up with alternatives that suit your choirs, your repertoire and your time, they will be more aware.
How do your choir members feel about these events. Could it be that you put ONE into your plan and tell the organizers ahead of time, it would be a better fit all round. The "surprise" invitations seem to be the least acceptable.
Somehow, there has to be a compromise that helps the community, serves the charity and is a part of the choir mandate.

including the one that has precipitated this post - don't just ask for volunteers from the choirs they recruit from. They also propose to use the choir's own rehearsals for the preparations, sometimes over many months. There seems to be an assumption that choirs will just divert from whatever they would normally have done to do this other event.

Unfortunately, the alternative seems to be additional rehearsals above and beyond the choirs' regular rehearsals... which can tax singers who probably have lives outside of the choir and may not have additional free time outside of what they've already budgeted.

I admit it doesn't bother me THAT much, though (but I may well be misunderstanding what you are writing). As it is, most musical groups, at least in the amateur realm (which most musical groups I've known of are) tend to require participants to give time for free, travel to rehearsals and performances, and usually pay dues (and they're often asked to subsidize other expenses that may not be covered by fundraising, ticket sales, program ad sales, or grants). I'm used to the idea of being asked to give not only my musicianship but my time, money, gas, etc.--or as I always say, music is "pay to play." So this isn't really anything surprising to me.

The problem comes because these events assume that choirs and their members will give even more of that above and beyond what they already give to their own group. And I suppose they wonder why they don't find participants because they don't realize that maybe these groups already give all they can to their own ventures. (And then there's an issue of a director volunteering her/his group for one of these events, and the members didn't get much of a choice about the matter and may feel they're asking to give "more than they originally signed up for," but that's probably an issue within each individual group itself.)

Indeed, that is the dilemma Katia - or indeed several of them.

I think that voluntary activity is often rather taken for granted. If people asked themselves a bit more often, 'If I had to pay all these people by the hour, would I be organising it this way?' they might rethink how they propose to do things.

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