The Benefits of Fresh Blood
When I was at Preston last week, one of the Red Rosettes remarked to me how seeing the way their new members were so excited about what they were doing had made her feel excited again too. It got me thinking about what bringing new members is does for a choir. We usually think about this in terms of numbers and choir survival - if we don't replace those that leave (which is inevitable for reasons of health, work and family, however healthy the choir is in spirit), you eventually run out of singers.
But this conversation got me thinking about the more intangible benefits a choir gets from new members. On the face of it, inducting new people carries something of an overhead. However experienced the new recruit may be, they still need to learn this choir's particular habits, routines and - in the case of repertoire groups - music. But I tend to think not merely that this overhead is worth it for the gain of new members, but that going through this process periodically itself benefits the group.
The comment about excitement opens one dimension of this. This emotional lift is valuable in its own right, but it is part of a wider process whereby a choir sees itself afresh through the eyes of its new members. Working together week in week out, you get used to how your choir works - it's a large scale version of semantic depletion. You know in general terms that you're having a good time, but you forget what is special and wonderful about what you do. Having someone remind you is useful.
It is also good for the confidence, as seeing someone having to learn skills from scratch reminds existing members how much they have already achieved. This is particularly valuable for the previously newest member - they may have been in the habit of feeling themselves to be behind everyone else from when they started, but suddenly they can see how far they have come.
A new member not only affirms, they also challenge a choir. Even if they are, personally, very compliant and willing to fit in, their presence still represents a challenge as the existing members need to explain how and why they do things as they do. The need to make sense of your traditions and working methods forces you into a state of more critical self-awareness about them.
Sometimes you realise you do things a certain way for no good reason, it's just what you've got accustomed to doing. Sometimes you realise you do things a certain way in order to work around the idiosyncrasies of someone who left three years ago and maybe you don't need to do that any more. An ensemble can't operate without embedded behaviours, but equally these benefit from a little reflective thought periodically.
Writing this, it occurs to me that stagnation of membership, and getting very stuck in their ways that can afflict a choir simultaneously, and are possibly more related than I had previously thought. A choir that is in the swing of periodically bringing in and adapting to new members has the cultural resource to cope with change a little better than one that doesn't. Conversely, a choir that is too rigid in its culture to cope with mild though real challenges that new members bring probably struggles to retain those that show an interest.