The Problem of the Post-Charismatic Choir
This started off as an exploration of the problem of ageing choirs (and indeed choral organisations). There are so many choirs in the UK (and I imagine beyond) that are populated almost entirely by retired folk who are desperate to recruit some young blood to replace those that gradually fall prey to illness or infirmity. But it has developed into a wider analysis that could potentially help choirs that have not yet got to that stage head the problems off at the pass.
It may also get divided into more than one post. I'm not sure at this introductory point how far the ideas will grow.
So, a couple of observations about the ageing choir.
First, there is an inbuilt inhibitor to recruitment of younger singers in that there aren't already any younger singers there. The power of social validation is very strong: people will turn up, look around at who else is there and decide if this place is 'for people like me'. Thus, getting the process started is the hardest part.
Second - and this is the factor that got me thinking more deeply about this dynamic - there is a certain voracity in the tone with which ageing groups talk about the young they wish to ensnare. There is a vampiric quality in the way older generations salivate over the energies of youth. I am sure the speakers experience themselves as feeling encouraging and admiring of the talents of the young, but I also find the relish disturbing as you can hear the desire to feed off of these energies, to appropriate them revitalise their flagging ensemble.
Now, I am not trying to forment intergenerational strife - not least because I am of an age to be caught right in the middle. The problem I suspect is not the wish per se to recruit younger singers but the reluctance, indeed often the failure even consider, handing over power.
The long-standing members want the choir to be as it has always been, only younger - like it was when they joined. They have happy memories of what it was like when they were in their prime, and don't notice that much of what enriches them now comes from the bonds with each other they forged then, back when they felt they were really making something happen. People who are coming into their prime need to have that experience for themselves, they can't just live off the happy memories of their parents’ peers.
And this is where I started to feel resonances with theories of charisma and what they tell us about group dynamics.
One of the conundrums in the sociology of charisma is the longevity of charismatic groups. If these groups emerge in moments of crisis, cohering around a leader who can galvanise them to a cause, how do they last beyond the moment? Weber used the term 'routinization of charisma' to articulate the way that groups develop and formalise structures and practices to embed the powers originally vested in the leader such that the group can continue beyond their tenure.
This may entail finding a new leader in whom to vest those powers, or it may involve a transition to a different form of authority such as bureaucratic. Weber characterises it as a perilous moment, as this widely cited but - as far as I can see - never attributed passage explains:
The path of routinization is fraught with danger since it by definition results in a formalization of the meanings of the original movement, involving institutionalization, and the formation of a new "tradition" and the potential for schism and new "charismatic leaders" to emerge.
When choirs are new, they are very often charismatic in that they arise with a strong sense of purpose, of meeting a need. Whether the problem is that there just aren't any choirs locally, or whether the available choirs aren't challenging enough or inclusive enough or traditional enough or innovative enough, there is always that sense that a new choir is offering something to singers and/or audiences that is valuable and solves some kind of problem.
Twenty years later, the choir is well-established in the niche it has created. They are rich with shared experience of meaningful activity. The relationships nurtured over decades sustain and nourish them. But the urgency has often faded in the process.
This is natural - the need they formed to meet is being met. And as an organisation they will have developed habits and processes and structures to keep things running. In the early years these may well have emerged in response to difficulties and adverse circumstances, but once you've got your procedures well-honed you don't find yourself facing so much adversity. Charisma gets routinised into institution.
At this point, it can look very healthy, but the sclerosis that will have them in trouble in another decade has already started. The problem isn't necessarily in the bureaucratisation of choir management, but in the group dynamic.
At that cliff-hanger, I'll break off for now as the next bit would take this to excessive length....until next time....