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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.)
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