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On Replacement Cycles

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Many years ago, someone told me that the average time that a professional comedian keeps any particular joke in their act is 7 years. Soon after that I went to see Hattie Hayridge for the second time – 7 years after I had first seen her. I recognised one joke from the previous set, and on the basis of that believed the factoid about joke replacement cycles.

I suspect that this is something that happens organically, as the comedian juggles the need for freshness with the need for well-honed material that can be relied upon to land well with an audience. Many jokes will come in and fall out again without making it past the tryout at a new material act; others may go on forever if they keep giving.

Other replacement cycles are things you can plan for, at least to an extent. My father used to budget for replacing household appliances every 8 years. Of course you couldn’t tell whether the new dishwasher was going to give up two weeks after it came out of guarantee or carry on for 18 years. But he used to reckon that if you planned to save up replacement costs for everything for 8 years after purchase, you’d be pretty much guaranteed to have enough in your household appliances savings pot whenever your fridge decided to give up the ghost.

I have been thinking about this in relationship to repertoire, for those choirs that maintain a standing repertoire that they regularly perform from. Keeping a song in for some years gives you a good return on the investment - both the financial investment of buying the music, and time investment in learning it. Once learned and performed in, such songs need relatively little rehearsal to maintain as useful contributors to the performing set.

On the flip side, a large standing repertoire acts as a significant barrier to entry for new choir members. It can also start to wear thin with regular audiences if your performances are largely within your locality – people enjoy repeat hearings of songs more than they laugh at repeat hearings of jokes, but still they also like to hear fresh material. And as we considered back before Christmas, the mechanism by which you maintain repertoire in memory is the same mechanism by which you hang onto past habits, so long-standing items can also become an obstacle to skill-development.

So a steady stream of fresh additions to the repertoire (and retiring of old ones) is useful for multiple reasons. And seven years feels to me like getting towards an upper limit for this; a piece would have to offer something quite exceptional to both choir and audience to last much longer than this. I can think of examples, but not many. And just from the kind of pace you’d wanting to be adding material to keep things fresh for audiences and catch-up-able for new members, you’re not going to be able to hang onto most songs beyond 3-4 years or so and still keep the rep as a whole manageable.

But, like jokes, I can see this being a somewhat organic process. You’ll hold onto favourites for longer, while others run out of what they can offer you earlier than you anticipated.

Obviously, if yours is the type of choir that learns a complete programme for 2-3 months, then performs it at a major concert, the question is more likely to be about whether you revisit pieces you have learned in the past, and what kind of interval you’d leave before doing so.

And this in turn interacts with the replacement cycle of choir membership. To what extent is it an advantage or a disadvantage to repeat music when there are still a goodly number of people who sang it before? Prior experience decreases total learning time so you can do it on less rehearsal; revisiting music may be regarded as either pleasantly nostalgic or a bit boring, depending on the temperament of the singer and how much they liked the piece last time round.

Throughput of people is rather like dishwasher replacement in that whilst you don’t know who is going to stay for 40 years, and who will leave the November after joining, you do know you are going to have recruit a certain number of replacement people every year to maintain your membership.

And it occurs to me that calculating this on a notional average of 7 years probably works quite well. There is an idea that people live their lives in 7-year cycles. At this point I went off for a bit of googling to see if I could locate where I got this idea - I had a feeling it was a cartoon like the Oatmeal or Wait But Why but I can’t find it on either of them. But there is a whole pile of astrological and numerological sites claiming the same thing, which both surprises me and doesn’t surprise me. I hadn’t known the idea came from that kind of world, but it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from it: observationally plausible enough to assign a mystical explanation.

So, for the record, the argument for the 7-year cycle I recalled was that it takes about 7 years to get good at something. And at that point you either tend to get bored and look for something else to do, or shift to the next level. Which made sense to me in in a rough-and-ready think-about-random-examples-from-people-I-know kind of way. More sense than the argument about how often Uranus passes through your zodiac sign at any rate.

As a working hypothesis, planning your recruitment goals on the basis of a 7-year cycle at least gives you a concrete basis upon which to judge whether you are ahead of or behind target. If you want to maintain a membership of about 30, but only recruit one or two new singers each year for several years in a row, you may find yourself struggling not too much further down the line.

It also, perhaps, gives a measure to judge the health of the experience you are offering your membership. If people are drifting away faster than an average 7-year cycle would suggest, that may tell you that the experience isn’t sufficiently engaging to hold people for the full arc of mastery development. Or it tells you that the hypothesis is a load of baloney and we should instead be asking what Jupiter is doing…

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