Recruitment to Cults and Choirs

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I was listening recently to a Stuff You Should Know podcast about cults and thought reform, and it made me notice how a number of areas I have been interested in as both scholar and musician interact even more than I had already noticed.

The first is my discussion in my first book of how barbershop positions itself relative to the musical mainstream in analogous ways to the way a sect positions itself relative to established churches. The second is the discussion in my second book of the disciplinary techniques that choirs of all kinds use to ‘convert’ the raw material of people into appropriately thinking and behaving choral singers. The third is my current research interest into the mechanisms of charisma in conductors and performers – which has led me right back to the sociology of Max Weber I was dealing with in the first.

The podcast was talking about the thought reform (aka mind control) techniques that cults use to inculcate their members into their worldview. And I couldn’t help but notice how many of them have analogues in the processes choirs use to recruit and retain members. The nastier ones, I like to think, are largely absent in most choral organisations, although the more I think about it, the more I see slight whiffs of slightly unsavoury practices in things I have seen choirs do.

And of course, despite the loaded term ‘cult’, the podcast was at pains to point out that not all cults are destructive cults. Not all end up in extreme physical and/or mental damage to their adherents. It’s just that we’re more likely to know about the ones that come to spectacularly bad ends. ‘Group of people with rather unorthodox beliefs gets on quietly minding their own business’ is not exactly newsworthy, after all.

So I’m presenting this in essentially a value-free, analytical mode. Here are a list of thought reform tactics used by cults to hook people in, and their parallels in things that choirs do. The purpose is to make us all think, and what we think may be ‘hey, that’s actually a cool thing to do’ in some cases and, ‘oh, we do that, but it’s actually a bit sinister now I think about it’ in others. Up to you which tactic you put in which category.

  • Environment Control: The recruit is separated from their usual routines and forms of social contact and immersed in the social world of the group in order to normalise the group values and remove the usual social feedback mechanisms that might question them. Activities are highly structured giving the individual little autonomy in deciding what to do when.

    Well, the highly-structured bit is clearly a description of a choral rehearsal – even if there’s a break in the middle, the activity is probably structured around refreshments and/or choir admin. The separation is less obviously manifest, except in the cases of retreats or residential courses (the National Youth Choir is in this sense more cultish than the school choirs it recruits from). And you often hear about how a once-a-week commitment has somehow turned into a 5-nights-a-week commitment what with committee meetings and section rehearsals and gigs and music team meetings and what-not. People do get sucked in.

  • Softening up into a state of increased suggestibility: Techniques to do this include ‘A. Extended audio, visual, verbal, or tactile fixation drills; B. Excessive exact repetition of routine activities; C. Decreased sleep; D. Nutritional restriction’.

    The first two of that list look just like normal warm-ups. Indeed, I often think of the warm-up as a liminal, transitional state where we leave our every-day identities behind and get absorbed into the world of singing. Decreased sleep is not usually a recommended condition for singing, but is certainly a feature of special events and no doubt contributes to the sense of un-worldly communion that develops towards the ends of conventions and festivals. I thought at first that nutritional restriction was just irrelevant, then remembered that I don’t let my own choir drink alcohol until after they have performed. There are those who frown on chocolate for singers too, whilst many mandate significant levels of hydration. Maybe we mess with this more than I thought.

  • Non-physical rewards and punishments to control behaviour: These include humiliation, social isolation, loss of privilege, and social status changes. On the flip side there are the rewards of social approval and ‘love-bombing’, which of course are more meaningful (and the threat of their loss more dire) in a context where people are getting detached from previous forms of social support. Group members are encouraged to monitor each other and enforce expectations.

    This is an uncomfortable one to think about for the choral director. Because, actually, the more afraid our singers are of a disapproving glance, the more quickly and efficiently we can get things done. And you do hear a lot of humiliation, if mostly in a fairly mild form, in choral rehearsals. There is a style of sarcasm in the British choral tradition that comes straight out of the humiliations of the private school for boys. It’s funny, but it’s unkind too. I like to think I deal more in carrots than sticks, but psychological manipulation is still the basic method for getting people to discipline how they sing in rehearsal.

  • Undermining confidence: This is linked to the last one, inasmuch as those techniques are useful to this end. But its aim is distinct – the idea is to create a sense of powerlessness so that the initiate comes to depend upon the leader.

    It is likewise uncomfortable to consider. My working life is dedicated in many ways to helping people do their stuff with greater confidence. And yet examining this list has made me realise that I routinely and deliberately push people beyond their current sense of what they can do, and that their resultant ‘oh shit’ moment is central to the process by which they learn something new. Of course I like to think I put a lot of work into making them feel psychologically safe in order that they can take these disorienting risks – but that might be putting a positive spin on the cultish sense of dependency. Hmm, one to mull upon further.

And at that point I’m going to stop for today. This is already way longer than a regular post, and there’s plenty more to go. So I’ll save the rest of the list for next time.

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