Recruitment to Cults and Choirs: Part 2

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This is a continuation of my last post on the techniques cults use for thought reform and their parallels in the worlds of choral recruitment and choral discipline.

Reminder: while it does make somewhat disturbing reading in places, we need to remember that new religious movements aren't necessarily or inherently malign. And, whilst I first started down this track of using the sociology of religion to analyse singing organisations because of the evangelical language used by choral enthusiasts ('Let's spread the word!'), I am of course using the word cult for deliberately provocative purposes. I find it challenges me to think more deeply, and am hoping it has the same effect on you.

So, to continue our list:

  • Hyped-up recruitment meetings and tendency to conceal the true nature of the group: High levels of enthusiasm among the adherents leave the potential member feeling uncomfortable unless they join in, and the recruitment efforts may be concealed beneath a more general type of activity.

    This one, I have to say, perfectly describes the Learn to Sing courses that British barbershop groups have been using to great effect to recruit new members for the last four or five years, and does so in both respects. All I can say is that if you’re going to have these techniques worked on you, it’s probably much better for your overall quality of life to experience them in the context of harmony singing than an expensive ponzi scheme.

  • Us versus them ethos; demand for purity: The first of these I wrote about in my first book – the sense of being in some ways critical of, not merely separated from the mainstream. The second correlates with it, in the sense that it encourages a black-and-white view of the world, where right and wrong are clearly demarcated, and the insiders have a strong imperative to refrain absolutely from the values and/or behaviours of outsiders that are seen as dangerous.

    This quality varies in different bits of choral culture. It was strong in barbershop of the 1970s and 1980s, and the term KIBBER (KIB=keep it barbershop) is still understood to refer to a particular type of purism. You get it in some early music ensembles too – you can view the ‘authenticity’ movement of the 1960s and 70s in many ways as a reformist sect. Ensembles led by Natural Voice practitioners often position themselves as somewhat separate from stereotypes of your ‘typical’ choir. Of course, the concept we have (in the UK) of a ‘traditional’ choir is based on the 19th-century Oxford Movement’s reformist zeal to replace West Gallery Music in parish churches with pale imitations of cathedral practices.

    The ‘us vs them’ rhetoric moreover can work at either the level of genre, or within genres. Any single choral idiom has enough competing values (excellence versus populism, historical accuracy versus contemporary relevance, corporate identity versus individual expression) that any one ensemble can position itself as more or less counter-cultural to get that cultish kick of both close internal bonds and superiority complex.

  • Instant friends: Associated with both the enthusiasm of the membership and loved-up bonds within a cult, the initiate will find they are immediately befriended.

    Or, as many choirs call this, the buddy system is there to help new members find their way round. Writers about mind control seem to find the idea that friendships can flourish instantaneously very suspect, and see in it another dimension of the essential deceptiveness of cult recruitment. But it could be that some social practices do actually foster a deep and immediate mutual sympathy that is actually genuine. Singing together, for instance.

  • Control of communication: This includes tactics like limiting access to points of view that give a different worldview from the cult’s orthodoxy, limiting the kinds of communications that are permitted within the group, and developing an ‘in-house’ kind of language.

    Now, while choral groups often do feed their members with communications that present the authorised point of view (e.g. newsletters, shared choir copies of specialist magazines), there’s probably not much attempt to prevent members from accessing other material. Except inasmuch as time spent reading your choir newsletter is time not spent looking at other things – in the same way that choirs don’t generally prevent you from going out with friends from work, but they may keep you busy enough that you don’t do that as much as you used to.

    On the other hand, there often are strongly-enforced rules for communication: who may say what kind of thing at what stage in the proceedings, and what the etiquette is for getting a turn to speak. Choral discipline is in one sense all about controlling communication. And you do get private vocabularies and turns of phrase developing – as you do with any close-knit group with any amount of shared experience.

  • Pressure to interpret your past identity and conduct in negative ways: This was another one that I initially had in the ‘not relevant’ pile, on the grounds that prior singing experience is usually valued by choral groups. But then I thought: only so long as it’s the ‘right kind’ of prior experience. The choral literature is just full of very rude comments about the scoopy and chesty vocal styles that are encountered when people with pop singing experience try to join choirs, and how they have to be trained out of these terrible habits (see Chapter 6 of my second book for some entertaining quotes of this nature).

There are of course a bunch of other features that didn’t seem to have such direct applicability to choral situations. I couldn’t think of any obvious examples of a choir indulging in the ‘dispensing of existence’ for example (the idea that salvation is only possible through the group, and those who leave are doomed)*. And the more mystical dimensions of cultism would also be atypical of choral culture. Indeed, apart from the odd example like the Learn to Sing courses mentioned earlier, the secretive, deceptive practices aren’t very much in evidence: choirs tend to be well embedded in their local communities and pretty up-front about what they do – more church than sect, maybe.

So I’m not saying that choirs are cults. I’m not even saying that some choirs are cults. But I am saying that just as there is a parallel between a cult’s and a choir’s need to make over the thoughts and behaviours of their recruits to integrate them successfully into the group, there are parallels in the methods used to do so. And by analysing these parallels we are in a stronger position to make conscious, self-aware decisions about which of the techniques we are comfortable with from an ethical perspective, as well as refining our understanding of how and why our recruitment and retention methods might work.

* Having said that, my partner is routinely castigated for not currently being a member of any singing group, quite often in tones that wouldn’t be out of place for fretting over the fate of someone’s soul in the afterlife.

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