Daring to Delegate, a Belated Postscript on Choir Size

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One small bit of unfinished business from my first post on this subject last month is the question from the director I quoted of whether it is harder to get people to volunteer in a small chorus. It seems like a good question, and my initial hunch is: not necessarily, but there could be some kind of link between choir size and development of infrastructure.

So, first, why 'not necessarily'. Just because your choir is small doesn't mean that the people in it are any less intelligent or willing or up-for-it. Yes, there will be fewer people to do the jobs, but many of the jobs are commensurately smaller, so there is no logical reason why you shouldn't find enough people to get everything done. Indeed, quartets seem to manage all their logistics, music acquisition, coaching needs, publicity and finance with only four of them. Numbers aren't an inherent defining factor here.

But it is also the case that, observationally, it is the larger ensembles that seem to have the most active and effective committees supporting efficient and well-developed organisational operations. And it is the smaller ensembles that have a long-suffering director doing everything and failing to recruit help to take much off their hands. The simple explanation is that you just can't run a large choir on the lonely-workaholic director model, so you're just not going to find that above a certain size. I think that is a good part of the story, but there may be more.

At this point, it is worth making the distinction between choir size as a musical choice and as an accident of circumstance. A chamber choir may choose to limit its membership to 16 singers as a point of policy, and I think this gives a rather different dynamic from a choir that just happens to have 16 singers, but would have no objection to recruiting four times that number.

So, staying with our just-happens-to-be-small choir, with its overworked director and passive membership. If they had an extra dozen members helicoptered in all of a sudden, the whole may suddenly go into crisis. The infrastructure that was adequate for a small choir of people with well-established routines and habits is not adequate to cope with a significantly larger choir, many of whom are not accustomed to the working methods and ways of being of the group.

At this point, you'll find either that the choir suddenly upgrades its organisational engagement to cope with the influx, or that the new members aren't adequately inducted and drift away over the course of the following months. You will find examples of both of these in choirs that have had major recruitment efforts. In management terms, this relates to the Stephen Covey distinction between Production and Production Capacity - you can scale up your current model only so far, and then need a phase change in your methods in order to grow any further.

But I think we also need to consider the choir as a charismatic organisation (which is why I interleaved my recent posts on that theme before returning to the questions of delegation). In Bradley and Pibram's terms, a choir with a passive membership and weak organisation is in the 'insufficiency' bracket - there is neither enough flux, nor enough control for the group to become charismatic.
Bradley & Pibram's diagram: the dynamics of a charismatic groupBradley & Pibram's diagram: the dynamics of a charismatic group

And it is the charismatic organisations that grow. The groups that have a sense of mission are the ones that have the desire to recruit, and that desire is fuelled by the emotional energy of strong social bonds within the group. So a small choir that doesn't have a culture of involvement is likely to stay a small choir precisely because the unwillingness to volunteer is a symptom of the generally mild level of emotional engagement. The singers are happy in their choir, but they don't go home feeling exalted or euphoric.

The big choirs, by contrast, are big precisely because they have had this expansionist motive at some point in their past. (Indeed, you can probably tell how recently by how near they currently are to the largest they have ever been.) Yes, they need more people stepping up to do things to support a bigger ensemble, but the same culture that drives the recruitment maintains the emotional commitment that manifests in people pouring their energies into its operational needs.

So, it's not that you get fewer volunteers because the choir is small. The choir is small because it lacks a culture of engagement. The solutions you were going to introduce to fix your problem of insufficient volunteering will also help raise the emotional temperature so as to support the growth and renewal of the choir.

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