I am currently serving as the dean of our local AGO chapter and so I thought I might share some insights on membership from my perspective both as dean and having served as Regional Councillor of the North Central Region. Maybe you can relate to many of the same scenarios in your own chapters and know that these issues are not unique to any one chapter.
My chapter has generally had between 50-65 members—a relatively large chapter, you may say, but many of them live an hour or more away. In the past we have had good contingents of members come from farther away for events, but as our members have gotten older and have retired, we haven’t seen as many of these groups coming together. One would think that a chapter of this size would have lots of members at events, but that has not been the case in recent years. Because of the distance between members, we have tried in the past to hold events in other cities to help attract those members, but that hasn’t always been successful either. However, it does help to show support for all of our members no matter where they live. This year we are encouraging carpools and some social time with a meal together before some of the events. It is a good way to stay in touch with one another and encourage members to attend functions.
We also instigated a Chapter Friend category this last year. Older, retired members or non-organists who want to know about our organ and choral-related events pay a $15 fee, have their names listed in our membership book, and receive all of our emails and newsletters. They are not voting members nor do they receive the magazine, but they can still participate in our many events.
We are finding that our most successful events are those where we include other ensembles or outside folks. For example, we have a Bach Birthday Bash recital in March where a college choir participates as well as an instrumental chamber group. We had excellent attendance at that recital last spring. For our opening meeting this fall we invited a church choir to participate in a worship service where we installed our new officers. Karen Black, our North Central Regional Councillor, attended and installed our new officers as well as talked to our members about items pertinent to both our region and national AGO organization. Since we started our evening off with a social time and meal, we invited the choir members to join us, too, which again increased our numbers. We had over 30 of our AGO members attend—the best numbers we have had for a long time! A music rummage helped members to both get rid of music no longer needed and pick up some new things for their own use.
Our chapter has been active, having hosted a regional convention, church musician’s workshops, (including a January Jubilee sponsored by our national organization), POE’s (Pipe Organ Encounters), and Pedals, Pipes, and Pizza events for young people. All of these events require a number of members to be involved. These are all wonderful events and is a way to keep members involved. The St. Louis Chapter hosted a February Flourish (church musician’s workshop) and had such a great experience that they are hosting more of them. I believe we have to offer events that are pertinent to members and offer ways for them to be involved.
I feel very fortunate to have another member who does our communications—sending monthly newsletters and extra emails, when needed. It is fantastic to have someone who helps me stay on top of this communication part and is self-motivated enough to think of other types of information we might include in our newsletters. Of course, it also helps that he has most recently retired from full-time work! It might be possible to get a non-organist to help with these technical types of things for the chapter. Spouses of members might even be willing to help out or someone who loves organ music but is not an organist might even be someone to tap.
I am finding that it is so important to do the “ask.” If we want members to play in events or serve in other ways, it is not enough to simply send an email out asking for members to volunteer. You have to specifically ask members to play, host an event either at their home or church, or serve on a committee or as an officer. People are committed to so many organizations, jobs, and families, plus traveling, that we have to make our programming very useful and appealing.
When I served as Regional Councillor it was difficult to see so many chapters—both large and small—that were struggling simply to have members wiling to serve on the board and especially to serve as dean. There are some chapters where the same person has been dean or held the same office for years or are on their second, third, or fourth time around as an officer. I, for example, have served as dean for our chapter in the past, as well. But I feel a great deal of commitment to keeping our chapter alive. It is important to tap these committed members and get them involved.
As a beginning church musician and a beginning piano teacher, it was extremely helpful for me to have groups of fellow musicians to learn from, share ideas with, and know that I wasn’t alone in some of my frustrations. I realize that times are changing with easy access to articles and answers to questions on the internet. Our music publishers are making it easier, too, to find new music for the organ and choirs by including samples on their websites or by sending out sample CD’s. But many times I’ve attended a reading session where pieces or collections that I have are presented. Maybe it has been a long time since I have played a particular piece or maybe I hear a piece from a collection which I have but I have never played that particular piece. There may be pieces played which I didn’t think of using for a particular season of the church year or for a wedding or funeral. It is so easy to get in a rut and use the same music over and over. Sharing with others will help us keep our own repertoire fresher. I find that reading sessions are still one of the best programs to get folks to attend.
I would encourage organists and choir directors to take advantage of what their particular organizations offer. Workshops, conventions, and recitals are all means of growing and staying fresh and on top of new music and innovations in our fields. Staying in touch with our fellow musicians is an important aspect for our own growth as organists, choir directors, and teachers. And when surfing the web, take some time to see what your own organizations have to offer there, too. There are lots of helpful sources on the AGO website, for example. It is far too easy to become isolated in our work. Reach out and share with those other organists and musicians around you!