Time to take responsibility for your own choral experience and help grow Choir Nation by not sucking anymore. In this post, Ryan explores the common problems he sees in the choral world and he proposes solutions.
Why such a harsh title?
I posted a teaser image, containing this title, on Facebook a while back and received a polarized response. Some people thought I was a complete jerk, while others praised my straightforwardness. Regardless of how this title makes you feel, you’re still reading, aren’t you?
The “suck” attitude
There’s an attitude in the choral world that I’m out to crush forever. It’s an elitist attitude that’s so counterproductive and stupid that I want to strangle its bearers with their imaginary cravat, and poke them in the eye that’s not covered by their pretentious monocle.
This attitude makes choral singers lock up and be unable to share their gift. It makes your colleagues afraid to share with you. And it turns off innocent bystanders who are not choral musicians.
Backstabbing, talking behind the back of another, putting down someone’s choir, insulting another’s technique, pointing out a fellow chorister’s wrong notes in front of the group… All these things add up to a world that isn’t warm and welcoming, but rather insecure, cold, and unnecessarily disrespectful.
Admit it. You’re a dopamine addict. You’re fueled by praise and you’re terrible at sharing it. If we were in kindergarten together, you’d probably take my scissors, sniff my glue, and tell our friends I have cooties.
I’m just as big of a perpetrator as you are. This happens every day of my life as I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed having to consciously remember that a win for my colleague is just that: a win for my colleague. If I’m having a down day, I have to remind myself that it has nothing to do with me. A win for a choral professional is a win for the choral world.
As part of a generation that is constantly seeking validation (you too, grandma) by the number of likes under our posts, we are losing sight of what matters as choral musicians: supporting each other so that our great art form can continue to grow and thrive.
Here are some ways the “suck” attitude has penetrated our art.
Which group of “suck” do you belong to, and how can you stop sucking?
As a choral enthusiast, whether you’re a director, chorister, administrator, or concert-goer, you probably suck in some way and are doing a disservice to our art.
Listen, I’m guilty as well. No one is off the hook. So, chill!
I belong to several categories, and so might you. I’m going to explain each and offer you solutions (the same ones I use) to stop sucking.
The point is, we all suck inherently. If you think you’re above this article or I’m offending you, go ahead. Stop reading now, and lock yourself in a ziplock bag so you can delight in the smell of your own flatulence until you come to your senses and realize I’m right.
Choral directors – You suck.
We should start with the obvious. Choral directors can be elitist snobs.
Problem 1: Choral directors who lose sight of why their choir shows up to rehearsal.
Let’s face it. No one is required to be in choir. It’s a choice that was made at one point or another. We are lucky to have choral opportunities everywhere, and no one will ever be force-fed choral music if they’re not interested.
As a sucky director, you love to be enrobed in the sound. That’s why you spent thousands of dollars on degree programs that load up your bag of tricks so that you can build any group of know-nothing amateurs from zero to WOW, right?
Isn’t that why you’re in debt?
The problem with you is, you often put your “why” in front of your choir’s “why”.
You lose sight of why your choir members are there in the first place. To them it’s probably not about the sound, your degree, or your attachment to early music. It’s about a lot of things. A lot more personal things.
The overwhelming majority of choirs in the world are amateur. Keep in mind that “amateur” stems from the Latin “amare” or “to love”. They don’t get paid like you do. They’re there because they love it.
You may love it too, but you also have a lot more invested.
You’ve put so much time and money into your study, so the performance of your ensemble weighs more heavily on you, as it becomes a reflection of you!
You’ve dedicated your life to choral music, spent the money on school, are paying the loans, attending the conferences, buying the CD’s (what are those?), marking the scores, and likely have never worked in any other field.
You are HYPER-INVESTED. Your choir = You.
From a technical perspective, creating a wonderful sound is a benefit of your investment in yourself and your hard work. It’s not everything.
You’re missing all the woo-woo stuff and all the warm feelies that are required to create an ensemble that moves others when they sing. Technique doesn’t transform an audience. In fact a flawless technical performance only leaves the conductor feeling satisfied and the audience feeling exhausted.
Add heart, and start with “why”.
Solution 1: Find out why your choir is there and start with leading by example.
For goodness sake, stop rehearsing. It’s time to dialogue with your choir. I do this with all my ensembles multiple times per season.
- Do the unholy! Block off ONE WHOLE REHEARSAL and don’t sing. I promise this will pay you dividends.
- Don’t tell the choir your plan. Just move ahead to step 3.
- At the “rehearsal”, lead by example and tell them why you do what you do. Share your story. Be vulnerable! That’s what you want from them, right?
You can even use the questions I use in my podcast to share your “why” with them:
- When did you realize you were going to dedicate your life to music?
- When did you fail in your career? (This can be anything from giving up on a student, to giving up on yourself, to forgetting your pants for a concert. Just make it good.)
- What was the proudest moment in your career so far? Bonus points if it was with the ensemble in front of you!
- Now that you’ve been vulnerable, lead the choir in the same exercise. Look for a couple volunteers to share their “why” out loud with the whole choir.
- Once a few strong members share, others will feel that they have permission to share too.
- Listen to each other, and for Pete’s sake, don’t offer additional anecdotes about your life. Empathize with your choir member and move on to the next who wishes to share. Not everyone will, but everyone will be involved.
Fun Fact: As someone who makes their living selling memberships in private choirs (Choir LLC, as I like to call it), I am constantly reminded that my income is directly affected by the amount of people who enjoy their choral experience. I can’t make it about me and expect them to pay tuition next month. My system offers an amazing amount of accountability that I’m proud to say is a unintended benefit of my vocation.
Problem 2: Choral directors that judge others in their profession.
Recently, I was sitting at Applebees (God help my colon) with a group of choral colleagues after they’d come from a conference session at a regional choral convention. They told me that they did not enjoy the conducting master class they’d just attended. Apparently they’d observed their elitist peers who’s grimacing faces were caught reacting to errors in the student conductors’ gesture on the large screen video feed in front of the class. The camera was positioned from the choir’s perspective and picked up some snarky folks in the audience, behind the master class conductor.
This is the “suck” attitude I’m talking about!!!
These directors obviously don’t support rising professionals in the choral world. Not to mention they’d never have the guts to get up on the podium anyway.
Talk about making choral music an unsafe place for self-expression…
Yeah. I think so.
I thought the choral world was supposed to be an “accepting” group of people.
Solution 2: Remember that success is not a zero-sum game
I began to make this point above.
Success is not a zero-sum game.
A zero-sum game, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a game by which if one side wins, the other loses, (1 + -1 = 0) always striking an equilibrium between both sides with no chance for both to simultaneously succeed.
If you’re sitting in the audience at a master class and a young conductor gets up on the podium and totally knocks it out of the park, be happy for them. Remember that his success has no bearing on yours. There is plenty of room in Choir Nation for both of you.
Pro Tip: Apply this principle on social media too! When you see someone enjoying their success online, contribute to the good energy by hitting “like” and adding a supportive comment. My friends in the entrepreneurial world do this all the time. No one ever worries about being eclipsed by another. Remember, even though we may be in the same industry, our customers buy from someone because of their individual brand. There are other podcasts in the choir world, but Choir Nation listens to me because I resonate with them individually. There’s nothing wrong with the other podcasts. In fact, I support them myself!
Choristers – You suck too.
Problem 1: Gossiping and complaining about your choral director
I recently came across a post in a Facebook group asking members to state their grievances against their current choral directors, their rehearsal processes, the way they manage their ensembles, and anything else that makes them unhappy about being a choral singer.
If any of my choristers had contributed to that thread they would have been kicked out of my ensemble immediately. No questions asked. I have NO time for Negative Nancy (or Negative Ned, for that matter).
A choral ensemble needs to be a place where everyone is safe. The director included.
Solution 1: Communicate with your director or go home.
We only complain about things we can change, so I see three choices here.
- Shut up and be grateful for the experience : That was easy, wasn’t it?
- Open the lines of communication with your director, ONE-ON-ONE, and IN-PERSON: After rehearsal approach the director, in private, and ask if they can spare 5 minutes to hear you out about something important. The key here is AFTER rehearsal, IN PRIVATE, and 5 MINUTES. If you approach a director before rehearsal, you’re going to distract him from doing his job. If you call him out in front of others, he’s now on the defensive. If you can’t express your concern in less than 5 minutes, you haven’t thought enough about the issue. A director has dozens or even hundreds of choristers to worry about. Five minutes is respectful of his time.
- Find a new choir that meets your needs. Just remember that every choir and every director has their issues. Take the good with the bad or go elsewhere.
Problem 2: Thinking you’re God’s gift
After 30+ years, my father, a talented musician, decided he’d like to sing with a choral ensemble again. He found one that performed large works that interested him, run by a very accomplished conductor.
After several months of perfect attendance, and hours of at-home practice (more than 99% of the choristers in the ensemble, I’m quite certain), he decided this choir was not for him.
Why? The straw that broke the camel’s back happened on the night my father overlooked one note on the last page of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. He possibly missed the note more than once. It was a tricky passage. It was a mistake anyone could have made.
A rude chorister seated in front of him turned around and said, “You’re singing the wrong note!”, loud enough for the entire section to hear. This “gentleman”, if we can call him that, made a scene and embarrassed a professional musician in front of his peers. Instead of allowing the conductor to address the issue, this jerk took it upon himself to be God’s gift to choral music and humiliate my father over one note.
After letting it piss him off for two weeks, my father decided to address the man. Our beloved choral Nazi expressed no remorse, nor did he apologize.
My father thought about if for another week, then decided to address the director. The director understood his concern and offered words of encouragement.
Ultimately, my father decided that if this is the behavior the choir tolerates, that this is not the choir for him. So he left.
My point here is that if a PROFESSIONAL musician could be made to feel unsafe in an amateur choir, imagine how an AMATEUR would have felt in the same situation. Mortified? Discouraged?
It was ONE note.
The choral world suffers greatly when a Prima Don (or Donna) opens his/her mouth and makes it their job to be critical of others.
Solution 2a: Use your words to encourage.
“You will catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar.” – Proverb
Compliment those around you. Look for the gifts in your fellow choristers. Find something!
If this jerk in my narrative above had complimented my dad on his beautiful singing voice, he would have made a friend not and enemy.
Solution 2b: Let the director be responsible for his own choir.
That’s it. It is NOT your job to point out other’s flaws. If the conductor doesn’t hear the issue, bring it to his attention after rehearsal, and he’ll deal with it in a professional manner. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Just mention it and trust it’ll get resolved in one way or another.
Problem 3: Your attendance sucks
I don’t think you understand, dummy. The choir isn’t “the choir” without YOUR voice.
So what if there are 26 other sopranos. Are they you? Is the choral organism I came to direct the same when you’re not singing with us? No it’s not. I want to hear the choir as it will sound at the performance.
If I were to bake a pie, and a put all the ingredients in it except for one, it would be a totally different pie. It would likely taste like shit, because that one ingredient was essential to it being a tasty and successful pie baking experience.
Solution 3: VYV: Value Your Voice
Take ownership. This is your choir as much as it is the director’s, and as much as it is the other members’ ensemble as well. Value what you bring to the table. Your voice is so much more than just your ability to sing.
The beauty of the choral ensemble is the mixture of colors, timbres, personalities, energies, spirits, bodies, and breaths of each and every chorister coming together to create a sound that, in the moment, cannot be duplicated. It’ll never happen that way ever again. (And in some cases, we’re glad!)
Every time we sing, we’re sending positive energy out into the world. Doing it in a choir, with a group of people you love, multiplies its effect exponentially.
Make time for choir. Keep it sacred.
No one has ever laid in their deathbed thinking, “I really wish I had sung less.”.
Your choral experience is your fault: My recommendations to make your choral experience the best it can be whether you sing or direct.
- Encourage someone at every meeting. Say something nice. Kindness is contagious.
- Come prepared. Practice or at least look over your music before rehearsal. You’ll feel awesome and less anxious.
- If you make a mistake, smile and own it. Have a sense of humor, especially if it was a stupid mistake. You’re human. These things happen.
- Dress to impress. Look your best for rehearsal and performance. If you look your best, you’ll be more confident and will take more pride in your performance at rehearsal or concerts.
- Wrap up conversations at least an hour before rehearsal begins. It’s unfair to yourself to bring “social baggage” into your choir time.
- Unless you’re the only on-call cardiac surgeon in your city, turn your damn phone off. Off. Turn it all the way off. If you’re worried someone needs to get a hold of you, they don’t. They can wait.
- Come to everything 15 minutes early. You’ll be able to socialize with the other cool, responsible people. (They’re the one’s you want to get to know anyway.)
- Find a way to have fellowship with your peers. Go out after rehearsal. As directors, you need this. You’ll be able to meet the choir, have a beer, and laugh off the things you may be stressing out about. Your trusted choir members may have solutions for you as well. It’s also nice to speak with people who “get” you! As a chorister, you will become more confident if you have personal relationships with the other members of the choir and the director.
- Invite a friend to choir rehearsal or a concert. Most people don’t come to choir on their own. It takes a lot of courage to invite yourself. Look for a like-minded peer and ask him to come. Maybe just to sit and watch at first. It’s time to grow Choir Nation! Everyone can be in Choir Nation. We need audience members too.
- Talk about choir with your friends. Tell people what you’re working on and SPEAK PASSIONATELY about it. If you think you’ll be judged by your friend for talking about choir, he’s probably not your friend, so find new ones then talk about choir.