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Awhile back I wrote a post about the dos and don’ts of leaving a conducting or music teaching job. Some interesting discussion was generated from that post, and I think some good things came out of it. The main conclusion I came to was that leaving a job is not a passive endeavor. One must take steps, send messages, and actively work, in order to make the situation for the incoming conductor (and therefore the students and singers) a good one.
I was recently thinking along similar lines, but with a different topic. I direct an auditioned community chorus. Over the past seven years, the issue of retirement has come up with a number of singers. It’s one heck of an issue, and I think a lot of choirs deal with it on a regular basis. My current solution is to craft a set of tenure and age based policies within the organization to help remove some of the “personal” nature of the process (for example giving tenure to skilled singers, and then after a certain age removing that tenure and then they must reaudition). Suffice to say that I have not come up with a good policy. But I’m working on it.
Obviously, for the singer, this is an awful thing to think about and deal with. At it’s most basic level, we are talking in some ways about death. And not many of us are just totally cool with that. So, we as singers ignore our own decline, and wind up staying past our usefulness. Then comes the “hard conversation” between the director and the singer, in which the singer gets cut from the ensemble. And when this happens the result is a bitter singer who won’t come and see the concerts in the future, and who leaves the organization with a negative experience.
I think very few people are actually good at leaving when it’s time, without having to be cut. Look at all the professional athletes who stay in the game too long. They love what they do, don’t want to admit they can’t live up to the expectations, and then one day they get called into the managers office...

I have heard that this is an issue for all auditioned, adult choirs. And some have told me that there is no good solution. But I think I have come up with a way to help everyone in the transition. We must begin, now, to speak to our young, highflying, rock star singers about their own retirement. Say to them now, “There will come a day when you will become a liability to the organization that you love. Be ready. It will come. And when it does, take the initiative. Announce at the beginning of the year that this will be your last season, that you are retiring. Allow the chorus to honor you at the last concert, and let your leaving be on a positive note. Think about this now, as the time will come. And when it does, go gracefully.”
This won't solve all the problems, but at least the conversation is there, and it can be referenced. Plant the seeds for a graceful exit, and maybe someone will hear and understand.
on April 2, 2014 7:05am
I was faced with this situation as a singer. After teaching high school music for 40 years and being a member of a wonderful community choir under the direction of an inspiring conductor, I realized that my voice was not as agile and vocal production was becoming more difficult. My range and breath support was not allowing me to sing at a level that I found acceptable. I took the Beverly Sills approach and retired from the group before others in the group noticed what I did. I'd rather have my section think, " why did he stop rather than Why didn't he stop. I miss the camaraderie and the conductor's expertise, but I can still support the group by attending the concerts.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on April 2, 2014 9:04am
Impressive. I don't know if my post was clear, but I'm not so sure I'd even make the right decision when the time came. I also worry about retirement as a conductor. Will I know when it's time? Will my wife need to pull me aside and say "honey, it's time." 
So kudos to you for doing the right thing.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 7, 2014 7:00am
This is always a difficult decision (for the person in question) and also tough to handle as a conductor. I haven't had to deal with it often, but it's a challenge. David Willcocks said in one of his books that when he took over the Bach Choir in London it was full of people whose skills had eroded enough that they were past their time. He said he'd tell them in an audition that it was time and they should sing one more year. That gave them the option to enjoy a last year and characterize their retirement as their own choice.
As to knowing when as a conductor you're no longer functioning at the level you should be . . . well, that's difficult, too. I think many of us need a nudge! But I hope I'll know the time.