“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” Jean-Jacques Rousseau
It is easy to forget we need to work regularly with others. Unless you are a soloist all the time, you must work with other musicians. Unless you conduct exactly the sort of ensemble you wish, with the musicians you wish, you must work with whom you are given. I like clever comments and witty repartee as much as the next person, but when it is mean spirited or at the expense of others feelings, it is unkind. And it’s easier, and much more productive, to work with others when they respect us because we are kind.
In order to be kind, we must have been shown kindness. We should learn kindness in music lessons with our first teachers because the best teachers are kind. They critique your technique or interpretation but never you as a person. They take the personal criticisms out of their teaching. Whether they see talent or nothing but interest, they are kind. They may believe you have no talent or business hoping for a career in music but will be the first to praise other aspects of your personality.
It is the lack of kindness, the obvious disparaging comment and the mean spirited criticism that makes a world of difference in our students’ and ensembles’ perception of us as directors and as people. My Mom would call it “being ugly.” Your own Mom may have called it “snotty” or just plain “nasty.” Must we refer to our soprano section as “cackling hens” or say the basses sound like “bottom feeders” or tell the tenors to “loosen their neckties because they sound like they are strangling” or ignore the altos, occasionally call them “Joanie(or Johnnie)-One-Notes?” Do we need to call our accompanist “Fumble Fingers?” As soon as those “cheap shots” come out of our mouths, our singers and accompanists begin to lose respect for us. We should be honest but not nasty!
What does it take–a few minutes–to NOT make a nasty comment or to make a person feel welcome and appreciated? What’s in it for you? Not sniping is such a small thing in the grand scheme of things. It shows you have a degree of self-control. Being petty with someone you don’t like–or think you don’t like–may be hard at first but the rewards you will reap will be worth it. Rise above and do yourself proud. Be kind to those around you every day. And get the reputation of being someone whom anyone would want to work with and be with and live with.
I try to be kind; treating my singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated is simple. And when I audition anyone, I always get back to them when I say I will with an answer one way or another. I think it not kind to keep anyone hanging. Better to know you didn’t get a part then to wonder. I always correct the section and always try to say something good during rehearsal— even a rehearsal when there doesn’t seem to be anything good! Since one of my sons is a pianist, I treat my accompanists the way I would want him treated by getting music to them as soon as I can, letting them know what we will be working on in rehearsal beforehand and I never correct them in a unkind way in front of my choirs.
I admit I had my own misguided notion of what it means to be “kind” in rehearsal. For many years, I thought it unkind to be brutally honest in my criticism because I wanted to be kind. I would say something was “mediocre”–not dreadful or wrong or terrible–as I pointed out what needed to be done to correct a mistake. I used the term with my adult choirs and children’s choirs as well and noticed something interesting…..the children would laugh at the word, and then fix the problem very quickly but it would take the adults a bit longer to grasp what needed to be done. I couldn’t figure out why.
A few years ago, a singer in my auditioned chamber choir shared she HATED when I used “mediocre” as a criticism because I never praised them after the correction was made. I had to think about it but had to agree with her. I didn’t want to be unkind but I suppose I didn’t want to be perceived as “weak” by being too pleased. Now I use a rule of 2:1—for every two critiques, I praise one thing or for every two things I praise, I critique one. And when I make a correction, it is done very succinctly, no extra words to confuse, just the facts. It’s amazing how this strategy has improved the rapidity of my chamber choir grasping a correction.
Those who cry “he or she isn’t tough enough to survive in this business” never show a smidge of kindness so as to not appear “weak,” however, the strongest among us are the most kind. You can be tough, uncompromising and not be willing to “settle” and still be kind. It takes intelligence to be kind, it’s tougher than being nasty but the reward of respect is great. When there is true respect from your singers and the others you work with, there is a sense you are able to accomplish anything and a certain freedom…and peace. Think how much easier it will be for our singers to not always be waiting for the barb, the castrating comment, the “other shoe” and we can just concentrate on being the best teacher/director/conductor/performer we can be!