“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” William Shakespeare
In one of my first church choir jobs, I had a strange experience I’d like to share. Perhaps those of you in leadership will be able to use it as a cautionary tale. Many of you may be able to relate or you can file it away to be remembered if you are ever in a similar situation. In any event, I will share what happened and you can decide for yourself.
I had been working with an outstanding organist for almost two years; he was the music director, and I was the choir director. He was a wonderful man who was well over 75 years old. Something of a legend in local organ circles, I was honored to work with him and learned much from him. He treated me with so much respect, though clearly, I was inexperienced. Until one day, he didn’t.
It started the second fall I worked at that particular church; he kept saying I was not stating clearly where I wanted to begin to rehearse a particular piece. I really thought I was being clear, but after his complaints, I slowly and deliberately give him the page number, the score number and the measure number—over and over again—where I wanted to start. The choir was confused because they thought I was being very clear. He said some things about me in front of the choir that still bring tears to my eyes because it was so unlike him. I had had a breast cancer scare (it turned out to be nothing) in mid-October and was truly hurting from worry. And I thought perhaps I was distracted and WASN’T being clear.
That fall trudged on, and every Thursday evening rehearsal brought a new complaint about me—in front of the choir—by the organist. We were working on our Advent Cantata as well as music for the children’s Christmas pageant and the big Christmas Eve service and he complained and complained and complained. But Sundays were fine, and he behaved as if nothing had happened, it was just the Thursday evening rehearsals when he was so critical.
Right after Thanksgiving, my Grandfather entered the hospital with breathing issues. My spouse’s brother, having had multiple health issues for years, also entered the hospital a few days later. The following week’s Thursday rehearsal was THE WORST rehearsal I ever had. Yes, I was distracted by our family members hospital admissions but more than that, nothing I did was right. I got home, paid the babysitter, put my children to bed and sobbed until my husband came home from the hospital.
That Sunday was our Advent Cantata. It went well, and the organist seemed fine. His wife came to the service, and we chatted pleasantly. The next day, the Pastor called to tell me our organist had had a stroke; he would stop by later in the day with a list of organists I had to call to make arrangements for the rest of December. I was to try to get the same person for all the rehearsals and services if I could.
Just after the Pastor dropped off the list, our organist called from the hospital to apologize. He told me he hadn’t been himself and hoped I would forgive him. Of course! I asked advice about a few of the organists on the list—he knew everyone—and set about starting the process. After five hours of calling around, I had found a single substitute for the rest of December. The next afternoon, the Pastor called to tell me our organist had passed away, soon after I had spoken to him the day before. I was devastated.
It was difficult to rehearse that week, but we did. The substitute was okay but a bit arrogant and changed a few things that had already been decided. I tried to be nice and went along; both my Grandpa and Brother-in-law were not doing well and didn’t have the energy to argue. My Grandpa died five days before Christmas. My Dad and Grandma arranged the funeral for Christmas Eve morning. My spouse, children and I went to the funeral, then rushed back for me to do a seven-thirty service. It came off but it was difficult.
After Christmas, the choir was on break until mid-January, and we began to interview organists. We found a lovely lady who was local but quite accomplished and hired her on the spot. The Pastor mentioned it was time for my performance review and set a date. My Brother-in-law passed away and my performance review had to be re-scheduled because of his funeral.
At my performance review, I was told the choir was not as good or as polished as usual that Advent and Christmas. And then was asked WHY I thought that was. I mentioned—could it possibly be? —our organist had DIED, and we were working with a substitute. The Pastor mentioned some in the congregation thought I wasn’t as “happy” at the Christmas Eve service as I should have been and, again, was asked why. I reminded him, I had been to my Grandfather’s funeral that morning and I was trying the best I could. Unironically I was made to promise not to let my Grandfather’s death make me look unhappy on Christmas Eve. I told him since I had no more Grandfathers left, I could easily promise that.
It still baffles me why those criticisms were considered legitimate to make. With 20/20 hindsight and much more experience, there were plenty of subtle things I could have been criticized for and yet was not. The “easy” way to hold a performance review is to state the simple and obvious. And they chose the easy way.
Until next week, be well and be safe.
I am not able to take my Choral Ethics Blogs to my chamber choir’s Facebook page today. Hope to see you again next week!