By John C. Hughes
A few years ago, a colleague told me about the Enneagram, a personality classification system that groups people into nine broad types.1 I took an online quiz and discovered that I am a Type Three: The Achiever. My friend told me that a lot of conductors are Threes. This makes sense; we like to lead, are organized, and find fulfillment in setting and meeting goals. Sounds admirable, right? Vaguely familiar to the so-called Protestant work ethic and American dream?
What began as a fun conversation with a friend set me off on a journey of self-discovery. Each Enneagram type has its strengths and areas of growth, and I have since learned about the challenges of being a Three. Namely, Threes may equate success with their worth as a human being. Our biggest fear is not succeeding in some aspect of our lives, because we interpret this to mean that we, as individuals, would be a failure. We will therefore work tirelessly to avoid this.
It is seemingly impossible for me to introduce myself without mentioning what I do or have done. I often allow my achievements to define me, and I pursue them like trophies—degrees, performances, positions. Before I have even had time to enjoy one success, a small voice in my mind starts to beckon, “What’s next?” Left unchecked, ambition can become an idol. Perhaps these feelings resonate with some readers.
Separating Achievement from Self-Worth
For better and for worse, competition and ambition are prized traits in the choral field. You audition for every job, graduate school, and masterclass you are interested in and are not selected for most. It is akin to baseball—a 30 percent success rate is about the most anyone can hope for. If you are going to survive in this field, you have to develop a thick skin and be willing to cast a wide net in pursuit of various opportunities.
One could argue that competition and ambition are part of a larger national identity. Side hustles and passive incomes are increasingly prized within the gig economy. Ambition is a national obsession, and, if you do not take part, you are deemed ignorant, lazy, or both.
Many ambitious conductors aspire to follow a common blueprint for a career in choral music. After graduating with an undergraduate degree, they seek to teach high school for a few years, get a master’s degree, teach at a bigger high school, get a doctorate, get a collegiate director of choral activities job wherever they can, pursue a more desirable DCA job, and eventually work with graduate students. Church jobs and community choirs are often used to supplement repertoire lists and incomes.
Of course, goals and aspirations are essential to personal and professional development, but they become unhealthy when you equate your professional achievements with your personal worth. Issues arise when you view any deviation from this path as a diminishment of your personal worth or value as a choral musician. It is easy to become so set on a plan that you feel unfulfilled, discontent, or even worthless if things do not unfold the way you expected. Those who have worked in higher education know that the academic search process is a brutal, never-ending loop: jobs begin to be posted in September for the following year, searches continue through late spring, and, after a quiet summer, the next round of jobs appear. It is easy to ride this roller coaster of anxiety and to lose sight of what really matters.
Additionally, when you are constantly focusing on the future and how to bring your next goal to fruition, you are not the best leader. You may choose repertoire not because it feeds your singers’ musical development, but because it may impress colleagues or look good on a job application. You may focus on achieving things that signify your status in the field, such as conference performances, contest ratings, or tour venues, instead of what is most beneficial for choir members. You may begin to view your present ensembles as vehicles through which to earn a personal achievement.
The false correlation between your professional achievement and self-worth grows out of elitism in choral music, a phenomenon articulated well by Chris Maunu in a 2018 Choral Journal article.2 Maunu observes four common sentiments that reveal elitist attitudes:
- “I am better than you because my choir is performing at this level and your choir is not.”
- “If you are not as experienced or your choir isn’t performing at a certain level, you aren’t as valuable to the profession.”
- “If you aren’t the best, you are nothing.”
- “When are you going to ‘move up’ to teaching college?… Somehow we’ve decided that age determines how much value a student has on the choral music education totem pole.”
If taken to heart, these elitist statements can damage conductors’ self-images and motivate them to use ensembles for their own advancement. Certainly, skilled conductors improve an ensemble’s performance; however, a choir’s level of performance is determined by much more than who is standing in front of them. For example, it is not difficult to acknowledge that the teacher serving an entire K–12 district with little funding has a different set of challenges and a different definition of success than the conductor of a graduate-level university chorus. Although these conductors work in different arenas, neither should be viewed as superior. Both are trying their best to provide their students with the most outstanding choral experience possible.
I have listed below five ways to combat the conflation of achievement with self-worth. They may at first seem trite or obvious, but, even as I write them, they are much easier said than done, at least for me.
1. Stop comparing yourself.
“Comparison is the thief of joy,” an adage attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is worth considering. In today’s social media age, it is easy to scroll on your phone and feel envious of others’ successes without realizing that their posts and status updates are more like highlight reels than fact. Acknowledge that everyone’s path is different and that those people whose trajectories seem to be a linear progression upwards also struggle in unseen ways.
2. Live in the present.
Be assured that, at this particular moment, you are making the right choices for your unique circumstances. When you constantly look ahead, you disrespect the people with whom you are currently working. Remember, no matter what kind of choir you are standing in front of or how many letters are after your name, you will never “arrive.” Focus instead on being the best version of yourself every day.
3. Trust in your resourcefulness.
Your path may not lead where you expect; in fact, it likely will not. You will have to pivot at certain points, and success (whatever that means within your current context) is determined less by holding infinite knowledge than by being unintimidated by new tasks. You do not have to have skills in every area—that is impossible for any of us. Rather, success is engendered by having the self-assurance to figure out solutions when you are trying something new. Achievement undoubtedly requires hard work, dedication, and preparation, but it is only attainable when you are confident in your ability to solve problems.
4. Acknowledge nonmusical factors.
To follow the “ideal” career path outlined above, you may be tempted to deny nonmusical factors such as your partner’s career, physical and mental health, where you want to live, the desire to start a family, the need to make a living, or the avoidance of debt. Acknowledging these concerns can feel like weakness, a lack of dedication, or “selling out.” Contrarily, acknowledging the legitimacy of nonmusical factors in your life recognizes that your personal circumstances have no bearing on your validity as a musician.
5. Live your vocation.
The pandemic has demonstrated that people yearn for human connection. Regardless of what your job looks like, if you are making music, you have the opportunity to connect people to each other through the beauty of music. I can think of no more noble calling than this. Keep this at the forefront of all you do.
What would happen if we, as a profession, applied our determination to helping our current ensembles grow rather than advancing our careers? Not only would we become better musical leaders, but we would also find a deeper purpose in our work. Perhaps we would find that elusive feeling of contentment.
In his book, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, the twentieth-century philosopher Josef Pieper extolls “the ability to celebrate a feast.”3 He argues that profound joy and beauty is found in celebrating the work and leisure of everyday life. It is possible, though not easy, to pursue our goals while also living in the present. Yes, we are an organization comprised of dedicated choral professionals, but we are each so much more than that. Our individual worth is inherent and independent from our professional achievements.
1. Reed Michael Spencer explored the implications of the Enneagram on conductors in his dissertation. Reed Michael Spencer, “Mind, Heart, and Body: Conductors Use the Enneagram to Reflect on Musical Practice.” (PhD diss., Boston University, 2018), https://hdl.handle.net/2144/32688.
2. Chris Maunu, “Choral Elitism is Real: What It is and What We Should Do about It,” Choral Journal 58, no. 11, (June/July 2018), 59–64.
3. Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 26.
John C. Hughes enjoys a multifaceted career as a conductor based in Chicago. He is the music director of Chicago Master Singers and Director of Choral Programs at the Green Lake Festival of Music.