“The best effort of a fine person is felt after we have left their presence.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The term “choral ethics” has always confused me. Do we as choral conductors and directors have ethics? Do we need ethics? The Presbyterian Association of Musicians, as do other denominations musicians’ organizations, has a code of ethics. Is that what folks mean by choral ethics? What exactly does it mean?
It has only been in the last fifteen years or so I really have come to understand what choral ethics means. It isn’t obvious. There are certainly things we as choral directors should not be doing such as copying music, applying for a job before the current job holder resigns or bad mouthing a colleague in public. As far as other things are concerned, it is subtle. Since the choral instrument is people, we must be concerned with people—our people—and that’s where the subtly comes in.
Physicians take an oath—the Hippocratic Oath–as they graduate from medical school and are awarded their M.D.s. They swear to “do no harm.” I wonder if we should be required to do the same. We must do no harm to our singers, both physically and emotionally, by using our knowledge of the human voice to prevent injury and by not emotionally abusing them by our behavior in rehearsals and out. We must do no harm to our colleagues by not bad mouthing or undermining them in public to singers or audience members or the community at large. We must do no harm to our profession as a whole by upholding ourselves to as high a musical standard as possible within our scope of expertise and by respecting the rights of the composers we perform.
Years ago, I had a wonderful church job and directed a community children’s chorus, but I wanted more, musically. I began auditioning for some “plum” jobs. I had the education and experience but the opportunity to audition for these jobs had not presented itself before in my own community. I began the rounds of interviews and auditions, some for long established programs, and I always made it to the last round. I got one of the three jobs I auditioned for—a newly established community children’s choir—but didn’t get the others.
One of the positions was probably overreaching for me at that point in my career but they let me down so professionally and kindly, I did not mind. The other position would have been a very good fit for me and for their organization as well. I did not get it for reasons not having anything to do with me or my ability.
This was an established choral organization in the area, and they seemed to feel they could treat people any way they wanted. Knowing what I know now, my not getting the job the first time–and the two auditions after–had to do with the “in fighting” within the structure of their Board of Directors, I just happened to be an innocent bystander. I have never been treated so poorly in an audition or had nasty comments made about my appearance–as I went into audition—before in my life! Ironically after my first audition, the position was again available the following year and I was asked to reapply.
I had hoped the administration or situation had changed but the treatment was slightly worse than the year before. The following year, the position was open again and I was called by the organization’s accompanist to apply again, and I did. Since others in the organization also seemed to want me, I couldn’t imagine being treated any worse, but I was. My instincts told me the people running those awful auditions thought it was “professional” to be as nasty, demeaning and as caustic as possible. Thinking about the last audition right after it was over, I vowed to never audition for them again, and had my epiphany about choral ethics.
I suddenly found myself bad mouthing the organization in public and the person running the auditions. I was horrified. I was horrified because it was directly opposite to how I was raised and to me, as a person. And I didn’t like it. It was then I decided I needed to do an overhaul of my own behavior. Behaving in a graceful manner, no matter what, has held me in good stead up until now. But it’s HARD!