“……..Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in Chicago, Chicago, The town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down…..,” Fred Fisher, 1922
I am very excited to be attending the ACDA Central Division Conference “,Lift Every Voice,” in Chicago next week. And yes, Chicago IS my hometown though I do reside in a suburb. Like many of you, I am looking forward to seeing old friends, hearing wonderful choruses, attending interest sessions and getting repertoire ideas from the reading sessions. I also hope to meet some of you.
In Chicago, I will be taking the occasional *coffee break* and will set up a “Choral Ethics Café” sign when I do. It might be in an actual coffee shop or restaurant in the Palmer House or I’ll bring a cup to a lobby. I will Tweet–@MidwestMotet—and let you know when I’m taking a break and where I am. Please bring your favorite beverage and join me! I’d love to hear your Choral Ethics stories or questions. And rest assured, I will only use your story or question in a future ChoralBlog if you give me permission and ALWAYS change the name and any telling details.
My Choral Ethics project began a few years ago after an unpleasant experience in public with a choral colleague in my community. She was unpleasant to me (and loudly so) for no reason other than she was unhappy about something having nothing to do with me. Her behavior startled and embarrassed me and got me thinking about behavior, our behavior as choral professionals. Why do some of us feel it’s our right to take things out on our choirs? And then our choirs put up with that behavior because they think they should? Why do we make auditions so grueling when we actually want singers to join our ensemble? Why is it fine to chastise a choral colleague in public for no reason? Why do we treat our accompanists like second-class citizens and then expect them to go above and beyond? Why is it accepted to undermine and speak ill of other choral organizations? Why do we criticize other choral groups’ performances often while they are still performing? Why is it okay to leave a hot mess for our successors to clean up? And then poison the program we are leaving? All of these behaviors have been discussed in one or more of my Choral Ethics ChoralBlogs here on ChoralNet. I hope to collect these Choral Ethics stories, their discussions and possible solutions into a book in the near future.
In the meantime, I hope to see you in Chicago next week. I will explain my connection to Billy Sunday if you ask (and no, I am NOT related!) because Chicago is my hometown!
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” Ecclesiastes 3:1
Today—Ash Wednesday—begins another season. If we are church musicians, Lent begins today….ready or not….even if we have not recovered from the Christmas Season. If we are not church musicians but in academia, we are probably preparing for contest season (junior high and high school) or tours (college, university and some high schools) or getting ready to go to our ACDA division conference. If we are in the professional or community sectors, it might be one or some or all of the above!
All of us are in some sort of transition during the month of February. I begin another rehearsal cycle the beginning of March and am holding auditions until then. I don’t always do well during transitions, feeling stressed with uncertainty and lack of completeness. I want things to get going, rehearsals to begin, and the snow to melt so it’s easier for my singers to get to rehearsal and get to rehearsal on time. I want all of the music folders to magically get put together and handouts collated and concert details finalized. If only it was so! Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus, never completely finishing anything before I am forced to begin the process all over again. This year, I’ve vowed to take a moment to be aware of the small joys of doing those things I need to do during the transition period.
It wasn’t always this way for me during transitional times. When I had my church positions, I loved Lent. I loved the minor mode music and the grayish skies leading up to the promise of Easter and spring. I knew I had to get through Lent and Holy Week to arrive at Easter and I looked forward to my Lenten journey every year. My choirs would occasionally complain we never sang anything “cheerful” during Lent. One of my tenors (it’s always a tenor, isn’t it?) would ask what the “dirge of the week” was as he walked into our weekly rehearsal. I would reply, “Its ‘Sacred Head,’ now get over it!” and we would laugh. And eventually Easter would come and we would all sing Alleluias and have Easter lilies and chocolate eggs and all would get back to normal.
In order to get to Easter (or whatever your end point), we must get through our own Lent. We must get through the snow and ice for us to appreciate the sun. We need to rehearse our students for the contests, prepare for the tours, and make arrangements for those ACDA conferences. We need to hold auditions for the upcoming concert cycles or the next academia year before we can begin the next round of rehearsals. We need to begin another repertoire search, do some in depth score study and get music ordered before those rehearsals can start. We don’t often think about the joy in that process, the joy in the transitions, the joy in getting there from here because it’s always about the destination and not the journey, isn’t it?
“Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the departing sun, it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart.” Washington Irving
Ten years ago, I founded the community chamber choir I direct. Developing into a solid core of singers, we have experienced much together. We have been through all sorts of life events; marriages, births (of children and grandchildren), retirements, illnesses and deaths of parents and spouses. But it wasn’t until February of 2015 we experienced the death of one of our singers, alto Elaine S.
Elaine was special for many reasons. She was a Genius and an Odd Duck. She played the ukulele. To say she was a “character” is too mild a way of putting it; she was a kooky character!
When she called our choir phone to set up an audition, I didn’t think it could possibly be her. She stated her name—Elaine S. (I had grown up with a family with this unique long ethnic name)—and wanted to know if I was THAT Marie Grass. Returning her call, I told her I was Marie Grass Amenta now and she said, “well, la-de-da”…it was that Elaine! She had been a classmate of one of my sisters, from grade school through high school, and I had been a classmate of one of hers. Elaine and I had sung together in high school; mixed chorus, Madrigals and musicals. She had studied voice with my opera singer Mom when she was in college. In our phone conversation, she thanked me for graduating so she could finally get the parts I had previously (she had been my understudy for more than one role) and we set up an audition.
Elaine had one of those creamy, contralto voices that just get better with age. Her voice was wonderful but her musicianship had slipped… but I couldn’t turn her away. She agreed to be coached by our accompanist, Ben, who is also my son. When Ben asked what he should call her, she told him to call her “Crazy Aunt Elaine” and since she knew his Actual Aunts, she assured him she was every bit as crazy! When Elaine auditioned, she shared with me she was a two time breast cancer survivor. I told her Mom was a two time cancer survivor as well.
She attended her first rehearsal, and I dragged out an old yearbook to show everyone our high school chorus picture. Thank goodness we were wearing robes! From that moment on, Elaine fit in. The altos loved her and the rest of the group found her funny and quirky. If she had any musical problems, she asked Ben for help or the altos would have impromptu sectionals before or after rehearsal. Elaine was Greek, had sung for many years in Orthodox Church choirs and would joke about Kyries being Greek so finally she felt comfortable with something.
After she sang her first concert, Mom and Elaine held hands during the reception and compared chemo war stories. It was so touching. Unfortunately, Mom’s cancer reoccurred and she was again on the Chemo Train, as those two called it. Mom lost her battle that summer and when I called Elaine, she wept. She wasn’t feeling well enough to attend Mom’s wake or funeral even with us offering to take her. I should have known something was up.
Rehearsals started in fall and Elaine looked like (her word) “crap.” She told me her cancer had reoccurred and had a drain in her lungs so her breath control was “nada.” If I didn’t want her to sing for that concert, she would understand. Of course I wanted her! She missed only one rehearsal due to a treatment leaving her “high as a kite.”
After the concert, we had two break-out gigs and she wasn’t able to sing. She left a message on my cell phone, “Now don’t have a cow Marie, but they say it’s no use. I’m done for. How can that be?” Days later I got a call from one of her friends.
As I put folders together for this spring, I think of Elaine and what an honor it was having her sing with us. I miss her!
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry S. Truman
Four years ago, Jay’s* partner was accepted to medical school in a university town with a great music school and many fine community music organizations. Jay was very happy. He got a job as the music director at a church with a wonderful organ and choir and was soon hired as the assistant music director for the premier community chorus with many university faculty members as members. He wasn’t called the “assistant music director” to begin with since Felicity*, the music director (a retired director of choral activities from the university), felt he was “only” accompanying, and should be called the “pianist” of the group, not the “accompanist” or even the “collaborative pianist” but the plain, ‘ol pianist. Felicity’s attitude then should have tipped him off.
At the end of his first year with the chorus, he made a bit of a stink. It was after he threatened to resign they agreed to a title change and a slight raise. He was doing all sorts of things besides accompanying, so was made assistant music director much to the displeasure of Felicity. She didn’t want to give up one bit of prestige being Music Director but was fine with Jay doing portions of her job without recognition. Jay does respect Felicity and her body of work but she has become difficult in the last few years. She is not always on top of things musically or administratively, so the bulk of those things have fallen to him.
It’s been almost four years of cleaning up after Felicity and doing the dirty work of the chorus; with more details left to him as the years go by. By rights, Jay thinks he should be called the Executive Director or the Music Director de facto and not the assistant M.D. but to convince the chorus board would take far longer than he intends to stick around. Felicity does choose the chorus repertoire—and has good taste—and waves her arms around a bit but the old girl is slowing down. This means, a LOT of details are left to him. He hires the musicians for any work with orchestra they perform. He schedules auditions twice a year and plays for them while Felicity watches, usually without comment. He often runs rehearsals by himself because of her mounting health problems. He double checks any music folders going out to the singers, even though they do have a music librarian because Felicity insists. He writes the PR for auditions and concerts and keeps the chorus website and Facebook page up to date. There are many other details too numerous and silly to mention he is expected to complete because the chorus management now expects him to do so. He has mentioned in confidence to the Executive Director and board president it might be time for Felicity to retire. THAT suggestion was met with horror!
The reason Jay wrote to me was because he wanted assurance he wasn’t over-reacting to the latest issue. After the most time consuming and detail bogged down holiday concert he has ever worked on, his name was COMPLETELY left off of the program and he wasn’t given a bow during the concert. He thinks Felicity did it on purpose because he is taking over much more of her Music Director’s job….and not by choice. He has two more concerts to oversee before the end of the subscription year and isn’t sure he will be able to do them without blowing up. I told him he can do anything if he knows it will end. And it will end if he wants it to.
Jay is moving on this year when his partner graduates from med school. He is so fed up with not getting credit for all the crappy work he does for this chorus, he and his partner are moving, no matter what. The chorus management doesn’t know yet nor does the music director or the singers but rest assured he is encouraging his partner to apply to residencies in other states. He can’t wait to get out!
“The buck stops here!” Harry S Truman
When we first dream of becoming a choral director, we think of the music. We work hard to become good musicians; we practice, learn repertoire and practice some more. And we imagine our life will be all great masterpieces and singing and working with great people and…..it is. But it’s also making sure details are taken care of, either by us or someone else, or there will be problems.
When Joanie* called me right after Christmas, I thought she wanted to have lunch. Turns out, my young friend wanted to talk to me about a Choral Ethics problem. Joanie had just resigned from her first church job and had just accepted a new (and better) position. Joanie wanted me to help her understand why she had problems in her old job so she could avoid doing them in the new position. She told me the reason she finally left was because the choir blamed HER for not getting their choir robes cleaned. It wasn’t until I started asking some very pointed questions I began to suspect where the problem was.
I asked Joanie to tell me about the things which bothered her most about her former church job. She told me she had been initially enchanted by the choir, great organist, congregation and the wonderful pastor. It all started to go south right before her first Advent with the congregation. She had been told she would need to do some recruiting and she was perfectly willing to do it, however, she got no help. No one put her recruiting information in the church bulletin or newsletter or on the Facebook page or asked her to speak during announcements. Oh. I asked Joanie whose job it was to submit recruiting notices to those places…she didn’t know. The choral library was a mess and she couldn’t find anything she was scheduling. Um, oh. Again, I asked her whose job it was to file music and….she didn’t know. Every Thursday morning, the church secretary would call and ask for the title of the anthem and would often be miffed for no reason. I asked her why she thought the secretary would be miffed and, she didn’t know. Uh, oh. I had a feeling I knew why. Trying to be kind, I asked her “who was doing the towels?” She stared at me blankly, and am sure you are wondering what I mean as well.
When my boys were teenagers, they decided they needed a fresh bath towel for every shower they took, often taking several showers a day. One day, not only were there no clean towels in the house but the towel bar in their bathroom fell off the wall! It was then I introduced the concept of doing their own towels to my little darlings. To this day, our family refers to the tasks no one wants to do but must as “doing towels.”
This situation was not totally Joanie’s fault. It was her first job; she was unfamiliar with this particular denomination and had always been a paid soloist in other church positions. She didn’t understand the nuts and bolts part of being a church choir director. But it was her job to understand what was expected of her besides the music. As I told her at lunch that day, the music is the easy part!
I explained to Joanie there seemed to be a total lack of communications as to who did what. She didn’t understand the non-music parts of her job and no one told her what was expected of her, assuming she knew. So no one said anything and there were bad feelings all around. The irony of course was no one said anything because they didn’t want to cause bad feelings. Instead, the bad feelings grew from nothing. Taking the initiative and asking questions about who does what seems so simple but Joanie didn’t want to appear naïve, she tells me. There is no harm asking a question, I told her, when there will be a simple answer. Appearing naïve is preferable to what happened, so she will be asking many questions of her new choir members, new pastor and new church secretary in her new job.
“Let’s not be narrow, nasty and negative.” T.S Eliot
I have a group of choral colleagues I regularly contact for their Choral Ethics opinions and help with the Choral Ethics Project. I admire these folks and think they are fine examples of what it means to be an Ethical Choral Professional because I’ve worked with them or have known them for a while. Usually I send a list of questions/situations and ask for their solutions or perhaps how they handled something similar in their own career. I also encourage them to tell me about a sticky situation (and how they handled it) with the deadline for getting back to me open-ended and the opportunity for them to have someone to vent to. Last summer, Ross* contacted me, after my usual group email, wanting to vent. And he definitely has good reason.
Twice in his life Ross has personally witnessed outgoing conductors try to make life difficult for the people who followed. At one of his first positions, the choral director (who was adjunct) was not hired for the full-time position when it was created. She felt like it was due to her successes that there was a full-time position at all and promptly convinced students to attend different schools, or not join choir. He was left with a choir of two people to direct (a duet) and told to recruit. And Ross tells me it was without irony he was told to recruit.
More recently, his predecessor at his current position (let’s call him Jack*) retired, but when he did, he took the entire community chorus with him. In his defense, Jack had personally built up that chorus from 17 people to 125 over the course of his 25 year career, so Ross is sure Jack felt like it was his baby. But why couldn’t Jack make it his legacy? When he convinced the entire organization to relocate to the umbrella of another institution, he decimated the choral program at the school he was leaving. Actually decimated is too gentle a word, as it actually means to eliminate one in ten; Jack almost eradicated it. The choral program went (over the course of a summer) from 140 strong to 20. This choral program will take years to recover from that loss, if it ever does.
Ross wonders; if you choose to leave a position for your own reasons, how can you not at least try, in the spirit of collegiality, to set up your successor for success? It seems suspiciously as if some conductors are not motivated by their love for the art but rather for their own fame and glory, to the extent that they would jealously guard their own territory as if another’s success would threaten their own.
I would agree with Ross about it not being about the music in cases such as he relates. And some of our colleagues in the greater choral world believe ANYONE’S success diminishes theirs, not just their successors.
Josie*, a lovely person, directs a lovely community chorus in a lovely town. There is another chorus, just as lovely, one town over from hers but the director of that chorus isn’t so lovely. Their director, Alissa*, does whatever she can to make Josie look bad from choosing similar repertoire to changing their rehearsal night from Mondays to Tuesdays (Josie’s night) so singers cannot participate in both groups. Alissa bad mouths Josie every chance she gets, including inferring she’s a bad musician.
Alissa keeps mentioning to her singers Josie’s chorus is “on its last legs” and “isn’t what it used to be.” Of course, this gets back to Josie and her chorus. Alissa tells anyone who will listen she is willing to “step into the breach” when Josie’s chorus folds up, which should be soon. Nothing could be further from the truth, since Josie’s chorus is healthy financially and has 50 more singers than Alissa’s. But all this gossip and nastiness tires Josie out. She is convinced if she does or says anything, she will be sinking to Alissa’s level and doesn’t want that.
Josie believes it should be about the music and not anything else. I do too; the music is what should drive us, shouldn’t it?