“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.” W. H. Auden
What does it mean to be an ethical choral conductor/director? Our own Choral Ethics code should be a model of behaviors for how we treat our singers, but shouldn’t it be a bit more? Don’t we need to be Choral Ethical to our colleagues in addition to our singers?
Vance*, who teaches at a community college and has a church job as well, has strong opinions on the subject and what it means to be ethical to our fellow choral colleagues. He believes being ethical in our profession means supporting each other with singers, recommendations, concert promotions, publicity, encouragement, and concert attendance. We may feel alone in our institutions and organizations; we are rarely alone in town. There are conductors in other schools and churches or nearby communities and he thinks developing a personal and congenial working relationship with them which is not just over the phone is important. Working together no matter the choral group you direct Vance believes is good, not just for the individual director, but for all directors and choral organizations in the community.
Vance also has opinions about what he considers to be unethical choral professionals. He has been left “holding the bag” a few times in his career, cleaning up messes—literally and figuratively–left by predecessors and has wanted to ask them one question: how can you leave a choral library in the shape you did? Leaving a disorganized choral library might not be considered unethical behavior by some and Vance realizes everyone has different standards as how exactly a choral library should be organized. However, we can all agree dumping a year’s worth of octavos collected at the end of the school year in one collective heap regardless of title and leaving it for your successor to take care of it not exactly the most stellar of behavior. Music dumping by his predecessor makes no sense to Vance, since now the guy looks like a big jerk to his former colleagues in the music department, in addition to his successor. Vance has gotten over it, but does wonder how the fellow is doing in his new position.
Maggie* has lived in her community for several decades. She’s made quite a name for herself, often being referred to as “a teacher’s teacher.” She is also a lovely person; with a history of taking a chance on singers no one else seems to want and turning them into excellent musicians. Or rather, her fine reputation is agreed upon by everyone except those in the local “premier” choral group and their director.
The chorale Maggie directs is a bit different from other community groups; it’s unique in that it focuses on a certain kind of ethic music. Her chorale is not in competition with any other group in the area but it doesn’t stop those in the “premier” choral group from taking verbal swipes at her and the chorale. All of the other community choral directors have spoken to her with their support, both together and individually, and feel she is being treated terribly. But it does make it difficult to invite her and her ensemble to the bi-annual local choral fest or to have a group meeting of local choral directors. They do what they can by making sure to invite her and her group to the fest or director meetings, but they can only do so much without causing trouble.
Maggie and her chorale attend local choral events when invited but sometimes wonders why they do. The “premier” group’s director is condescending or just plain rude and so are his singers. It’s very humiliating for her chorale to have to deal with this behavior in public and she is at a loss. Maggie wonders what to do because by attempting to make her look bad and behaving the way they do–without Choral Ethics–they are hurting their own organization, whether they realize it or not. It makes Maggie sad for our profession.
“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.” Claude Debussy
If you read Tim Sharp’s ChoralBlog on Monday, you know the title was, “Collaboration Outside Our Comfort Level.” I meant to write about collaboration as well and his comments on Oklahoma and buffalos (my Granny D. grew up in Tonkawa, OK and used to talk about buffalos) convinced me I should just go ahead and ‘be the Buffalo.’ My Blog today will speak to the subject but on a more rudimentary level.
I am the daughter of a ballet dancer/stage director father and an opera singer mother; thinking about collaboration between arts is normal to me. Yet, when I bring up the idea of collaboration between arts, I often get blank stares or an occasional “no way” from those I thought would be open to doing something new. We choral folk could learn much from our fellow artists (whatever their discipline) in the coming together of arts, but may tend to think it is not an option for our ensembles or think it might draw attention away from our music making.
One of my favorite works for solo piano is a suite by Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition. Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel among others, the work was a memorial of sorts for Mussorgsky’s artist friend, Victor Hartmann, who died at the age of 39. As Mussorgsky walked through a memorial exhibit of 400 of his friend’s works, he was inspired to write a piece reflecting what he saw. It delights me to think two artistic forms—musical and visual–converged to create such a lovely work. And I wonder why we don’t “converge” more.
Other musical and performing art forms already know what we should; using other art and artists to enhance takes nothing away from our own performance. This may seem like a new idea but it’s not. Early in the 20th century, Pablo Picasso collaborated with Diaghiliev and the Ballets Russes on several ballets, using his Cubist sets and costumes for Parade, The Three-Cornered Hat and Pulcinella. In the last 25 years, opera companies around the country have used sets and costumes influenced by the Belgian surrealist, Rene Magritte, for productions of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Having attended two productions of this version of The Barber of Seville, I can attest it is charming!
All this is great, you think, but how does this apply to choral ensembles? A few years ago, my husband gave me a video of two of my favorite things—a ballet choreographed on my all-time favorite choral piece (to sing or conduct), Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Originally conceived for Nederlands Dans Theater in 1978, the chorography has been used by other dance companies, recently by the Boston Ballet. It was profound to see what I was hearing and singing and actually seemed to make my experience fuller. I don’t know if other large choral works would work quite as well having a ballet made on them, but I think Symphony of Psalms does. Last winter, one of my own home town choral ensembles, Chicago A Capella, did a concert collaborating with Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. I admire them greatly for thinking outside of the box!
I also try to collaborate or be inspired by other art forms with my own ensembles. Last spring, my chamber choir did a concert inspired by the life of the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. My singers, to a person, told me how much they enjoyed the music and how much fun they had with this perspective, different from our usual. Sometime in 2017, I plan to do a concert using Baroque dance in some way; we will see where that idea leads me.
Collaboration doesn’t have to be difficult; it can be as simple as having a concert at an art gallery or museum. There are occasionally announcements of concerts here on ChoralNet of events such as these, with musical offerings intended to enhance the art works or exhibits. I have thought a concert at a house of worship with significant stained glass windows, with works chosen to highlight the windows or the window donors, could be a wonderful sacred concert.
What about you? When will YOU be the Buffalo? Every journey begins with one step; what will be the first step to your collaboration? Please tell us!
” I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care.” Lou Holtz
In two weeks, I will begin another series on Choral Ethics here on ChoralBlog. There are a few misconceptions floating around as to what I mean by Choral Ethics, so before the series begins, I’d like to clear them up. Choral Ethics is not just ethics, but ethics specific to our profession. What may be acceptable for another group of musicians may not be for choral professionals. Choral Ethics and behaving ethically to our singers and colleagues (no matter the level of our ensembles or colleagues) is important to every one of us in some way or other and has the potential to have an impact—positively or negatively–on our profession for years to come.
Writing about Choral Ethics has turned into something I am quite passionate about, but my interest started simply enough. Nearly four years ago, I decided to write a book about something I came to call “Choral Ethics.” A few things motivated me, including a rather unpleasant encounter at a community arts event with a choral colleague. Nothing seemed to provoke our confrontation; in fact, I had just recommended the person for a rather nice job. But she was hell-bent on being unpleasant, so…unpleasant she was. She harangued me in public and I thought she was being “unprofessional” as well as something else I couldn’t define. After our encounter; I began thinking about behavior, specifically what we deem “professional” behavior.
“Professional” means different things to different people and musicians throw the term around all the time. As I began to think of what I believed to begin with as a lack of professionalism, it occurred to me it is not a lack of professionalism but a lack of some sort of accepted ethical guidelines within our profession. As I began to examine my own behavior, both in rehearsal and out, I was determined to behave as kindly and as ethically possible. And the whole concept of Choral Ethics was born.
In order to have some sort of general choral ethics code, each of us needs to begin to think about our own personal code of choral ethics, ideally beginning to develop it while in training. Those working with young conductors can begin the process by being a good example first and sharing their personal codes with students. I find my own teachers and the conductors I have worked with influencing my own ethical code, whether positively or negatively.
My personal choral ethics code is a work in progress but has three basic parts. I try to treat my singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated. I try to always say something good about my colleagues if at all possible and if I am not able, to keep my mouth shut. And I try to keep my own skills as good as in my capability. This does not mean I expect less from my singers, accompanist or myself; I just try to be nice about it. Since I’ve begun to consciously behave more choral ethically I’ve noticed a difference, subtle at first, with my choirs and how I feel about myself. Rehearsals are more relaxed and we seem to accomplish more. I feel more at ease with my colleagues, no matter how I feel about them. And I feel less stress!
In my upcoming Choral Ethics series, I will share stories submitted to me by our colleagues. I am grateful to those who have felt comfortable enough to contact me with their concerns and Choral Ethics dilemmas. All names have been changed and some minor details have been modified to protect privacy. I am always looking for new stories so please contact me with YOUR stories or Choral Ethics questions if you’d like and they might be featured in a future Choral Ethics Blog post.
Thank you for the support and the “atta girl” I get both on ChoralNet and through personal contact when I write about Choral Ethics. I am a bit surprised the whole thing has resonated with so many. When I first thought about writing about this subject, I wasn’t sure there would be an interest. Now I see not only is there an interest, but a real need.
” I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?” Leo Durocher
In the past few weeks, everything has started (or will start soon) for our choirs. Getting back into the rehearsal swing with those first rehearsals, it’s time to pass out Choir Rules. Whether we call them “Choir Commandments” for a church choir or “Choir Expectations” (with a contract to sign) for academic choruses or “By-Laws” for a community group, they are still choir rules. Most choral groups have pretty straight forward ones but a few are…..well, a few are *interesting*. Makes us wonder WHY that particular rule was included.
When my sons began piano lessons, they had no rules. I allowed them to practice when and how they wanted. Often, it was right before school and sometimes, right before bed. As they studied, it turned out we had to have some rules. We had two basic ones, which to this day, apply to all children who come into our home and want to play our Steinway:
- No banging
- Wash your hands
The first rule was because of my son-the-physicist who studied percussion (and played through his undergrad years). Eventually, he did find something other than my grand to bang on. The second rule developed because of my son-the-keyboardist (now with several degrees in piano). His nine-year old self loved to practice so much, he often would eat (pancakes with syrup were a favorite) and run to the piano to play without washing his hands. I usually was the person to practice after he did and I did NOT appreciate a sticky keyboard! Our house piano rules developed over the first few years of their studying. I think they were good rules; and not so complicated for children to understand. And I think Choir Rules should do the same thing—be simple, easy to understand and have a reason for being.
Which leads me to the question, what kinds of rules do YOU have for your choir, how did they develop and why are they important to your organization? I’m sure all have rules about number of absences allowed, excused or not, in order to sing a concert. I’m positive all have a tardiness rule in there somewhere. I bet there is a music folder turn-in rule or two. And I am also confident all have a concert dress code (and perhaps what condition choir uniforms are to be returned in) or some other guidelines as to what your singers should wear for a concert. Any of the other rules are probably unique to your situation.
I am interested in unique, “only in your choir,” kinds of choir rules. Do you have a “don’t come if you’re sick and we really mean it” rule because of an outbreak of flu several years ago? Is there mention of personal hygiene or cracking gum? What drove you to amend your approach with your church choir when *everyone* seemed to be taking the same Sunday off to go to a football game? Do rehearsals after football (or basketball) games have their own special rules, for those teaching at a high school or university?
When I was in the midst of forming my community chamber choir, I was given the opportunity to read the By-Laws of several other community choruses I knew. The large groups (my proposed choir would be a chamber choir) had many By-Laws I knew would not apply to me. By-Laws which could have been helpful were so wordy as to be difficult to understand. Some rules didn’t make sense to me at the time, but the longer I direct my own community chamber choir, the more I understand why those rules came into being.
I thought it might be fun to share your quirky and funny choir rules in a future Blog, perhaps in late November or early December, as the semester ends and concert and holiday season intensify. We’ll all need a laugh by then. But I need your help. Please contact me via ChoralNet contacts or you may respond here. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you!
“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, It’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
I have mentioned I have many interests in the Choral World. I enjoy program note writing, both for my own choirs and for others. I have given pre-concert lectures, both for choral works and orchestral, trying to be innovative in my presentations. As a former ballet dancer, I love “chorus-ography” and incorporating movement with choral singing. In fact, I’ve begun planning a concert scheduled some time in 2017 using Baroque Dance, and will probably blog about it here.
The opportunity to be involved in Special Interest Choruses usually presents itself when I least expect it. I don’t mention this particular interest, and then have an opportunity to learn something new or meet someone involved. That’s when I am amazed and mutter, “what a small world,” to myself. Here on ChoralNet, in my community and even in my own chamber choir, I have met people as passionate about Special Interest Choruses as I am.
There are many kinds of choruses not considered special interest eventho they focus on one particular repertoire in our art, such as mixed voices, men’s, women’s or children’s choruses. In the choral sense, special interest can mean many things. Certain groups of people singing together, or for a particular reason, whom we don’t usually think of as a chorus is what I am speaking about here.
There are choruses comprised of senior citizens as well as hospice choirs whose purpose is to bring peace and comfort to the dying. There are choruses focusing on certain ethnic music or workplace choruses or prison choruses. Once or twice a year around the country, singers convene together as a chorus, with the sole purpose of raising money for breast cancer research. Those singers often are breast cancer survivors or singers whose lives have been affected by breast cancer in some way. Bravi, I say to you all!
My particular interest, within special interest choruses, is the special population chorus; choruses comprised of singers—both children and adults—with disabilities. I’m the Editor and Owner of the ChoralNet Community “Friends of Joyful Noise,” a community within ChoralNet. This is where we welcome questions about music inclusion or working with singers with learning disabilities as well the nuts and bolts of starting a choir for adults with disabilities of any sort. But who are Joyful Noise and their Friends, you may ask?
Joyful Noise is a New Jersey (and also Delaware) based chorus, founded by Allison Fromm, which is comprised of adults with disabilities. They’ve sung at ACDA’s regional and national conferences, as well as at Harvard. Nick Page and Alice Parker have written music for them. Anyone who has seen and heard them have been touched and changed by the experience. Joyful Noise goes beyond what is expected because music means so much to them. The Joyful Noise singers think of themselves as singers and as people, something for us to think about when working with our own choruses.
Allison and I have been friends for years, meeting here on ChoralNet when she asked questions when first forming Joyful Noise. Both of us are touched by disability in some way, so talking about music and disability is a part of who we are. I admire her for what she has done because I could not do it. Having a child with autism and having to deal with disability on a daily basis makes it difficult for me to think about doing something like this. I need to get away from disability in my professional life; however, I’m their biggest supporter and cheerleader!
Joyful Noise and Allison have changed our choral world by spawning other choruses for adults with disability across the country. Directors see their performances at ACDA and want to start their own Joyful Noise clone. Verallen (Vera) Kleinhenz and Jeannine Kammann-Cessac founded Expressions of Joy in New Mexico. And in my own state of Illinois, Steven Szalaj is the director of Encore Joyful Noise. There are other Joyful Noise –like choruses around the country too, changing lives and hearts with their music. They are just a small group of choral directors, changing the world.
"No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face." John Donne
I mentioned in my first blog post two weeks ago I have spent most of my summer vacation straightening up. My choir music is now so organized; I can put my hands on anything my chamber choir has ever sung. My desks are things of beauty, with silver cups filled with pens and pencils and the cutest desk blotters you’ve ever seen. My laptop fits so well on top of my desks, with no books or papers or stuff I have to shove aside, I no longer have to sit sidesaddle at my computer.
I am a voracious reader, and had to discipline myself when it came to organizing my professional library this summer. With every book I found, I wanted to sit down and read it. Most of the books I own are like old friends, calling to me and reminding me why I wanted or needed them in the first place. If I wanted to be finished with certain tasks by our agreed upon deadline, I had to have a system. I read biographies (and a novel-bio) at bedtime and sections of other books as a treat if I got a certain amount accomplished.
I reread a lovely biography of Amy Beach and one of Ruth Crawford Seeger as well. I have longed admired Mrs. Seeger for her wonderful children’s song collections, with their interesting accompaniments. I had almost forgotten she was a gifted composer in her own right, not just the wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger and step-mom to Pete. I reread one of my favorite novel-bios, “Scarlet Music, Hildegard of Bingen, A Novel,” by Joan Ohanneson and was transported to a medieval convent for a bit.
I had misplaced my copy of, “Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, Vol. I: Sacred Latin Texts,” by Ron Jeffers but found it in time to lend to my son, Ben, also a musician and ChoralNet User. When I came across my copy of the Elizabeth A.H. Green book (you know the one I’m talking about), I decided I wanted a refresher on fermatas, so I reread Chapter Six. I am still reading, “The Singer’s Ego: Finding Balance Between Music and Life,” by Lynn Eustis because it resonates with me on so many levels I felt I needed to reread it in its entirety.
I found several books destined to be my “treats” for this project and came across them as I sorted through, stacking them on the top of one of my empty office bookshelves. To keep myself on task, I read only a chapter or section that struck my fancy. From, “In Quest of Answers: Interviews with American Choral Conductors,” editor and interviewer, Carole Glenn, I read the “Women Conductors” chapter. “Up Front: Becoming the Complete Choral Conductor,” editor Guy B. Webb, made me want to reread the whole thing but I limited myself to “Mastery of Choral Ensemble,” by Jameson Marvin, with Tim Sharp’s contribution to be read later this fall. How can you read only one portion of “The Robert Shaw Reader,” edited by Robert Blocker? I tried by sticking with “Part I: Organizing and Sustaining the Chorus.” The last book in my “treat” pile compelled me to read the whole thing. In fact, I am still reading as I go along and digest a bit, then I read a bit more, “Wisdom, Wit, and Will: Women Choral Conductors on Their Art,” compiled and edited by Joan Catoni Conlon.
The best part of the whole organizing ordeal has been finding items I didn’t remember I had. There was a little china ‘choir angel’ the parent’s group for my children’s choir gave me for Christmas one year. And there was a wind chime a little girl gave me after her last concert with me. There were pictures of choirs I have conducted, both my church choirs and community children’s choirs, with singers I had forgotten about, jumping back into my memory from their photos. It’s been lovely to find all this bric-a-brac, if a bit jarring, and then realize I had it all hidden under piles of papers. The papers are all shredded and recycled, the photos put in albums, the wind chime hung from a shelf above my home desk in the family room with the ‘choir angel’ on that same shelf.
The books are back on their shelves now. It was refreshing to reconnect with my old book friends and feel ready to begin my fall concert cycle. I do love autumn!