PASSION – Frank was a man of great passion about music. He had a passion for many things, actually. But it was in music that his passion shone through brightest. You could see it in the way he held his hands as he conducted. For the softest passages, he used hands of velvet. Those same hands would become rods of steel when we would sing Bach’s “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft.”
In addition, Frank developed several different personas through his collegiate career. In the beginning, he was known as a great interpreter of Renaissance music. Later, in the 1970’s, he became the expert on all things new and avant garde in choral music, particularly what was coming from Scandinavia. Then, in the 1980’s, he focused on entertaining an audience with vocal jazz, gospel and even rock. When I asked him once why he kept changing, he said he thought it was because he had an “innate capacity for boredom.”
I think he changed styles because, as one style bored him, he had to find something else he was passionate about. If he weren’t passionate about it, he wouldn’t do it. He retired fairly early, at the age of 62, mostly because he had begun to lose the passion.
At a NACM conference recently, John Tebay said that he could not bring himself to program a Sunday anthem if he did not love it through and through. If he couldn’t be passionate about the piece, how could he possibly convince his singers to be passionate about it? And if we’re not passionate about what we are doing, how are we possibly serving our audiences and our singers?
What are you passionate about in your current position? What are you not? How can you focus more on the things that you are passionate about in order to serve your singers and your audiences more fully?
INTEGRITY – I love that one of the words that describes honesty is “frank.” Frank was definitely frank. He was unflinchingly honest; whether you were doing something that was good or bad, he was unafraid to tell you. You always knew where you stood with him. At times, that led to problems for the students who would be chronically late or loved to create drama.
But when it came to giving honest praise for something you had done, whether it was conducting the choir, arranging a hymn or singing a solo, you knew you would get the wink and clap of approval. I vividly remember him telling me to keep working on a piece of music I was writing for his choral arranging class by saying “you’ve got a tiger by the tale with that one. Good work!” I was thrilled.
Another time, when I was supposed to sing a solo at our ACDA performance in Salt Lake City, I tripped getting up on the stage and ripped a gash in my knee. I left to staunch the bleeding, and when I came back in, he had given the solo to somebody else. After the rehearsal he said, “that’s OK – that other guy had the high A’s that you had a hard time with anyway.” He was correct, of course.
I think there can be no higher trait for someone who leads a music program than honesty and integrity. Your singers have to know that when you tell them something is good, it is good. They also have to trust that when you say something is not good, that you are doing it for their benefit and that you are absolutely honest and fair in your criticism.
Are you honest, fair and wise in all you say and do in your position? Do you act with integrity at all times? Do the people in your care trust you and your word?
TAKE RISKS – Frank was never afraid to take chances on something new or different. If it failed, he would simply jettison the idea and move on. Our folder at the beginning of each semester was crammed with 40 or 50 pieces. By the time we got to our first concert, half of them would have missed the cut. But, never was there a time I felt he would avoid something simply for fear of it failing.
Choralography was a good example of that. We would spend weeks on choralography for a piece, often to be disappointed by the results. I remember one piece called Basketball, which was a spoken piece about a basketball game. The choralography consisted of an “air” basketball game happening in front of the choir as the rest of us watched and rapped. It was a disaster, and thankfully we never performed it.
But when it worked, it was phenomenal. We incorporated choralography to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross that ended with us turning toward center of the choir, where one of our members with long hair (and kind of looked like Jesus) would drape his arms over the ‘cross’ of the arms on either side of him. As corny as it sounds now, the result was electrifying, and would leave all of us – audience and choir – in tears.
Most of our schools and churches are dealing with vexing problems these days: testing schedules and vanishing budgets, declining attendance, aging congregations, struggles for identity and relevance in a rapidly changing society. Those programs that have been able to grow in this time have often done so by completely changing the model of what a music program is and does. Whether we all agree with those changes, it seems we have to continually ask ourselves, what is working? What is not? What risks do we need to take in order to survive, grow and thrive?
What risks have you taken in the past year? What risks are you willing to take in the next year to grow your music program? What fears, processes, impediments keep you from taking those risks?
EXPECT EXCELLENCE – Frank never accepted less than what he heard in his own head. We worked for weeks and weeks on Brahms’ “O Heiland Reiss” before our 1983 Australia/New Zealand tour, and it was everyone’s favorite piece. And yet, Frank was never satisfied with it. There was something he wanted to hear from us that we just couldn’t deliver. In the end, we only performed the piece once or twice on a 57-concert tour. As frustrating as it could be, we all knew we could trust that the result would be stunning if we followed his lead.
There were tiny details that had to be continually perfected. One of Frank’s most detailed expectations was that entrances be immaculate. He had developed this odd gesture with his hands to get us to make perfect entrances that I have never seen another conductor use. We would practice for hours, learning that gesture, and learning how to sing those perfect entrances.
I hesitate to include this in a discussion about music programs, because I think there is a danger in expecting too much from the average church or high school choir member. Certainly the excellence that Frank expected from his University Choir is a level way beyond that of even the above-average choir. But if we assume that what we’re talking about is relative – that the level of excellence may differ, but the expectation that everyone bring their own level of excellence does not – then the lesson is the same.
I often encounter “just” in my position, as in “we’ll just go over it at the next staff meeting” or “I’ll just send the postcard to half the people on the list.” I could go on at length at the ways I have heard people use the word “just” to do less than is required. I have taken a “No Just” policy in my program. If we have determined that something is worth doing: from rehearsing a piece of music to handling the little administrative details of our program, then we should all expect that it should be done to completeness. I haven’t always succeeded myself, by I strive for it, and I ask everyone around me to do the same.
What does ‘excellence’ look like for your music program? How can you get there? What are the things that you or your team members are “just” doing, and how can they get past that to achieve excellence?
GIVE EVERYONE A CHANCE TO EXCEL – Frank was not an egotist. He was always happy to share the space in front of his choir to talented conductors. All of us got a chance to conduct something if we showed promise. When there was a talented accordionist in the choir, Frank programmed a piece for choir and accordion. When we had gospel players and singers, we would do gospel music. Great flautists and clarinetists in the choir would be asked to accompany. I was a guitar major, and I had the chance to do several pieces with the choir, and even did an arrangement of Stanley Myers’ Cavatina from The Deer Hunter soundtrack for two guitars and choir.
I don’t think of Frank as a conductor. He was a teacher. His first and primary goal was to teach people what excellence looked like, and then give them a laboratory to experience it first hand as a director or performer. (It must be said, though, that he hated auditioning soloists. He much preferred just pointing to the people that he knew could handle the task than to have to listen to five people try it.)
In our music programs, we encounter people with a vast array of gifts. Some of them are musical; some are not. The difficult balancing act we take on as leaders is how to lead and direct and simultaneously get out of the way. The Bible speaks about “each, according to his own gifts.” But of course we know that music is not a democracy, or is an imperfect one at best. If everyone decided his or her own tempo and dynamic while singing a piece of music, the result would be chaos. So there is the trick for us: how do we identify the gifts of the people in our music ministry, and how do we best use them? How do we simultaneously direct and get out of the way?
Got someone who is good at bookwork? Give them the music library to organize. Got someone who is a computer expert? Give them the task of redesigning your music program’s web presence. Got a great hurdy-gurdy player? Commission a piece for hurdy-gurdy and choir. Be creative, but always be looking for ways to use the gifts of those around you.
Who are the people around you in your music program, even the ones at the fringes? What are their gifts, musical or otherwise? How can you best put their gifts to use, and thus help them find out why they are called to be in your midst?