“Fine manners are the mantle of fair minds.” Louisa May Alcott
Do you ever say “please” to your singers? Or is it always a command to “turn to page 3, top score, measure 2?” If you occasionally said, “please turn to page 3…..” would the sky fall? When was the last time you said “thank-you” to your accompanist? After they sight read an open score, eight-part, bi-tonal, mixed meter, multi-clef monstrosity you decided to include in rehearsal on a whim? Or do you thank them on a regular basis? If you have a good relationship with your accompanist, you probably don’t thank them enough. But if you have a tenuous one or a new relationship, it is very important to say thanks. People perform better and are willing to go the extra mile for you if they feel appreciated. Saying please and thank you—and meaning it—are simple ways of showing appreciation. Simple courtesies are simple and not always common among our brethren.
Mom used to tell us having good manners is not knowing which fork to use and when but a way of showing people, by your behavior, you respect them. You said, “excuse me” if you bumped into someone or wanted to leave the room. You said, “please” and “thank you” if you wanted something and then received it. You stood for your elders or the President of the United States and gave your seat to someone who needed it more. In our business “manners,” or whatever you call it, can make a world of difference in our relationships with those we work with us.
Sometimes, the graciousness of a simple “thank you” can last for years. I have a tchotchke hanging in my kitchen, next to my kitchen sink, so I may see it while I am doing dishes. In fact, it has hung next to all my kitchen sinks, in all my kitchens since I married. It’s a little banner from a greeting card store–women love these things, men do not–and, in a very stylized fashion it says “Keep on Singing”. It was given to me as “thank you” gift from Doreen Rao for helping her organize a choral library during a summer at the university I attended, and where she taught. It was a simple thing–to be thanked–and it meant a lot to the young choral director (I was nowhere NEAR a “conductor” at 19) I was at the time. I learned a lot from her and was her helper during her time at the university–I essentially took attendance, set up chairs, copied hand outs and did all sorts of errands that need to be done for any choral organization. But most of all, I learned how to treat people. She thanked you when you did something for her. She made everyone feel worthy, even if they sang wrong notes and made you feel like you could sing the right ones. We all wanted to please her because she treated us well. She was extremely fair in her doling out of solos and was funny, laughing at herself as well. She name dropped notable conductors like the friends they were to her and made you feel they, too, were just people. That thank you gift has stayed in my kitchen for all these years because it reminds me who I am. I keep singing no matter what happens to me, to my life or career or family. I remember what she would shout in rehearsal when we weren’t sure–”couragio”–and we would sing out and sing loud even if we weren’t sure. Most often, we WERE correct and it just took a little bit of gumption and courage to forge through. Just like in life.
We expect our singers to let us know if they are not able to be at a rehearsal or are running late. Many choirs have an absence sign-up sheet or a way of letting someone know if they are ill or stuck in traffic. It seems only fair we expect the same of ourselves. I know a community chorus director who was notoriously late. He was the only person allowed by the venue to have the keys to their rehearsal space and as a result, half the time his chorus sat in their cars in the parking lot waiting for him, often of upwards of 30 minutes. Two rehearsals before one December holiday concert, in a sleet storm, members of the chorus’ board of directors sat in a mini-van and decided they had had enough. If you’ve ever sat in a car, in the Midwest, in a sleet storm, you can understand why that would be enough. His contract was up that spring and not renewed. The reason he was given for not renewing his contract? Chronic tardiness. Their new director is not as good a musician but they like him more than the other guy simply because he respects their time….and is never late.
I try to respect people’s time and feelings by always doing what I say I will, when I say I will. Respect for other people’s time is something I am passionate about because I value my own time. I am a busy person and don’t have the time to futz around–too many people count on me. I am the type of person, if you ask me to do something, I will do it. I won’t stall unless you want me to. I can’t stand promising to do something and not following through. Give me a deadline and it will be done. If I am not able to do it, you will know in ample time to make other arrangements.
Often people don’t always have these same values and it frustrates me. I imagine someone waiting for my information or the copy for my concert program or the go ahead to paint my kitchen, and I think how I would feel. I make decisions, not always quickly, but follow through in as timely a fashion as possible. Early in my career, auditioning for community chorus positions, I learned the importance of following through. Those who were timely and let you know where you were in the auditioning process, were groups whom I had good feelings about, no matter what happened. And those who “forgot” are now not doing as well as you would suppose–years of treating folks with no respect will take their toll.
Do you clean up after yourself? In your office or rehearsal space, are there unfiled octavos strewn about or empty (and dirty) coffee cups or two year-old music schedules or concert programs or Choral Journals from 1998/99? Are you supposed to do the cleaning up or is someone else, such as a music librarian or sexton or custodian? If you are supposed to do the cleaning up, it is your mess and if you can live with it, great. But if someone else is to do the straightening up, it is not fair to them to have to pick up your garbage. My graduate school department chair used to say the custodians ran the school, so cooperate and be nice. Throw away (or wash) your coffee cups, recycle those old schedules and programs and put away the Choral Journals. Let the music librarian file the music. The sexton or custodian can wash or vacuum the floor without worrying they will disturb something important, your space will more pleasant to work in and all will think you are thoughtful. And that’s good.
Often the simplest things to do are ones we don’t do. We have to deal with the fall out of not saying “thank you” or following up when we promised to because we couldn’t be bothered. And it’s not necessary when a kind word or a “please” could make our lives much more pleasant.