“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” J.S. Bach
Lady C*contacted me a few years ago as I began to collect stories for my Choral Ethics project. She conducts a semi-professional chamber choir, much like mine, located in the Northeast. She’s an accompanist as well as a singer and we formed a friendship. She wanted to know if I’d like to hear about her experiences as an accompanist for a community chorus which she thought were quite extraordinary. After reading her emails, I had to agree. I’ve changed some details but have left the major points she’s made.
It started with her audition. She was tested for her ability to follow a conductor’s baton, to sight-read orchestral reductions, to read open-score, and then played a solo piece of her choice – Liszt- to demonstrate her technical prowess. The director was very impressed and she was hired immediately after auditions were over. It was grueling but she got the job.
Lady C was rarely told what to prepare for the next rehearsal unless she asked. She was given large masses with orchestral reductions and smaller jazz pieces with tricky accidentals in open-score formats. Everything had to be as perfect as possible the very first time without being given any clue as to what sections would be worked on. In rehearsal, the director gave unclear instructions as to where he wanted to start and both she and the singers struggled with trying to figure out what he meant. With lightning speed, he gave a downbeat and was irritated when folks were fumbling. Lady C quickly learned to flip to the page and measure he wanted within seconds but the cost was her nerves and a three hour rehearsal which always felt panicked.
She was unexpectedly not paid the first paycheck of the season one year. September was a brief month, as the chorus started up halfway through. Although she’d been paid the first week in October in previous years for the half-month of September, she wasn’t paid THIS particular October. She inquired as to why, and was told, “The pay period is too short for the money we have to pay the payroll company. It’s not worth it for the small amount you’re paid.” During her time of employment, there was always some sort of paycheck issue.
She was told during the interview process, she would be responsible for arranging any substitutes. If she couldn’t make a rehearsal she would have to contact a sub from an approved list. The only problem was no one could supply her with that list. When she pointed out there didn’t seem to be an actual list as she had been told, it was suggested she “audition” her own subs. If they played to as high a standard as was expected of her, she should contact the director for his approval. She missed one rehearsal due to an inconvenient snowstorm—and rehearsal was cancelled anyway—and never missed another all the years she worked for them since all the other “quality” accompanists seemed to be busy during the very day and time she would need coverage, especially after being told who the director was. Even when her best friend from college, a bridesmaid in her wedding, was dying from stage 4 breast cancer and the family requested she come and see her before her death in another state, the director refused to allow her to miss a rehearsal.
After several years on this rollercoaster, Lady C resigned from the position. She sent an email and didn’t mention any of these issues, as she desired a collegial relationship with the organization. The music world is small and just wanted good will to follow. She told them she had family matters to attend to—which was true—and those were big factors in her decision to resign. She also really enjoyed the people in the chorus and respected the director’s musical abilities and wanted to leave on a positive note. He didn’t acknowledge her resignation and suspects he was angry with her leaving. Lady C resigned more than two years ago, and still hasn’t heard a word back. This was a bad working situation, and the chorus goes through accompanists like crazy. You’d think the chorus administration or founding director would learn their lesson, but they haven’t.
* Name withheld by request