On the day I turned 40 years old I was a professional church music director. I held an advanced degree from a state school with an average music department, and I had 23 years of experience. My salary and goodies package approached $100,000 a year.
On the day I turned 50 years old, I held a doctorate from a conservatory, and I had 33 years of experience. The total of my salary and goodies package from the church I served as music director was a $200 gift certificate presented on Christmas Eve.
Was I a professional church musician at age 40 and a non-professional at age 50? My choir at age 50 was markedly better and presented more challenging and diverse repertoire. My preparation for rehearsals was roughly the same, if anything more intense for the church at age 50 because the music was more interesting.
Every fall during the late 1970s, hundreds of singers on average would audition for the 200 places in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus directed by Robert Shaw. Many of those singers were newly minted masters of music from some of America’s finest music schools who, if chosen for Shaw’s chorus, would move to Atlanta upon graduation, wait tables for rent, food, and date money, and sing as a volunteer in the “greatest choral laboratory the world has known.” Amateur musician, professional waiter? Professional musician paying the bills waiting tables?
A couple of conversations this week set this carousel spinning in my head. I know a 9-year-old young man who sings in a very fine boy choir. The boy choir is in residence in a church that enjoys the men and boys choir tradition. He is paid $3 a service to participate in the liturgical choir. My first thought was, “How cool! What a great opportunity for a young man to sing fine church music and pick up some money along the way.” But, as time goes on I am gnawed by other thoughts, “What is the boy learning about art? . . . about God? . . . about service to God and to His creation?”
The other conversation was with a gentleman who was discussing how different communities value choral music. One community was dismissed as not being very supportive of the art: “A city that large and it doesn’t have even one paid-membership chorus?” The clear implication from the gentleman was that the chorus with paid singers is valued at one level, while the chorus of unpaid singers is valued at another.
A long standing Minnesota-based choral organization, unless something has changed, is comprised almost entirely of singers who hold music degrees, and/or are employed as music teachers, church musicians, vocal instructors. They volunteer their talents to the famous choir. So, an amateur chorus filled with professional musicians is a . . . what?
The aforementioned Robert Shaw once said (pardon my wincing), “music, like sex, is too precious to only be performed by professionals.” The great master is known as America’s most ardent advocate for the volunteer chorus, but he is also credited with creating the world’s most famous full-time professional chorus. The Robert Shaw Chorale from 1947 to1967 was an ensemble where singing in the chorus was the full-time-with-benefits employment of the members. A good thing? Absolutely!
Please do not surmise from any of the above discussion, or from the fact that most of my career has been built leading groups of volunteer singers, that I am not an advocate of choral groups with paid members. In fact, the opposite is true. My own organization, The William Baker Choral Foundation, has a design in our long-range-plan for a new ensemble where all singers will be paid.
What I find myself choking on is the idea that one form of choral group is better than another, or that one form of choral experience necessarily produces a better product. I think it is very true that some singers in ensembles of volunteers might bring the attitude: “You can’t impose all of that discipline on me. I am a volunteer!” On the other hand there are paid choral singers who will build no bonds of emotional investment with the singers around them, with the music, or with the audience. It is a gig. Sing your three rehearsals. Hit the dress. Rock the performance. Deposit the check. On to the next.
The other, and more important, issue that I choke on is the idea that a chorus is “professional” if singers are paid, and “community” if they are not.
I believe, rather, that the distinction of a “professional chorus” lies not in how checks are circulated, but in how dedicated the singers are to each other and to the choral sound, how well-trained they are before the audition and how well-led they are following the audition, how ambitious and diverse is the repertoire, and how excellent and consistent is the quality of the concert product. Our Choral Foundation’s Summer Singers choruses in several locations is my idea of a community chorus, dedicated certainly, but community in construction and purpose.
I consider our Festival Singers ensembles, and similar organizations around the country, to be a “professional-level volunteer chorus”–ensembles of both professional and non-professional musicians come together for the purpose of creating a professional experience and product. Oftentimes the sound of these groups is equal or stronger than many ensembles of all-paid singers. In fact, I believe there is a unity and expressiveness that becomes possible only because the singers are not paid. The motivation is the beauty, not the check.
I began with a personal note, and so I will end with one. I believe that the talents and training we all have are gifts freely given by He Who breathed life into our nostrils. We should never, ever, approach our art as an entitlement or our abilities as something we own. Rather, they are treasures entrusted for a time to our care.
Of all the jobs I have known, I despised none like I did the one with the big salary I had when I was about 40. By contrast I have never loved a job like the one I have now: making music at a professional level with dedicated volunteer singers.
May we each be professionals in our disciplines and commitment, but may we never be anything other than amateurs–quite literally, lovers–to our art, our audiences, our composers, and each other.
Conductor, author, and entrepreneur, William Baker is an Atlanta native who has called Kansas City home for over 20 years. Though a church musician for over four decades, Dr. Baker is best known as the founder and director of the semi-professional William Baker Festival Singers. He is also the head of the Choral Foundation (www.ChoralFoundation.org), which has created over a dozen choral ensembles in three states in addition to a broad range of continuing education programs.