By Pat Guth
Every choir has them. The diva, divo, prima donna, egotist…whatever you prefer to call them. Whether you’re waving your arms in front of a choir of professionals or tending to an ensemble of amateurs, you’ve no doubt come across at least a singer or two who views himself/herself as superior to others in the group.
My first memory of one of these puffed-up creatures was some 40 years ago at my very first music ministry job in a tiny church in a Philly suburb. Technically, this person wasn’t even in my choir. Usually, she felt herself only worthy of doing solos, especially O Holy Night on Christmas Eve!. It was below her to sing ordinary anthems on Sunday mornings, especially if there was a chance that she wouldn’t shine through.
I was young and didn’t know how to handle her or was too afraid to make waves, so I let it go. The behavior continued through my tenure there – some 6 years or so – and likely went on through the next several directors, who tended to be young people currently in or just out of college.
But I’ve learned a lot in 40 years!
Is she/he a good diva or a bad diva?
As the director of a non-auditioned choir, I figured the diva issue wouldn’t be a big one for us. And it hasn’t been. However, my women’s chorus – which is very well-known in our region – has seen its share of wannabe stars in its nine years of existence. Sadly, whenever they arrive, they can be some of the most destructive forces in our ensemble.
I’ve observed that there are two types of divas:
- The first is the singer who truly is a wonderful vocalist but feels the need to let everyone else know that he/she is superior to others. I had one at the beginning of our choir journey and another fairly recently, both of whom caused alarming problems amongst the general population. We’ll call this diva Type 1.
- The second is the singer who really isn’t that talented but thinks he/she is far better than the rest of the choir or section and, as such, believes she/he should strive to be a “vocal leader”. This means singing as loudly as possible and other assorted annoying behaviors. We’ll call this diva Type 2.
Each of these types needs to be handled differently, but they definitely need to be handled as soon as you – the director – recognizes they are stirring the proverbial pot.
Making the call
Let’s just start by saying I hate calling people and confronting them about a problem. Many of us do, but I feel like I have more phone anxiety than most. So, the easy way out these days, of course, would be to send the diva an email outlining the problem and presenting ideas for solutions. But that really isn’t the best road to take. Emails show no emotion, lack vocal inflection, and are easily misconstrued. There’s no better way to elicit hurt feelings than by sending a loaded email.
Let me add, however, that my goal is never to encourage the diva to leave the choir. I pride myself in the fact that I can figure out a way to get along with most people and I’m pretty good at problem solving, too. So, I approach issues with Type 1 and Type 2 as if I’m just trying to figure out a way that they can meld better with the rest of the choir population. I don’t want anyone to leave nor do I want them to feel as if I’m asking them to go.
Anyway, be sure to get that call set up as soon as possible. Find a time when you can speak uninterrupted and unhurried. (Before or after rehearsal is never a good idea because someone else always arrives early, stays late, or simply must talk with you!) Once you’ve chosen a time, stick to it and take some time beforehand to prepare what you’ll say.
Handling Type 1s
For Type 1s, the talented diva, I always begin the phone call with compliments, when possible. Then I ask if they realized our group was non-auditioned when they chose to join. Most have said “yes” but it’s what they say afterwards that will dictate how you proceed.
My first Type 1 was a professional, degreed singer. Her grandmother had been in my very first church choir so I had a special place in my heart for her. I found out about 6 weeks into our first season that she was being verbally abusive to other section members, correcting notes, complaining about their chatting, and – in general – trying to be the unappointed section leader. (We didn’t and still don’t have section leaders.)
Thankfully, one of my members alerted me to the problem and told me that others were planning to quit if I didn’t rein her in. So, I initiated a phone call and after exchanging pleasantries, I let her know directly but kindly that I was aware that her behavior was making many singers uncomfortable. Her reaction? She told me she was just trying to help, slammed down the phone (well, not really because you can’t do that anymore), and returned her music and uniform. That was the last I saw of her.
I thought that was too bad because I believe there’s a place for the confident and skilled singer in a non-auditioned choir. With the right attitude, she could have been a great mentor to others not as experienced in singing but, instead, she chose to be offended and we never saw her again. Many were relieved. I suppose I was too but also a little bit sad because – ever the teacher – I felt as if she had missed a good opportunity.
Since then, I’ve had other similar personalities who I might classify as Type 1 divas. Some met a similar demise but others have turned their superior attitudes to that of being the helpful, more experienced chorister who nurtures others, recognizing that if they wanted to remain part of our group they may want to rethink their position.
Still, another few left when they realized that perhaps we – a non-auditioned chorus – were not the right vehicle for their choral expedition. They went on to find choirs that were a better fit…and that’s fine.
Handling Type 2s
In many ways, the Type 2 diva is more difficult to tame because they tend to have an inflated opinion of themselves that is unwarranted…and they really don’t want to hear otherwise.
I had one of those in my ensemble a few years after we started singing together. She had sung in numerous barbershop-style choirs where competition was everything. As such, she believed that’s what choir was all about so, from the beginning, she strived to prove she was the best and forgot about the joy of singing together.
As we are a large choir, I don’t always notice when someone is out of their seat and sitting someplace else, especially near the beginning of the year. But I found out a few weeks into the season that this eager chorister was moving her fellow second sopranos from seat to seat, declaring that she had to put those who “couldn’t sing” next to those who could.
Imagine how offensive that must have been for those deemed a “bad” singer by this misguided soul! I must admit, I blew my top a little with that one – we’re all human – and she chose to leave when I let her know that her section mates were not at all pleased with her behavior.
She was the same person who often questioned me and my techniques or methods – out loud – during rehearsals.
“Aren’t you going to fix that?” “Are you EVER going to add dynamics?” “I think the (insert other sections) don’t know their part.” “My other choir director did it this way, etc., etc.”
That only added to the bitter feelings others felt towards her so I knew it had to be addressed quickly. And it was.
Protecting your (ordinary) choir members from the divas
I like to think my adult women can take care of themselves, but singing is very personal, and singers – especially the ones that aren’t so confident – are so vulnerable to the criticisms of others. That makes it necessary to address potential diva-related situations before they arise, if possible. (Of course, I don’t refer to them as diva-related situations, simply “ways we help each other.”)
So, each season – or a few times per season, if I feel it necessary – we have “the talk.” During this dialogue, we talk about what singing means to us, how it brings us together, and how singing in a choir should be an option for everyone, regardless of experience or skill level. I allow others to chime in, if they wish.
Then, I talk about what it means to be part of an all-volunteer, non-auditioned choir and what constitutes respect for one another’s talents. It’s okay to offer help, for example, but there’s a right way and wrong way to do it. It’s okay to let me know what someone is struggling, but do it out of earshot from others. It’s fine to get frustrated, but let me try to fix it before you decide it’s not worth your time to stick with us.
The dynamics of a non-auditioned choir are far different from one with trained, impeccable voices that rarely make mistakes and take plenty of time to practice at home. For many of my women, choir is simply a much-needed outlet – one that whisks them away from the problems at work, the frustrations of a bad relationship, or the loneliness of a life without family. And, of course, they love to sing, too.
I’m adamant that each one of my choir members deserves a comfortable, welcoming place to sing. That’s why we strive to be a diva-free zone and why I enlist everyone to be part of the solution and to do what’s necessary to make our rehearsals and performances judgement-free.