By Pat Guth
For the first 40 years of my musical career, I spent a lot of time dealing with “imposter syndrome” – that nagging feeling when you doubt your accomplishments and have a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Maybe you’ve been there, too. It’s not uncommon among artists of all kinds.
I launched what should have been viewed as a successful career after earning my degree from a very prestigious conservatory-type music college, but never quite felt like I measured up. After all, some of my classmates were singing opera. Others led award-winning ensembles, while others were building incredible programs in schools or churches. I taught elementary classroom music until I became pregnant with my first child then quit. I continued in my field by teaching private lessons and taking underpaid jobs at area churches where they loved my credentials but didn’t really want to pay what I was worth.
That likely contributed to my poor self-esteem but it’s how I kept my hand in choral music while raising a family. It worked for me. Nevertheless, I often found myself defending the fact that I wasn’t working full-time in my chosen profession. I started to feel that maybe I wasn’t as “serious” about my passion as they were. (Spoiler alert: I was!)
Finally, when I was 52 and my youngest was a senior in high school, I decided to travel on a new musical journey. I had always wanted to conduct a secular community choir but had hesitated to form a new one because there were already so many top-notch ensembles located near my suburban Philadelphia home.
If I started yet another auditioned chorus for experienced, educated singers, would mine measure up? Would I spend the next several years trying to catch up to those long-established ensembles? How would I get my name out there and who would respond? After all, I was a relative unknown, despite my decades of experience in choral music.
I thought about this for months and finally decided that I would be a renegade amongst (most of) my peers and attempt to form a non-auditioned choir instead, perhaps one just for women as there was a definite lack of women’s choirs in my area. We would welcome anyone: Those who studied voice. Those who hadn’t sung since middle school or high school. Those who – gasp! – had never sung in a choral ensemble of any kind. That meant taking the good with the bad. The pitch perfect with the pitch-challenged.
So on a hot July day I took a deep breath, reviewed my options, wrote a press release (and was fortunate that the local paper was intrigued enough to write a story about this undertaking), and by the time we had our initial “meet-and-greet” in late August, I welcomed 81 women ages 20-something to 80-ish to my new choral ensemble. Oh happy day! We were already a success!
Still Dealing with That Feeling
Honestly, this project took off pretty quickly. To kick-off with 80 singers was nothing short of amazing. And we made a pretty decent sound from the start, considering that only about half the choir could read music and scores of our singers had NEVER been part of a musical ensemble of any sort.
Yes, we had a handful of individuals who were musically-challenged and another handful that were pretty advanced, but most landed somewhere in the middle and – for the most part – we made a pleasant sound. We spent a lot of time banging out notes but we tackled some not-so-easy harmonies and pulled off a first semester that was – for me and my singers – one for the record books.
Was it perfect? Far from it. But there was something special about it that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on until a little further into the project. Was it joy perhaps? Satisfaction? Elation? Maybe all those smiles meant something. And how about the fact that everyone started arriving 15 minutes early and staying 15 minutes late just so they could spend time chatting with their fellow singers?
Still, I had that nagging thought in the back of my mind that I was doing something less than what I was worth. I still had a feeling that perhaps I wasn’t living up to my abilities by choosing to start a non-auditioned choir rather than assemble a group of experienced singers.
But the happy voices, the smiling faces, and the friendships that were forming started to convince me otherwise.
Singing and Friendship Go Hand-in-Hand
Sadly, choirs – even community choirs – can be a place where unnecessary competition between singers can easily damage one’s love of singing. My husband (also a singer) and I had joined a few auditioned choirs in our younger years and were saddened by the atmosphere that surrounded us. The tension was palpable. We didn’t need more stress in our lives so we moved on.
Instead, what I believe we had created with this burgeoning ensemble of ours was a group of women who loved to sing but also loved each other. Sounds sappy, right? But that’s what it was. It was a joy to watch from the podium as the relationships between singers became solid and as members began to rely on each other not only for the next note but to get them through life’s challenges as well. And no one cared if the person in the chair beside them was a better singer.
It was exciting to see it unfold. I watched contentedly as lunch dates were made, parties were organized, play dates were arranged, and hands were held. I was asked if we could form a “Sunshine Committee” and collect a few dollars from each member so that we could offer support through cards and gifts. I observed joyously as my singing group become a true community.
And I was right in the thick of it . . . and still am! I’ve always been the social type, but my “girlfriends” tended to be the mothers of my children’s friends. Now I had finally discovered the joy of being social with musical friends who weren’t necessarily professionals but who simply loved to sing.
So, I started initiating parties, banquets, and outings. Not everyone joined in, but most did. We stayed together through the summers by going out to dinner, bowling, enjoying picnics, laughing about our attempts to escape from those popular mystery rooms. Before long, this choir – which had grown quickly to nearly 100 singers – was a central part of my life and I was blessed to be a central part of their lives as well.
Before you could blink, we started traveling together. Our first performance tour happened during the summer after our second year together. Fifty-seven adventurers (not all singers) headed to Northern Italy to sing in some of the most incredible venues. Two years later, we toured Hungary and Austria, and two years after that, our love of singing and travel took us to Finland, Estonia, and Sweden. Sadly, COVID-19 stole our trip to Greece but we’ll get there. Still, these trips offered not only stellar musical highs but also more together time. More bonding. More memories that will never be forgotten. Never. Truly, some of the best days of my life were spent traveling with these women.
It was all so awesome that sometimes I wondered if I could keep the magic alive. And did all of this mean I had finally “made it” in the world of choral music?
Maybe. I still wasn’t sure. But I also was pretty sure that it didn’t matter to me any longer.
The Conductor MUST Be Part of the Community
What I DID know, however, was that I had found the key to success in the community choir realm.
As I mentioned previously, during our almost 40 years of marriage, my husband and I had checked out several community choirs, usually intrigued by their programs. (“Ooh, I’d love to sing Elijah again!”) Some were auditioned ensembles and others were open to all. But we discovered one thing that many of these choruses had in common: a conductor that stayed on the fringes.
For example, whenever a social event was scheduled for one of these groups (and such events were rare), the conductor wasn’t there or chose only to make a brief appearance. He/she gladly accepted pats on the back and hearty handshakes but did little else to become a part of the ensemble. I always got the idea that the maestro/maestra thought that spending too much time with the singers wasn’t in their best interest and was maybe even below them. Maybe they worried that if they became too friendly their singers would lose respect for them as a leader. They were afraid to be “one of the gang.”
That’s too bad. I think the opposite is true. To make your community chorus a true community, you – the conductor – MUST lead the way. For us, it started with me setting up twice-a-year parties, one in January to celebrate a successful holiday season and one in June to recap the joys of our spring concerts. Then we scheduled dinners after concerts, picnics at local parks during the off-season, and just about anything else we knew our members would enjoy, like going to sing-alongs at the local movie theater.
Why? The reasons are simple. We all crave friendship, even the shyest of us, and friendship with someone who shares music and sings with you is extra special. In addition – and perhaps most importantly – for many of our singers who live alone – either because they’re single, divorced, or widowed – we were the only social outlet they had. We were that one thing that helped them avoid loneliness and make it through the week. We were an essential business, as the term goes.
Happily, because I think we all recognized this pretty early on, we quickly became a support system and I was proud and humbled to be at the helm of this musical ship. Furthermore, I knew it was important that I remain deeply involved.
Besides, it was just as much a blessing for me as it was for my 90+ singers. I can’t tell you the number of times these women have told me that joining choir was the best decision they’ve made in a long time and then proceeded to tell me a story about how a fellow singer stepped in to help them. One older women confided in me that the choir had literally saved her life after she plunged into a deep depression upon losing two close family members in a short amount of time.
What do you say to that? Thank you? I’m so happy for you? No. You just smile and touch your heart with your hand, unable to speak.
So Am I There Yet?
In the eight years we’ve been together, “my beautiful ladies” – as I refer to them – have traveled 25,000 miles (round trip) to awesome destinations, have been invited to sing at The White House twice, learned approximately 200 pieces of music, presented nearly 100 concerts, and are waiting to find out if the Thanksgiving Day Parade for which they’ve been chosen to participate will be a go during this crazy year.
In the meantime, we’re holding virtual “Learn to Read Music” lessons for our non-readers, playing Name That Tune or trivia on Zoom every Wednesday, inviting other professionals to present webinars, and holding out hope that we’ll be together again sooner rather than later. The friendships keep us steady.
We’ve sung for everyone from Dr. Ben Carson in the East Room of the “People’s House” to a group of young moms living in a facility for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. We shared the stage with the rock band Foreigner. (That was pretty exciting for this 70s girl!) Some concerts were flawless. Others had a few glitches. But each was a gift to us and – I hope – to the people who listened to our music.
So, am I still an imposter? Have I “made it” in the world of choral music?
Well, if you were to listen to those in charge of the festivals and conferences to which I consistently send DVDs of my beautiful ladies in consideration for performing at those events, I haven’t. Sadly, they can’t see the elation on the faces of my choir when they sing. They only hear those two first sopranos who are a little flat or that cut off that wasn’t quite perfect.
While I’m a little disappointed every time I get a “sorry, you haven’t been chosen” letter, I’m not surprised. Choral elitism is alive and well, which is too bad. Those who make the selections don’t know what they’re missing by turning away this delightful but slightly flawed ensemble. We would make their audiences clap for joy. We’ve done it many times.
And as for me, I’m now positive that I’ve “made it”, simply because I’m tremendously satisfied and completely overjoyed about what I’m doing these days. And while I might never be up there in the ranks of those who lead at a major university or wave their arms in front of a symphony chorus. I know that what I do is important and that we’ve created a community that makes a difference. And it shows in the faces of each and every one of my wonderful singers.
I’ll tell you how I know this to be true.
In 2018, when our tour choir members were in Tallinn, Estonia, we had the pleasure of being hosted by a magnificent local women’s ensemble. Their technique was flawless and they sounded like heaven. After our joint concert, one of my singers approached one of theirs to express how awed she was by this superb ensemble. “You sing like angels. Thank you!” my singer said, her voice filled with a good deal of emotion.
And the other singer, with tears in her eyes, responded, “Yes, but you sing with joy!”
Pat Guth is the founder and director of the Bucks County Women’s Chorus (Pennsylvania) and a proud alumna of Westminster Choir College. She recently retired after 42 years in church music ministry and devotes much of her time to keeping her community choir afloat, especially during this difficult time. Pat enjoys helping others to nurture non-auditioned ensembles and also works as a freelance writer and editor for websites and print publications.