I’m not usually much for warm-fuzzy-new-age-feel-good stuff but sometimes you have to go (at least partway) there. I’ve been reading a choir director’s blog on “choral ethics” and had no idea what was out there. I’ve sung in some less-than-loving choirs but WHOA. Here’s a sample of what she’s written about and my take on what we do differently (better, dang it) than these folks.

In the land of directors, as observed by their singers…

These three seem to go hand in hand…

  • Not enough praise and too much criticism.
  • Inflated director egos that want to take credit for everything and be covered with accolades, a narcissistic view of themselves.
  • Singers are uncomfortable in rehearsal because the nobody told them what passages were going to be worked on (which then puts the director in the “I can save you” role…see “inflated ego” above).

This same ego can also result in a director’s lack of trust in singers to be prepared for rehearsals and concerts. What’s interesting is that, underneath the “look how wonderful I am” is usually (pretty much always) a fragile self-esteem. The two feed each other and can make things downright awful.

So what about our merry little gang? Let’s look at all three:

  • Praise is given when it’s deserved, which is important. False praise is nearly as damaging as none at all because it means that there is no desire to improve. Face it, we’re gonna screw up, especially early in the semester, and correcting the mistakes is something we do with the director as a team. We make mistakes as a team and grow and improve together and celebrate our accomplishments as a team. There’s also a level of humor in it, we’re all human after all (HOW many halls are being decked with boughs of holly?!…snicker).
  • Along those same lines, we are a single entity and share our successes and failures. The director is steering the ship but the ship is still important. Could we sing without a director? Sure…but we’d be awful. Can the director direct without a choir? Sure…but waving your arms at an empty room will get you a coat that ties in the back.
  • One of the things that I really appreciate about our fearless leader is the level of communication. There are no surprises when we get to the rehearsal hall, she’s already told us exactly what we’ll be doing in the order that we’ll be doing it and if that means grinding through a particularly hard piece then we know ahead of time and can prepare for it. This results in that “I’m exhausted but we got that thing NAILED” feeling as you go out to the car.

There’s another thing that is apparently more common than you might think. Rather than being part of a healthy and thriving arts community, some directors have unhealthy relationships with other choirs and even go so far as “poaching” talented singers. Seriously? Wow. We happen to have several members who sing in multiple choirs as well as a few who moved to us from another one…because they saw us sing and wanted a piece of that fun that we have.

Not that many years ago I saw a choir in mid-collapse. Nobody was having any fun, their numbers were dwindling and singers were sniping and griping through the rehearsals. They didn’t sound very good either. Why? Because the director was a (fill in naughty adjective here). He blamed all of the negativity on the singers and there was NO WAY he had anything to do with the implosion that was imminent. Fortunately for them, the Board of Directors had finally had enough and showed him the door, a pretty bold move for a community choir. There’s a finite number of qualified directors out there and they could have ended up in dire straits. Imagine their joy when they found just the right person. In less than two concert seasons they were back on track, had nearly doubled in size and there were smiles all around. It was truly uplifting to be on the outside looking in and seeing such a grand turnaround.

I love happy endings, don’t you?

So what about the singers? Yes, the choir is a reflection on the director but there also needs to be an internal culture driven by the individuals that come together to create the whole.

In the land of singers, as observed by their directors…

  • A two-headed monster: discussions of politics and gossip (especially the nasty kind). That’s a dumpster fire that just keeps feeding itself. Believe it or not, there are actually choirs that don’t take breaks during rehearsal just so the tongues don’t start wagging. Amazing.
  • Lack of respect and appreciation for volunteers, really just an assumption that “everything will get done” with no real consideration (or caring) of how that all really happens.
  • Seasoned divas (what’s the male equivalent of that…divos?) who look down their noses at the less experienced singers without doing anything to help them get better (these are the same ones who get snippy when they didn’t get picked for a solo because doesn’t everyone KNOW that THEY are BETTER than that…that…PERSON). Harumph, harumph, harumph (extra points if you know where that last bit came from*).

In our little world, however, these things just don’t happen. They never have. There’s a bit of the “relax, brah” that happens in Hawaii, a healthy dose of the joy of music that we share with each other and a culture of respect that has been in place since day one. It compounds itself as new members join us. Yes, these are fellow singers but they’re more than that. They’re our friends. We give each other a quick hug in the grocery store (now that I’ve lived here nearly 20 years I know to plan on an extra 5-10 minutes when I go to Safeway because I always run into one or two people that I know). When there’s a passage in a piece of music that someone has trouble with, the veterans jump in to help. Look around the rehearsal hall, especially early in the semester, and note how many singers are leaning in to make sure someone who is struggling hears how it’s supposed to sound. Do the “best” singers get all the solo parts? Of course not. We all love seeing someone take that big step from inside the group out into the world and share in their first adrenaline buzz that solo singing brings with it. Is there someone else who could have done it better in some way? We don’t care.

Hmmm…this got a bit longer than I thought it would. I suppose subjects that run deep in me often do. Our choir is not only unique in its diversity (there are singers 20 years older than me and there are singers 20 years younger than me) but also has a consistent environment of respect, support and love whether it’s a rehearsal or a performance. We know it’s there and our audiences can always feel that “something” that it produces in our sound. If this is your first introduction to choral singing, believe me when I tell you that our group is like no other. If you’re a grizzled veteran like me, you already know that. And it’s a beautiful thing.

(* From “Blazing Saddles”, one of the best movies ever. https://youtu.be/nUk42TYdP0I )