GUEST BLOG: "Choral Ethics is Not an Oxymoron" by Marie Grass Amenta
Date: March 25, 2014
CHORAL ETHICS IS NOT AN OXYMORON, by Marie Grass Amenta
Almost two years ago, I decided to write a book about something I now call “Choral Ethics.” A few things motivated me, including a rather unpleasant encounter at a community arts event with a choral colleague. Nothing seemed to provoke our confrontation; in fact, I had just recommended the person for a rather nice job. But she was hell-bent on being unpleasant, so…unpleasant she was. She harangued me in public and I thought she was being “unprofessional” as well as something else I couldn’t define. After our encounter; I began thinking about behavior, specifically what we deem “professional” behavior.
“Professional” means different things to different people and musicians throw the term around all the time. It may mean being on time for rehearsals and gigs, being cooperative and even collegial. It may also mean practicing and being prepared—having the right music or a pencil handy--for rehearsal. All would agree being a “professional” can mean being on time or bringing a pencil, but it is something much more. “Professional” may also be used to describe a conductor’s behavior.
As I began to think of what I believed to begin with as a lack of professionalism, it occurred to me it is not a lack of professionalism but a lack of some sort of accepted ethical guidelines within our profession. There are things we should not be doing, of course, and we all think we know what they are. But do we?
There are plenty of people, both musicians and “civilians,” who give conductors and singers a pass for bad behavior simply because they are so high strung and talented and artistic and so concerned with perfection and so…..well, you fill in the blank. They reason, since the Maestro/Maestra is so talented, they must be justified in behaving like four year olds and the rest of us must not be as talented because we don’t behave that way. Somewhere along the line, it’s become acceptable and even preferable within our profession to be prickly in the name of music. Bad behaviors can range from nastiness, bullying and crabby impatience in rehearsals, making impossible demands with little notice, blatant partiality in auditioning soloists, slighting of singers/colleagues in public, gossiping, treating accompanists and fellow musicians poorly, judging and criticizing —aloud—other organizations/ schools/universities choral programs while they are performing and making cutting personal remarks about others. When we accept these behaviors in others, we can be sure to be treated to another round of something new and even more outrageous from them.
Physicians take an oath—the Hippocratic Oath--as they graduate from medical school and are awarded their M.D.s. They swear to “do no harm.” I wonder if we should be required to do the same. We must do no harm to our singers, both physically and emotionally, by using our knowledge of the human voice to prevent injury and by not emotionally abusing them by our behavior inside rehearsals and out. We must do no harm to our colleagues by not bad mouthing or undermining them in public to singers or audience members or the community at large. We must do no harm to our profession as a whole by upholding ourselves to as high a musical standard as possible within our scope of expertise and by respecting the rights of the composers we perform. As well, many believe it important to choose repertoire not in conflict with their own belief system, whether because of a composer’s behavior or a composition’s message.
Each of us needs to think about our own personal code of choral ethics, ideally beginning to develop our code while in training. Those working with young conductors can begin the process by being a good example first and sharing their personal codes with students. I find my own teachers and the conductors I have worked with influencing my own ethical code, whether positively or negatively.
My personal choral ethics code is a work in progress but has three basic parts. I try to treat my singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated. I try to always say something good about my colleagues if at all possible and if I am not able, to keep my mouth shut. And I try to keep my own skills as good as in my capability. This does not mean I expect less from my singers, accompanist or myself; I just try to be nice about it.
I posted a query in the Forums here at ChoralNet last fall asking for opinions about Choral Ethics for my book and I have been overwhelmed by interest…both on the CN site and one-on-one contacts. The personal contacts have been quite interesting. There have been MANY accompanists with horror stories of conductors-behaving-badly. There have been singers in community choruses with stories that will curl your hair. And newly hired music directors who have cleaned up after their predecessor’s “scorched earth” leave taking. All I can say is WOW!
When I first thought about writing a book on this subject, I wasn’t sure there would be an interest. Now I see not only is there an interest, but a real need. Choral Ethics is something I believe important to every one of us in some way and has the potential to have an impact—positively or negatively--on our profession for years to come.