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The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

GUEST BLOG: "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.
on March 25, 2014 4:41am
I believe you are spot on Marie!  You don't remember, but we met MANY years ago at a choral festival and had a very nice talk about the work we are both doing with the children entrusted to us.
In my over 45 years of working with choirs [primarily boys and children] I find much of what you wirte about above to be true and I await your book with great anticipation.
My wish is that people buy it, consume it and then accordingly put it to good use!
My best,
The Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas
on March 28, 2014 11:11am
Thanks Bill!   I don't remember you could be!  
In my work now, with my adult chamber choir, I try to be kind and am trying to *live this* even more than before I began writing.....but it doesn't mean I'm a whimp. I have become even more  devoted to the music and ensemble and not *me* or the *individual singer*. And you know what?  My singers sound better and are more devoted to our ensemble.   I believe in Karma.....if you do good, good will come to you. So far, so good!  Take care and thanks for your comment!
on March 25, 2014 11:44am
Very good points, Marie. While I think that audiences tend to be more forgiving of conductors whose reputations precede them (to put it kindly), I do believe that those conductors who are good to their ensembles are the ones who eventually rise to the top. At least that's how I'd like the world to operate! And we, as conductors and educators, need to always be cognizant of that as we represent ourselves, our schools, and our churches. Once a choir loses respect for their director (be it for an abusive outburst, chronic tardiness, or keeping the group unexpectedly late), it is very hard to recover that respect, which I believe leads to low morale, eventually evident in performance quality. And the flip side is true, as I'm sure you're aware since these ethics issue are so high on your mind. When we respect our choir's time through our own preparedness, and our love, it makes for a more positive environment, which does lead to improved sound. There's no question of that, in my experience. Nice to see others who agree!
Rick Seaholm
Choir Director
on March 28, 2014 11:42am
Thanks Rick!  In a perfect world, kind and ethical conductors rise to the top......and the others do not.  We don't live in that perfect world, do we? And so my wish is to encourage the better behavior...for the sake of ensemble.  While conductors who terrorize their choirs often DO  get results, it is not for the long run and lack of church, school or community a key element in frustration of many of those types of conductors. And those outbursts do exactly what you say....choirs lose respect and they either kick the conductor out or singers leave the ensemble. Having to always start over can be frustrating and so on and so on and so on. 
I really agree with your comment about improved sound...have heard it myself!
Thank you again,
on March 25, 2014 7:02pm
Amen, again, Marie!
I have mentoined that many of us fully support you, will help, and look forward to more educaton here.
At first I pondered; How would this play out in a few years?   Would ACDA, like the Lawyer's Bar Association, recommend only those who proved to keep the ethics consistently, and publicly discourage choirs from hiring those who did not?
I hope that enough of us would be transparent - that hiring committees would see that we were highly professional, ethical, kind, hard-working, artistic, etc. ....and a "choral bar" would not necessary.
On the other hand, we have all seen instances where choral directors (in some instances "choral directors?! ;) ") were hired for a variety of reasons - one of which being that no one/few on the committee had knowledge of what a good choral director should be.  (Results may be that they were hired for reasons that have little to do with quality musical/organization leadership.)  When folks spend their money on an expert, and are later disappointed, they may wish they had managed to get better advice. This is how/why we have the Bar, Angie's list, etc.  Maybe a "core group" of evaluators in each level/category - community groups, church choirs, all school levels,  - whose expertise groups could access when necessary - might be valuable.  It might mean, as you mention, Marie,  that in the long run the whole profession would rise.
This is a truly great thing you are doing, Marie.
"Go, girl!"  - Lucy
on March 28, 2014 12:18pm
I don't see this as an ACDA recomendation thing, really.  I started my research with something I knew of ethics from AGO (American Guild of Organists) and PAM (Presbyterian Association of Musicians) to see if there was a model which could be used in a more general way.  I also looked at many other denominations musician organizations to see if there was something already in place some where.  While all speak of behavior in a general way---such as not applying for a job before the job is vacant!--there didn't seem to be anything pertaining to what I was looking for.
You hit upon an interesting point---many committees charged with hiring conductors (and I'm thinking mainly church and community choral groups) are not musicians, don't really know anything about music and go into the interview process with a pre-conceived notion of what they think they want/need.  They think, the more volatile, the better musician because music is very mysterious and special.  They get what they get and are often disappointed because the day-to-day handling of singers, accompanists, music filing, pleasantness to the church secratary, getting titles to the printer under deadline and all those mundane details are not part of the *otherworldly* aspect of music. It isn't until you bat *clean up* (or are interviewed for a position after) after someone who leaves those around them shellshocked  you understand what it means.
I can see having a chapter for those on hiring committees--questions to ask the candidate?---on different levels/categories. And perhaps a list such as you suggest down the line.
Thank you, as always, for your support Lucy!  Let's see if we can get together at a conference and talk!