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Honor, All-State, and Festival Choirs, and Choir Tours: An Ethic of 'Do No Harm'?

As you may or may not know, I've spent about 30 years in both voice education and voice health and recovery settings; twelve of those years were at the Fairview Voice Center, Fairview Rehabilitation Services, at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. During that time, ENT and Speech Pathologist colleagues have asked me to work with a significant number of choral and solo singers who have had ENT-diagnosed voice disorders. They have ranged in age from 10 to 73 years.
Some of the singers who were of school/college age had recently finished singing in an honor, all-state, or festival choir that had rehearsed for six to eight hours per day over two to six days, followed by a performance. Others had recently completed a choir tour of about seven to 10 days, with lots of talking and singing over wind and motor noise in busses, in-tour extra rehearsals, relatively frequent performnces, and sometimes staying in the homes of generous local hosts, with late-night talking after the performances. At least within a few days of returning home, upper and lower respiratory illness had struck a good many of the singers.
About a decade or so ago, I was an invited presenter at a summertime statewide high school honor choir event. My series of presentations was for any of the state's choral conductors who chose to attend (about 30, as I recall) and the general topic was voice education and voice health. The event also included three days of rehearsals of the singers with an invited conductor, followed by a morning concert. Observing the choir's rehearsal schedule, I spoke with one of the state's choral conducting leaders who had attended my sessions. He agreed that, before these rehearsals had begun, none of the honor choir singers had been rehearsing for three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and 1.5 hours in the evening. He also agreed that, most likely, very few of the singers had had the opportunity to learn how to speak and sing with optimum vocal efficiency. And we both expressed a belief that these conditions were common any time that honor, all-state, and festival choirs were rehearsed anywhere.
So I suggested that he and I confer and write up some guidelines for organizers of honor, all-state, and festival choirs--and the conductors who conduct them--that would be consistent with good preventive vocal health and voice protection practices--and then submit them to Choral Journal. He indicated that he would have to take the idea to the office-holders of the organization of which he was a member. He did so.
And the idea was rejected by those leaders. To my knowledge, no such guidelines have ever been written.
A common 'first principle' of medical ethics among members of the medical profession is: Primum non nocere ( First, do no harm. ) **
How about members of the choral conductor and voice teaching professions? Do we need choral conductor ethics ? What would they be? What would the 'first principles' be?
Please comment, question, propose, argue, whatever comes to mind.
**Attributed to Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), regarded as the father of English medicine, and based on the writings of the the Greek physician Hippocrates, in Epidemics, Book I, Section XI. In translation, he wrote ...make a habit of two things--to help, or at least to do no harm.
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on October 3, 2010 7:51pm
Personally, I would love to see such guidelines available as I'm not sure all conductors are aware of the implications of putting untrained voices to a vocal marathon of sorts.  
Also, I would think that other journals might be interested.  If not, there are a myriad of other possibilities for getting the information out, such as posting such guidelines here on ChoralNet and other like-minded web sites, as well as providing a PDF file which conductors and/or voice teachers can spread among themselves and their students.
I think such guidelines could also be called Caring for the Singing Voice, which would then include as its audience, not only conductors, but the singers themselves, who would gain from having the knowledge of how to protect their voices.  
In any event, I hope you do write a set of guidelines, and if so, I would certainly post them on my web site!
Lorraine Manifold
Park Ridge, IL
B.A Communications
B.A. Music
M.A. Vocal Pedagogy (to graduate in 2011)
on October 6, 2010 10:40pm
Thank you, Lorraine
Such a project is under serious consideration. I'm seeking collaborators.  I like your idea of including a section addressed to conductors, singers, and to those who organize such experiences--maybe even parrents, who knows.  Whenever it's done, a PDF file will be available and posted in lots of places so that anyone in the world can have a copy, and make unlimited copies thereof, with full permission of the copyright holder(s).  Amen!
Be well,
on October 7, 2010 9:14am
Hi Leon,
First, glad to see this is 'up and running'!  Next, you may remember my spouse is a physician--an ENT actually--and he is also chair of the ethics committee at the hospital where his primary practice is.  Since he sees the result of vocal abuse on an almost daily basis, will have to get his thoughts about this as well.
I have often wondered about a code of ethics for choral educators---and I use the term 'educators' specifically because those working with young voices are the ones I most fear. I have worked with singers as young as three and as old as 83 and in every case, I try to use healthy vocal techniques---and "do no harm" is in my upper most thoughts.
I come from a unique persepctive--married to an ENT, daughter of a coloratura who had lovely high'C's 'way into her 60s--healthy, safe singing has been, literally, my life. What does vocal ethis mean?  What does it entail?  Why would leaders in our community reject drawing up some guidelines---we have guidelines for copyright issues, for Pete's sake, why not for our vocal instrument?
You have me thinking....will be back later.  And yes, I believe we should have a code of ethics!
on October 8, 2010 7:15pm
Amen, Marie!  Just love the passionate way you write. 
One thought I've had about why the creation of voice health guidelines might be rejected can be expressed as, "This might rock a successful boat," or "This could stir controversy and make people in our profession feel uncomfortable." 
My perspective, of course, is that expressing differences and disagreements, and debating them, are characteristic of a vital and growing profession of dedicated human beings, as long as the the human beings who express their differences, express them with mutual human respect, acknowedging that the 'disagreeers' are free to alter, change, or continue their currently held perspectives without loss of that mutual respect.  The advantage of such debates is that all choral conductors have an opportunity to learn how to deliver increased benefit and human self-expression even more effectively when leading fellow human beings (of any age) in singing.  [Off the soapbox, now.]
Great idea to get your 'ethics-committee-chair' husband's thoughts.  And, I look forward to your 'be-back-later' thinking.
on January 16, 2011 3:41pm
I just saw this posting,  Thank you!
I think that the first on a list of "choral conductor ethics" could also be "do no harm".  I am not just thinking about the harm from a physical standpoint.  As conductors, we are not just entrusted with singers' bodies, but their whole being.  I constantly self-assess to make sure that I am as encouraging and positive as possible.  I remember a very inspirational talk by Axel Theimer at a MN ACDA convention a few years ago and he said "singers don't intend to make mistakes".  While simple, that statement and the rest of that talk made a big impact on my teaching.  I think it is important to explore what we teach (or don't teach) our singers about vocal technique.  However, I think a pre-requisite is a supportive, trusting environment.
on January 17, 2011 3:34am
TOTALLY agree, Austen.  Axel said it very well and you wrote it very well. 
A concept of Voice Education that includes optimum physical and acoustic efficiency has to include what has come to be called human compatible learning, teaching, and leadership.  The opposite of human compatibility is human antagonistic learning, teaching, and leadership that includes at least elements of an adversarial relationship between conductor and singers.  There is a long and deep adversarial 'mind-set' within the traditions of choral music training and practice that has been self-perpetuating, slowly shifting.
The most extensive writing I've done on human compatible learning, etc., is in a book that I am principal author and co-editor of, Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education.  It is not published commercially (tried, but rejected) so it was published by two nonprofits:  the National Center for Voice and Speech [ ] and The VoiceCare Network [ ] and is purchasable online through VoiceCare.  Check out the title of Chapter 9 in Book I.  I've written shorter bits for other organizations; I'll try to post one of those into this thread soon.
Axel is a primary faculty at VoiceCare's summer course [Lifespan Voice Education in the Real World] in which human compatible learning, teaching, and leadership is modeled each day.
Good on you, Austen.
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