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Couple of burning questions

Why is it that there are so many professional orchestras out there but so few professional choirs? And why is it that we always feel obligated to pay our instrumentalists but not our singers?
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on February 26, 2012 9:21am
Clay:  "Why" is always hard to answer, in this as in many other things.  But the bottom line is that a great many people are willing to sing without pay for the love of it, or even to pay in order to do so, and for the same reason there are hundreds of amateur actors working just as hard as the professionals every day all over the country.  The joy and satisfaction of performing (without having to put in the years of expensive training to reach a professional level) is a pretty heady incentive.
A more down to earth answer might be that the entire concept of large, non-professional choruses grew up in the aftermath of Handel's 18th century oratorios, and bloomed into local and regional and even national choral societies that in some case combined social interaction with music (as did virtually all college glee clubs), in others focused on competitions (as many barbershopers still do), or combined these musical and non-musical activities.
And the bottom line is that professional instrumentalists organized (going back, in fact, to the medieval and renaissance system of guilds) into unions whose collective bargaining power allowed them to demand and get reasonable compensation for their services, thereby establishing precedent for paying instrumentalists that has broadened to include the semi-professional and semi-amateur kinds of gigs (church programs, for example) that less skilled instrumentalists would be happy to voluteer for while more skilled ones know what their services are worth.  Yes, there have been attempts at forming singers' unions, especially in the Northeast U.S., but never to the extent that instrumentalists, actors, dancers or variety entertainers have done.
As someone who has been and done all of these things and is now heavily involved in volunteer community music I can understand all of this.  Since I'm not presently dependent on gigging income to pay the bills I'm happy to do a lot of work as a volunteer, but if that were not the case my approach would be, necessarily, quite different.
Don't forget that when performers are paid, more than are absolutely necessary are never hired.  For centuries a "choir" or "chorus" included something on the order of 8 to 12 well-trained, professional singers.  Neither Bach nor Handel probably ever had more than about 20 singers, including choirboys.  The 19th century large-scale choral-orchestral works EXIST because of large, amateur choral societies.  And Handel's Messiah was premiered by two combined church choirs in Dublin!
Is it fair?  Of course not!  But in the words of Walter Cronkite, "That's the way it is."  (And in the words of someone else, unidentified, "You get what you pay for!")
All the best,
on February 26, 2012 2:21pm

Clay, I am interested to know which choruses you consider to be professional.                                                                                                     In your geographical area, how many singers/choirs could prepare the Verdi Requiem in three rehearsals? Of those, how many started siinging lessons when under ten years of age? How many studied sightreading at the same time they started vocal study/technique? How many practice for hours daily? Do they come to you being competent in pronunciation of German, Italian, French, Latin and ENGLISH?                                                                         Clarinets all have a very similar sound after reasonable srudy, do they not? Voices should sound somewhat alike. They do not because of widely varying techniques and environmental influences in their production.                                                                                                                                You may be interested to know that the Robert Shaw Chorale rehearsed for ninety hours in preparation for a tour. The singers were painstakingly auditioned conservatory or music school graduates .                                                                                                                                                        More, later.   EP                                                                                                                                                                                     

on February 27, 2012 9:32am
John and Edward have outlined reasons well - the general willingness of some singers to volunteer, the historical relative lack of unionizing and suchlike.
It seems, along with these, there is a quality-acceptance factor that shifts at a certain professional level.  If the Met is producing an opera and wishes to hire Natalie Dessay, or if Spivey Hall wants The King's Singers on their program, naturally these organizations expect to pay a large amount, due to the artists' renown.   Only singers of their level of renown, or very near to it, would be considered for these programs.  (This would remain true, even if a local soprano or acapella group was close to the famous artists' quality, and had a decent following.  Many people, [unfortunately !?] , pay for famous names.  I believe it is related to curiousity and the opportunity to tell their friends and watch their eyebrows rise.  We forget that the "entertainment", or inspiration,  does not stop after the last curtain call.  For many audience members, it begins at the point of decision to buy the ticket, [We're going to see..."] and continues, perhaps increases, in the post-concert conversations.)
However, for weddings, parties, business gatherings, school system functions (I'm referring to system-wide meetings, celebrations, etc.), it is somewhat common to pay an instrumentalist ("How else can we get someone good?") but not the singer.  ("Oh, Joe's brother/sister down the road has a fine voice, but they make their living as a [doctor/lawyer/merchant/chief/teacher/secretary], and they'll be happy to sing gratis.").  They don't even audition/interview anybody - it doesn't occur to them that better singers/groups might be a block away.
At the moment that Joe's brother/sister accepts this [gig] opportunity, the market for local professional singers and groups begins to plummet.
One factor in this mindset is the "good voice"  concept.  Many believe that singing is simply an inborn talent, not a learned skill.  They have not fully pondered the phenomenon that some singers choose to study and develop their talent, thus "changing"/improving their sound, musicality, expression, language-to-music ability, etc.  Others may have made different, although fully-respectable, choices, and still sing well.  (Personally, I wish that more folks in society would realize how important it is to reinforce a singer's choice, and committ to hiring  professionals.  If they did, fewer good singers and groups would "give up".)
If these audience members, though untrained musically, were to hear the professional and the "amateur" [as Robert Shaw said, "amateur" is a complimentary word meaning "lover of their art"], in close proximity, they would be able to tell the difference.  They know that, when paying a professional, they are, generally getting someone better.  But they're often hard-pressed to define that difference - hence they ultimately don't need to care.
Much lies, I believe, in how they talk about it afterward.  There may be more sensation in someone/a group who is "just like them".
So, it seems, that at "star-level", we pay singers.  At local-event level, and symphony-chorus level, we procure volunteers.  With the exception of a few churches/places of worship who hire staff singers, the mid-to-high-level professional singers and groups are rarely used.  This perpetuates itself because an out-of-work singer has to take other job(s), lessening their chance for  study and self-marketing.
I'm so glad you asked this question!  It is good for us as a community of singers to promote and market each other, raising public awareness.
Hope this helps!
on February 27, 2012 1:23pm
Lucy and colleagues:  Thanks so much for your excellent thoughts.  I agree completely.  There has ALWAYS been a "quality-acceptance factor" that is part and parcel of any art form, and there always will be.  As I was growing up, a lot of my experiences as a very young solo performer took place for the Ladies Musical Club my mom belonged to, while my father's Rotary Club meetings were always very accepting of my violin solos, my junior high school occarina trio, and my high school barbershop quartet (which became a 20-year professional entertainment group).  Young and growing students always need a sympathetic and accepting audience, and the value of the experience is equally shared by both sides.
And there has always been a celebrity factor, and there always will be.  In the not-too-distant past movie companies had departments assigned to build up the reputations of their contracted actors and they were very good at it.  Today that's more often handled by "publicists," but Franz Liszt and Nicolo Paganini handled it just fine on their own.  Sometimes celebrity is based on actual talent and sometimes it is based on pure hype, but since my own quartet (as The Four Saints) had a great deal of success and therefore a modest amount of celebrity through the 1960s, I've experienced that side of the coin as well.  And we all know that the entertainment industry (whether on the pop or the classical side) is filled with "overnight successes" that only achieved that success after years of really hard work at lower levels that honed their skills and presentations.
So there is a place for growing performers, a place for amateur performers (lovers of the art), and a place for both semiprofessionals (who COULD be professional if they wanted to put up the demands) and professionals.  The university show ensemble I directed for 14 years was in demand for both community concerts and private entertainment for regional and national conferences and meetings, and my attitude toward this was simple:  I did not, EVER, want to take work away from professionals who could fill the bill, but IF a company was considering an entertaining, high-energy, cleancut university show group, I wanted to be considered for the gig! 
On the other end of the equation, I continue to devote hours of time to community music because I see a very important place for it in our culture, which has turned more and more to CONSUMING music as a product rather than MAKING music as an enjoyable activity.  And yes, we put on a wide variety of programs either free, for the community, or at much lower than professional costs, because our members are volunteers and we don't have professional costs to deal with.  But in no case are we taking work away from professionals, and in many cases we are PROVIDING work for professionals, orchestra players in particular.
The "market" for music is NOT a zero-sum game, and there are ecological niches for performers at different levels without being in competition with each other.  (Unless some truly dumb scheduling takes place, but THAT is worth a different discussion!)
All the best,
on February 28, 2012 8:58am
To clarify - for John and other readers - I was not really referring to college and school groups as usurping opportunities for a professional. As an educator, I seek community performing opportunities for my students/groups frequently, and that is, as you pointed out, a great thing and an important part of their education.  As a soloist, I generally do not mind if someone who needs the opportunity to stretch is assigned a solo I had hoped for. 
I am referring to scenarios where a professional [who already has 1 or 2 degrees and several years experience] could be hired, [sometimes there is already budget for this] or even perhaps would agree to perform gratis for a good cause, but a [30-60 yr.-old]singer or a group that is known through a personal connection is procured instead.
If a college is planning to perform a masterwork, and they have student soloists/ensembles who sing as well or better than local professionals, I have no problem with their being used. What I have a problem with is someone being assigned the solo largely because they are a spouse/friend of the director, or were suggested by the Finance Committee, and pressure was placed on the director to comply - even against his/her better musical judgement.  Or the director featuring his/her less-than qualified church/community choir [some of these are wonderuful, but some are not] in order to gain political favor. [And the tempo, interpretation,  or key has to be adjusted because "their voice(s) will not do that.".  Never mind that a highly-capable, willing, well-trained singer/group waits patiently nearby... ]
Of course, these cases of political favoritism, or nepotism, occur in most fields. But I truly belive they occur in vocal/choral music much more frequently.  This, I belive, is largely due to that "acceptance factor"  . :)
There is another type of acceptance, already referred to, in singers themselves.  Sometimes we want opportunities so badly that we will come to rehearsals, prepare music, etc. with no compensation.  Young developing vocal talent, as well as older singers trying to enter the market, are encouraged to "get yourself out there".  But, are instrumentalists told the same thing for the same length of time?  It seems that, at the early career-entry level,  instrumentalists are encouraged to hold out for pay, and eventually unionize.
This probably works ..largely because there are so many more singers...?
on February 28, 2012 6:32pm
Hi again, Lucy.  Your clarification is much appreciated.  And you brought up another interesting question, although not one with any single answer.
When is it appropriate for either an educational or a community ensemble to hire good professional soloists, and when is it appropriate to reserve solos for members of the ongoing ensemble?
I know, every situation is different.  But some of the questions are pretty fundamental.  Is the performance more important than the learning?  Is it more important than giving someone a chance they've earned?  Or should there always be a line drawn between "soloists" and "chorus," like the white and pink contracts in theater?
You're seeing it from a professional's point of view, Lucy, and that's certainly a valid point of view.  But it isn't the only one.
Just curious whether this might be worth discussing.  The question did come up a while ago about people who want to be soloists with a church choir without committing to choir membership.  Are there times when the prestige of having a hired soloist is worth NOT giving a decent ensemble member a shot at it?  I ask because most of the ensembles I've directed have not been traditional, and I have almost ALWAYS promoted soloists out of the ensemble itself.  But I certainly agree on your major point:  they have to be good enough technically and musically to do the job, paid or not.
All the best,
on February 28, 2012 12:42am
When the man in the street is asked to think of an orchestra, the default is something like the New York Philharmonic, not the ear-raping community orchestra down the block.
But when the man in the street is asked to think of a choir, the default is the ear-raping community choir down the block, not something like the BBC Singers.
There is a deep-seated public perception of instrumental music as being professional (because you need to train long and hard to be good at it, and because there are actual formal qualifications that demonstrate that one has done so) and of COLLECTIVE (not solo) vocal music as being amateur (because anyone can, and does, sing in a choir with no training, and you cannot formally qualify as a choral singer anywhere).
Why? A lot has to do with the emergence of massed choral singing and amateur choral societies together with the rise of the middle class from the 18th century onwards, as John Howell also noted. But more important to my mind is the modern (post-mid-19th-century) perception that choral music is a vehicle for an ideological agenda, be it nationalism, religion, left-wing radicalism or what have you. To be sure, choral music lends itself exceptionally well to expressing such agendas, as it can demonstrate collective power and will and is very effective at delivering a message by linking a meaningful text to powerful music. But in this it also does a disservice to itself in the wider perspective, as it is very difficult to shake this ideological ballast when for many people thinking of a "choir" conjures up an emphatically patriotic male choir or a local church choir. It does not help that the vast majority of the western choral repertoire is religious, for obvious historical reasons.
The perceived ideological content is associated with amateurs because this is seen as an amateur activity: embracing an agenda is an affair of the heart, not of the head. While the leaders of the resulting actions may be professionals, the participants are not -- whoever heard of professional demonstrators, for instance? The parallel is not as distant as one might think, as it is not unusual to encounter attitudes regarding a choir as a mindless herd, never mind how many PhDs or MDs, etc., there may be in the ranks.
It is very curious how different attitudes can be to things which are at their core essentially similar. I recently conducted a thought experiment:
Picture this scenario: there is in country X a collective that represents the professional pinnacle of a pursuit that has thousands of amateur practitioners nationwide. This pursuit is open to all, even with minimal skills or training, and those who excel at it can make a career out of it. The vast majority, though, are in it simply for their own and collective enjoyment, and the level of performance is often a secondary consideration. The aforementioned national collective, however, is good enough professionally that its members are paid a salary out of public funds and sponsored on trips abroad to represent the nation -- even though there is no certainty of any international success, let alone any financial return to country X.
Now think of the gut reaction to the above if you replace the "collective" with a) a professional choir and b) the national soccer team. Interesting, no?
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Helsinki, Finland
on February 28, 2012 9:02am
Yes, Jaakko - very interesting!  Excellent points..
on February 28, 2012 6:02pm
I have been observing this query for the last few days.  I haven't had time to reply until now.  Many responses come to mind and I know I'll be rambling so I appologize before hand!
In my area---the Chicago Metro area---there are quite a few truly "professional" chorsues.  The Chicago Symphony Chorus, Grant Park Symphony Chorus and the Music of the Baroque Chorus are the three most consistantly working ones.   There are other smaller professional groups--Bella Voce (my grad school conducting prof was one of the founders), William Ferris Chorale and few others that slip my mind.  I do not believe you must have a music degree or  be working on a music degree to audition--you just audition and are either accepted or rejected.  I do know Symphony Chorus was unionized at one point but am not sure if they are now.  There are LOTS of semi-professional groups who are not paid but who sing repertoire worthy of being paid but for whatever reason, are more community than professional, but they sound like pros.
There is a place for a professional chorus, a semi-professional chorus and community chorus in the grand scheme of things.  We, as singers and choral conductors, get it into our heads one is better than the other than the other.  Being paid for doing a job, for doing a gig, is seen as a way of confirming our talent or our worth. Singers are especially  sensitive since our voice/instrument is actually us! I also think much of this depends on where you live and the traditions of who is hired for what.
We often sabotage ourselves by not living where the work is or think being a church section leader/ringer is beneath us. Most gigging instrumentalists--who make a living that way--take what comes their way at first, whether playing for an Easter morning service or musical or auditioning for all the professional symphonies within a six county area and working around their schedules or playing for jingle work.   If it will help pay the bills, they take it.  Their attitude is something we can emulate.
Instrumentalists--good ones anyway--are paid because they are unique and not everyone can do what they do.  Singers are not looked at as "unique" because "any one" can sing, right?
My Mom was a church section leader for many, many years--she had a wonderful coloratura soprano that remained young and fresh into her sixties.  She often would complain about being asked to sing for someone's wedding and then find out they expected her to sing for free--"where were they when I was paying for my voice lessons.  I worked to get this voice," she would say.  She wouldn't sing for free and it irked some because she had a "God-given talent" and Mom would tell them God didn't want her to starve!  Because she was so good, she was often hired anyway and paid. Her attitude can be looked to as an example for us today--be so good, they want to pay you.
And yes, more to come,
on February 29, 2012 6:19am
Your last eight words say it all.
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