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Choral Ethics

Hello All,
As we begin another academic and concert cycle year, perhaps it would be a good time to ask you all to help me on a project I began about ten months ago.  I am writing a book on Choral Ethics as a result of not finding anything about the ethics of conductors (perhaps we're not supposed to have any!).  I have searched ACDA's website, I have searched the internet and other sources to come up with plenty of Codes of Ethics for choirs and of course, religous denominations code of ethics for their musicians, but nothing of a more general nature. 
Since I conduct in a community setting, there isn't anything specific for my situation.  I've spoken with a number of people in my situation, and they've all told me they'd be interested in reading what I'm proposing. I will try to explain what I mean by Choral Ethics......and should it really be called "choral ethics?"
It has only been in the last ten years I really have come to understand what choral ethics means to me.  It isn’t obvious.  There are things we should not be doing, of course, and we all know think we know what they are.  As far as other things are concerned, it is subtle.  Since the choral instrument is people, we must be concerned with people—our people—and that’s where the subtly comes in.
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 in 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.
I made vows about my own choral ethics ten years ago and have been mostly able to keep them.  I vowed to treat my singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated.  I vowed 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 vowed to keep my own skills as good as in my capability.
Treating my singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated is simple—when I audition anyone, I always get back to them when I say I will with an answer one way or another.  I think it not kind to keep anyone hanging. Better to know you didn’t get a part then to wonder and it doesn't speak well for your ensemble in the long run.  I always correct the section, not single anyone out and I always try to say something good during  rehearsal—even rehearsals when there doesn’t seem to be anything good! Since one of my sons is a pianist, I treat my accompanists the way I would want him treated by getting music to them as soon as I can, letting them know what we will be working on in rehearsal and I never correct them in a unkind way in front of my choirs.
Since I conduct a community chamber choir and am in a community setting, there are other organizations in subtle competition with my ensemble.  I try to be a booster of their groups, going so far as to organize a consortium of sorts of all of our groups last year.  I try to always say something nice about the others since we are all different groups, with different types of singers with different interests but probably the same general audience. When asked to engage in gossip about other choral organizations or conductors, I remain silent and I am sure some think I'm not aware of what they are hinting at.......but I keep my mouth shut! The one time, about 18 years ago, I didn’t say something nice has haunted me and is one of the reasons I began looking at choral ethic models.
It is important we stay as current as possible in our profession.  Being a ChoralNet User—whether actively participating or *just* reading--is a good start. Joining professional organizations like ACDA as well as attending workshops, reading sessions and conferences keeps us on top of new trends and ideas about what we do.  Of course, I am active here at ChoralNet but do try to attend a workshop or conference every other year if possible. I look at new music on a regular basis, whether it’s appropriate for my current ensembles or not, try to keep my singers interested by new and different repertoire and stretching their musicianship.  I still study voice, with one lesson every week, year round. And I practice—I don’t *phone it in*--and I feel good about my musicianship.
Many feel it is important to choose repertoire not in conflict with their own belief system, whether a composer’s behavior or the composition’s message.  That also may be part of conductor’s personal code of ethics.
Are there other things I should include ?  I've tried to keep it simple, with only three main points of behavior but are there more in your mind?
Thank you in advance for any suggestions you may have for me.
Replies (23): Threaded | Chronological
on August 15, 2013 5:01am
This is beautiful, Marie!   I am printing it out right now!   I am not sure what you mean: "important to choose repertoire not in conflict with their own belief system."   I believe that we choral conductors have a duty to select music from all historical genres and in a variety of styles - this would include music that expands various religious beliefs.  I am very concerned when music is censored in schools because it is from the sacred domain.  Perhaps this is a topic you might want to address.   Best wishes for what looks to be a wonderful project!     Peggy Dettwiler
on August 15, 2013 8:04am
Hi Peggy,
Thank you for your kind words.......and I'll offer an explanation by what I mean by *belief systems*.......many people won't program something by, let's say Shostakovich because he did what Stanlin told him to do (or at least most of the time--"Lady McBeth of Minsk" DID get him trouble!) and they feel they don't want to promote Soviet values....this is just an example of course but I hope you understand what I mean.  I believe if that is part of your value system and your own personal belief sytem, than as a conductor it is your decision to program or not program.  Gesualdo was probably very unstable as a person but I love his madrigals and motets and will program him no matter what.....but some people won't program his music because he was a murderer.
on August 15, 2013 9:17am
Thank you Marie for your enlightning message. 
It really touched me since I feel, one way or another, this subject addresses a little part inside everyone of us. I totally agree with your points but the following question popped up in my mind: Is vowing enough to make keeping one's promise? Does vowing change anything inside you? 
I think the real change musc occur inside a person. How to acheive this?
Thank you very much (from France)
on August 16, 2013 7:10am
Marie, you may find that writings outside of the field of music, in the field of philosophy, may actually provide more insight into what constitutes ethics than is typical in music or music education writings. However, there is an online, open-access journal dedication to exploring issues of music education philosophy (which I think your project definitely falls within); it is the MayDay Group's journal Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education. A fairly recent issue explored concerns related to ethics:
The issue I believe is Vol. 11, 2, Sept. 2012. There may have been one previous issue also dealing with ethics. Hopefully through these readings you will find some things that hit more directly on your concerns as a choral teacher-conductor, but at a minimum the various articles should point you in the direction of some interesting sources for your project.
Deborah Bradley 
on August 18, 2013 8:47pm
Thank you, Marie, for words well-thought and well-expressed!  These matters are all important!  No matter what age, advancement level, or type [school/community/college/faith-based ] of group we work with, we are role models - often in areas we may not have intended to be, or realize that we are.  We affect society (at least a percentage of it...  and there is the domino effect ) now, and in the future.
I especially appreciate your points about "doing no harm" - physically, emotionally, and professionally -  and your committment to vocal study.  (I have had an increasing concern about the trend  of some organizations to hire directors who are strictly instrument-trained - admittedly never having had a voice lesson in their life - to work with groups containing professional singers.  It does not have to create issues, if all concerned are respectful, solicitous/sharing  of education in a mature way, etc.  Unfortunately, it sometimes does. "A little knowledge [ may be] a dangerous thing.  Quaff deeply, sip not, from that [choral/vocal/music educational] spring!"  ;)
I agree that your book title should be capitalized - this is a specific subject, specific to our field.   Also, it is still valuable to discuss "choral ethics" in general.  I fully imagine your book will be an impetus for more of that, which is great!
Are you [ we ?] interested in addressing conductor's preparation?  (Schooling/workshops are important, but I am thinking, here, of weekly/daily preparation for each rehearsal - to maximize our singers' time, and not waste it.)  I think that may fall under "to treat my singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated." (We can study our music carefully, predict what pieces our choir will handle well, split for sectionals, work with soloists separately [at least initially], send out part-recordings for pre-practice, and work separately with individuals who may need extra guidance in musicianship or vocal technique.  These procedures save time and help protect our singers from embarrassment and/or frustration - meaning they will sing better/feel better/speak positively of us in their community, and likely return next year! )
I imagine we can all think of times we have been ethical/modeled well, and not well.  (Your post is inspiring me to go ahead with a due apology on another thread.)
Please keep us posted as to how we can keep supporting you in this effort.
on September 6, 2013 9:54am
I finally have time to thank Peggy, Carlos, Deborah and Lucy for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully.
Peggy, your comments have made me really think about being absolutely CLEAR about the mention of belief systems.  I don't want to confuse anyone, so I have taken your comments to heart.
And Carlos, I, too believe the change can only occur within a person and vows can always (and often are) broken.  But we can all try to the best of our ability to honor our vows to treat our singers and anyone else we work with fairly.  Notice I said "fairly".....many times we can't do what our hearts tell us to do but we can be kind in our dealings with others. And that kindness begins with how WE were treated as young music students, singers and novice we are all promoting a new generation's behavior to their students etc. by our treatment of them.  And someone has to take a stand and begin the cycle of ethical behavior. It is tough to *talk the talk and walk the walk* but I am trying to, and that Carlos, is all we can expect of anyone. The only problem I have encountered is some think I'm stupid for not behaving as they think I should be....stronger or crabbier or *witchy*....but I know what I am doing by being nice!
Deborah, thank you for pointing me in some direction.  I knew there had to be something written on this subject but I was only looking in the conducting/music ed direction and not philosphy.  Thank you so much!
Lucy, you have hit upon what I mean about treating singers and accompanists as I would want to be treated!  Preparation is a big, big part of what I mean by choral ethics. Many times in my experience, conductors only think about their time and don't realize if they actually TOLD their choirs what they will be rehearsing--and ONLY what they will be rehearsing--it would actually cut down on wasted time for all concerned.  I believe wasting singers' time is disrespectful and when singers don't feel respected, they don't behave respectfully. In my present position as director of a semi-professional chamber choir, I do everything you suggest and more.  I make sure my singers have music for coming concert cycles at least a month or more in advance of rehearsals beginning and practice CDs as well.  I send out a rehearsal email every Thursday, telling my choir what we will be rehearsing (down to the measure numbers) for the next Tuesday's rehearsal so they may practice and include my accompanists in the email so THEY will know what will be rehearsed.  In all my years of singing and conducting, the thing I detest most is wasting my time and always assume my singers detest it too. 
I will probably post something here in the next few that the year has started and things are beginning to settle down a bit, I have more time to work on this.  Thanks to all who have contacted me via ChoralNet contacts as well, especially TT--he knows who he is!
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on September 22, 2013 4:14pm
Thank you Marie for all the thought you've put into this. I think you're absolutely correct to keep the principles as simple and generalize-able as possible. There are always specific little things that ought to be done, but hopefully many of those can be covered by the more-general ideas.
Just in terms of the "do no harm to..." statements, perhaps looking outward to "do no harm to the broader social communities that our choirs are part of"?
One significant limitation of the "do no harm" statements is that they are inherently negative expressions. Negative statements are IMO very important to have, and should be kept in the negative, not be replaced by circuitous and ambiguous positive statements. However, do you think there are some things that conductors & leaders must do, as opposed to what we must not do - things that would need to be expressed outside of the "do no harm to..." framework?
on September 23, 2013 10:09am
I think that what you are calling "choral ethics" is really just "ethics" or "professional ethics;" the Golden Rule, avoiding harm, acting in a professional manner, etc.
on September 23, 2013 5:47pm
Hello David,
Thank you for your very thoughtful comments.  Your suggestion to consider the broader social communities our choirs are a part of has me thinking.........
I think I know what you mean by "Negative statements are IMO very important to have, and should be kept in the negative, not be replaced by circuitous and ambiguous positive statements." Perhaps you could clarify if this is not what you order to correct something (in let's say) a rehearsal, we must say "the note (articulation, vowel, rhythm, etc.) is wrong (or not correct etc)" and not somehow make a sugarcoated statement to confuse our meaning.  I would agree with you and would suggest it is important to correct positively, but to correct........I believe we should say something is wrong when it is wrong.  As a parent, I was always careful to "hate the sin but love the sinner" and take that attitude in rehearsal as well.  There should never be a personal component in a correction, but something such as "that b flat in measure 5 is under, please tune it up and listen to one another" is still a correction and not "Ginny, that b flat is gawd awful---where did you go to music school, the Acme School of Music and Auto Repair?" is a correction......but also a personal dig and is what I mean by doing harm.......which correction would you rather hear in rehearsal? And which correction would you be able to correct quickly, without thinking about anything but the music? Even "Ginny, your b flat is under, please listen to the others in measure 5,"  while it does single out Ginny, is a correction of the note she is singing and is not meant to hurt or belittle her in public. Using negatives about what need to be corrected, and only what needs to be corrected, is simple and our singers should have no reason to take it personally......this may or may not answer your question about what I think conductors/leaders must or must not do, but there are plenty of conductors who do not understand it wastes time to be nasty, both the conductors time to think up the cutting, petty comments and the singers who are shocked and hurt and think about that first, before thinking about correcting their vocal line.
Thank you David!
on September 23, 2013 6:23pm
Not to sound too shrill, Joel, but DUH!  Since I am trying to write something specific to our profession, I have called this *choral ethics* as an early descriptor of what I plan to write about.  I could call it "choral professional ethics" or "choral professional behavior" or "The Golden Rules of the Choral Profession" or something similar.......anyone have a better suggestion....I'm open? So, yes, I know I could *just* call it plain ol' ethics or professional behavior.
In the ten/eleven months I have been working on this and writing and doing some basic research, I have found NOTHING specific to our profession.  And while other professions have codes of behavior and ethics, I am finding little for us, other than lists of rule for singers in various organizations.  Debbie, in this thread, has pointed me in a music ed direction which has been very helpful. In the ChoralNet Community of Community Choirs, Todd Wilson from the Nashville Singers has also been very helpful sharing his organization's code of behavior which applies to both singers and director.....thank you again, so MUCH, Todd!
Since it is still early times in the writing of my book, I wanted to use a term most here at ChoralNet could relate to or at least understand.  I wanted some help....and I wanted to know if this is a book which has already been written by someone else or even I should continue working on the darn thing.  I have had quite a few people contact me via ChoralNet contacts cheering me on, telling me this is a book that should be written.  And even telling me their stories of WHY this book needs to be written and WHO could help me.  This is something I have thought about for about ten years and I hope to contribute to our profession in a positive way with this book on......whatever I decide to call it.
on September 24, 2013 1:48pm
I get what you're saying, but it isn't what I was referring to at all. I meant that your ethics statements themselves are negative, and wonder whether some positive ethics statements (i.e. some "Do This" statements in your ethics presentation, to go with the "Don't Do This" ones) might also be required.
on September 24, 2013 3:05pm
Hummmmm, that's interesting. Since I hope to divide my book into three sections---singers, fellow conductors and the choral community at large---I would hope to include examples of *positive choral ethics* as opposed to *negative choral ethics*.  Or something.  The *do no harm* is the model I have been using to get me to focus......there's so much that COULD be spoken about....gotta start somewhere and gotta be clear.  I looked at the old "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" when I began research and somehow, while cute, it didn't seem serious enough for the subject.  We all know what is bad behavior, I suppose, but do we know what is good?  And perhaps, that's your point--what are good, positive ways of behaving in our profession?   (Do be a Do-Bee, Don't be a Don't-Bee) A few years ago, another choral organization did a program that was almost the EXACT SAME PROGRAM as a concert my chamber choir did a few years before........ALL the same pieces, with one or two in addition.......this was not a chamber choir, so I guess you could argue it wasn't the same....but I was peeved about it.  How would you classify that and make it a positive? Should I just be flattered since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Was what they did an example of good choral ethics........or something else? 
I just found (last night) the blog of a musician who talks about wanting a musician's code of ethics that applies to classical musicians and not just the gigging musician ( wear black, bring a pencil, don't talk when the conductor is talking etc. etc.).  She hasn't found anything, either, and she thinks we need it!
Thank you, thank you, David, for your thoughts and this's really helping me!
on September 25, 2013 4:44pm
I think (as I mentioned in my first response) that it's wrong to try to twist a negative (don't simply copy someone else's program) into a positive (be creative in your music choices? No, that means something different). Anything that is best expressed negatively should be kept that way; I'm not one of those "everything must be happy happy positive positive" people, because it's a silly and false attitude. But by the same token, if you use only "Do no harm" categories, then all the things that would naturally be stated as positives will have to be twisted into negatives, in order to fit the scheme. Maybe the scheme of only "Do no harm" categories is too restrictive and not realistic.
on September 25, 2013 7:02pm
Had to start somewhere and I see your husband is a physician and when he took the Hippocratic Oath as he graduated from med school, it really meant something.  The beginning of it is something like, "first, do no harm." And as I was floundering around, trying to have some sort of way of beginning this, it was a way of focusing. 
Thank you for your thoughts and I really appreciate your comments.
on September 26, 2013 2:47am
Hello Marie,
You may find Part II of my book Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning a useful reference for your project. It analyses the value systems articulated in the British and American literature for choral practitioners. It is ethnomusicological rather than instruction in approach, but it may help identify some key ethical themes that run through choral culture. While few people may have written about it directly, as you say, there is a clear set of moral norms (and also areas of dissent/controversy) that are shared by practitioners - as indeed the wonderful response your query has elicited demontrates!
Tone Bianca Dahl may be a useful source for you too, as well as Tom Carter's Choral Charisma. Both are very focused on the humanity of the people they work with. 
on September 26, 2013 9:26am
I think a discussion of ethics in the choral arena needs to happen more often, and I applaud your work.  I would encourage you to include things that may be uncomfortable, and that may seem obvious.  I say this because I have been troubled by how many examples I've seen in recent years of directors in educational settings engaging in inappropriate activities/relationships with students (sexual misconduct).  The result has been, of course, catostrophic to the programs at those schools and to relationships between those schools and their communities.  Though it seems obvious that such behavior is unacceptable, there are some who apparently need reminding.  It is an uncomfortable topic, but for the sake of our students it cannot be overlooked.
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on September 27, 2013 5:12am
This string in the thread has me thinking... to both points of view. David: are you thinking more in terms of "We must support our SINGERS, COLLEAGUES, and PROFESSION" being positive modes of the same attitude Marie is putting forth? If so, Marie, please feel free to use my wording.
on September 27, 2013 10:13am
My big concern is people won't know what you mean by "We must support our SINGERS, COLLEAGUES, and PROFESSION."  What does *support mean?  Doesn't everyone want to *support* their singers, collegues, profession? And why should that be pointed out? Often, what seems to be standard practice, isn't, and standard, good behavior as well as *conductors behaving badly* needs to described.
More later......thanks Craig!
on September 27, 2013 10:15am
Thank you for mentioning your book...I will take a look at it.  I have Tom's and don't know the other person, so I will get busy!  Thank you, Liz!
on September 27, 2013 10:20am
Kenneth, I agree with you about speaking of uncomfortable things.........I've had experience with an incident such as you speak......but it was a local band director and one of my sons was one of his private students!  Thank the Lord my son was unharmed and the incident came out the year he was a freshman in college.....but you have a good point and I will try to touch on the subject as clearly and kindly and compassionately as possible.
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on September 27, 2013 10:38am
Yes, Kenneth, this is sad, but true.  
I am sorry to report that I've observed this, in community and church settings as well. :/
None of us wants the public saying/thinking, "You can't trust a choral director with your spouse/child/money, etc." 
Most choral directors are, I believe, good citizens in many ways.  But we all know about "squeaky wheels"and how they are much more noticeable!
I recommend that hiring committees be wary and screen carefully, requesting several personal recommendations.  At the same time, some organizations ( if there are only one or two questionable accusations) might wish to give a talented/dedicated person a second chance, if s/he seems to sincerely wish to change.  I recommend monitoring these people very closely!
Sometimes singers want so badly to sing in an organization, or have a solo, that the director is in a position of too much power.  We should never misuse this, just as our bosses, company presidents, and government officers should not!
I hope that it is needless to say that we need to keep the distinction between who someone is and what they do.  Many great Choral Directors, just as poeple in other careers, might happen to be people whose
romantic persuasions, and/or their gender identiy are less-conventional.   That has absolutely nothing to do with any action, or lack of it. 
"Misconduct" refers to a situation where one controls the other against their will, engages with a minor, speaks in an inappropriately sexual way, uses sex as a "quiud-pro-quo" deal, or harasses another.
We also need to protect ourselves by conducting private coachings, small meetings, etc., with open doors.  (The scouts have a "never alone" motto.)  Even in the case of a director/teacher who is totally innocent, it only takes one accusation to taint/curtail a career.
Again, thank you, Kenneth, for raising an important aspect of this topic, and Marie, for spearheading this very important project.  Keep us posted as to the help you need.
on November 21, 2013 10:39am
Great idea, Marie; we should all keep these things in mind.  As a matter of historical interest--Shostakovich may not have been as subservient to Stalin as we thought.  I'm sorry I cannot recall more details, but I heard part of a report on NPR a few years ago, about the ways he defied Stalin and his henchmen in his music.  In other words, he used the alternative language of music to say what he could not say directly in "plain Russian".  This report may have been an interview with a new biographer, or Shostakovich's son; possibly on Fresh Air or the Diane Rehm show.
on November 23, 2013 1:07pm
I think about this stuff all the time.  I have also learned that we need to forgive ourselves for the times that we step out of line, and remember that when this happens, it usually comes from our passion.
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