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Dismissing a church soloist

Dismissing a church soloist
Anything that you would say as a singer to an organist who is dismissing a church soloist? Does putting someone on a term of probation with a zero tolerance policy work? What is life like under such a regime?
I have more than enough reason to dismiss this soloist. Trust me. At some point compassion has to take a back seat to the issues of paying someone who only pulls 50% of their weight.
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on December 31, 2014 4:41am
As a singer AND as a director myself, it seems straightforward enough, but requires immense courage, because most of us are (in a favorite phrase of mine) "devout cowards."  IF you have enough reason to dismiss this person, and you do not, you are hurting the choir more and more each rehearsal and each Sunday.  As a direcotr, you are not entitled to that luxurious pain.  In an instance where you have no options (as I find myself at the moment), you do what you can to "work around" the individual in question; but if you HAVE the option, exercise it.  The bleeding will not be any less the longer you wait to do it.  When you dismiss the individual, you identify the weaknesses (I presume there are several, if not many) which led to this point, and you do it (if the individual in question is young) with the optic of making it possible for this individual to succeed in further assignments, if there are any, and if they are willing to learn.  However, forthrightness about your willingness to recommend this individual to any future employer also has to be a part of the discussion.  If this is an older (40-ish or more) singer, there is no longer room for concern about the future - that individual's future is NOW.  You needn't be cruel, but you need to be honest and professional about it.
Part of our problem as a society is the view that everyone is "special."  Well, to God and to their parents, perhaps; but the truth is, none of us are.  We earn that designation, and we have to work to keep it.  We don't get it "ab initio." And if we would only grasp that nettle - hard - life would be much more "special."
Chantez bien!
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on January 2, 2014 7:08am
Dismissal is in order if the performance expectations are reasonable and have been clearly communicated in advance, and if the person in question has failed repeatedly to meet those expectations. Same as any other work situation, right?
For about five years, I worked as a section leader/soloist in a church that is a leader, musically speaking, in our community. One of the reasons that the music ministry is so fine is that expectations for everyone involved -- from the kids in the junior choir to the paid soloists -- are reasonable, clearly communicated, and agreed on in advance. For the section leader/soloists, these expectations are communicated in the form of a simple contract, which each person signs before every season. It is an annual process for every section leader, even one who has been on staff for two decades. This annual process is a good opportunity to refresh expectations and make policy changes if they are needed. The contract spells out expectations for the soloist, including arriving at least five minutes prior to every call time, being 100% prepared, assisting the other singers, leading sectionals, singing solos and solo passages, and more. The contract includes a complete schedule of dates and call times for the entire season (an indicator of a well-managed music program). When the soloist agrees to the contract, he or she also agrees to be present and prepared for each of those named dates and times; this means there can never be any quibbling about attendance and timeliness. The contract also covers proper dress for church services, and mentions that the section leader functions as a role model for the amateur singers.
This last point is very important. When I was section leader in that choir, I felt that one of my most important duties was to be a model chorister: early to rehearsals, TOTALLY prepared, attentive and quiet during rehearsal, willing to help others, behaving professionally and maturely at all times. I was being paid to be a model chorister and I took that very seriously. That doesn't mean that one can't have fun and derive deep pleasure from the musical and friendship parts of singing in a choir - but when one is engaged professionally, one must serve professionally.
In short - if you don't already have contracts in place for your professional choristers, I reccommend that you do so post-haste. I never felt burdened by the contract; on the contrary, I liked knowing exactly what was expected of me, and understanding how my presence and talents fit into the choir's mission. (BTW, I still sing in that choir, as a volunteer.)
I don't see the need to involve clergy in what is a personnel issue within the music ministry, though that might vary from place to place.
BTW, the entire season schedule is also given to  the amateur members of the choir; need I say that attendance here is very very good? People tend to put the dates in their personal calendars when they know what they are.
on January 2, 2014 7:19am
Addendum to my previous comment.
The way you choose to handle this situation may affect all your dealings with the choir, and may affect the quality of the music program.
If you let this soloist get away with poor performance:
-- It's unfair to your other soloists who are providing good service.
-- You will be allowing a degradation of the musical standards for your music ministry. You are the one who needs to set the standards for performance and professionalism for all your musicians, and you are the one who needs to prune away deadwood.
-- You will send a message to the entire choir that you will tolerate poor attendance and less-than-best effort. They probably know what's going on, and are waiting to see how you handle it. Choir members have little patience for peers who are slackers or who take a diva attitude - and that pertains to the paid soloists, too.
More on the contracts I mentioned in my earlier post: The contract specifies the per-service compensation, AND indicates that pay will be docked for lateness and unexcused absences. RE: attendance: Attendance is expected at every rehearsal and service, unless there has been an agreement with the Minister of Music beforehand. Soloists are allowed one absence per year, such as for vacation. Illnesses or personal emergencies are handled on a case-by-case basis; in general, soloists who have demonstrated excellent performance and attendance are treated with understanding and flexibility when needed. In other words, they have to earn the privilege of being allowed flexibility.
Professional standards for a professional workplace.
on December 31, 2014 4:53am
The most compassionate thing for all concerned is to either dismiss them outright or with a "the next time this happens, you're gone," and tell them exactly why you're firing them, in a kind manner. 
on December 31, 2014 6:16am
In the business and education world, managers are required to have a paper trail of warnings. In my experience, pastors do the same thing. You need to be able to document that you have warned the employee of the problem(s). This makes it difficult for the employee to say that they had no idea they had done anything wrong and that you simply didn't like them. I have heard of church choir directors who insisted on dismissing current soloists & hiring their own. That is actually not a bad idea. Good luck.
on December 31, 2014 6:35am
Have you already told the soloist about the problems and they haven't addressed them?  If so, then I'd say you should go ahead and dismiss.  However, if they are socially popular in the church, then the problem becomes more complex, and you probably need to build a paper trail first--noting problems in dated memos to the person, culminating in a letter of dismissal stating that the concerns had not been addressed.  Good luck!
on December 31, 2014 10:58am
Compassion can also mean a "paper trail".  Taking the time to tell someone the problem and the consequences.  You owe it to anyone to let them know that what they are doing or are "not" doing won't be tolerated and more than that, how unfair it is to the rest of the choir.  On the other hand, if you have someone that is aging and it is beginning to tell in their voice, I bet if you sit and talk with them you'll find they know. 
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on December 31, 2014 10:59am
Your question - and I'm glad you asked it -  is "How to dismiss.."   I would offer that the first question is "How to effectively manage the employment of..." 
I affirm most of  the points so far - especially the recommendation of speaking with the singer, and the "paper trail".   However,  I do not recommend a Director coming in and hiring their own - it puts you under suspicision of nepotism.  It also might mean that a quality soloist gets "swept out" through no fault of his/her own, and may have trouble with future employment - also not their fault.   Like R.R. Duquette, I bring both perspectives - I have been on "both sides of the podium".   I cannot, however, affirm that a 40-something's future is always "now".   It is true that some singers can, with dedicated study toward solid technique , keep a good sound, and a good choral contribution/sectional leadership well beyond their 40's.  (Some, either due to natural causes, or more likely lack of effort, do not.)  Marie Grass Amenta mentioned, in a past forum here, that her mother kept her quality lyric-coloratura sound well into her 60's.  I know singers who do the same, and are hired frequently for significant events.
You have not created a user profile, so we can only guess as to the size of your church, its musical focus, or what regulations/expectations are currently in place.
I have seen soloist situations  where the Leadership (Music Director/Minister, and Organist/Keyobard) tried to leave some flexibility for the soloists, which they generally appreciated.  However, a possible downside is that  there was no written job description  - nothing about possible dissatisfaction on the part of the choir/church: number of vacation days, lateness, speaking in a unkindly manner to members, invitations to sing special occasions elsewhere, etc.   ... neither was there anything for grievances from the soloist; are they required to sing extra events with no pay, are the solos shared with other members, hired from outside, etc.
When people are unhappy with an employee/employer relationship, often both are negatively affected.   Music ministry is ministry - whether a person is on staff or not.
I hope and trust that, along with the conversations you have already had with this person, you have asked them, "Are you happy in your job?"   Of course you have to hold them, with a reasonable amount of strictness, to the job description - I am not talking about "spoiling" them, here.  But there may be some things they are dealing with that you've not been told of.  That does not mean you have to keep them on staff.  But I do think that, depending on your relationship with the pastor, you may wish to consult him/her first.   Perhaps prayer would be a consideration for all involved.  Personally, when I have to "bring bad news", I ask for Divine Guidance/Support in finding the best words!  (On my own, I might stumble..  ;)
When you say, "Trust me.", we do - but we don't have any idea what you are referring to... Does your soloist sing flat?  Fail to show up?  Not blend with the choir?  Disrespect you?  Not prepare music?   Smell badly because they fail to bathe?  Curse during rehearsal?  I certainly would not ask you to share this information - it's quite personal, especially for such a public forum as Choralnet - I simply use these questions as examples of how reaching a soloist/section leader's job, and related issues, might be.
In some churches there is a Staff-Parish committee, or suchlike, but often soloist hiring/firing is at the sole discretion of the leading musician.    In your case, is it  written either way?  A group decision here might be safer.  Possibly, as part of the "paper trail" , there should be a short conversation, with someone - a minister, a choir officer - and a hard copy given to this person which lists the "infractions" by date, and the conversation you had  with the singer as to how they would be addressed.   This would especially be necessary in the case of the popular soloist, as Jay mentioned.  Get the soloist's signature on it, and be sure that all [pastor, choir officer] have a copy, including the soloist.  If he/she has a grievance, allow them to write and attach between one sentence and 2 paragraphs.  This is also common practice in work and education environments.
How confident are your volunteer choir members?  Will they all be relieved to see this person dismissed, or might some think  "Gee, if __was  dissmissed, will they eventually kick me out?"  (This may sound crazy, but in a few cases, I have seen choir members and church members react this way.)  It might be wise to say, afterward, "We discussed ____'s contribution here, and the committee and I decided to end the employment relationship.  We continue to appreciate all that you do for us each week - in rehearsal, and in  Worship."
Assuming all the preparation is in place, and that you/the pastor/the choir/the church  have made reasonable effort to support any seriously difficult issues, and that you have given the singer ample time  - I would say 3 months - to address and improve the situation, then I would ask to speak with them privately.  Please do not handle this by phone or email!  First ask/ascertain whether they have any of the equipment/sheet music at home/in their vehicle, etc.  Tell them that you need all that back within a week.   If you are concerned, get that in writing.  Then, be honest.  If you appreciate some aspects of their effort, say so.  Continue with, "Unfortunately, ____have not been addressed adequately/in a timely manner, and we have to let you go."  If you wish, follow up with words of career support, such as "Have you considered taking piano/voice/sight-singing lessons from ___ [ local well-respected teacher] ?"
Rise and gently escort them to the door, as you wish them the best in all their endeavors.  If they react immaturely  - cry, rant, make threats, etc. - you can rest assured that you have already
"done your homework" and that others in the community will support your decision.
on January 1, 2014 5:09am
Lucy - Perhaps my point wasn't well-made.  Let me try again.  A young singer/instrumentalist/soloist has many things to learn beyond the issues of technique, etc., and so there are some allowances (within reason) that can be made for them as they become truly professional in the fullest sense - not merely technically, but in their behaviors, etc.  (I am dealing with exactly these concerns and teaching points at my own situation, but I am fortunate in that the younger people involved have the right attitude to make the necessary adjustments and movements forward in their professional development.)  My point about the 40-ish or more "professional" is that, by that age, they should have acquired the full range of professional behaviors - there is so much little less room for allowances that, that's what I meant by their future is NOW.  All the various points you and others have made are excellent, and they are all legally and managerially sound practices to protect both musical leader and church from further legal or administrative actions.  I would go so far as to say that they are necessary from a humane standpoint.  However, fundamental to the entire discussion is the question of professional behaviors that, if the individual has reached a certain chronological point in their life (with an assumption of the life skills that come with age), should have been acquired and are clearly not being demonstrated.  All of your comment considered, that concern is the basis for discussion with this soloist.
Chantez bien!
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on January 1, 2014 10:33am
Thanks, Ron, for the clarification.  I agree about the basic "personal/professional maturity" behaviors you are referring to.
My response was, perhaps, a bit too affected by having heard 1 or 2  choral directors make comments, indicating that singers (particulary post-pausal sopranos) are "washed up" as to their careers, after a certain age.   I just didn't want to risk that some readers might misinterpret, and that stereotype might find itself floating about.  Obviously, we have all seen cases where successful older singers clearly disprove that.
Based on L. Pike's description, I really saw no specifics as to whether the issue(s) were largely musical, or behavioral, or both.
Happy New Year!
on January 1, 2014 9:56am
Lots of really good advice here. And I love that it seems to be a given (as it should be) that especially in church work we need to consider both the musical and the interpersonal sides of things, even where paid professionals are concerned.
Your initial post made it sound as though the issue were behavioral rather than musical, though you didn't I'm responding in that vein.
The only thing I'd add/offer: the couple of times I've found myself in this situation (erm...more than a couple, as I think of it), the approach that's seemed to work has been to sit down with the person and say something to the effect of, "We need to sit down and talk about the parameters of your position and what's expected of section leaders/cantors/soloists/etc in this parish. In the past year or two (or whatever, pick a date since the issues started happening) the musical leadership has been moving in a direction of (again, pick something applicable to your situation), and it feels as though we're not on the same page on that. So I've tried to write down here the overall expectations and what needs to happen in your ministry here, and I'd like to go over them with you." Then I've gone through the list, not in terms of what the person hasn't been doing, but what they are expected to do, but clearly in terms of whatever has been problematic. ("The pre-service warmup for all services begins at twenty minutes till service time, and everyone is expected to be there on time for ALL services." "All cantors are responsible for knowing their own music fluently, or at least for requesting time with the DM at least a week ahead of whenever a piece is needed to request help." "All service music will be sung in the keys as written; transposition for the comfort of the cantor can take the music into ranges uncomfortable for the congregation") (Yes, I had that one once. We had a woman would bully my poor sweet elderly organist into taking things maybe a fourth lower than written because she didn't like singing in the printed keys early in the morning.) 
I'd then ask the person in question, "How does this sound? Do you think you can do this?" and give them the choice whether they wanted to continue or not; a couple of times I got a definite, "No, no thank you, I'd prefer to step aside and no longer work in this capacity." (Though not always so nicely phrased, and one of those times resulted in the same person going out telling everyone I fired her, so ditto what was said above about personalities!) If they said yes, I gave them a copy of the document I'd put together and suggested that we meet and talk again in 3 or 6 or whatever months to see how things were going. I think in one case the person stepped up and everything worked great; in others, they usually quit on their own before the period was up because they didn't like the extra work I was requiring. And regardless, I kept a paper trail from that point forward.
Essentially, though the words "probation" or "three strikes and you're out" or similar language were never used, that's what I did and what was pretty clear to everyone. But it left most of the decision-making in the hands of the musician in question, because the expectations were crystal clear, and they could choose whether to meet them or not.
Hope that helps...
p.s. goes without saying, I suppose, that you need the support of the pastoral staff before embarking on anything like this.
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on January 3, 2014 5:17pm
Can 'em.
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