“Every artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The word amateur is taken from Old French and means ‘lover’. Many definitions of the word speak of doing something for pleasure and most of us, I am sure, became choral conductors because we found pleasure in singing or leading singing. Is it the other definition of amateur we are really afraid of? How many of us have ceased finding pleasure in music and are just plain cranky? Is that what being a professional means? And why is it so important to be referred to as “professional?” We all have worked with people who feel they are the professional but who behave any way but professionally.
A friend of mine recently brought up an experience she had in grad school. She attended a Roman Catholic university and had a church job to supplement her tuition loans. One year, Easter was quite early and her elite choral group had a concert the next week. Their conductor arranged to have the first orchestral rehearsal on Holy Thursday, from 5 to 7 pm and arranged it only a few weeks before. He didn’t ask any of his singers if they were available. He just did it, declaring it a mandatory rehearsal. Several singers in addition to my friend also had church jobs and could not attend that rehearsal and told him so as soon as they realized the conflict. The conductor was livid, went to the Dean who threatened to throw them all out of school if they didn’t attend that rehearsal. The conductor also called them–which is why my friend brought this up–“unprofessional”. Now this was a Roman Catholic university and Holy Thursday is quite a big deal in the Roman Catholic Church if memory serves, and the singers let him know they would be unable to attend in a timely fashion. But this conductor, who should have known church musicians earning money to go to school would be busy on a Big Deal for the Roman Catholic Church, called them unprofessional. All of them arranged for substitutes at their churches, but how silly is that? Another friend, a retired Music Ed professor, wondered what kind of an example the conductor set for his students. It’s okay to schedule–at the last minute mind you–a rehearsal when many in his ensemble might have a very predictable conflict? And then throw a temper tantrum? Is this a version of professional I don’t know about?
I tootle along in the local music world, trying to be professional. My singers will tell you they have rarely seen me upset in rehearsal, even working with some difficult people. I may have a hissy fit later or in the privacy of my own home but not in front of my singers during rehearsals, not in front of other musicians, not in public. And my working relationships with other arts organizations or other working musicians are cordial if not warm and fuzzy! But I have an acquaintance who brags every chance she gets she is more of a professional than I. She’s a fine accompanist and quite a good musician but she is a soprano, and every once in a while, she lets her “inner diva” fly. She’s the type to play that “diva card” quite often and will scold me—in public—when she thinks I am not treating her with enough deference. I might not even be aware of whatever slight she thinks I made. I recommend her for jobs, talk her up and have even used her as a coach but something or somebody gets her in a kerfuffle and I am facing the firing squad. She complains to me often she doesn’t always get the jobs she wants and it’s “not fair.” But perhaps her supposed professional behavior is the reason.
To be a real professional, it is important we stay as current as possible in our profession. Joining professional organizations like ACDA and Chorus America as well as attending workshops, reading sessions and conferences keeps us on top of new trends and ideas about what we do. I 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.
Certain factors come in to play with professionalism and an amateur choir, beyond my control and theirs. One of those factors is voice–I look for certain things you may not be able to control, vibrato notwithstanding. Another is musicianship, and often it has nothing to do with your training or experience. And the last is attitude, and my instinct about how you would fit in to my group–Divas or Divos need not audition. In short, the quality of your voice and your ability to control it may be beyond what is controllable. Musicianship CAN be a result of training but many singers have instincts through experience or talent and that is beyond control. But ATTITUDE is within your control.
A good attitude is simply the ability to get along with your fellow singers and the director, being on time for rehearsals and not trying to take over. Being prepared for rehearsals, making good and honest suggestions and wanting the best for the GROUP, not for you as a rule, all are part of a good attitude. And not trying to find fault with the director or other singers–LOUDLY–in the middle of rehearsals!
I began including an interview portion of my auditions after our first concert cycle. I never saw it coming–all of the above–but when I thought about it, a chamber choir magnifies any “diva tendencies” which wouldn’t be noticed in a larger group. And sometimes, those tendencies blot out the good. During our first concert cycle, I had a terrible experience with a singer. Her husband taught music history at a local liberal arts college and she felt she shouldn’t have to sight read for little ol’ me. Because she was a good musician in other ways, I accepted her. She was a nightmare to work with and unreliable to boot. I decided there and then to interview everyone.
I really believe a chamber choir is a different animal from the usual large choral group. It is the attitude and not the musical ability I often am in a quandary over when it comes to making a decision about singers’ auditions. Many directors don’t care about dramas–I do, I want as drama-free a concert cycle as possible–but often it is hard to pick out a person with ‘drama’ as their middle name from an audition.
A chamber choir is more like a string quartet or other chamber ensemble, especially in the ‘getting along’ aspect. And because I believe that, my auditions are designed with that in mind. I vocalize a singer after talking a bit to relax them. I have them sing a patriotic song–I give them a choice of two–with and without vibrato and ask them to tell me which is which. I have them sight read a small portion of something we will be singing for that concert cycle and give them every chance to do well. Sometimes, I will sing a part with them–soprano, alto or tenor–if I have any doubts about them being able to hold their own. I interview them and they interview me. This part of the audition process is the most telling. And it’s more about what you CAN do in the future for me and not what you DID DO in the past for someone else.
Several years ago, I had a person with a very lovely voice audition for me. Unfortunately, I had to reject him and not for the reasons you think. His voice would be a great addition to our group, but his attitude was awful. He refused to go along with my simple audition procedure. With that singer, it was a question of his not being willing to do what I asked because he felt he was a “professional” and wasn’t so sure about me. He insisted on singing a prepared solo and not the patriotic song. He didn’t feel he should have to sight read and didn’t want to be interviewed. Surprisingly, he had no problem with interviewing me! It was with real regret I decided he wouldn’t be a good addition because his voice certainly would be. I didn’t want to have to fight with him or have him fight with my other singers–I could tell he would make us all miserable. I’m sure this fellow doesn’t understand why he didn’t make my chamber choir. But the very fact he probably doesn’t understand is the reason.
Many people, even those who are the supposed “professionals,” think it is the drama, making a scene and the last minute changes and the lack of schedules because their ensemble should be the only important thing in your life that makes you a “professional.” I believe it to be the opposite.
The true professionals in my life have been those who respect my time and theirs as well. It is not just letting musicians know a rehearsal schedule ahead of time which makes them professional, it shows they are organized and thinking ahead. We all have occasion to do things at the last minute or to be upset over something. But when it is always that way or appears to be that way, it is rather unsettling. And makes me wonder if they are as “professional” as they claim to be.