“Habits change into character.” Ovid
Many of us, especially in community-based programs, complain we don’t have enough singers to do the repertoire we really want to do. If we are a mixed group, we long for more tenors or baritones or basses but don’t seem to retain them when we get them. After years of being a huge group, our numbers become reduced and we wonder why. There is often a very simple explanation; it comes down to the current “culture” of our organization.
What do I mean by “culture?” I don’t mean what TYPE of choir it is, though whether it is a women’s chorus or men’s or children’s or school or church or a community chorus CAN influence its culture. What I am referring to is the unspoken acceptable behavior in your ensemble for both the singers and director.
We create our own distinctive culture whether we are aware of it or not. We hold auditions or open rehearsals every year, and then are not welcoming to the singers we said we wanted. We play favorites. We allow a select group to lead the organization, keeping us either mired in the past or grabbing onto any new trend or repertoire that comes along. And yet, we don’t think these behaviors affect our chorus.
If someone from the outside attended one of your rehearsals, what would they learn about the group, the singers and you as a director from what they would see or hear? Would they be able to pick out the choir leadership? Would they notice the “newbies” from the way they were treated? Could they tell who are your favorites and those singers who are not? And most importantly, would they be compelled to join your chorus after their visit?
Pam*, former board member of an auditioned community choral organization, contacted me recently wanting to share her story. This choral organization (the “Acme Chorus”*) calls itself the “premier choral group” in her community and that may be true. But it has also developed the reputation of being the most cliquish.
About 15 years ago, the Acme Chorus had 75 to 90 members, sang with local symphonies at least once a year, did a variety of repertoire and had a conductor who, while not the founding music director, shared her vision. Everything was going along very well and then, it wasn’t. Singers started dropping out and numbers dwindled to an unbalanced 30. They were not asked to sing with the symphonies any longer, except occasionally for the holiday programs and now are no longer asked to do those. They have had five different music directors in the last ten years and repertoire has been all over the map, from major choral works to Broadway medleys to 21st century oddities, sometimes all on the same concert. When I asked Pam what had happened, she told me there had been a complete board membership turnover.
This new board determined everything old was bad and everything new was good. This wasn’t hearsay; Pam tells me this was said aloud in many board meetings. They kept nothing that was clearly working in the organization, but started from scratch with their own theories. They decided it should be the board and not the music director who chose repertoire. They fired the music director as he was part of an older regime and then fired the subsequent ones when they didn’t like to be told what to do by the board. The present MD is not a choral conductor but a vocal coach and while a good musician, leans heavily on the board for help with repertoire and the board likes it that way.
Since this was a highly auditioned choir, they required at least two board members in addition to the music director to be present at every audition so the high quality would be maintained. Pam was part of several years’ worth of auditions and was horrified. Often, someone was vetoed by a board member simply because they didn’t like them. Pam fought for several singers to make it after auditions but in rehearsal others either snubbed them or were truly nasty so they would drop out.
Pam stuck it out until late last year. She could no longer tolerate the atmosphere in rehearsals, the cliquish behavior new singers were subjected to and the music director’s helplessness. She recently joined her community’s non-auditioned chorus. They may not be the “premier” group but she’s happier!
* Name withheld by request