I was about 26 when I realized that sopranos were considered dispensable.
I had recently moved back to my hometown after earning my Masters degree. At that church, one of the other soprano section leaders was someone I looked up to. She had fantastic technique, a family, maintained an active performing and teaching career, and had a PhD from Yale to boot.
The conductor at this church was, well, less qualified.
Less than a year after I had started, the conductor fired the singer, much to my dismay, the dismay of many in the choir as well as many members of the congregation that had come to love her over the course of many years. Why was she let go? The conductor told her that she had too many opinions that clashed with his own. In other words, she offered up too many suggestions in rehearsal for his taste. I failed to see how this could be interpreted any other way save as an insecure, petty boss getting rid of a high performer because he perceived her expertise and ideas as challenges to his authority.
And that made me wonder. What, then, was the point of my continuing to educate myself and gain experience? I had assumed that, the older I got, the more I would be able to add value as a performer and a colleague. Were my peak choral singing days behind me, when I was a child who internalized instructions without question, engaged in hero worship of my teachers and whose highest motivation was to make no mistakes? Ever since that moment, I’ve felt there was a ticking timer following me in every professional singing gig I signed on to. How long would I be able to squeeze myself into a way of being I had long outgrown? How long would I be able to deny that I wanted to be treated like a professional, a colleague? I had been lucky over the course of my career to have positive experiences with certain choirs and conductors, but increasingly it felt like trying to find consistently respectful, let alone supportive, environments in which to make music was like looking for a needle in a hay stack.
Recently, I joined a choir after moving to a new city. While the conductor seemed nice at first, I noticed immediately that he tended to yell at volunteers during rehearsal quite frequently. Not only that, but he was not a terribly strong conductor. Many of the things he would blame others for were in fact due to his inability to show cues correctly.
Towards the beginning of the coronavirus, after three months where I had not been singing due to fear of infection, I returned, somewhat reluctantly, to the church. From the moment I set foot in the building, the conductor picked me out as someone to hassle. He mocked the idea of wearing masks in the church. He told me I wasn’t singing loudly enough. Later, rather than give me an opportunity to correct a simple mistake, he reamed me out in front of my colleagues, questioning whether I had ever sung the piece we were performing, or whether I had bothered to practice it (the answer to both of those questions was yes).
This was not the first time that I had been spoken to like that by a conductor, nor was it the first time that I had witnessed someone else being spoken to like that in a rehearsal. Generally, myself or other fellow singers would console the affected person after the incident, giving tons of free passes to the conductor for their behavior because, well, what else could we do?
“It’s just how he gets.”
“Don’t worry about it, everyone makes mistakes.”
“He did that to me last month.”
This time, however, was different. This time, I spoke up.
“When you speak to me that way, I get upset and it makes it difficult for me to correct my mistake,” I said, my voice shaking somewhat.
He looked shocked, and tried to pick a fight with me. I stood my ground and went on to sing perfectly during the service.
I walked out of that church and haven’t set foot in one since.
Coronavirus has exposed so many hidden power dynamics that we’ve all made our peace with in various ways, and this is one is no exception. Conductors rule the roost. There is no HR department, no independent source to appeal to. Clergy and administrators can occasionally be helpful, but even in those instances where they do become involved, there are often conductors who slip through the cracks and go on to create cruel professional environments wherever they go.
And why does this persist? There are many reasons, some of it having to do with the (predominantly male) cults of personality and perceived genius that have long ruled the music world. Partly, it's because of competition: in this world, one with too many talented singers and not enough slots to fill, the door is opened to insincere flattery, favors, special and horrible treatment, an overwhelming sense of insecurity. Partly, it’s because of budget: churches and arts organizations are constantly operating in an austerity cycle, and it’s very difficult to find conductors who will take on the mammoth job, in the case of churches, of playing the organ, planning music every week, managing payroll for musicians and conducting, sometimes anywhere from one to three ensembles, often comprised of singers of a variety of different ages, skill levels and needs. The pressures put on conductors are enormous and the support can be slim. Some deal with it more professionally than others. I would proffer that the way this system is currently set up can hurt conductors as much as it can hurt the musicians that perform with them.
Part of it, and the only part of it that I feel as though I can start to address, is the culture of silence that surrounds these kinds of abuses. That needs to stop.
There are so many other values involved in music: cooperation, community, the sense that the whole is both so much greater than and inextricably linked to its parts. My favorite conductors and ensembles run on a sense of mutual trust, a desire to support one another, to embrace humanity, differences, and mistakes as part of great music making, not anathema to it. What can we do to embrace and actively promote that kind of music making?