Are You Jealous?
A recent article in the Journal of the American Guild of Organists purported, on a very small sample size, that survey results showed that “volunteer” choirs could only be saved by having professional singers as the choir’s core…
On the other hand, some churches in Nashville are known as “musician’s churches” because so many pros attend their services…
Back in your real world, at one time or another, I’ll bet you’ve thought to yourself, “I wish I had some better singers in my choir.” And the next thought might have been, “I’m jealous of “that big ol’ church x” who has a paid quar-/sex-/octet of soloists. That would make my life easier.”
Not so fast there skippy…
Professional singers, like most creatives, are different than amateurs (and I use that last term in the best, most correct sense of the word…look it up…) And by the way, a lot of what I’m going to talk about applies to professional players in your band, lest you think I’m playing favorites or have no experience in that regard.
In my experience, pro singers join an ensemble for a number of reasons. Most are altruistic, but some are egotistic:
- to keep the instrument in shape
- to work on sightreading
- to network with other singers and/or directors for potential employment or audience
- to participate because of the choir’s mission or repertoire
- to be a part of an ensemble that feeds them musically
- to be a “star” in another venue
The most important thing to remember, though, is if you’ve got a pro in your ensemble, you will, in most cases, need to treat them differently.
If a pro shows up at your rehearsal, they’ve thought about it beforehand. This is not a drop-in “lookyloo” situation unless the pro has just moved to town.
Rule #1: Until you learn differently, treat them like any other ensemble member, only more so.
They will let you know if they want to be a star very quickly. Otherwise they are there to sing (or play), just like anyone else. Don’t fawn over them during the rehearsal unless they’ve shown you they want that kind of treatment, and you’ve decided it is worth it. Don’t ignore their talent, because it won’t take very long for everyone in the room to figure out how good the pro is.
Here’s the good news/bad news situation. If they plop down in one of your rehearsals, they will lead by example. A pro can make your choir or worship team better musically just by sitting there, because they will set standards for those around them just by being a pro. They can also lead an ensemble into “me me me” chaos just as quickly.
Rule # 2: Communicate with the pro as soon as possible to figure out what they want from the experience of being in your ensemble.
This conversation should be outside rehearsal, and preferably private. Set some ground rules, if necessary, or find out if they’d like to help in a more visible way. Figure out if they want all the solos, and whether or not they will only be at rehearsal when they’re not working someplace else. Decide what you want from having the pro there, and whether you think the benefits outweigh any issues.
Having pros will have an impact on the repertoire you can tackle and successfully accomplish with your ensemble. It will probably mean your group will learn the music faster.
Rule #3: You need to keep your pros engaged, musically speaking.
If your repertoire is not challenging or your rehearsals are boring and don’t accomplish anything, expect to see an empty chair fairly quickly.
Some directors handle this problem with their own egos: they keep the pro by putting the pro out front as often as possible. In my opinion, that’s a slippery slope which can lead to jealousy on the part of other ensemble members, and push back from your congregation. This is a particularly delicate issue if you’ve got more than one pro. Who’s on first can be a real problem both for the egos of the pros and the music you select.
Another tactic is to ask the pro to help mentor the ensemble (or a section of it) in an intentional way. Let the pro do a low-key masterclass, or offer private lessons (for pay, of course).
Ultimately, though, everybody wins by stretching the ensemble’s repertoire in order to keep the pro engaged. It becomes an opportunity for everybody to get better, and the pro may just know a few friends who will be more interested in joining your group. Now there’s something to get excited about, right?
Do you have any words of wisdom to add? I’m interested in knowing what you think or what has worked for you. Please leave a comment.
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