A Choir is Not A Machine

I wrote this program note for Choral Chameleon's "Deus Ex Machina" concert, but it reflects something much broader which I consider to be true in choral music making: 

I have felt what I am about to write for years. I also understand why what I am about to write has happened in choral music. 

Too many musicians who are placed in charge of singers wield fear as a means of eliciting human sound. They treat people as though they are machines. The idea is that if enough fear is conjured and enough ultimatums are given, humans will go into “fight or flight” mode and desperately push themselves to meet demands. On the other hand, many conductors are blissfully unaware of what they do to their singers or they justify the action as being “in service of music.” 

My truth is that fear-mongering and intimidation have nothing to do with making music at all. 

In the great movie Whiplash, J.K. Simmons’ character has a profound line toward the end. He says: “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'Good job.'” This has been the view of music teachers at the collegiate and professional levels for generations before mine. There is a long-held belief that encouraging music students or telling them at any point that they have achieved a goal will stop them from working just as hard moving forward and will give them a false impression of what the “real world” will be like when it receives their musical offerings in the future. I remember, during my years in music school, thinking many times that there must be a way to cultivate high performance from musicians without cruelty, intimidation, or insult. In a way, I feel like I’ve been looking for it my whole career thus far. 

The root cause of this behavior in choral music is generations of symphonic chorus conductors, themselves, being mistreated or at least disregarded by their orchestral cohorts. Over time, this created a sense of desperation in them to ensure that a certain result would always be “guaranteed” and that whatever (usually off-base) requests the orchestra conductor would make could be translated into choral rehearsal language and delivered to the conductor in short order. This desperation made its way into the choral rehearsal room and was passed on to singers. As many of those reputable conductors made their way into schools to teach, they began to “protect” future generations by modeling the behaviors they experienced in the “real world” as a means of preparing their students for careers as such. 

Ironically, the organ, which has long been associated with choral music (let’s call it a first cousin), quite literally is a machine. However, when one hearkens to the sensitive playing of a true organist, the instrument begs us to listen for its very soul. Perhaps, in a way, this is why it is so empathetic with singers. I find the dichotomy fascinating and put it at the core of this concert. 

In short, human beings are not machines, but the organ is. The empathy between human voices singing and the kaleidoscopic sound of the organ evokes a deep sense of soul in both: each one lifting and celebrating the other. If the soul is the deepest part of us and is somehow connected to God, then we can indeed hear “God from the Machine” and remember something fundamental about life. 
May it be so.

Leave a comment