Choral Potpourri: Do No Harm
Date: March 9, 2016
“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” Hippocratic Oath
Last week, I mentioned speaking with nine people at the ACDA Central Conference about Choral Ethics. I spoke with all sorts of choral folk; Choir Moms, college professors, singers, students and conductors in all sorts of situations. Most of the people I talked with had opinions about what Choral Ethics means. Blogs about those will follow in the next few weeks. There were several running themes amongst the students I talked to. Today I will tackle what I believe was the most important.
I had a lovely coffee with two students from the same university; an undergrad singer/newbie conductor and a grad student instrumentalist who tagged along with her to this conference. Both loved their university, its music school and loved the programs they were now in. And both had had a similar, awful experience at their former universities.
Tessa*, the undergrad, transferred from another school because she felt it was toxic to her as a person. Tad*, the grad student instrumentalist, graduated from a music school (whose name was never mentioned and I don’t want to know!) which was “soul sucking” and said he stuck it out and graduated to spite his teacher. I asked why they felt the ways they did. Both were forth coming with their stories.
Tessa told me she had been courted by her former university, beginning her junior year of high school. She had been in All-State and ACDA Honors Choirs as soon as she was eligible and had studied voice at the local university, studying with a fairly famous pedagogue. When she got to university, her voice teacher, a new hire and low on the hierarchy, was wonderful. But other professors and conductors were far from it. They told her she would never amount to anything and berated her on a daily basis. Her talent, her weight and her intellect were called into question. She cried several hours every day. In the middle of her sophomore year, she dropped out when her voice teacher was fired. Her self-esteem was in shreds and went back home to lick her wounds and saw a therapist to recover. Tessa decided to take some time off and worked for a day care provider. She loved working with the little ones and decided to go back to school to become a children’s choir specialist.
Tad is a string player, beginning lessons at the age of four. He was in a nurturing environment as a child and adolescent, played in the requisite youth symphonies and was accepted into a fine music school. So it was a shock to suddenly be in a place where belittling and demeaning was an everyday occurrence. He was not corrected; he was bullied when he made a mistake. His teacher told him he didn’t have the talent to play in a real orchestra. It was funny because every summer of his undergrad career, he played in festival orchestras around the country. And if he didn’t do what his teacher thought he should be doing, was threatened with the revocation of his scholarships. It happened so frequently during his undergrad years, the threat lost its power to frighten him. He was told not to bother apply to grad school because he would never get in. Of course, he applied to five schools!
Tessa and Tad said they never realized how their former universities had changed them until recently. After always being told they were lacking, being encouraged was unnerving. But they soon realized they could relax and be themselves and concentrate on music, not being abused. They wonder why their former universities had such hateful atmospheres.
I didn’t have answers for them. In my own experience, some performing art instructors think it toughens students to berate and demean them. I also believe many teach the way they were taught in their own training, right or wrong. I don’t think being tough should mean being mean and nasty. Correcting a note or technique and not belittling a person corrects the problem at hand, it doesn’t cause more problems. Something to think about.