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Choral Potpourri: Choral Ethics and Being Mean

“The world's a mean place. It's unfair, then it's fair. It's hateful, then it's loving. It's a very peculiar place on philosophical and metaphysical and religious levels.” Tim Allen
Letters (emails), I get letters (emails). Many tell me about a problem and then expect me to take their side. Some crab, some tattle, some complain, some tell me their story and some “inform” me this whole Choral Ethics thing is silly. Maybe it is, but since I’ve been collecting stories, I have heard things which both horrify and amaze me, sometimes at the same time!
Tara* teaches at a small private university and directs one of their choruses. She tells me she is probably one of those people I get unflattering emails about. She says she may appear to be mean but assures me, she is never mean for meanness sake. She says she is mean because she has no choice. The only way she seems to gets done what is needed is to be consistent and firm and that is interpreted as being mean.
Tara conducts the non-auditioned university chorus which consists of all underclassmen music majors, singers and non-singers alike, and members of the university community. It’s a large sometimes unwieldy ensemble but she loves working with all those different types of singers in one group. In order to work with that many people, she has a few rules she on which she will not budge. That has gotten her the reputation for being mean. Most of the community members have been singing with her for years and Tara trusts them. But with over half the group consisting of music majors who have never sung in a chorus, she needs to have every one of them at every rehearsal. Because of the vast differences in abilities, especially with the music majors, the music department decided long before Tara arrived that the university chorus grades would use absences and tardys for guidelines.
Tara’s chorus meets once a week, with rehearsal in the evening. The music majors are expected to come to all rehearsals, with none excused except illness (with a note from Student Health Services) or the occasional evening religious service. It goes without saying they are expected to be on time. With a group of over 100 singers, Tara keeps track of tardys and absences for the music majors. One of her music major singers recently complained to the Dean of Students about her grade being lowered by a whole grade. The joke was on the student; the Dean of Students has been singing in that chorus for ten years and knows perfectly well what Tara’s requirements are. The student was not pleased to learn she would not have her grade changed. She called Tara mean and a few names not to be repeated here.
There is resentment for having to attend every rehearsal and she hears regularly how unreasonable she is. She used to be nice about it, saying she understood how difficult it must be getting to an evening rehearsal right after dinner or interrupting practicing or needing to relax or having time to catch up with friends and family or having a bad cold. Now, she has had years of complaints, of being called names, of being accused of ruining GPAs and is immune to the sob stories. She tells them to get to rehearsal. She tells them to be on time. She tells them to get a note from the nurse if they are truly ill. She tells them she doesn’t care what their deal is; this is part of the curriculum. She has been known to tell them to complain to the Dean or their private teacher, but has yet to hear back from these august personages.
*Name Withheld
on March 16, 2016 3:46am
The critical issue is support from administrators. My situation was almost identical to Tara's except in that regard. My administration took such complaints as gospel from a few students who blatantly and repeatedly defied my reasonable policies. The final result? Despite very evident success in terms of performance results, my ensembles were eliminated. Everyone lost...
on March 16, 2016 8:17am
I think one of the reasons the administration is suppportive in this situation is because many sing in the chorus,  understand what is expected and the dynamics. The mix of underclassmen and community members may not sound like a perfect mix (it didn't sound like it to me until I thought about it), but seems to have helped with policies being upheld. Sorry it didn't work in your situation. Sounds like they didn't want to understand your point of view.
on March 16, 2016 5:48am
Up to 2 percent of singing humanity is going to be nasty to us.  We have to think about the larger percent who love us no matter what.  Whenever and where ever I have a concert up to 2 percent of the people complain.  The complaints have always happened throughout my 30 years as a teacher at all levels K-12 in the same percentage range.  What has changed is the level of vitriol spouted by the complainers.  I frequently have to remind administrators that 2 percent of people would complain if I didn't have the students perform. I try to isolate myself from the nasties.  I will go a whole day without checking my email after a concert just to enjoy it for a while.  Then I fully expect to find those few emails and respond with the same type of caring response I always give. 
My solution is to give a unique alternative assignment. Student must make a video of them singing their part along with the video of the concert performance for an audience of three or more. Then they must share it with me.  My attendance peaked when I implemented this by double digits.  It doesn't stop the complaints but it does take me out of the business of deciding what is a legitimate excuse. No one wants to be judged. Whether it is for religious, sports, illness or inconvenience I am no longer the judge of their absence. If they had a true emergency they can just turn the video in a little late.   Most of the students whose parents complain do not want to sing by themselves. Most parents would rather bring the student to the concert than have to spend time setting up the video.  I'm not sure this would help Tara  at the college level, but at least, for me, it encourages the student to perform even though their parents wouldn't let them come to the concert.  At the high school level I would require the video audience to be three or more adults. 
The students who have chosen to do the alternate performance assignment have really enjoyed it.  Proud parents have posted the videos to Facebook and YouTube. I get to see some students perform in other settings with adoring younger siblings smiling.   It is an all around win.
on March 16, 2016 8:22am
I like your solution.  Not sure it would work for this situation but something which could be tried if need be. 
I also LOVE you not reading your emails until a day or so AFTER your kids call those type of responses to a successful concert as *buzz kill*. Why ruin successful post-concert feelings with crabby folks until you have to? Bravo, Jack!
on March 16, 2016 4:03pm
What a concept----grades must be earned!  Sounds like the "music major singer" in the next-to-last paragraph is the mean one........and probably needs to change her major or reconsider college altogether.   Why would one become a music major then not attend rehearsals regularly?  This sounds like a model university program: the department policy has been in place for years, the Dean and other administrators support Tara (and sing in the choir), and the program and staff have high, "real world" expectations.  The only aspect I would question is why the university tolerates students calling teachers "names not to be repeated here".  Such children and their parents should be given one warning and then dismissed from the university, and this policy ought to plainly stated to prospective students before enrollment. 
on March 16, 2016 4:26pm
Not sure what names she was called....who knows?........and I agree, the fact she was called names she didn't want repeated (and I don't know what she was called, she told me she was called something *ugly*) is unsettling. I would not hesitate to get the student disciplined in some way and perhaps she was.  Always something, isn't it?