Choral Elitism Part II – What is Success?

I wrote the blog Choral Elitism – It’s Real in 2018. Since then, it has been accessed nearly 50,000 times in 100 countries. The topic has struck a nerve with our profession. I recognize the article’s reach has much more to do with a widespread recognition of the problem than scholarly writing. Nonetheless, I am incredibly grateful that so many healthy conversations have been had around what we can do to help the music world become a more loving and beautiful place.

Self-Reflection and Evaluation

Like many, living through a global pandemic has made me closely examine my life and profession. While this past year has been one of the most stressful and grief-filled of my life, it has also presented some unexpected gifts. For the first time in my career, I have been able to step away from the grind and more deeply investigate my relationship with the field of music education.

A teaching career has meant graciously accepting a life of selflessness. There is no greater joy than observing our students learn and grow. Music educators play an essential role in helping to shape young people who go on and help make the world a better place. This humbling responsibility makes me take my job very seriously and has led to an incredibly enriching life.

Despite being fed by the benevolence and nobility of the service aspects of the profession, I often find myself looking inward. I question whether I am making a substantial enough difference in the lives of my students. How is it that we should think of teacher “success” in music education? I consider this to be a stand-alone article but reading my original piece on choral elitism may provide richer context for these reflections. My thoughts are posited through the lens of my experience as a high school choir director, but I would encourage contemplation from all areas of the field.

Can success be measured?

Let’s dive into subjectivity right off the bat. In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes! Success can be measured, but bear in mind that the rubric varies drastically from one program to the next. And the director is often the only one in a good position to evaluate. Some of my most tremendous successes as a choir director wouldn’t seem like much to an outside observer who watched a single rehearsal or performance.

One of many personal examples involves my 9th grade tenor-bass chorus. Each year, this non-auditioned ensemble contains numerous students with no singing experience. Often, up to a third of the group can’t match pitch consistently when the school year begins. It can take months of creative pedagogy, differentiation, peer mentoring, modeling, and sheer tenacity to get the entire group to sing a healthy, in-tune, unison pitch. No one besides the teacher could be able to measure the incredible effort it took to make something like that happen.

We need to keep that in mind when we attempt to place a measuring stick upon someone else’s success. When we watch a performance of a colleague’s ensemble, we usually have no awareness of that group’s starting point. A choir perceived as mediocre may have exhibited much more growth than one that received straight superior ratings. A virtue in music education is that we strive for perfection, even though it can never be achieved. To me, that makes growth much more important than surface-level measurements of success.

What About My Degree(s)?

I will preface this by acknowledging that earning any degree should be applauded. Years of hard work and commitment are required to complete an undergraduate or graduate program of study. Having just been accepted into a doctoral program myself, I can already see the years of hard work ahead of me. College music programs fill many wonderful needs and inspire many along their journey into music education. All of that said, I don’t believe the level of degree, or from which institution(s), should factor into an evaluation of a teacher’s success. No amount of training automatically equates to lasting contribution to a career field.

There are issues of equity to consider. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation college students are far less likely to earn a college degree (Ketaldi et al., 2018). The biggest reason is socioeconomic status, but they also don’t have the advantage of parents with firsthand college experience to help guide them through the process. The study also found a discrepancy with terminal programs. Of those who completed undergraduate studies, first-generation students were half as likely to enter a doctoral degree.

It is a problem if folks are considered as “elite” in our profession just because of the degree(s) they have earned. Teachers with less privileged backgrounds should be given equal opportunities to shine in the field of music. While many teachers with doctorates are talented, I propose that thousands of Bachelor and Master level directors are contributing just as much or more to our artform. I am thrilled there has been an effort to uplift women and BIPOC, but concerned that DMAs and PhDs continue to dominate the conference clinic and guest conducting landscape in the United States. It makes me wonder, how many incredible artists are we missing out on when we place so much weight on those three letters? In my opinion, our profession places way too much emphasis on which level of degree has been earned.

A caveat, I hold a lot of privilege as a white cisgender male. My personal experience in no way qualifies me to speak on behalf of marginalized communities. The inequities in higher education run deeper than music and this facet alone is worthy of its own research and discussion.

What About the Level I Teach?

Does the level I teach make me more successful? No. There is a paradox to explore here. The American education system is structured hierarchically, but music is not. Music belongs to all people and cultures around the world. Chris Munce (2019) talked about this on one of his podcasts. Because most conductors and teachers make their living within the education system, a false system of ranking has been created. Collegiate educators are perceived to be at the top, followed by high school directors, then middle school teachers, and way at the bottom are elementary and pre-school teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Music education should be looked at as an ecosystem. Lakes are no more important than rivers, mountains are no more important than plains, and forests are no more important than deserts. They all serve in substantial ways. If one were to cease from existence, it would be detrimental to all other areas. The same is true of music. There are expert teachers at all levels, each fulfilling a vital role in making the world a better place through music.

What About Achievement?

As an Enneagram 3-wing-4, I can’t escape the fact that achievement will always be an influence in my career life. I have struggled greatly with how this deeply engrained personality type fits with my work as an educator. My priority has always been to put the students first with everything we do, with the deepest learning occurring in the classroom, not the stage. That said, in preparing my choirs for National and Regional ACDA performances and international competition, I have seen the value of spending months preparing for high-pressure concerts. Setting goals with innate risk can stretch the students beyond what they thought possible.

I am unapologetically proud of what my students have accomplished. However, I also recognize that this makes me no more special than other teachers. There are many choral programs in which an ACDA performance or winning a competition would have no value whatsoever. What about the educator who decides to dedicate their career to work at a historically unsupported Title 1 school? They know full well that the structures are not in place to ever perform at a music conference. Are they less successful? How about the one who dedicates 40 years as a choral director for 5-year-olds? Or the community college director who develops prison ensembles? Or the middle school director who sacrifices their lunch period so more students can be involved in music. Every one of us knows one of these amazing people. If you don’t, you are probably one of them!

Should We Celebrate Our Successes?

Yes! Unapologetically yes! We need more goodness shared. In addition, I would challenge us all to widen our lens with how we view success. Is an ensemble that beautifully executes difficult repertoire successful? Yes! Is a choir that moves from unison at the beginning of the year to mastering a two or three-part octavo later in the year successful? Yes! Is a single life changed for the better because of music study a success? Yes!

We need to open the door to more celebration. Many people avoid posting performances or anything else related to their teaching because of fear. Maybe my performance isn’t good enough. Maybe the thing I’m excited about sharing won’t be viewed as a success by others. There is a reason we have those fears. At some point, the elitism in our profession “set us straight.” Whether it was said aloud or simply felt, we learned to fear judgement. We allowed comparison to take over. 

Look Inward

Brené Brown (2015) said “Stay in your own lane. Comparison kills creativity and joy.” (p. 195) We can eradicate the toxicity of comparison in our field by being supportive of one another. Truly supportive. If you are bothered by someone posting a celebration on social media for example, consider looking inward at what is causing that trigger. Chances are you have been a victim of elitism and that micro-trauma is manifesting itself into feelings of comparison, envy, jealousy, resentment, scarcity, fear, or shame. Perhaps just reading the previous sentence has stirred up some of those feelings. I am confident speaking on this because I have been guilty many times. For me, therapy has been an important tool for working through those thoughts. For others, it might be intentional self-reflection. Either way, internal work is vulnerable and takes commitment. 


Is it arrogant or self-centered to recognize our own success or that of our colleagues? I don’t think so. In fact, it is vital. Teaching is extremely difficult. Why do so many leave the profession before the five-year point? Whether you name it compassion fatigue, difficulty dealing with parents, toxic colleagues, or answering to an unsupportive administration, I think it all points back to feeling like what we do is not valued. If we create space to recognize success and worth in ourselves and our work, we will feel more valued, and we can thrive! Whether your tenor-bass chorus finally matches a pitch or Joey finally shows up to the concert on time, you are a success. Keep changing the world and thrive!


Brown, B. (2015) Rising Strong. Spiegel & Grau.

Kataldi, E. F., Bennett, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018). First-Generation Students College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes. National Center for Education Statistics: Stats in Brief2018(421), 1-31.

Munce, C. (Host). (2019, June 27). Choral Snobbery? (No. 13) [Audio podcast episode]. In Choralosophy Podcast. Chris Munce.

Let’s Get Real: Creating a Culture of Vulnerability in Choir

In a public conference address a number of years ago, the now late Weston Noble shared about what he felt was the greatest attribute of an outstanding choral director. In a discussion prior, his interviewer stopped him while he was searching for the right answer to a question, “Are you trying to say vulnerability?” he asked. The word vulnerability rang through Weston’s entire body. Weston described how he knew it was right even though he didn’t know why. The openness to feel and release emotions, as well as the openness to make mistakes and admit to them. Though he lived through many years of not putting his finger on the right word, vulnerability became Weston Noble’s lifelong journey. He stated, “I want to take my singers to a level of emotional and spiritual vulnerability they simply could not achieve on their own. The music is the vehicle through which I want to show singers more about themselves.”

What is Vulnerability? 

We have heard this word a lot in modern culture and thus there are many different ideas of what it means. Webster defines vulnerability as being “capable of or susceptible to being hurt” as well as “open to criticism.” Because vulnerability is a completely universal experience, that shows up in so many different ways, there is more present in that word than a straight forward, black and white description in a dictionary. So much so, that world renowned researcher and psychologist Dr. Brené Brown has made it her life’s mission to research the uncomfortable experiences of life known as vulnerability and shame. She describes it a bit more eloquently: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful lives, vulnerability is the path.” She also defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” How about for us as artists? Well, she has thought about us as well. “To put our art out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation – that’s vulnerability.”

Vulnerability and Singing

As musicians, we all create vulnerable things. In the choral field, what we often do is put on armor as a way of protecting ourselves from being judged. I believe that our role as teachers and mentors is to work to shed that armor and help our students overcome that tendency as well. Why is it important for singers to shed the armor and access vulnerability? I think many of us can agree that by nature, singing is one of the most vulnerable activities we can do. We create sound from with inside our bodies. As a singer who is also an instrumentalist, I am careful how I say this, but I believe there something even more personal about sharing our voices than playing an instrument. Because singers create sound 100% biologically, the sounds we make are closely tied with who we are as a human beings. Not only do choral musicians have to build up the courage to make sound with others, but we have to share it with the world. We put it out there without any assurance of acceptance or appreciation. Students need to understand that laying it on the line can and will result in some failure. The judgement and criticism will likely be there and their performance may not be met with praise.

The vulnerability factor is even more sensitive with boys as it relates to singing. All of their lives, society teaches them that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. They hear things like “Don’t cry.” “Suck it up.” and “Be a man.” It’s no secret that singing is a vulnerable activity, so already there is a subconscious connection between vulnerability and emotion with choir. Rightly so, as emotion is such an integral part of impactful artistic creation. The problem is that boys recognize this correlation before even entering a choir room, and thereby decide that because “choir equals emotion,” then certainly “choir must be weak.” I believe these negative stereotypes should be addressed. Talk to them about the fact that it’s courageous that they are there. This is a wonderful opportunity to show young men how being vulnerable in this way helps people realize their most authentic selves. There is nothing weak about being an authentic human being in a world that pressures us to be like others. In fact, it’s nothing short of courageous.

The Culture Begins with You

I believe the most important thing choral directors can do to encourage the development of vulnerability in a choir, is to be vulnerable themselves. Share things about yourself and freely talk about difficult things. Obviously, don’t share about the divorce you’re going through, etc. but there are plenty of opportunities to allow the students to connect with you on a deeper level. One example is I’ve personally shared with my students was about my negative experience in high school. I grew up in a very small town in which sports reigned supreme. Music was what I loved most in life, but I wasn’t able to realize that due to the pressure to play sports. It wasn’t something that was told to me, but it was something that I knew. I felt it. I had to play sports to compensate for being a musician and to be a part of the accepted social group. I was not a music major when I started college. It was all my parents could do to get me to sign up for the “y’all come and sing” choir at the university. I begrudgingly signed up. Thankfully, after meeting so many students who were unapologetically passionate about music and singing, I began to become comfortable with my authentic self. Finally, at the age of 18, I was able to truly discover my passion for music and not be apologetic about it. I became a music major the 2nd semester of my freshman year and entered this wonderful field. My life goal as a teacher is to make sure that my students don’t have the experience that I had. I want them to feel PROUD to be in choir! Being authentic and sharing this about myself has had a strong impact on my students.

Modeling and Developing Vulnerability

  1. Think about who you are as person and be true to who you are. Be the very best possible version of you. Whenever I attend music conferences and watch experts in my field talk about how they teach and conduct, I am inspired. However, I often leave those conferences questioning myself. Maybe my teaching personality needs to be more like this person, or perhaps I should adopt this set of philosophies because this person is so successful. What I’ve found, however, is that trying to be like someone else gets in the way of accessing our own gifts and talents. As soon as I began the journey of realizing my own value is when success and happiness started to come my way. And for those of you who work with teenagers, you’ve probably realized that they can sniff out inauthenticity in a second, so you may as well be yourself!
  2. Be free with your emotions. Music is emotional. If students are expected to lay it on the line in rehearsal and performance, this is a way for them to know that that’s ok. If they see that you are not afraid to be vulnerable in this way, they will follow suit.
  3. Share WHY a piece of music is important/special to you. We request that students buy in to an art form they know little about. That’s already a tall task. If we can share something that AUTHENTICALLY connects us to the music or the text of a piece they will connect. If you are performing a Sara Teasdale text about loss, perhaps talk about a personal story and how you overcame it. What an opportunity to teach about life!
  4. If you or a student are being affected by a piece of music or a current event, stop and talk about it. Rehearsal can always wait! If there is an opportunity for a powerful moment or beautiful discussion, don’t pass it up. Always take advantage of those moments. I’ll share one such example. It was the day after the Parkland shooting in Florida. It was not long before our concert, so the temptation was to rehearse. A student suggested we sing Jake Runestad’s “Let My Love Be Heard” as an offering to those victims. We stood in a circle, grasped hands, and sang. Of course, everyone in the room was an emotional mess at the end. Although there were 45 minutes of class left, there was no way there was going to be a meaningful rehearsal. We took the rest of class having the students share how they were feeling. There were tears, there was anger, there was despair, there was hopelessness. But, there was also healing. The choir room was a safe place for them to have a platform to be vulnerable with their feelings in this way.
  5. Make sure the students always know how much you care for them. LOVE is the word here. Everyone wants to be in a group that performs well, but being accepted is what students want and need most in a music ensemble. Provide affirmation at every opportunity. Each student should feel he/she is the director’s biggest fan. They should feel like, no matter what, there is always going to be a place for me in this group. This creates safety for students to explore their authentic selves in a vulnerable way.
  6. Examine where you are on the spectrum of Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving. Perfectionism fuels this thought that, “if I do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.” Healthy striving is self-focused, i.e. “How can I improve? Perfectionism is other- focused, i.e. “What will they think?” While the word perfectionism certainly “sounds” like a virtue of dedication, it can put students under a lot of pressure. They can develop an unhealthy fear of making mistakes, the fear of being criticized, the fear of rejection and judgement. It creates an environment in which vulnerability cannot thrive.
  7. Encourage vulnerability through activities and team building. We do choir related skits at our retreats every year. The only parameters they are given is the topic needs to be choir related. In addition to forcing the kiddos into a vulnerable place right off the bat, they are hilarious! They usually use it as a platform to make fun of their director. We also do an activity base around fear. Students write down their greatest fears. These are shared anonymously with the class. Almost every time we’ve done this, the common thread that comes out of this is fear of being judged or criticized in front of their peers. Vulnerability, essentially. Realizing this common fear helps break down those walls and they become more comfortable being their true authentic selves.

Singing Benefits

Vulnerability isn’t purely for the emotional well being of the choir. There are direct correlations with how they sound. If the students feel like they need to be careful with who they are in the classroom, their sound will be “careful.” If the students are emotionally free, the choir can more easily achieve a “free” sound. It goes back to how and where the sound is created. As I mentioned before, because the sound is created biologically, it is so closely tied with who we are as human beings. Become a more “free” human being will create a more free choral musician.

A few final words from Weston about this…“I want to be unifying and catalytic, drawing a desire from each singer to be more than they ever could be as individuals, willing to embrace the community of the choral ensemble. I want to become more of who we already are but often hide to others. I want to express the freedom that comes in authentic expression of the body, soul, and spirit—and that freedom found in the choral community experience is a treasure beyond compare.” 

We have been given the opportunity as choral directors to not only inspire people to be better musicians, but equip them for the rest of their lives. Let’s do all we can to help our singers become more loving, vulnerable, and truly authentic human beings.

Perfectionism Leads to Everything but Perfection

Perfectionism leads to everything but Perfection 

The struggles of preparing for a pressure filled performance

In looking back at a decade of being a high school choir director, the 2016-2017 academic year was perhaps the busiest and most pressure filled stretch of my professional career. I had the wonderful privilege of preparing my high school youngsters for a performance at the 2017 National ACDA Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Early in my career, I quickly learned that a National ACDA performance was considered to be a milestone in the careers of many great choral conductors. Several of my great heroes in the choral field have inspired audiences at national conferences, and I dreamt that I would one day be blessed with an opportunity like that.


After over a decade of building the program at Arvada West High School, I felt like we had a realistic shot of making it happen. I approached Richard Larson, a trusted colleague, mentor, and Colorado MEA Hall of Fame recipient. He had a high school choir perform at the 1989 National ACDA in Kentucky, and his adult semi-professional chorus was invited as well. When he learned that I was going to apply, he literally spent hours pouring over my recordings from the previous couple of years (ACDA requires three selections – one example from the current academic year, and one each from the prior two years). After some very honest feedback about which recordings were the best, he and I both wound up agreeing on the same three selections. I submitted my application and didn’t think much of it after that.


I won’t soon forget Tuesday, June 21, 10:16am. I was standing in my living room and I heard my phone vibrate. The title of the email read “ACDA National Conference Audition Results.” I got some butterflies, but was 99% certain that I was going to be opening a kindly-worded rejection letter. “Congratulations Vocal Showcase and Chris Maunu!” I still didn’t believe it was anything. Many rejection letters congratulate the applicant for applying, then nicely state that you weren’t accepted. I read on, “…we invite your choir as a Performing Choir for the 2017 ACDA National Conference…” I fell to the floor and cried. I called my wife to share the good news, but was too choked up articulate my words. When she answered the phone to hear me sobbing, she feared somebody had died! I finally got it out. I was thrilled to call the rest of my family, mentors, and friends who have supported me along the way. I called a meeting to announce it to the students of Vocal Showcase a few days later. I was beyond elated and was floating on cloud nine.

Descent to the depths 

Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long. I quickly descended into deep fear and anxiety. I had not yet heard the 2016-2017 choir! A few weeks prior, we had just graduated one of the most talented senior classes we’ve had since I’ve been at Arvada West. Would this new group represent themselves, our school, and Colorado well at this conference? How do I program our set without knowing exactly what repertoire this group is capable of doing? I spent the entire rest of the summer finding and listening to great repertoire, but second guessing myself every step of the way because I just didn’t know what would be best for them. I finally settled on a program and submitted it to ACDA in August. Technically, that list wasn’t due until November, but I feared I would miss out on doing a piece I wanted to do if I didn’t get it in early enough (ACDA doesn’t allow any duplicate performances).

The fall semester of 2016 was when the real problems began. I would get to the end of almost every single Vocal Showcase rehearsal feeling awful. Instead enjoying the process of watching the students find their sound, I freaked out every time a chord didn’t tune, something wasn’t balanced, or a piece wasn’t sounding like I thought it should. I would ruminate about it for hours. “This can’t happen! If it is happening now, it’s surely going to happen at ACDA!” I was quite careful to keep my fears and anxieties to myself and try not let the students know how freaked out I was. But, as I’ve experienced many times before, students can pick up on inauthenticity in a second. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they undoubtedly knew something was off with me, and it was ultimately hurting them as an ensemble. My self-doubt was eventually interpreted by my singers as their director not believing in them. I began to lose sight of why I am truly in this career. Although I believe every singer in every choir wants the ensemble to be great, that is not the primary reason most are there. They are there to be loved, affirmed, and included in a special community.

The path to finding courage

Although the core of my teaching philosophy includes vulnerability, love, community, and affirmation, I found myself falling into the trap of perfectionism. Brené Brown describes perfectionism as “other focused”, i.e. “What will they think?” Those that know me well, know what a fan I am of vulnerability. It’s time to practice a bit of that with all of you right now. There were many nights through that fall semester spent on the couch, sharing with my wife, Aleisha, that I did not have the courage to go through with this performance. I legitimately thought being laughed off of the stage was a real possibility. Aleisha convinced me to seek help from a mental health professional. It took numerous visits with my therapist to get re-centered with the whole thing. Through carefully guided discussions and homework, she helped me remember how small of a window of time a performance really is. If we are focused on the product too much, we miss out on the really good stuff – the journey. Over 98% of a choir’s existence is spent in the trenches, using this vehicle called music to pour out our souls for one another.

There was a particular therapy session in late January of 2017 that hit me like a ton of bricks and everything changed. A huge weight had been lifted in me. After 7 months of debilitating fear, anxiety, and dread, I finally let myself once again believe that I am worthy. I am enough. Shortly thereafter, Aleisha (who is also a gifted therapist) did a “future movie template” exercise with me. She had me imagine the full day of the performance in my head. When we got to the part where we were actually on stage, Aleisha asked me what I saw. I began to cry and shared that I see my singers wanting to give everything they have. Things really came into focus after that. My self-worth or even my worth as a conductor is not decided by a couple of 30-minute performances in front of a few thousand strangers. I have a job that I love immensely. I get to go into work everyday and inspire a few hundred young people through the gift of music. Yes, excellence is high on my list of priorities, but my view of it had turned it in to a cancer. When I let go of this “perfectionism demon,” so much began to change. In addition to my blood pressure descending to a normal level, I started to enjoy the process again. For the first time in 7 months, I let myself have fun! My students could pick up on that as well, and they freed up emotionally. The bonus is that this is also when the choir really began to jive vocally. The connection of emotional freedom to positive vocal production has always been deep in the core of my pedagogy, but I fell into the same debilitating pitfall we are all guilty of at times: worrying too much about what everyone else will think.

Enjoying the Beauty

When we finally traveled to Minnesota for the big performances, we had an absolute blast. It was a true joy to watch my students nerd out at the exhibits and be inspired by the best choirs they had ever heard. When it came time for our pair of performances, the fear and anxiety were gone. We spent the last few moments before our initial performance in a backstage area that resembled a boiler room. We cried together and the students shared what they were most thankful for and what this day meant for them. They entered the stage at Orchestra Hall before I was introduced. When I finally walked to the podium and turned to face the choir, I’ll never forget what we shared in that moment. I could see all of the love, passion, and anticipation in their eyes. The hard work had finally come to an end, and we truly got to enjoy the experience together.

In the extensive reflective conversations after the ACDA experience, the comments from the students were not about the “prestige.” Not at all. It was about how close we all became, how much love and care we have for one another, and how meaningful it was to share in the experience with each other. The biggest take away was that it does not take a performance at a national conference to bring those amazing things into focus with our choirs. We can find that preciousness every single day. I don’t think we as directors can ever fully escape the affliction that is unhealthy comparison, but perhaps we can find opportunities to remind ourselves and each other of what is truly beautiful about this incredible field we get to work in.

Choral Elitism – It’s Real

Choral Elitism is Real: What it is and What We Should Do about It

I have been a high school choral director for over eleven years. The last decade has been filled with so many beautiful moments, wonderful music, and students who have learned a few things about music and even life. My life has been enriched beyond what I could have ever imagined. I owe so much to the field of choral music for so many of the blessings I’ve experienced in my life.

As I look back through the years, however, there has been an ever-increasing awareness of something else—something that presents itself in a less-than-overt manner. Many of my years have been spent second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m good enough, comparing myself to others, and suffering from imposter syndrome. Much of my journey in working to get over that in recent years has involved recognizing my own innate insecurities as a conductor. It even took some time in therapy to get to the heart of something else going on in the United States choral landscape that I’ve come to recognize as a significant contributing factor to those issues: choral elitism. I couldn’t put my finger on it in those early years, but as I look back on it, choral elitism was at the core of a lot of my anxieties as a conductor.

What is choral elitism?

Oxford defines elitism as the belief that a system should be led by an elite group. I believe choral elitism is deeply rooted in the culture of our profession. It stems partially from the comparative aspects of what we do. We can all agree that excellence is valued highly in any artistic medium, but because there is no one universally accepted definition of what a great choir sounds like, the only way we can assess our own level of achievement is by comparing it to other work that has already been presented. We spend a great deal of time listening to great recordings and performances to shape our personal understanding of what constitutes high artistry. At the core, this is not a negative thing. We need to be pushed by one another to reach greater heights of musicianship. Elitism shows up in what we say to each other or about one another, how we assess each other’s work, how we view the various levels of musical education, and our general attitude and arrogance about the various aspects of our profession. Here are some things that I felt and observed in my career:

“I’m better than you because my choir is performing at this level and your choir is not.”

I’m sure very few have actually come out and said this, but it’s felt in the underpinning of a comment, body language, or facial expression. It’s in a simple statement like, “You’ll get there.”

“If you are not as experienced or your choir isn’t performing at a certain level, you aren’t as valuable to the profession.”

A colleague of mine shared a story about performing at a state conference for the first time. One of her students came up to her and asked, “Are we supposed to be here?” Confused, the conductor inquired what the student was talking about, and he explained, “I overhead someone say we didn’t deserve to be here because you’re such a new teacher.” My colleague was mortified that (a) a music teacher thought that and (b) had the nerve to say it aloud in front of students.

“If you aren’t the best, you are nothing.”

Another colleague shared with me about going to contest his second year as a high school director. Being in a strong program, there was an extremely high expectation that his school receive stellar scores. Although they did well, they did not receive the top superior ranking. As a young twenty-seven-year-old teacher, he began to seriously consider that he joined the wrong profession. Thankfully, a mentor talked him down from edge, and he stayed in the field and is today a renowned conductor.

“When are you going to ‘move up’ to teaching college?”

As a high school director who’s been blessed with some success and recognition in recent years, I’ve had to answer this question dozens of times. It hurts every time. I graciously shrug it off and offer my reasons for wanting to stay a “lowly” high school director, but those conversations always leave me feeling invalidated and not valued. I imagine it is even worse for those who teach middle and elementary school. The idea that their only job is to “feed” the next level is elitist to the core. Somehow we’ve decided that age determines how much value a student has on the choral music education totem pole. I would argue that it should be the opposite, if anything. Elementary- and middle-level students are in many ways the foundation of the entire choral ecosystem.

Perhaps I will be dismissed as just being an overly sensitive director. However, I have overheard and even been a part of the post-performance reactions and discussions at concerts, festivals, and conferences. I am not immune. I have been just as guilty as anyone else by engaging in negative discussions about other conductors’ work. What is said often comes from an elitist perspective. There is no denying it. This is a real thing that has been going on for a long time in our field, and is unfortunately passed down from one generation of choral directors to the next. I believe two questions should be addressed: What is the problem with choral elitism? And what do we do about it?

What is the problem with choral elitism?

Singing and conducting are astonishingly vulnerable. We need to feel valued and affirmed, particularly in our formative years, but elitism breaks that down. The choral community we have is as important to maintain amongst conductors as it is with our singers. If we serve our egos over the community, we are in trouble.


Singing is perhaps the most vulnerable activity we do as human beings. We create sound from within our bodies and open ourselves up to the world. As both conductors and singers, we have to put ourselves out there in order to grow our programs and improve our craft. Yes, we should receive authentic feedback from trusted professionals as often as possible, self-evaluate performance videos and recordings, and soak up as much knowledge as we can from experts in the field and shape those tools to best fit our teaching personality. The problem is that putting our singers out there in front of our colleagues is scary. Sharing our work is scary. If a conductor walks out on stage not feeling as if their work is valued, it not only harms the director, but it harms the students.


While the highest level of artistry should always be striven for, we should ask ourselves: “Are we living up to the values we advertise as virtues in our profession?” What are the virtues of our field that we all hold dear? I think most of us first think of community: Music brings people together. Music unites us. Our profession should uplift not only our singers but one another. If we are not lifting each other up, it can destroy the confidence needed for young or inexperienced conductors and teachers to truly hit their stride. It’s already hard to feel valued when we are constantly surrounded by something better. How many artists leave the profession early because they have not been given a chance to fully find themselves as conductors?


We as conductors have such an immense responsibility to shape our singers as human beings. Music may be the best tool for this. What we are modeling for our singers, especially those of us who teach students in the educational system? They pick up on elitism as much as adults, but their self-confidence is even more fragile. If their self-confidence isn’t hurt as a result of an elitist mind-set, they will pick up on and develop those ways of thinking, and the generational cycle will continue. At all educational levels, elitism can inadvertently color mentoring, leaving many young people entering our field with a view that risks perpetuating the problem. We can miss out on an opportunity to teach young people how to be authentic, loving human beings.

What can we do about it?

I can’t pretend to have the tools to single-handedly solve a deeply embedded problem, but I think there are some simple things to reframe our mind-set.

Make room for everyone

There is room for greatness from all of us in the field! We don’t have to be threatened by someone else’s success. Our colleagues’ work should always be celebrated. Because we always seem to measure our success against others, it’s hard not to engage in scarcity mentality (the idea that there is only a certain amount of success out there, and if others have it, it’s harder for us to attain). Hearing a choir performing at a high level doesn’t diminish the work that we are doing. Seeing that someone has earned an award for their hard work does not discount all that you’ve accomplished. Success in choral music is measured in so many different ways, and we need to make room for more of it!

Listen for the good

What do we focus on when we listen to a performance? An elitist mentality would encourage us to try to listen for every possible flaw so that we have something to gossip about after the performance. It’s easy to get swept up in the current of a negative conversation. Admittedly, it’s happened to me more times than I wish. Allow yourself to listen with a critical ear, but keep a mind out for things that are being done well. I would much prefer to hear an authentic performance with flaws than a perfect performance that lacks human authenticity. We should sing to provide inspiration, not solely to impress one another. We can listen for joy, beauty, and community, as well as pain and struggle. We can watch singers pour their hearts out for each other, their director, and their audience. That is what is so beautiful about our art. We can put our egos aside and enjoy a truly human experience. You can end an elitist conversation by being bold enough to say something positive about a fellow conductor or performance. Theodore Roosevelt famously said in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Compliment your colleagues

If you observe a performance at a festival, conference, or traditional concert, approach the conductor after and highlight what you liked. Thank them for their hard work. If not right after the performance, send them an email or tag them in a social media post. Conductors truly appreciate feedback from their colleagues more than anyone else because they know it’s coming from a well-informed audience member. When talking with your colleague, bring up authentic positive elements of the performance. Chances are they are well aware of what didn’t go well. Let’s not deny it: we all need to hear some positive cognition when we put ourselves out there. Strengths-based feedback can help a choir or conductor grow even more than just focusing on improvements.

Offer constructive criticism

While we can practice listening to a performance with a mind-set of positivity about what is being done well, there are going to be flaws and things a conductor or singers could have done better. With that in mind, there should be freedom for constructive critique with the goal of sharing wisdom and offering suggestions for improvement. Judgmental criticism comes from a place of negative comparison, envy, and scarcity and is what we want to avoid. Constructive criticism, meanwhile, is grounded in honoring and respecting the integrity of the ensemble while giving supportive and helpful feedback. It’s assuming the best in the performers and conductor and being willing to acknowledge that to err is human.


Our world needs to know what we are doing in our field. SHARE SHARE SHARE…all of it! Share videos and recordings of your choirs on social media. Share videos and recordings of other choirs also. Post successes of all kinds. This does not have to be an award; it can be a beautiful letter a choir member wrote to you, a celebratory comment about a great concert, or even getting everyone in your freshmen men’s chorus to match pitch for the first time! And don’t forget to make a positive comment when you see someone has shared something. It was likely quite vulnerable for them to do it, and they need to be lifted up and given affirmation.

Choir is a beautiful thing. It may be one of the most beautiful things we have. We need to do everything we can to keep it a safe refuge from all of the negative in our world.