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.