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.

Vulnerability

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.

Community

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?

Modeling

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.

Share

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.

27 thoughts on “Choral Elitism – It’s Real

  1. Thank you for this article. It was very revealing, and confirmed my experience. I hadn’t thought about “choral elitism” before our choir from the US toured the British Isles. It was very obvious that the British choirs considered us beneath their “professional” level. However, what we lacked in “professionalism”, we made up for with enthusiam and an eclectic repertoire. I might also add the the British general public seemed to enjoy our presentations. Our demeanor was less formal than the British choirs, so we probably were a little bit of a novelty. Our choir did enjoy our tour immensely, as we did other tours in other parts of the world. Singing around the world is a joy! Our choir often suffers the same elitism when in the presence of other choirs, so we all share that in common, with the need to watch for it, and overcome it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing about this. Sadly elitism is also alive and thriving in the instrumental music realms as well. Here’s to hoping that we can be among the teacher-directors who shape a new generation of educators for whom collaboration, innovation, and motivation is more important than reputation and repertoire.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for a great article. And thanks to Jami for the connection to the instrumental variety. I suffered from this perfection and elitism as a kid cellist—always comparing, suffering a loss of joy—and it continued through music school and into life as a freelance cellist. It’s taken decades for me to be able to see how it hurt me, physically, mentally and emotionally, and how I was a part of passing it on.
    I’m with you all on the authentic self, authentic art train. That is what matters most.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful thoughts here. I can relate to the comment about “moving up” from one grade level to another. Try telling a group of professional choral directors that you are a church musician! I have two music degrees and have devoted my life to promoting good choral singing. I am in my 38th year of doing so. The comments I have heard are “only those who can’t make it in the REAL world as a musician work in a church” and “everyone knows that church music is second rate”. My spring concert is April 29. I have an auditioned 13 member high school Chorale (selected from my larger youth choir) singing 5 a cappella pieces (2 are Renaissance) before they join with my adult choir to sing the Durufle REQUIEM.

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  5. Thank you for this highly thoughtful article and for the points you make here about elitism, authenticity, and pursuing excellence rather than perfection.. Unfortunately, elitism is also quite pervasive in the world of composition, often leading to struggles with imposter syndrome, self-confidence, and more. I hope that we can begin to learn to embrace authenticity rather than perfectionism and to value looking for the positive in our own work and that of others.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this article as it sounds like my mantra! I’m at a community college and developed a thick skin long ago but we usually don’t get invited to play in elite “reindeer games”. Still, we exceed musical expectations and change lives!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for exposing the elephant in the room. I’m a choral director at a small school. Though we are always the smallest school at events that don’t classify schools according to size, I feel strongly that my students should hear excellent choirs from schools that are much larger or that have more specialized choral programs. Before choosing a festival, I admit I assess the risk of my kids being compared and I pray that nothing condescending is said to them. Festivals are stressful for that reason. Bottom line-We sing because we love to sing . God help us not to deny comparing and choose joy.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for the shout out to elementary music educators. Children’s musical brains are shaped by the age of seven. Without a solid foundation in singing, those elite college choirs wouldn’t exist.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m a 3rd generation HS choir director- just retired this past year. Concur 100% with the article. However you missed one of the issues that irked me the most. That was between HS and College conductors. We had a solid choral program for many years. Regional ACDA level yes, National??? maybe one or two groups would have been at that level over the years- I would attend convention with a good friend (college conductor) and more often than not whenever we would meet a group of college level conductors I was dismissed as “less than”. Didn’t matter if it was a 2 year college with a 15 voiced “ya’ll come” ensemble….if you were a HS conductor you were discounted. For a conductor I have a really limited ego and found this to be amusing and would often strive to learn from these masters of the art form.

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  10. This was fantastic. I share many of the same insecurities you discussed despite the fact that I know deep down I’m good at what I do. I appreciate you putting yourself out there with this. I agree with it 100%

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  11. I too have experienced this “elite spirit” as an Elementary Music Specialist for Grades K-6. After seeing those in my school district retire and go to their next chapter whether they continue in some area of music or choose to do other things…I totally agree with what you shared. It is time to “lift each other up”…”not tearing down. I chose after my first school 32 years ago to be a teacher who “encourages” other teachers…not tearing down or comparing to others. My first school had 936 in Grades 1-5. It was the largest in the state of Oklahoma during 1989-90. Why classroom teachers were comparing me to previous teacher who chose to stay in school as Fifth grade teacher is beyond me. “Do unto others what you would have them do…the golden rule still applies to today I think. We should all as educators choose to be a “blessing” to other educators but also our students & their families as we help them be all they can be. Shouldn’t we all no matter what level of education help them find their gift also?

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  12. I can’t tell you how many times I doubted myself and my abilities. I was “just a junior high choir director”. I was looked down upon as if I didn’t even exist by the most elite, the “high school director” This wasn’t true by all high school directors, but many for sure. Especially by the big names in Texas. For the new and young directors: don’t be so quick to think you know everything. You don’t. Don’t disregard suggestions and turn down help from “the old crew”. How do you think we learned when we were young? I was a sponge and wanted to learn everything I could from “the old crew” including Charles Nelson, Ruth Whitlock, Glenda Casey, Sally Schott, Andre Thomas, Denise Eaton, Morris Stevens (who I did my student teaching with). I could name a ton more, but I’m old and my brain doesn’t work as good as it did with names. It was hard for me to go listen to the Honor Choirs at TMEA and then go back home to mine. Although my program was good and we always received Superior ratings, I never thought I was good enough to put my choir and myself out there for a TMEA recording to be considered for a spot to sing at TMEA. No matter what, always believe in yourself and your kids. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t as good as they are. You are!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m so glad this article was posted here. I’m a university-level choral educator and this issue has been bugging me for a decade. We need to change the culture because it’s hurtful and incredibly unproductive. I truly despise my own colleagues’ behavior. The behavior is extremely veiled, difficult to pinpoint but it is there. This culture is so pervasive! The egos of the conductors is the primary source of this, in my mind. I always hated the idea of making a competition out of an art form. We must do better. Much better!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I left ACDA because of the toxic atmosphere among conductors and educators. The sniping and judgmentalism took all the fun out of a convention full of wonderful and inspiring performances. The snobbery even extends to publishers: certain of them are respected, and others despised. A good piece of music published by a “second-rate” publisher will never be performed by a large cadre of conductors, because it might tarnish their credentials. I’ve had enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for this article! I reminded me of so many different/various feelings throughout my 37 yr. career (not done yet). We often do not know the TRUE impact we have made on the lives of the kids we have taught until we move on to another school. This happened to me twice after leaving. I’ve been in my current school 27 years and I am made aware of the impact of our choir program often by students and parents. However, as a young teacher, I wanted to carve my niche and prove myself. In my first HS job, I felt inferior, was intimidated by our state choral leadership, and didn’t feel encouraged. In my 2nd year at my current school, we were invited to perform for the following fall’s state ACDA conference. I took a young inexperienced group in October as I had lost a strong senior class the spring before. Even then, I believed in performing repertoire that challenged my singers, but at a difficulty level that they could be successful and connect to. We performed well, but did not feature new, dazzling music. It was a super experience for my kids. I later found out that a colleague had inquired as to whether our organization was allowing inferior choirs to perform. It hurt for sure. We’ve had several other successes as our program has grown in ability. I continue to try to encourage my colleagues!

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