Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thoughts on Being Mentioned In The Post: Or A Two-Month Appraisal

Well, it's official now. The Washington Collegium, or Voice of Washington, or whatever we're going to call this thing, is now an indisputable presence in this city. Anne Midgette, one of the preeminent and most influential music critics of the English language, gave us a not-unconsiderable berth in one of her columns, especially so considering that we are still not-much-known even to DC's choral afficianados. Being mentioned by her means that we are now a genuine (albeit slight) presence not only in the DC area, but also a very slight (let's get real here, infantesimal) presence on the national music scene.

We are now like all those young other organizations always mentioned by critics like Alex Ross, Kyle Gann and Greg Sandow. Yet another example of a young burgeoning organization that - with enough patience, dedication, and luck above all else - signifies the future of music in the city and country in which we live in its brightest possible future. But reality, as ever, means creating something great out of situations that are not. I hope I have the dedication and patience to make this happen, I pray we have the luck. But I'm sustained by the idea that luck comes to those who work to earn it. I've seen enough musicians work hard to no avail to know the potential terrors in store, but I've never seen a musician hit the big time through coasting.

It's possible that the enormity of what I've undertaken had not quite hit me until I read the article. The Washington Collegium was an ensemble that could have easily gone by the wayside after our old conductor left. But for the chance to inherit it, I might have fulfilled some errant dreams of moving to London or New York a good eighteen months ago. I've have tried my hand at being a musician/writer living by the pen, and chances are that losing weight would have been a lot easier. But I inherited a chorus in the city in which I've built a life for myself since 2001 and another chorus 40 miles away in the town where I grew up. Most of my friends are still in Washington, my family is in Baltimore. There's no good reason now to be anywhere but here.

But what is clearer now than ever before is the enormity of what lies ahead. We've been mentioned in the Post, but that doesn't change the fact that our organization is still at the stage of being an obscenely loveable rag-tag band of singers. We are sustained by the heart of those committed to us, even if they can't show it all the time, and our ability to command loyalty from those who know what we're capable of is the most exciting reason a person like me can have to get out of bed.

But I think it would be wrong to be anything but direct with anyone who reads this as to what we've achieved thus far. The truth remains that the composition of our group seems to change into a different permutation from week to week. Out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, many singers overestimate the time they have to commit, and many of them have little choice but to recuse themselves after promising the moon. You can't blame them, they wanted to dedicate whatever time they had but they discovered they just didn't have it. Even so, the consequence remains that every week still feels like a race to make sure we have enough singers to cover every part, and there is no guarantee of the chorus accumulating knowledge from week to week.

In our first rehearsal after reconvening we didn't have a single soprano. We've had rehearsals in which the number of altos was twice the number of male singers, and we've also had rehearsals in which almost the entirety of our seemingly Morman Tabernacle sized alto section couldn't make it. We've had nearly as many rehearsals in which a male part was covered by one singer as there were rehearsals with more than two male singers. I've even had one singer refuse spare me the fact that he was leaving because he thought I wasn't a good conductor. Old singers, many of whom I used to sing and sometimes drink with after rehearsal, are almost all quite as over committed as Washingtonians are so known for being. Their ability to commit to a rehearsal is completely dependent on their ability to fulfill real responsibilities in the perpetually overworked lives of capital city dwellers. Our budget can still be charitably described as negligable and we are straining to find ways to raise money in a country where arts organizations feel the crunch of a recession before nearly any other organization. Week after week, I tell my singers to find their singing friends and bring them to us, by gunpoint if necessary. But as Donald Rumsfeld would say, you go to rehearsal with the singers you have. I was quoted as saying that 'there are always more people from whom you can draw,' but it's no secret that the problem for us remains how to find them. One day, somebody's going to hit upon a formula that will bring the 'young people' back to classical music in droves. I hope they share it with us.

This is our reality. Realizing that we had to start from scratch was in many ways a heartbreaking experience, not just because of the blow to the ego or even occasional gnawing doubts as to why people were actually leaving, but also because as a conductor one genuinely misses many of the people who used to sing with us. You spend an entire rehearsal looking at your musicians, gauging their reactions and trying to get inside each of their minds to figure out how one can elicit the best possible performance. You quickly begin to feel as though you know them disproportionately well, even if you don't know them well at all. When they tell you they have to leave, it's difficult not to feel in many ways rejected and inadequate. But if you can't teach yourself to swallow rejection whole and then bounce back to keep asking them back knowing fully well that the same result may occur time and again, don't be a conductor.

I'm far more an instrumentalist and composer by training, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I love working with singers. They are a different breed from all other musicians - far more akin to actors with all the strengths and foibles that such a comparison implies. They are far more willing to work, far less susceptible to auto-pilot, far more willing to make mistakes and expect to bare the brunt of personal (but fair) criticism in ways that we instrumentalists will never have to handle. They also guard their egos like hawks, because underlying the natural vanity is insecurity that can potentially be overwhelming. The work that they do opens them to a level of psychological vulnerability that no other musician but a composer has. Their instrument is their person, and that makes it far more important to establish trust with their director than it is for any instrumentalist. Instrumentalists often feel that they can anonymously hop from prestigious gig to gig and phone it in every time. But I have yet to meet a singer who feels that way.

I'm sure every conductor envisions an ivory ideal in their head of what they hope their ensemble will be. And the ability to envision what a group should be is every bit as important as dealing with realities. But realities are always tough, and rarely fair. Real leadership requires grace under pressure. I've never thought of myself as someone who had a great gift for that, but I've found myself flabbergasted at my ability to remain totally calm in the hot seat even in the most dire of circumstances. Unflappability is what it takes to succeed, even if it doesn't guarantee success. And if you're hungry enough for success, you will grow the stomach to do things you never thought you had the cajones to do in a former life.

We are small. We are growing. One day this chorus, or one like it, will be an institution. I hope it's us, and I'm going to do everything to make sure it is. But we need the help of every person reading this to make it happen.


  1. One day you shall rule the choral world. First, bomb Southeast Asia. Second, sing like you've never sung before.

    I can't sing very well. Communist vocal teachers...

  2. ...how much do you charge to be an accompanist?