Tuesday, April 14, 2015

800 Words: Why I've Left Kol Rinah


In circumstances as dramatic and sudden as I always dreaded they might be, I resigned tonight from Kol Rinah, the Jewish chorus I've directed for nearly six years - effective immediately. I walked into the rehearsal room to find a singer immediately ready to pounce, I had a five-second heated exchange with this singer who never had any trouble letting me know that she thought me an organizational incompetent (perhaps not without justification, and she's hardly the only one...), and immediately realized that I could not do this a moment longer. I walked out, drove to my parents house, typed up a resignation, and sent it. That was that. No more seeking approval from people who will never stop withholding it. No more dealing with people who use their religiosity as a cudgel with which they hit the rest of us for supposedly being less virtuous. No more dealing with singers who see their director as a personal waiter to service their ideas at everyone else's expense. No more dealing with people who want to spend their lives singing Jewish music that is no better than Christian Rock. No more waiting for weeks on end for enough singers to show up that we can have a functional rehearsal. No more banging my head against the wall until I can make a dent. Most importantly: no more settling! No more settling for playing music I could never stand, with people who could never stand me. My life has more than enough messy stress without the added stress of dealing with the kinds of people who have seen me all my life as a hinderance to everything they want from the world. So it is time, at a moment when I can't deal with any more stress than I already have, to exit with whatever little dignity I have left.

What is Kol Rinah? Kol Rinah is the chorus I conducted for more than five years, the chorus that met in the music room I had to sit in when I was six years old, the chorus that included the father of my earliest schoolgirl crush, the best friend of my father's not particularly amicable ex-business partner, the wife of one of his oldest business associates and the wife of his newest; the Baltimore Hebrew College professor of my uncle and also a few of my uncle's classmates, the daughter of one of my grandmother's oldest friends and the parent of one of mine, and friends of the parents of all my other childhood friends, and friends of all my parents friends. How can any kid ever establish authority in such an inbred network of people? 

And still, I somehow, sometimes, managed to get this group of people to sound halfway decent. When I came to them, they were lucky if they didn't finish a piece singing a minor third beneath where they began. They were an embarrassment - shunted off to the side of their congregation, allowed a cursory appearance once a year that would always meet with subtle congregant eye-rolls and titters. We got good enough that people who hated listening to Kol Rinah for years would come up to me and tell me that for the first time, they enjoy listening. I have no idea if what they said was true, but considering how vocal they were about what Kol Rinah used to be, I can't imagine there isn't an element of truth. Nothing I did was a miracle: I simply did what any good servant of music would when in front of a chorus: I got them to sing reasonably in-tune and rhythmically together, with decent diction and vowel placement, I tried to build up their confidence when their self-confidence was low, and tried to nicely but firmly put them in their place when their self-confidence was too high. 

My stipend for this accomplishment was 100 dollars a rehearsal for no more than thirty-three rehearsals and performances, the other inevitable twenty appearances I would have to accept as gratis every year. Never was there any question of a raise or even a possibility that the wage would be tacked to inflation. Six years of arranging, six years of ego-massaging difficult singers (and they were plenty difficult) six years of finding music that might have a modicum of quality while still being as light-as-air poppy as many singers wanted, six years of patient teaching; all this for 3300 fucking dollars a year - and not even a single recording to ever have documented what we did. 


When I came to Kol Rinah, my 'past' in Pikesville meant that I had was operating with a Scarlett Letter from the very beginning. I was given a six-month probationary period during which I had to prove my fitness for the group. After six months, we all seemed to be going along splendidly, much better than the shape of things at Voices of Washington. So if there were no review, no harm done, I figured I had the job. It was, so I reasoned, just one indignity to pass through before things get better. 

But in year 2, some of the singers were horrified that I might ask them to review old pieces, so they simply arranged to have the probationary review, roughly nine months after it was supposed to happen, by which time I got a much worse performance review than I would had they operated promptly. Whatever the word of mouth was, the paperwork shows not that I was well-liked six months in, but that I was ill-thought of fifteen months in. 

We chased all sorts of big performances, only for them all to fall crashing down once we realized what it entailed. We were supposed to sing for 1,200 people at the United Synagogue Conference of Conservative Judaism - we prepared all summer for it. We were then cut off, forced to learn a cantor's entire repertoire at the last two rehearsals, and then, rather than sing onstage where we'd have had an actual audience, we were then 'appeased' by being allowed to sing our repertoire while people were waiting in the buffet line

Or the times we chased the "Limmud" projects to try to interest the wider Jewish community in us, only to inevitably find that our only audience members were our families.

 I don't think my ambition was particularly high - certainly not for Kol Rinah. Kol Rinah always dangled in the background after college, and after I was out of college, some adult friend of my parents would get it into his or her head that I was the man for them after they ate their way through yet another new director (and there were at least two acrimonious splits before me...)  I knew that I could well end up with this organization, but if I did, my life had to be in desperate, desperate circumstances if I wanted to go back into my grade school and try to direct within the uber-critical clutches of old Pikesville Jews who knew my parents when they were younger than I. 

But then I turned twenty-seven: unemployed, virtually homeless and penniless, refusing a cent from my parents and refusing to speak to my father. I was living on the couch and charity of friends who thankfully ensured during the Summer of 2009 that I would not starve. I applied for more than a hundred jobs, and never heard back from more than two - one of the two turned out to be a pyramid scheme. 

Kol Rinah was, if nothing else, the project on which the Prodigal Son returned home. Contrary to what so many singers charged of me, I never, never wanted it to be a Jewish Robert Shaw Chorale. My dreams of choral glory (how lame that even sounds...) died with Voices of Washington, THAT was my misbegotten title shot that didn't even get me past the first match's first round. What I wanted was to build a respectable chorus that could sustain itself long after I left, and perform concerts that have as much music that's great and cathartic as we had fun, engaging music, and not for a moment did I want for one to subsume the other. I wanted to build a chorus that was a reflection of Judaism itself, not just of the narrow tastes of uncurious Jews who live in a three-mile radius of one another. I don't want glory, I just want respect from people who never before gave it to me, and as it turns out, will never give. 

I know I'm an organizational mess. Everybody whose ever seen me for fifteen minutes knows I'm an mess. But some people refuse to forgive such people and see the obtuseness of people like me as an insult against them. And because they're so insulted, they automatically read bad intentions into me which I never had. And such things have happened so often, to such catastrophic result, that it makes me an emotional mess. Such Type-A people are not evil, but for the effect they've always had on my well-being, it often feels like they might as well be.

Kol Rinah is an organization for its time and place. Its like will not exist in ten years, and it will be completely forgotten less than ten years later. I don't think the singers ever particularly liked each other, but I'm sure it served some kind of purpose in their lives that kept them in touch with the power of music and/or God. But the price to even do that was so steep that I don't know how the chorus could exist for twenty-two years.

In all seriousness, Kol Rinah, my hats off to you. For twenty-two years you've weathered every storm, and will hopefully weather this one as well as you ever have. There is no reason you could not, with some effort that hasn't been put in for a long time, continue to exist for twenty-two more. I tried everything I could to make you understand why you should aim at least a little bit higher. I still believe that you deserve better than you got. And hopefully, a new director can articulate a case for that better than I have. 

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