My very first paying Vocal Director job was for Governor Mifflin High School’s production of Babes in Arms in 1994. Ironically, the male lead made state swimming and left the production a week before it opened, so it was also the first time I, as a high school graduate, stepped into a role in a rival high school show out of desperation. And, yes, there was a second time too. As a Music Director, over 21 years, I have worked largely in three distinct environments: professional theatrical, scholastic education, and worship. Each has its challenges, its strengths and weaknesses, its headaches and heartbreaks. I was asked recently by a member of our congregation (at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg) who has seen me work in a different setting ‘how I tailor my style to the environment,’ since their experience of me there was different from at UU. The answer is really a question of the aim of the art being collaborated upon. And while those aims are always the same, their positions of prominence shift.
When one music directs in a professional theatre setting, there is usually a very limited window at the beginning of the process where the Music Director gets to be ‘in charge’ and teach the music. The director and the choreographer are anxiously awaiting their turn to take over and teach their material, sometimes patiently, frequently not so much. Music direction is treated (by many, not all) as a necessary nuisance, something to get through quickly so we can get the actors up on their feet and start teaching them the show. Once that period ends touch ups are rare, at the discretion of the director, and often done on the fly. The need is real because most musical theatre performers can barely read music, but the music and its upkeep are often subject to the constraints of time, money, and ego. There is barely enough time to teach the music, let alone terminology, support, context, or what have you. And your investment in people (at least initially) is minimal. Management wants a short rehearsal period and the best product so that ticket sales and reviews are good. The health, well being, and education of the singers are very low priorities. Do they know their music? Do they sound good? Moving on.
Educational music, both choral and theatrical, is mostly about the repetitive learning process, and the gradual team and spirit building that is required to inspire young people to pursue the arts either as a vocation or avocation. In school choral music, one is often working on the same pieces for months, MONTHS!, leading up to the big holiday or spring concert. The music must be challenging, but not too challenging; it must hold their interest and give the student a sense of musical accomplishment. It must also build a pride in belonging to the organization. Marching and jazz bands are still best at this. Product is important, but what really matters is nurturing a lifelong love for music, learning, and belonging. Students will join the choir to find their place, but they’ll only stay if you inspire them to be their best selves. And at most, you have them for four years, so you teach them to believe in themselves, to love music and the arts, and hope that they’ll remember you fondly.
Worship music directing, especially at UU, (given that it is a non-textual faith, and stresses principles over dogma or creed) involves a synthesis of both the aforementioned environments, but it’s also much more than that. In a worship setting like ours, the lyrics, the context in which the song is being sung, and the degree to which a choir member can invest in the song’s message becomes pivotal to success. Singers are neither students nor employees; they are peers of both the congregation and the Music Director. Their love of singing either has a long history, or is something that they are exploring after a long absence, a career change, retirement, or a courageous moment to join the choir. These singers are sharing their gifts out of love of singing, love of their community, and love of their faith tradition. As a music director, these are often the people you get to know the best, sing with you the longest, and share many of the deepest experiences. A show singer comes and goes in weeks (unless you can rehire multiple times), a student a few years; a church singer has an open-ended relationship with the Music Director to stay as long as the singing is fun and fulfilling. For many of these singers, it is the sharing and the community building that creates the best choir experiences. The product is important, but what really matters is the sense of joy and family shared. This same approach applies to our hand bell and youth choir programs.
To sum it all up, in professional theatre the product comes first, no question. In education, the process and the sense of belonging to something special comes first. In our worship setting, our relationships – to text, to community, to our faith traditions – take precedence. While always striving for the best musical experience, the foci change and, as Music Director, it’s my job to adapt my demeanor, expectations, and repertoire to give each choir (or other musical organization) the best experience possible. The environment really does determine the aim of the art.
Peace and Almond Milk,
Note: This post is reprinted from an article I wrote recently for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg March Newsletter. Additions to this post have been added in parentheses for clarity.