July 17th, 2008
On being a choir reject.
I started singing at age eight. I went to a very small elementary school, and initially they didn't even have a choir. A new teacher arrived and she decided to start one. There were four of us, all girls (of course), and we sang "Three Little Maids" from The Mikado, two of us sharing the third maid's part. I was hooked...
I harbored the aspiration to be a music major and launch an international solo career when all things were possible at the beginning of my freshman year in college. But Theory I proved more challenging than I expected, and meanwhile, I quickly learned that any performing career is subject to the whims of the industry, and freelancing, while romantic, is too here-today-gone-tomorrow for someone with my temperament.
But all along the way, from age eight to today, I've sung in at least one choir at all times, and usually two. I was chosen for the special, select 12-voice ensemble in high school. I took voice lessons in college and sang in the Concert Choir. My senior year, I began singing with the (excellent) symphonic chorus in town. The year I graduated, I also started singing in a second, 120-voice chorus with a professional core (I didn't get paid, mind you).
Every choir I've been in for the last ten years has been auditioned and every year, I got back in like clockwork. I never stopped getting nervous, ever, but over time it became a different kind of challenge. Did I have the time to learn a new piece for my re-audition, rather than recycling the same four songs I still knew well enough from my college voice lessons to produce on short notice (and without the ability to practice with a piano)? Would I be conscientious enough to practice sightreading beforehand, or just wing it? Would I alter my plans the night or morning before my audition, or would I be irresponsible and go the bar or cheer at the football game anyway? Usually I made the right decisions. After all, I love this. Singing has always been part of my life. Something I am good at, something I enjoy. Somewhere I can contribute.
I moved recently. New town, no relationships. Of course, my immediate plan was to find a choir. But I had to face the prospect of my first "real" audition in six years. Suddenly, I remembered what it felt like to really get nervous. But I got in! Admittedly, I had been surprised to get the acceptance letter, as the conductor had given me a pretty direct speech about the preferred sound structure. My voice, he said, was definitely colorful, and he was very judicious in choosing how many of that voice type he wanted in the group at any time.
I was one of only a very few people admitted to the (rather large) chorus that year. I was ecstatic. Many of the rest of the new folks were my age, and we quickly found each other and had a grand old time, chatting during the breaks, going out after rehearsal, and even getting together outside of our weekly sighting. I was sure I had found a good choir home. And the music-making was satisfying.
Re-auditions were announced. They were to be in quartets as a time saving device, I'm sure, and also to test our listening skills as we attempted to blend with the other voices. My quartet ended up being a duet. I sang the test interval without issue. I sang my part decently. The counting became the focus because of the lack of the other two parts, which meant that the attention to the notes lagged for me, but I didn't feel like it had been a train wreck. My duet partner even complimented me on my sound, and I him, since we had never actually met before, nor sung together.
My letter arrived after I had left town for the weekend to attend my cousin's wedding, my visiting parents in tow. Seeing a lot of my extended family for the first time in a few years, there were lots of questions to be answered, and since I happen to also work for a choral organization, everyone's second question was: "And do you sing?" Yes, I said, with a laugh, and told them where. My fellow newbie texted me while I was at the wedding saying she had gotten her letter and gotten back in; had I seen mine? Not yet, but I'll let you know, I punched in with my thumbs. When we got back, there it was on the coffee table.
Why even let me in at all, I railed to my bedroom walls, if you knew you didn't want my voice in the first place?
While my parents unpacked, I took the letter into the kitchen and tore it open. The opening sentence read: "I sincerely regret to inform you..." For a full minute, I couldn't see—the tears were instantaneous.
I wiped them away and read the rest of the letter. Pitch inaccuracy was my problem, it appeared, something that I could fix with voice lessons. He wished me the best for my career and stated that it had been a pleasure working with me this past season, but that there was no place for me in his chorus this year.
We were due to have dinner with my aunt and uncle that evening, and sure enough, the question came up: "Oh, and do you sing?" No, I murmured, not at the moment.
I wish I could tell you that I was proud of the way I behaved when I got the letter. That I read it, took the "constructive criticism" to heart, signed up for voice lessons the next day, worked hard, and proved that I could match pitch by re-auditioning for the chorus and getting back in.
Nope. I was melodramatic: I stopped short at burning the letter, but I did rip it up and throw it away immediately. I was pissed off: Instead of saying I wasn't invited back, I told people I had been kicked out. It made them feel awkward, sure, but I felt like I was getting some of my own back. I was vindictive: I had a chance to see several of my previous conductors at a work event shortly afterwards, and asked them about my supposed pitch inaccuracy. They assured me that it was not true when I was singing with them. Maybe they were trying to make me feel better...but I took their reassurance as proof that this conductor had ulterior motives for releasing me. And I was self-righteous: why even let me in at all, I railed to my bedroom walls, if you knew you didn't want my voice in the first place? Most of all, though, I was wounded.
The blow to my confidence continues to manifest itself in my experience with my new chorus. When the soprano section as a whole is told we're going flat, or we're not singing the right note, it must be me.
But here's the rub: I had made a lot of friends in the chorus. In addition, I had professional relationships with the conductor, the associate conductor, and the executive director outside of my role as a singer. I couldn't jeopardize any of these relationships just because an artistic decision had been made that affected my membership in the choir itself.
I got off the low-down-dirty road, and moved on, not quite to the high road, but to some middle ground. I climbed back on the horse and auditioned for another chorus in town. I made it (thank goodness). I attended the opening concert of my former chorus and gave my honest feedback to my friends: it was fantastic. I have started practicing my music between rehearsals with a pitch pipe (still don't have a piano) to prevent the pitch inaccuracy fallacy from becoming reality. I realized that, in the end, I am grateful for the year that I had in the group, because I built a network of friends that won't disappear just because I'm not singing there anymore.
But the wound isn't healed yet. The blow to my confidence continues to manifest itself in my experience with my new chorus. When the soprano section as a whole is told we're going flat, or we're not singing the right note, it must be me. The conductor is always looking directly at me when criticism is being doled out, isn't he? If a fellow singer shifts over, it must not be because she can't see from where she is, it must be because I'm singing too loudly, with too much vibrato, inaccurately, mustn't it?
More so than any other performing art, singing is personal. We are our instruments. So don't let anyone ever tell you that you should just "get over" rejection from a chorus. One of the things that got me through it was having been on the other side-working on the staff of a chorus and hearing the director and associate director wrestle, and I mean wrestle, with the decision to release a chorister. It's not easy for anyone involved. If I'm suffering now, I know my erstwhile conductor suffered, too. And if anything, getting rejected kicked me into gear. Goodness knows, I don't ever want to experience that again.