September 20th, 2017
A community chorus is held together by its singers’ commitment to each other and to the group. But what happens when a volunteer singer becomes disruptive to that community spirit—and won’t comply with repeated requests to change their ways? Does your chorus have a carefully spelled-out dismissal procedure, or do you handle things on a case-by-case basis? Or are you sitting there crossing your fingers and hoping it won’t happen, because there is no precedent in recent memory?
During Ethan Hecht’s second year as executive director of the Boulder Chorale, he ran into a situation with a singer who was breaking expectations that were clearly spelled out in the singer handbook. While the Chorale had established guidelines for its singers, “the procedure for how to address when somebody didn’t follow something in the handbook – that was the part that was lacking,” says Hecht. For ideas and advice on creating a policy for dismissing singers, he turned to Chorus America’s chorus management listserv.
Some choral organizations weighed in with formal policies that tap committees or administrators to handle member discipline. The Susquehanna Valley Chorale has a Membership Support Committee in place for singer issues. “That committee was created as a liaison for the singers and the board,” says executive manager Kelly Beard. When chorus members join, they sign a registration form indicating that they’ve read the singer handbook. If a disciplinary situation then arises, the Membership Support Committee takes statements from both the music director and the singer, and votes on a solution to pass on to the board. The board votes on the proposal, and then Beard informs the singer of the decision.
Other groups, such as the Springfield Choral Society, rely on their artistic leaders to handle these kinds of issues. In the rare cases (two in 12 years) when she has dismissed a singer, music director and conductor Marion van der Loo called the singer to discuss the chorus’s concerns and gave them an opportunity to explain their point of view. When the problem behavior returned, she called again to suggest a break from singing in her choir. “My Board of Directors has given me sole authority—and, therefore, responsibility—over those decisions,” she says.
José Daniel Flores-Caraballo, artistic director of Albany Pro Musica and the Vermont Symphony Chorus, agrees that the conductor’s job is not only musical “quality control” but also protecting the ensemble from negative attitudes among the membership. He believes it’s not appropriate for a committee or board to take the lead in disciplinary matters because “at the end of the day, it’s the conductor’s responsibility.” He does, however, stress the importance of keeping the board in the loop. Flores-Caraballo checks in with his board president before having a conversation with a singer. “Using the chair as a sounding board is very important,” he says.
Some choruses take a more middle-of-the-road approach. The Heartland Men’s Chorus’s online singer handbook states, “Members of the Chorus shall refrain from any disruptive activity during rehearsals, performances and Chorus-sponsored events. Chorus members engaging in disruptive behavior may be asked to leave and could be subject to loss of membership privileges.”
In practice, according to executive director Rick Fisher, the issue at hand determines who will address the issue with the singer. Problem behaviors can often be addressed in placement interviews (auditions), and “when that has proved to be impractical or insufficient, then addressing behavioral issues has fallen to one of the directors or the chair of our Membership Services Committee along with the President of the Chorus.” At the Heartland Men’s Chorus, the board isn’t involved in making these decisions but is informed of the outcomes.
A chorus looking to create a discipline policy needs to consider the level of formality that is the best fit for the organization’s culture. For example, the Contra Costa Chorale currently has no formal policy for dismissals. Although general manager Kate Sibley predicts that her organization will ultimately write one, she is wary of defining anything too rigidly because of the nature of the volunteer chorus. “We take our music seriously,” she says, “but we also recognize that there is a very strong family feeling in this group, so it’s sort of family rules. If you write out too much you jeopardize that feeling, I think.”
At the Boulder Chorale, Hecht wanted things more spelled out for everyone’s sake. He wanted the process to be fair to the singer, and he was also concerned “for the board members and the artistic director and myself … that we’re following some kind of procedure in how we’re handling this and that nobody could be accused of going out on their own or dealing with it in a way that might cause further problems.”
Hecht recruited board member and attorney Laura Moore to draft a new disciplinary policy. Moore did some online research and ended up proposing a policy of first offense (removal from rehearsal and unexcused absence), second offense (removal from rehearsal and confidential meeting with the board president, executive director, and artistic director), and third offense (removal from the choir, at the discretion of the director). The Boulder Chorale board was also concerned with protecting the confidentiality of both the individual reporting a problem and the singer being reported.
One shared element of most disciplinary policies is an opportunity for the singer tell their side of the story, whether that’s in an informal conversation with the music director, a communication with a grievance committee, or a complaint filed with the board. Hecht and Moore like the idea of a grievance committee, and they’re looking into creating one or making their existing Promoting Community Committee a sounding board for singers under action.
The Boulder Chorale’s board is also considering refunding dues to any member who is dismissed. This is the Susquehanna Valley Chorale’s policy, and executive manager Kelly Beard points out that “by giving their money back, you are ending an agreement to which they cannot come back at you for.” The Boulder Chorale’s policy is still a work in progress, but once it’s finalized it will be added to the member handbook.
Hecht says that while handling singer dismissals doesn’t initially sound like building community, “it is, in a way, making sure that the community is who you want it to be and functioning the way you want it to be.” A clear policy communicates to your singers that you’re going to ensure everyone has a rewarding musical and social experience, and that can help create a better choral community for all.
Kathryn Mueller is a writer and GRAMMY-nominated soprano. She lives in Raleigh and teaches voice at North Carolina State University and East Carolina University.