I often think of myself as a five-year-old in this profession. With hundreds of other individuals, how could any of us be the next Anton Armstrong, René Clausen, Kathy Saltzman Romey or [insert choir hero of your choosing. I’d choose André Thomas]? And much like a five-year-old, we tend to get a little scrappy when other future pop stars try to steal our thunder during recess. Maybe not the throwing sand part of it, but the feelings of comparison, insecurity, and jealousy. I’ll be honest: during my first few years of teaching I let comparison, insecurity, and jealousy inform my version of success, and my singers suffered for it. I’d like to take a candid and vulnerable look at my previous version of success, what I consider success now, and how I started to overcome some of my initial toxic traits through my first experience with large group contest.
My first year of teaching was full of juxtapositions. On one hand, I had the largest ego on the face of the planet. I planned to go into my first job and create the biggest and best choir program the world has ever seen! People were going to know my name darnit, and I was going to be known. On the other hand, this ego was fueled by severe feelings of inadequacy as a first year teacher. “If I don’t do great things with this program, people will think I’m a failure, or worse, a fraud.” Was my ego based on the belief that I actually thought I was good? Heck no! It stemmed from the fact that I thought I needed to do “great things” in order to be seen as a competent director.
What did I consider “great things” when I started out? Touring big cities, having my students work with great conductors, performing at conferences, and of course, getting superior ratings at large group contest. Looking back, all of these things are worthy goals! Students should have the chance to tour for cultural immersion and performance opportunities. Students should work with great conductors because they provide experience and valuable perspective. Conference performances are great for students AND other conductors because we can see and showcase different versions of excellence. Programs should participate in large group contests because it builds comradery as we work towards a common goal. But were any of these my reasonings at the time? Heavens no. My motivation was about “look what I have done! Look at what I’ve created! I’m actually competent, see?!” And BOY was I served a big ol’ piece of humble pie my first few years. To save you all from some inevitable cringe, I will just say I was profoundly humbled and have learned from these experiences. If you want the full story, find me at State Conference or Summer Dialogue. I’d love to see your faces of shock and horror in person.
While I won’t go into detail on all of these experiences, I will shed light on the event that changed my perspective and trajectory as a conductor: the first time I brought my choirs to large group contest. I went into the contest season wanting to impress. I wanted to impress the judges and the clinician and walk away with a certificate that said “superior” to hang up in my office for all to see. “Oh, that old thing? Well I got that superior rating when I was a rookie teacher. Pretty nice, huh? (please validate me, please validate me, please validate me!!!)” Rehearsals during this time were militant. No time for fun, no time for games, just work. Yes, there are days that you need to be a little “nose to the grindstone.” But for every rehearsal months at a time? It’s a miracle kids came back the following year.
When it came to programming, our section required at least two pieces, three if time allowed. I decided to program three because I thought I needed to prove something my first time out. This was my first mistake. To save myself further embarrassment, I’ll label my song selections as Song A, Song B, and Song C. Song A was perfect for my group and accomplished many pedagogical goals I had for my singers. Song B was a stretch, but not out of reach; it was definitely going to push them, but I was certain they were up to the task. And Song C. Woof. Song C… If you were one of our judges when I programmed Song C, I promise I have learned from my mistakes, and I heeded your very honest comments.
My singers had no business singing Song C. It was too harmonically and vocally advanced for the group. No amount of militant rehearsals could have sufficiently prepared them. Then why did I program it? Because I wanted to impress. I had this vision in my mind that when (not if) they performed it well, I would finally feel validated and successful as a conductor and not (as I woke up daily fearing) a fraud.
Then there were my singers. My poor, patient singers. I don’t know what inner football coach I was hiding inside of me, but I was out of breath and hoarse at the end of each rehearsal because of how much I ordered and demanded of them. Despite my flaws as a conductor, these students (regardless of my contradicting instructions, stern demeanor, and presenting them with an impossible task) came in and did, to the best of their ability, what I asked of them.
When we finally reached contest time, my students and I had “superior” on our minds. After weeks of demanding rehearsals and stress dreams, the day had finally come. My proving ground. We got up there, performed, and…did not get a “superior” rating, to no one’s surprise except myself. I was shattered. Shattered and disappointed. Shattered, disappointed, and heartbroken. It was like my imposter syndrome had been telling me the whole time: I wasn’t good enough. I was a fraud. I have done a disservice to these students and to my profession.
I didn’t know how I could tell my students our rating. I was quiet getting them onto the bus, my hands shaking. I had failed them and they didn’t know it yet.
I was the last person on the bus. I grabbed the microphone, about to speak, when an alto shouted out from the back “GIBBY! WE DID SO GOOD!” A soprano in the front shouted back, “I’m so proud of us! And we got the weird chord on page three!” A bass in the middle replied “Yo, the basses KILLED that part!” I couldn’t even get a word out before the entire bus was congratulating each other, singing their favorite parts to their neighbors, and throwing high-fives around like they were going out of style. I was speechless until a tenor cut through the chaos and asked “Gibby, how’d we do?” I gulped. I was silent for a moment as the volume of the bus finally came down to a reasonable level. I couldn’t bear to shatter their happiness, but there was no use lying to them or keeping it from them. “We uh…we were ‘x’ points away from a superior…” At that moment I was prepared for groans of disappointment and a silent bus ride home. Another tenor shouted out, “ONLY ‘x’ points?! No way! I didn’t think we did THAT good!” and the bus erupted into another round of cheers. I was flabbergasted. The entire bus ride we talked about their performance, read the judges honest feedback, and talked about how we could improve for next year.
After a few days of confusion and doubt, I was able to articulate a different version of success. It wasn’t about getting a superior rating (though that is still something to strive for) and it wasn’t about being known as the young hot shot conductor. It wasn’t even about being recognized after a performance. It’s about achieving our best with the circumstances we’re given. No, they did not perform Song C as it was supposed to be performed, but by golly they performed it as well as they could in that moment and they were so proud of themselves.
Success is perseverance to overcome obstacles in order to achieve a higher level than you have before. That level is different for my outstate 9-12 choir program, which is different from a college choir, which is different from a large city school, which is different from a K-12 music program, etc. Why should I compare myself to another program or conductor when we have completely different circumstances? As Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy.”After that day, I worked personally to not compare myself to others and take joy in my students’, any my own, personal growth. We are human beings, so of course we compare ourselves to others. But now I have more peace knowing that the only success I need to worry about is my own and that of my singers.
My darling niece doesn’t need to be the next Beyonce (or Buzz Aldrin) in order to be successful, and we don’t need to be the next Robert Shaw to be successful, or competent, conductors/teachers.
Success means constantly challenging ourselves with realistic goals in order to be the best version of ourselves. Maybe your goal is to get your singers to sing in two parts for the first time, maybe it’s recruiting enough students to perform mixed repertoire, or maybe it’s having a singer show up at least twice a week even with their truancy problems. Whatever it is, your success is yours alone and no one else can define that for you. When I asked my singers what their goals were for choir this year, I got a plethora of answers: “I want to be a better singer” to “I want to be able to sing difficult music” to “I want to like my voice more” and even “I just want to be more confident.” What goal do I need to check off this year in order for myself to be successful? To have my students feel proud of their accomplishments, and achieve their individual goals. Oh, and to never program Song C for high schoolers ever again.