Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Alice Parker in a summer workshop at Westminster Choir College. Alice is a legend in choral music, our choral matriarch, if you will.
The pearls of wisdom she offered us on a daily basis were an embarrassment of choral riches. But one pearl stood out to me and has stayed with me, continuously revealing its wisdom to me over the years. At the very end of the week, Alice said, “I’m going to leave you with this parting thought and it’s the most important thing I will have said all week.” I was hanging on every word. “Above all,” she said, “be musical in your mistakes.” She went on. “It’s easy to be musical when all is going well. The mark of a great musician is to be calm, collected, and musical while the mistake is happening so that you can do what is needed to ‘right the choral ship.’ Teach yourself and your singers to ’embrace the mistakes.’ That is musical greatness.” As a young conductor, I remember being a bit deflated by these imparting words. I thought, “Isn’t the ultimate goal as a choir director and as a choir to be PERFECT?” I was determined to reach a point in my career where there were no mistakes.
Since then, I’ve learned there is no such thing as “perfect.” There is no perfect person, no perfect job, no perfect life. There are no perfect choirs, no perfect singers, no perfect parents, and certainly no perfect choir directors. As conductors, as much as we try, as high as our standards are for ourselves, as often as we do our job well and get it right, there are times when “life happens” and we fall short – perhaps in poor repertoire selection, or in our lack of effective rehearsal preparation, with our less than perfect concert programming, in less than perfect conducting, or less than perfect tour planning. Choir Directors are human. We make mistakes. A lot.
Over the years, I’ve imparted Alice’s pearl of wisdom about mistakes to the boys of the Keystone State Boychoir. Before and after every performance, I remind the boys that the measure of success is not whether we were perfect – though “near perfect” is always a laudable goal and wonderful when it happens. The ultimate goal is to at all times be musical – and especially to be musical in our mistakes. I remind them that in the history of live performance – no matter how stellar the ensemble or performer – there has never been a 100% perfect performance. In the choral art, sometimes we do get to bask in a perfectly performed piece. Therein lies one of the great beauties of our art form. Our performances are typically made up of a bunch of musical “moments” – aka, songs or movements. With each new one on the program, there is the possibility for perfection, even if the piece before it was less than perfect. I’m reminded of the lyric by Stephen Sondheim: “if life were only moments, then we’d never know we had one.” And so, ironically, we actually need the less than stellar performance of a piece so we know when a stellar one happens.
When KSB was invited to perform in Minnesota at the ACDA National Convention, despite that pearl of wisdom from Alice I’ve always held on to, I immediately began having hopes (delusions) of choral perfection. That is what all choral conductors dream of when such a high stakes opportunity comes. And somehow implicit in that dream is the secret hope that our choir will be considered one of the “better” ones, and that we will be deemed one of the “ better” conductors. Certainly, some degree of competitiveness and ego is healthy – necessary even. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, what drives us to persevere through the thousand challenges that come with attempting to do something extraordinary. But gone too far, competitiveness can cause us to lose sight of what’s important. I definitely experienced some of that blindness as we arrived in Minneapolis.
Enter Eph Ehly, twenty-five years after my crossing paths with Alice Parker. Eph is another choral legend. He also lost all his worldly belongings in a terrible house fire, and shortly after lost his beloved wife. He’s known success, and he knows all too well that life is not perfect.
At the ecumenical service where the Grads were singing, Eph, who was preaching, ended his sermon by telling the congregation to listen carefully. “I don’t have a lot of important things to say,” he said modestly, “but this is really, really important. In fact, it’s the most important thing I’m going to say today.” These words sent me back to Alice’s almost identical words on the final day of the workshop so many years ago. I hung on every word once again. “Stop competing with each other!” he ordered us. He named the elephant that is so often in the middle of these kinds of events. Eph went on to point out, with great eloquence, that each of us is placed in a specific corner of the universe, assigned to care for and nurture and lead a specific group of singers at this moment in time. And therefore, we and our singers are the most important, “best” choir director and choir there is. Wow! This was a new pearl of wisdom, one that upon hearing it, I knew immediately would inform and inspire me and my work with KSB in the next twenty-five years. They were words I needed to hear. I was nervous about KSB’s national ACDA debut, worried about whether we would be considered “worthy” and “good enough,” and at the same time was secretly hoping audiences would place my choir and me in the “better” category. With Eph’s words, all of that worry fell away, and I was able to take a deep breath and just be happy to be performing at such a wonderful event with wonderful people like him, and also be at peace with however KSB would do, knowing that we had prepared well and would give it our very best.
Sure enough, in the four performances we had in Minneapolis, along with all of the incredible, stellar, musical “moments,” there were a few mistakes. But thanks to the combined wisdom of both Alice and Eph, I am able to embrace them as part of the experience. In fact, my proudest moments came when, with me in the audience powerless to help the boys, they remained musical all on their own, during mistakes that were not theirs. I know Alice would have been pleased. I certainly was. What skills choral singing gives our boys for life! In both live performance and life itself, you have to keep going. There is no “stopping the world and getting off” when things go wrong. You just have to take a breath and work together with those around you to right the ship. Learning how to do that is, I believe, choral music’s most valuable gift to us all.
As a choir director, I’m always striving for stellar performances of the highest musical standard. But should I strive for a “perfect” performance if there is no such thing as “perfect?” Should we strive for a perfect anything in life? I think Alice and Eph, with their words, are encouraging us to perhaps redefine our notion of perfect. I think they are asking us to do a little less comparing, a little less labeling of “better” and “best” and “less than.” They want us to bask in the important, vital, and unique work we are doing in our place and our time with “our people.” And to embrace – in music and in life itself – both those stellar moments as well as those moments where mistakes are made, and to meet them with calm, with musicianship, with grace. When we do that, maybe, we will have finally attained PERFECTION.
Let me add another pearl of wisdom, another one of my new favorite – a paraphrased lyrics by the great, late Leonard Cohen:
Sing the choir that still can sing
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That is how the light gets in
So THANK you staff, chaperones, parents and especially the boys, who all made this national success possible.
The KSB Trebles and Tenor 1’s knocked it out of the park singing Ceremony of Carols with the Cincinnati Children’s Choir (CCC). They have never sounded better, and their professional poise on stage was stunning. Doreen Rao, an icon of children’s choirs, sought me out to rave about the boys’ musicianship, presence, focus (#therecanbemiracles), and “most importantly, their joyful performance.” Those words from Dr. Rao are the highest praise one could ask for. (She gave a shout out to The Eight Sopranos,” describing their sound as heavenly, floating and free.) KSB and CCC received standing ovations at both concerts – not easily earned at an ACDA convention.
Likewise, Eph Ely sought me out to declare the Grads the best high school young men’s group he’s ever heard. “Astounding in every way … musically, their energy, their breadth of repertoire.” Agreed!
Finally, our joint concert with the Minneapolis Boychoir was one of the very best KSB concerts I can remember. The audience was on their feet twice – once for “Baba Yetu” and then at the end of the program. Like ACDA, this was earned. And as we know, you can’t just yearn it, you gotta earn it. Viva KSB!