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Karen Allendoerfer

Yelling doesn't pay

December 2, 2007 at 12:13 PM

I have a performance today. It's 6:30 a.m. my time and I feel like it's too early to practice. I don't want to wake the kids, or my husband. Besides, it's pitch dark outside. Looking out my west-facing window here, there's no hint of the sun yet. The weather website is predicting snow. Advent calendars are up, and I'm playing "Fantasia on Greensleeves" in church about 5 hours from now. In between now and then, I will also have to attend a Religious Education Committee meeting and take minutes, and get my kids to their first Christmas pageant rehearsal.

I'm surprisingly un-nervous. Last year before performing this same piece in front of this same audience, I was pretty scared. But at that time it had only been about 3 months since I started playing again. Now it's been over a year, I have new, wonderful strings on my violin, a new chin rest and bow rehair, and I've even had some lessons.

But I must confess, after 10 years at this church, I'm still afraid of the music director. She doesn't read this blog, doesn't spend much time on the internet. In fact, she just got an email address a few years ago. And to be honest, this is mostly on me, not her. There are two things she does, both in the choir when I've been in that and while working with me individually as an instrumentalist, that have been hard for me to take in the right spirit.

The first is the way she handles entrances. In the choir a few years ago, the soprano section had a difficult entrance about 5 measures into a piece that we always screwed up. Every single time, it went like this: she'd play the intro, we'd enter incorrectly, she'd stop and yell at us and make us do it again. We'd do it until we got it sort of right, and then move on. Of course, since each of these sessions was of the 3-times-wrong, 1-time-right variety, we were learning exactly the wrong thing. Since I'd never heard the piece in any other context, that was what was in my ear. I'd get to the place where she always stopped us, and something would happen in my mind, the phrase would break and have to be picked up again. The performance was mediocre: the entrance was sort of okay but could have been better, and the phrase didn't really get going strongly until we moved beyond the part where she always stopped us in rehearsal.

So, last week there she and I were, rehearsing a violin and piano arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. We were sight-reading it. I don't find the notes of this piece difficult; it's familiar to me and I played 2nd violin in an orchestral arrangement of it in high school. However, there was a section where the piano was playing alone for two measures, she made a ritard, and I came in too early. She stopped and started yelling. "No! Listen! Don't count! I'm going to slow down there. Listen!" She went back to some place and started playing again. I didn't know where she'd gone back to. I still wasn't sure where to come in. I managed to do it correctly the second time, and she still stopped us again. "You've gotta know where to come in by listening," she said again. "Okay," I said meekly.

So she's right. I came in wrong. My bad. But we were sight-reading, and now, basically, I've got a complex about it. It's the soprano section all over again: I'm now afraid of that entrance. I've got the wrong thing mixed together with the right thing in my ear. And I've been told, in no uncertain terms, "don't count, listen!" If I had more time, maybe I'd try to find a recording and listen to that (that's helped in selected cases with choir in the past), but this is an unusual arrangement, it's not the composer's original, so I'm unlikely to find exactly what I need even if I did have more time. We have another rehearsal, right before the service. I'm hoping we can rehearse that passage *correctly* a few more times.

The other thing that's bugging me is the way she deals with intonation. Last year in the soprano section we had a member, "Mary," who was a beginning singer and who had trouble singing in tune although she had quite a nice voice in terms of volume, tone, and even vibrato. Mary confided to me at one point that she didn't think the director wanted her there, because the director kept giving her dirty looks during rehearsal. So before one of the performances, I rehearsed the part with Mary alone, slowly, just she and I at a piano, breaking it down and isolating intervals, playing them and singing them back. This helped me too. I didn't understand why we couldn't do something like that in rehearsal. Put the right thing in our ear instead of the wrong thing.

Anyway, something similar happened when I was rehearsing the Vivaldi Largo from Winter with the music director last week. In spite of much improvement with my teacher's help, I didn't have a lesson this week because my teacher was on tour and there were a few notes that were still off. I had had a hard time hearing it, and hadn't heard it practicing alone by myself, I only heard it once the piano accompaniment was there too. This time I stopped us and said I wanted to play that part slowly so I could figure out what was wrong and correct it. I didn't know whether the note was sharp or flat, only that it sounded wrong. I told her I can't hear it when it goes by so quickly. She then said "are you sure you want to play this?" Yikes, that made it sound like she was ready to drop the whole thing--and all I wanted to do was repeat a measure slowly a couple of times. The intonation flaw--like the ones my choir friend Mary had--seemed relatively minor to me, and eminently fixable. Why did it make her want to drop the whole piece (or make Mary feel bad the way she did in choir)? If we can't play it perfectly the first time, we should just pick up our marbles and go home?

The music director is a very good musician. She has a number of professional gigs outside of this choir director job and is no doubt used to working with higher caliber musicians than we. I'm sure they get it right the first time and don't have to work on intonation in rehearsal. And, in spite of what I wrote above, I think she even basically likes and respects me--even as a musician (not just as a scientist, or as a member of the RE committee, or any of the other roles in which we are passingly acquainted). It's just that her attitude wears on me. I feel that amateurs such as Mary and myself deserve the same kind of respect as the professionals she works with the rest of the week. We shouldn't be yelled at when we miss our entrances or play out of tune notes. We should be worked with so that we can get them right.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on December 2, 2007 at 2:20 PM
First of all, good luck playing today!

Second of all (insert big sigh here, followed by strong eye-rolling), just because your choir director is getting professional gigs doesn't mean she is acting professionally. It doesn't matter what you, or the other choir members, do for your paycheck: Her behavior is unacceptable.

So what to do?

You could start holding up little signs during rehearsal when she goes postal. Maybe the signs could say such things as: "What would Jesus do?" or "Can you yell at me a little louder? My soul is not crushed quite yet." or "The louder you yell, the more obvious your own sense of inadequacy is.".

Another plan of action is to have a meeting, or even write a letter, and explain how you feel. And if this behavior continues, quit.

Good luck!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 3, 2007 at 5:02 AM
I like Anne's advice. I like using humor to maintain your sanity and self respect. I don't know how comfortable you would feel discussing the issues with your music director, and I don't know how she would respond. However, if she erodes your self esteem too much, you need to go elsewhere, to a more nurturing environment.

I've attended several UU churches. UUs take music very seriously. All of the music directors I've worked with have been positive and uplifting. They get better results this way. You may want to check into the music programs at other churches. Music is an important criterion in choosing a church.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on December 3, 2007 at 2:25 PM
Or, Karen can come and sing in my church's choir. The choir director is really sweet, and a heck of a good pianist and conductor. Besides, she wouldn't dare run roughshod over her singers...they wouldn't stand for it (insert smiley face here).

However, the new priest tends to bellow into his microphone...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 3, 2007 at 4:58 PM
Oh, yuck! Sympathies. My choir director (I think we "talked" about this last year, that we were both singing in Christmas choirs?) will shout a lot when the sopranos (my group) come in early/late, with a wrong note, etc, so I don't begrudge your director that. (One woman, honestly, I'M the one grumbling about having her there because she's so consistently wrong on notes and beats.) But my director cares about the ppl just as much as the music and we all adore her, even when she yells (and sometimes she can be quite hilarious about demonstrating what we're doing that frustrates her). I'm so sorry you're in the situation you're in - it sounds just awful. I agree that a struggling amateur deserves the support a professional receives, if only in the form of compassion and some understanding.

Maybe Santa will bring you a new choir director for Christmas. : )

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 3, 2007 at 7:48 PM
Terez, what does your director do to take the sting out of her yelling at the section when they make mistakes? That is, how does she let you know she cares?

Frankly, our choir is probably a lot more amateur than yours. And, for whatever reason, I seem to be able to suffer musical "fools" (that is, people who can't count or who sing/play out of tune) much more gladly than most people with musical training do--and much more easily than I suffer criticism of same. (Maybe it's sympathy with my tone-deaf father, or maybe it's that I'm always feeling that I'm really just like them--only lucky to have been blessed with a good violin teacher in my youth).

Anyway, the choir has a hard time recruiting people and retaining people, maybe for obvious reasons (heck, I'm not in it this year either). And the director isn't a bad person; she can be wickedly funny at times too. I can imagine that she aspires to have the same kind of relationship with the choir as you describe yours having, but she feels misunderstood and doesn't know how to fix it.

From Shailee Kennedy
Posted on December 4, 2007 at 1:01 AM
Karen, first of all, sympathies on the musically stressful situation. An idea occurred to me though---do you have a recording device? It sounds like sometimes you're having trouble hearing things---either notes you're not quite getting right, or what other people are playing---which is totally understandable with so much going on---so I'm thinking if you recorded some of your rehearsals, you could listen to it later when you're not under pressure and maybe hear things you hadn't heard before that would help you later. I record myself every once in a while. Never enjoy it, but it's helpful sometimes. Just a thought.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on December 4, 2007 at 12:29 PM
I don't have a good recording device. I used to use my digital camera's movie feature sometimes, and that was good for intonation but not particularly for dynamics. Then I took the digital camera kayaking :(

I'm expecting a new camera, that also takes movies, today for my birthday. But the sound quality is not really satisfactory.

What would people recommend for, say, recording a lesson or a rehearsal?

From Shailee Kennedy
Posted on December 5, 2007 at 12:26 AM
I have a micro memo thing that attaches to my iPod, got it for about $60 (you have to have a video iPod, though). It records in mp3 format so I can download it to my computer, and the quality is decent. There are lots of options out there, though, some quite expensive, some less so. Make sure you can download what you record---it makes it easier to store and catalog, and there are even programs like Transcribe and Audacity that let you digitally modify them---pretty cool stuff.

I think recording music (your own and other people's) is an important part of being a musician---I know many musicians who don't, but it can definitely be helpful in terms of hearing your own playing more objectively and capturing music that you hear from other people. I take mine to my lessons and have my teacher play tunes and bits of tunes for me, and then I can listen to it as much as I want afterward---it's hard to catch everything the first time sometimes, so it's also a great help that way.

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