Every so often, I browse the CMAA forum and see what issues traditional church musicians are facing. I was banished from the forum ages ago, but occasionally someone sends me a link. I read this recently rebooted thread with interest, and page two here. Last September, after one pseudonymous commenter superceded a theme on pastor interference, Adam Wood had as good a bead on the situation as anyone:
I don’t know what your experience is or how many choirs you have conducted. But you sound like it has not been that many, and not successfully. The people here – who are advising a different approach – they know what they are talking about.
And that defensive feeling you are experiencing right now when people try to correct what you are doing? That feeling that makes you want to argue and then go away? That’s how your choir feels. That’s why you don’t have more people.
And a few months later, the other day, the troubled music director reported:
Since September, I have approached my choir in many different ways. I went the entire gamut of being a dictator giving out little compliments and expecting much, to being a softer, more loving servant leader addressing the individual personalities in my choir and being open and loving to any and all suggestions for improvement. It has gotten me nowhere. The choir continues to be difficult …
All the honey in the world will not satisfy some people who refuse to realize the true meaning of commitment.
It is difficult to see people in ministry suffer. Needlessly.
Sometimes complaints are publicized with the expectation that one’s colleagues will commiserate, nod sagely, and criticize altos, altar servers, or art & environment committees en masse.
Sometimes a listener attempts to help a person who is in difficulty. And it’s not always clear help is being requested. Or accepted.
I think there is an ideological block for some people regarding our so-called self-esteem culture. (I don’t buy the meme at all, but I know some people do.) Giving meaningless compliments is silly. I was in a small group conversation once where a male friend complimented an older woman on her hair. He didn’t know it was a wig. My female friend felt awkward. My male friend was oblivious and dug himself in pretty deep. I took the first opportunity to steer the conversation elsewhere.
A good alternative to complimenting someone is thanking the person. I think this is true for a few reasons:
- It puts the onus on me. Gratitude is a virtue I find I need to continually cultivate. It helps my spiritual life. Saints like Ignatius of Loyola counselled it. It derails my instinct for analysis and criticism.
- It puts the responsibility on me to look deeper than someone’s poor performance. God is so great he can make something better come out of a kazoo novice’s instrument than any well-planned piano piece I might practice for weeks. So I’m going to look deeper than my opinion of “Bad job!”
- It puts the responsibility on me to be truthful. I will thank a person for the willingness to step forward, the time they prepared, their attitude in doing something. All of these things: commitment, preparation, and attitude are good things. When I might have to steer a person to another way to serve, it can be helpful to know what their abilities are, thus steering them to a way to serve that will be fruitful.
- Positive reinforcement on tasks well done is absolutely necessary, especially with people who are novices to liturgical ministry. If a new communion minister wasn’t sure about bringing the cup to the person in the wheelchair in the front row but did it anyway, I will take note, and affirm their good instinct. If a new lector was uncomfortable with the twenty-second silence and fidgeted with their feet, I will affirm their choice not to bolt from the ambo or go up too early.
I’m glad I’m not an active music director these days. But if I found myself in MT56’s shoes and wanted to get into a fresh start, I would consider initiating one-on-ones with singers present and past. Why? To get to know them. To cultivate the highest virtue: not commitment, not orthodoxy, not musical perfection. Love. My love for them.
The last time I did this was to get a handle on a funeral choir I had inherited and that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do. I wasn’t comfortable with older people, especially men and women who were nearly all fading in their musical abilities. This wasn’t a choir that was going places. It would be a lot of work to maintain a steady output and performance level. And some people, over time, were declining sharply. So to speak.
I decided to meet with everybody one on one. I sat down at a piano. I asked the person about their favorite music, their favorite church song or hymn, and asked them to sing something for or with me. I got to know that choir. I got to know their voices. I got to know the individuals. And I prayed.
Soon enough, I found the energy to lead this choir I had been hoping to pawn off on a parishioner. I look back on the experience as not the most musical of my years in ministry, but one of the richest–and not just because we served at fifty funerals a year. I asked God for the grace, and I put in some effort of my own. When the parish was called to host the Chrism Mass one year, the volunteer choir was largely made up of that funeral choir. The visiting organist praised them on two or three valid points, and he took me aside and said he was skeptical of working with a loft full of older singers at first. I couldn’t take the full credit. The people were committed. The grace of God was active. And the love they had for God, their ministry, and for one another was the foundation to what they could do.
I don’t think music ministry is primarily about commitment, discipline, and order. I think it’s about love. Gratitude is a bridge that can get a minister to love. And once committed to love, one will inevitably be committed to relationships as well.
Jesus showed the way. He didn’t give people honey. He gave them love. And that makes a lot of difference.