Earlier this week, Judi and I attended Alex’s seventh grade choir concert. Like his Dad (or, maybe because of his Dad), he’s interested in choir. So Thursday morning at 6:30 AM, I woke him up, and got the lad into the shower. He wore his teal choir tee-shirt all day long at school, attended practice until 5 PM, and got an hour reprieve before The Big Concert.
The music was adequate. The Advanced Girls’ Ensemble sang an a cappella National Anthem. Very nice. The orchestra’s 1st violins were a bit out of tune, but not intolerable. The Mixed Chorus (Alex is in this group) was good. They sang “Ashira la Adonai; Qi Gao Ga’a” for the first piece (I believe this is from that Moses cartoon and I was very surprised to understand the Hebrew with my limited (mostly reading) knowledge of the language), and something about the “River of Judea” for the second piece. A quick word about the “Ashira la adonai” bit… The words are “I will sing to the lord… He had triumphed gloriously…” then “mi cham’ocha adonai” Who is like you, oh Lord? They skipped the verses where thousands of horses and charioteers were drowned in the Red Sea. We can at least thank adonai for that. The “River of Judea” song (I wonder which river the song’s referring to? the Jordan I suppose) was also nicely done. A few more orchestral pieces, and then the girls ensemble singing a nearly-unbearable a cappella arrangement of “Hey Jude,” and a pretty rendition of “Oh, Danny Boy” (they were coached to sing it “Donny” which didn’t sit well with me.) Apart from allowing the soloists to swoop into notes, and a couple soloists whose egos filled the gym more palpably than their voices, the chorus produced a nice three-part sound. The orchestra was good, apart from some painful intonation problems in the violins. The music was marginally better than one would expect from 7th and 8th graders.
So… You know me. You can feel the gripe coming… Where’s the beef, you ask?
The choir director had me so angry I nearly wrote her an email last night. I decided to rant on this blog instead, without mentioning names of schools, teachers, etc. If you know Judi and me, you can probably piece together the whole story, but I really don’t want to hurt anyone involved (or put Alex in the unenviable position of his parents fighting a battle with one of his teachers). Still–I need to get the whole nasty affair out of my mind before the smoke pouring from my ears causes passers-by to go unconscious.
The adults were given a full page of “how to behave during a performance” notes in the concert programme. To be honest, the audience wasn’t the problem.
Have you ever felt that a conductor chose her profession, not because she loved music, but because she had to control something in her life? Most American students prior to the 1990s were in a choir or a band of some flavor, so riddle me this: before a concert, where did you go? You went to a practice room, or a green room/staging room of some sort, right? When it comes concert time, you file in silently, perform your thing, and then leave silently after the applause has faded. Right? Not this group! she seated them in bleachers, about 30 feet from the risers where they would be performing (I know where the choir room is – about 30 yards from the performance area). The students sat where they were told, and started talking, as seventh graders will do. About fifteen minutes before the performance, the conductor picked up the microphone and yelled at her students, not for the level of noise made by their chatting (which was considerable) but for moving around the little PostIts on the seats. Apparently each student was given a place to sit, in order to make sure they filed onto the risers correctly, they were to sit on their PostIt note. All this was done in front of the audience, where the parents got to watch the conductor “be in control.” Sickening.
Additionally, she’d forgotten to find seating for one of her choirs, if you can believe that, who had the privilege of lounging against the gymnasium wall for the duration of the hour-long performance.
The choir tentatively mounted the risers in a confused huddle. They had not practiced this, Alexander told me later. Obviously. Sigh. The stage presence, once she untangled the Gordian knot of students, was abhorrent. Girls fiddling with their hair (one girl chewed on her hair while singing); boys picking the underwear from their butts cracks. Some kids were standing sideways, while others faced the audience head-on. Kids with arms crossed. Children poking each other to make offhand comments during songs. During the other performances, the students sat on their PostIt notes in the bleachers (or lounged like West Side Story hoodlums against the gym wall), and talked–loudly–amongst themselves. The orchestra organized themselves in the orchestra room, filed into the hall and sat silently while the others performed. The contrast was staggering.
It’s a good thing we parents were given a full page guide of concert etiquette: most notably the line “it is customary to applaud when the director takes the stage.” Yeah. Because the show is all about the director, folks. Remember that. Not the music. Not your kids. The director must. be. applauded. Or the evening goes kaput. Funny how things work out though. You customarily don’t applaud the director when the evening begins with “Excuse me? Excuse me! If I could have your attention? Ok, hi. I’d like to welcome you to …” Ah, theatre.
Incidentally, and I’m qualified to speak to this topic because I watched coverage of the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton (and thus learned everything worth knowing about fashion faux pas), you don’t wear polka dots if you’re pregnant. I’d personally like to thank HRM Queen Elizabeth II, whose family taught me to to make catty remarks this week.
The choral director did all the between-song talking. The conductor of the orchestra never said a word all night. The choral director referred to the orchestra as “that little band” at one point during the night. You know — a fifty-member string orchestra, playing 17th-century Caccini pieces — that little band.
At one point she halted the programme to for shop talk. She used the five-minute lull to tell the parents when the students should be there the following Friday; they would be busing to Williamsburg, to the choir competition. We also learned that 3 AM was going to be a really hard time for the director to wake up, because she was pregnant and she needs her sleep, and that she’s been the choral teacher for six years, but she was doing it for our students. To be honest, parents stopped listening around minute 2. We’d receive a flyer with that information sometime the following week. We didn’t come here for a talk. We came here for a performance.
At the end of the programme, she bowed, acknowledged the accompanist, forgot to acknowledge even the name of the orchestra conductor, didn’t acknowledge the kids at all, and told the orchestra parents where to pick up their kids (pick them up far, far away from the choir kids) so the evening would proceed in a more orderly fashion.
We went to Starbucks afterward. It was closed. We went to another Starbucks. They didn’t serve strong enough beverages for post-concert debriefings. If not for Alex, Judi and I would have gone to the Virginny Gentleman’s Liquor Club or something.
We’ve been careful never to mention any of these criticisms to Alexander. We don’t want to discourage him in his pursuit of learning music. In fact, he’s nearly come to blows with his brother, who poked fun at his choir director’s name (granted, it is a rather uncommon English name that slides off the tongue with the grace of marbles from a dental patient’s Novocaine-deadened lips). Alexander neither likes nor dislikes his conductor. But the evening’s greatest indictment came from my son: the director favors the girls. This was evidenced by the fact there is an “advanced girls’ chorus”, and a mixed beginners’ ensemble, and a mixed intermediate ensemble. Alex griped several times that evening after the concert, how the girls chorus gets special trips, special tours and performances, they spend time practicing before and after school, while the dozen-or-so boys in chorus get–you guessed it–yelled at for being annoying. The Advanced Girls Chorus opened and closed the programme last night.
Let’s face it: you will always be able to find girls to sing in chorus. Middle School is that awkward time of adolescence, where you will permanently lose boys to the enjoyment of music, if the director doesn’t make a concerted effort to include them. Singing will rapidly become an uncool thing to do; whether in group or in solo. The last two years’ advent of the Fox network’s musical drama Glee has helped the popularity somewhat, but a TV show will never erode decades worth of anti-music stigma. This battle begins with the director. S/he MUST work with the boys: do special things for them. After the Christmas concert, Alexander was in tears because there was no boys’ chorus at his school, to help him to become a stronger singer. Granted, he’s a special case. He actually wants to participate in music. But there are surely dozens of boys in his school who have the talent, and with the right director, could have their lives changed by music.
I’m a washed-up music major. I only spent 2 years after graduating (with my degree in Music Education) doing anything remotely musical for a living. I found it preferable to eat, rather than rummage through the dumpsters for discarded waffles behind the Scotts Valley Denny’s, so my life took a turn back in the early 1990s. Still, I have passion there. I know what I see, and I don’t like it. I remember my experience in choir and how it changed my life. And then I examine my son’s experience. There’s no comparison. I just hope the conductor doesn’t ruin music for him before he gets to high school. It would be a pity if he never got to sing in a good group for a decent teacher.
On the upside, I like what the director did with her hair.