About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“I still haven’t made up my mind whether I shall publish it all. Some people are so humorless, so uncharitable, and so absurdly wrong-headed, that one would probably do far better to relax and enjoy life than worry oneself to death trying to instruct or entertain a public which will only despise one’s efforts, or at least feel no gratitude for them. Most readers know nothing about canon law. Many regard it with contempt and find everything heavy going that isn’t completely lowbrow. Some are so grimly serious that they disapprove of all humor. Others come to different conclusions every time they stand up or sit down. They seize upon your publications, as a wrestler seizes upon his opponent’s hair, and use them to drag you down, while they themselves remain quite invulnerable, because their barren pates are completely bald, so there’s nothing for you to get hold of.”
— St. Thomas More to Peter Gilles, 1516

Thoughts That Enter A Choirmaster’s Mind
published 30 August 2017 by Jeff Ostrowski

N MY VIEW, the vocation of a choirmaster is fraught with obstacles. Why do so few conferences and authors address this issue? Am I alone in this view?

Is it really better to pretend these stresses don’t exist? Or does it make sense to (gasp!) admit their existence?

Sometimes I wonder why I worked so hard at the conservatory, far exceeding the requirements of my degree. 1 I say this because my job (often) has nothing to do with music. Every day, it seems new hurdles must be overcome: hurdles that are non-musical in nature.

(1) One of the most difficult things, in my opinion, is dealing with people who are crazy, disrespectful, or emotionally disturbed. As a choirmaster, the primary job seems to be “keeping one’s cool.” That means suppressing the almost uncontrollable anger that arises when we are abused by difficult people—whom our job requires us to tolerate with a smile. When I speak of difficult people, I do not include my choir members or my priest. But every choirmaster knows working with the choir is only part of the job. 2

Possible solution: It might be better to relax at the beach instead of practicing your scales. (I realize this advice may seem bizarre!) The relaxation helps us deal with the stress. More importantly, it helps avoid flying off the handle with rage.

(2) To give another example, the particular circumstances of my job require me to move about 90 chairs twice each Sunday, in addition to heavy furniture items. (Please don’t say “delegate” because that’s not an option at this time.) A very serious health condition I have makes this worse. Each Sunday, I can’t help asking myself what any of this has to do with music. Indeed, someone with a background in “furniture moving” would be better suited to my job.

Possible solution: Let us offer up these sufferings to God. A great theologian would often repeat: “The life of a church musician is a life of sacrifice.”

I have listed two examples, but tons more could be added. Increasingly, I find that 90% of my job is mental—by which I mean banishing thoughts of pessimism, despair, and despondency. Am I the only one who feels this way? I seldom hear my colleagues address this, although several have on the telephone. Dr. Tappan seems to agree with at least part of what I’m saying. I feel it would be beneficial for more directors to speak out, because pretending the obstacles don’t exist strikes me potentially damaging in the long run. In the conservatory, our focus was totally music: only music, and nothing but music. Perhaps there should have been some additional classes on how to deal with non-musical stresses!

One thing that really helps “keep me going” in the midst of turmoil is working with my volunteer choir members, who are generous, fun, and holy.


1   For example, during the summer I once transcribed about 1,400 pages of Renaissance polyphony, as well as working a full-time job.

2   For the record, I have worked for my share of deranged priests in the past. Which of us hasn’t? I could tell you stories you wouldn’t believe—and I’m sure each of us has endured nasty experiences at one time or another.