S MANY CHOIRS resume rehearsals, recruitment season is also upon us. But once new members join, they learn a great deal more: are the people in the choir happy, welcoming, and friendly? If so, newcomers will likely stay. Is the Director supportive and encouraging, even if firm and demanding? Are rehearsals fun, yet focused?
I try to remember that I am there to serve the parish and the Church. The choir members are not there to serve me. I am both Director and servant. Such an approach strengthens the mutual respect between Director and singers. This mutual respect must be strong in order to serve the parish and the Church well.
This also brings to mind the relationship of leadership, authority, and power. A true servant leader, one who exercises authority in the service of others, can generate great power for good and for positive transformation. Likewise, those who possess authority, yet use their power to serve themselves, render great harm.
Serving the Church is both challenging and humbling. Music Directors must maintain this sense of humility and service no matter how prestigious a position (in the eyes of the world) they may hold. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” – Isaiah 55:8
HE POWER OF ENCOURAGEMENT, especially from those with authority, is profound in ways one may never know. Interestingly, I have found that those who are secure in their own art and with themselves are the most encouraging. Those most insecure within themselves tear others down. Fortunately, I was greatly blessed to study many years with James David Christie, Organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chair of the Organ Department at Oberlin College. A great artist, his devotion to his students is relentless. While demanding and tough, he encourages endlessly. He sees the best in his students and draws it out. And all this is while concertizing around the world and directing the choir at the College of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. His service to his students is humbling. The result is the respect he commands as a person and as an artist.
FINALLY, I SHARE THE FOLLOWING STORY about the legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. It seems the story inspired a scene in the film, “A Late Quartet.” But it originates from the autobiography of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976). In Chapter Seventeen, he describes playing absolutely terribly for Pablo Casals. But the Maestro’s reaction was startling:
“My great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.
“Mr. Casals,” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed, like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.
“Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.
“Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals embracing me.
Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.
The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I played for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello. “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” He demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “Leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.” I left with the feeling of having been with a great artist and a friend.