Yesterday morning at approximately 6:45, I spilled half a cup of Mystic Monk Royal Rum Pecan coffee all over my desk at home. After I had sopped up the worst of the mess with paper towels, I assessed the damage. Most of the ruined papers were rehearsal plans from our last few weeks of choir before the COVID-19 shutdown. I tend to keep these papers because I write detailed notes on them during and after rehearsals.
Although it was nearly time to leave for my 8:00 AM live-streamed Solemn Mass, I found myself wondering, “Should I quickly transcribe all these notes onto clean paper so they’re not lost forever?” That’s when I realized God was trying to teach me something: Detach from the plan.
The Hidden Danger of Following a Plan
As a highly organized, extremely driven melancholic introvert, there are certain aspects of choir directing that suit me well. Planning is one of them. This entails more than just preparing detailed individual rehearsal plans. I also sit down at the beginning of each liturgical season to choose repertoire for upcoming feast days, calculate the total minutes of rehearsal time available, and put together a calendar for getting it all done. (Lest you think I’m not a fun guy, I should mention that I sometimes drink a beer as I work.)
Following my plan assures me that we’re making progress towards our choir’s highest purpose: to glorify God through music. But any plan for developing my singers is also a plan for developing myself. It’s a basic axiom of teaching that we can’t give what we don’t have. How can I acquire the skills I never learned in my training as a clarinetist?
I do various kinds of focused work to “put myself together.” This entails practicing Alexander Technique for good body alignment. Revisiting proper vocal technique so that I can model it for my singers. Evaluating the clarity and sincerity of my gestures in the mirror. Practicing more concise speech patterns so that I can trim even two minutes of fat from the next rehearsal.
It’s like building a new person—one that runs more efficiently in choir rehearsals. But there’s a hidden danger here. For a guy who’s wired like me, the tendency is to let this new, carefully constructed alter ego overshadow the real man—all in the interest of serving that unassailable higher purpose.
To put it another way, calcium deposits begin to form on our spiritual coffee pot. And the longer we wait to decalcify, the harder it will be to see the original shine underneath.
We can’t give what we don’t have—but we also shouldn’t give less than everything we are. The whole person. The gift of our true selves, being authentically present with our choirs. I probably shouldn’t try to dump out bucketloads of myself as an extrovert would, but I must remember to give consistent spoonfuls.
Of course, most of my choir members aren’t even here to receive these spoonfuls right now. Since the beginning of the shutdown, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to start planning for how I’m going to continue training them. But it wasn’t until my early-morning spill that I realized: this is my time to detach completely from what I have and focus instead on developing what I am.
Why Pursue Detachment Now?
Even before my spill-induced epiphany, I had begun searching for what I need most during this uncertain time. While weeding our front yard on Saturday afternoon, I had a sudden inspiration to listen to a series of sermons our pastor recently gave on recollection. Before I knew it, I had made it through all 11—and cleared the yard. What’s one of the most essential elements of recollection? It’s not a red neck, nor blistered fingers. It’s detachment. Just be. Him and me. Ah!
If you’re a church choir director, I highly recommend that you consciously pursue detachment now, before life returns to normal. But I think it’s a mistake to detach so completely that we’re only focused on the next live-streamed Mass. Instead, we can look for ways to make lasting improvements to the real person who animates our alter ego on the podium. For example: have you ever stopped to ask your singers how you’re coming across to them? You can probably get valuable input from any choir member—but your instincts will tell you who’s most likely to give you what you need most. Someone who “gets” the purpose of a church choir. Someone who has those intense eyes that notice everything. Someone who knows they won’t lose you if they’re completely honest in helping you find yourself.
These special souls can tell you things about you that you never suspected—or didn’t want to acknowledge. You’ll consider their observations, try on their suggestions, and start to picture the person they’ll see at the podium when your choir returns to session.
Scrubbing Away Layers
When I got home from Mass yesterday and saw my coffee-splattered papers still lying there, something occurred to me: most of my coffee hadn’t even made it into my stomach, and yet we had had a beautiful Mass. Our three-man schola stood just outside the sanctuary, where I realized I could gaze up at our enormous crucifix. I knew that by shortening my neck, I was compromising the body alignment I’ve worked so hard to develop. I didn’t care. I stared up at the crucifix and let my voice go.
So why do I think I need to be some charged-up, carefully planned version of myself to do a job in which I already have God’s assistance? Perhaps the most important work we can do right now isn’t to build ourselves up, but rather, to scrub away the calcified layers we don’t need.
I threw my soggy papers in the trash can. When I’m eventually back with my full choir, I won’t be able to address any issues from our Wednesday, March 18 rehearsal. But God willing, I’ll have something far more valuable to share with my dear singers.