CHOIR MEMBER ONCE TOLD ME, “You know what I appreciate about you, Keven? You don’t give dirty looks when people sing wrong notes.” It made me wonder what kinds of choir experiences he’d had before. It also made me think about how we should all respond to mistakes.
In my last article, I analyzed the reasons for mistakes and offered some tips for reducing them. As I mentioned, though, mistakes are inevitable, so we and our singers should learn graceful and charitable ways of responding.
Two Extreme Reactions, and Why They’re Distracting
I’ve noticed two extremes in responding to mistakes: laughing, and beating oneself up. Some singers naturally respond to embarrassment by laughing, but they immediately stifle it and carry on singing. No problem. Unfortunately, I’ve seen singers make a mistake during Mass and then laugh for the next 16 bars. Yuck. That’s worse than any mistake.
And then there’s the singer who beats himself up. Suppose you’re singing through a motet and everything is going fine until one of your tenors comes in a beat early. He hangs his head, slumps his shoulders, and looks disgusted with himself. Even after you’ve finished singing the piece, he continues shaking his head.
This tenor, of course, is preoccupied with his own singing (as is the laugher described above). He’s the baseball player who’s dejected about going 0-for-4 even though his team won 10-1. All the self-flagellation looks like humility, but it can turn into a subtle form of pride: “How could I make a mistake like that? At my level? After all the practice I’ve had?”
We mess up because we have a fallen nature, and it makes us—all of us—do stupid things sometimes. It would be impractical to bar imperfect people from choir. So the next best thing is to turn the church choir into a place where it’s OK to make mistakes as long as we’re doing everything we can to make them rare. To build an environment like this, you need 100 percent buy-in: everyone—especially the director—must forgive others’ mistakes and be completely confident of their forgiveness in return. Everyone must also forgive his own mistakes. The focus on group unity and achievement then becomes so strong that individual mistakes become footnotes.
Thus, whenever we allow our own mistake to change our mood, we put ourselves ahead of the choir. Each singer must realize that he’s irreplaceable, but also anonymous. He’s irreplaceable because a good choir wouldn’t be quite the same without any individual voice. He’s anonymous because if he’s doing things correctly, his voice won’t stick out of the group sound. Because we’re irreplaceable, we must bounce back quickly from mistakes. Because we’re anonymous, we should take heart that many of our errors will go unnoticed.
How Singers Should Respond to Mistakes
The best response a choir member can make after her mistake is to keep soldiering on. It’s helpful if she strikes the chest gently, signaling that she’s aware she made a mistake. This reassures other choir members that they weren’t the ones who caused the problem. It also helps the conductor decide in rehearsals whether to stop the group and rehearse that spot. If I see a very reliable singer strike after making a mistake, I’ll probably go on because I know it was a momentary lapse.
How Choir Directors Should Respond to Mistakes
Whether you’re dealing with a laugher or a self-flagellator, the quick fix is to pull him aside and discuss the need for decorum in the rehearsal room and loft. But I think you’ll get better long-term results by emphasizing the team dynamic in your choir. Remind singers to listen to everything but themselves—from the warmup through the repertoire. Make sure everyone breathes together on entrances. And insist on good eye contact with your singers. Eye contact does much more than help ensure everyone will come in together; it also reminds singers that they’re part of a greater whole.
Now, I will give a pointed look if someone makes a mistake they can still correct. For example, a singer might forget to take a repeat. Or skip a verse. Or continue singing forte when the whole choir has gone piano. A conductor’s gaze often fixes these problems in an instant.
Although I’ve conditioned myself not to give dirty looks, I’m not perfect. I’ll occasionally feel frustrated when I hear a wrong note. This is natural for any hard-working choir director who’s trying to push his choir to higher and higher levels of proficiency. But we must banish these thoughts—or face the consequences. Every time I allow myself to think, “How could someone have sung a C# there? We drilled this in rehearsal!” I’ll soon make a mistake of my own. This always serves as my blunt reminder that choir isn’t about individual performance.
Where Wrong Notes Go to Die
The topic of mistakes came into perspective for me a couple of weeks ago on the Fourth Sunday after Easter (1962 calendar). As we were singing the epic Offertory antiphon Jubilate Deo, I noticed the remarkable energy, nuance, and togetherness of the musical line. Yes, we have the unfair advantage of using scores from the ingenious Graduale Renovatum website. But I give most of the credit to the enthusiasm and team spirit of my singers. I heard mistakes along the way: a missed jump here, an ill-timed change of syllable there. But these imperfections floated by in my peripheral vision. I wouldn’t have traded our spirited, fully engaged rendition for a technically perfect but boring one.
I’ll leave you with something I told dozens of children at our parish Chant Camp a few years ago. As I reminded them not to get discouraged as they sang that day’s Mass, I quipped, “Don’t worry about mistakes. They’re over in a split-second. And after Mass, your guardian angel will gather them all up in a sack and throw them into that big dumpster in the parking lot.”
I’m not sure my idea has any basis in Scripture or sacred tradition. But I hope it helps flawed choir directors handle the task of leading choirs full of imperfect human beings.