What Does Caring for Ourselves and Our Organizations Look Like Now?
This is a uniquely challenging time for the choral field, full of both hope and fatigue. For two years the ground has shifted constantly beneath our feet, leaving many feeling drained and apprehensive about the future. Yet this has also been a time of extraordinary creativity and innovation, and the reaffirmation of the value of choral music. We asked seven choral leaders to share how they are caring for their organizations, their singers, and themselves right now.
Have you implemented new practices to support the wellness of singers, volunteers, or staff?
Caron Daley, Director of Choral Activities, Duquesne University: I’ve tried to make the choral experience more qualitative. I’ve taken the focus away from performance and toward process. We’ll take time at the beginning and end of a rehearsal to have a discussion about a range of things: How are you thinking about this music? What about this music resonates with your experience? Very open-ended kinds of qualitative questions. I don’t believe I took the time to do that before, and it has had a profound effect on the level of social bonding in the ensemble.
I am more cognizant of the individuals in the ensemble, each with such unique perspectives and needs. As a conductor, how can I preserve and protect and enjoy those individuals? How can they feel valued? Of course that was the case before, but I was so focused on the musical product, and now I’m more focused on the experience. I don’t think that will change - in fact, it makes the music better.
Zanaida Robles, composer, vocalist, and teacher: There's so much in the area of mental health that we weren’t paying attention to before now. Some of the things we’ve put in place include regular check-ins and more intentional warm-ups designed to facilitate breathing; everything we do has to contribute to our mental and emotional health. It’s being more heart-centered and sensation-centered rather than cerebral.
One thing I’ve been contemplating with my high school students is testing; during the pandemic we had to rethink how we do grades, and it hasn’t felt right to go back. From a health standpoint, I think there are more students who would benefit from not having that kind of pressure, and I haven’t experienced a significant lessening of our excellence outcomes. So if it hasn’t resulted in less excellence, and it has resulted in less stress, I want to stay in that mode.
Chris Eanes, executive director, Cathedral Choral Society: I don’t want staff worrying about how much time they can take off. We have changed our policy to what is technically called non-tracked PTO, but is essentially unlimited paid vacation. The fact is, none of the staff take that much, I have to make them step away. Like everybody else, we’ve readjusted our working from home versus working in the office policy. We’re not a five-day-in-the-office organization, and we never will be again. The most important thing is that we operate with the understanding that people need grace to do what they need to do for themselves. We’re all being very flexible with each other.
Robyn Lana, artistic director, Cincinnati Youth Choir: We have a Zoom option for singers to use if they are exposed or sick. I appreciate that they are self-monitoring their exposure. They’re very thoughtful about that and we’re finding that we can trust people. In January, when Omicron was on the rise, most of our singers were coming [to rehearsal] but there were a couple of families who were really worried about it, so they came to Zoom. If they communicate with us, we’d rather have them there in that capacity so that they can rejoin, rather than stop and hope they can find their way back in. We respect family decisions.
What organizational practices are you re-thinking? Have you changed the way you plan or execute programming to relieve pressure and stress?
Craig Hella Johnson, artistic director, Conspirare: We’re trying to ask ourselves more consistently, do we have the bandwidth to do this? Certainly financial bandwidth, but also staff energy, staff time, and trying to be mindful of the fact that things seem to be taking more time and more space. We’ve been open to contemplating larger paradigm shifts too. I hate to use the P-word, but we’ve learned all this pivoting. How far in advance do we want to plan? We still believe in long-range planning in a big way, but is that nine-month season framework still serving us in the best way, or not?
Ingrid Lestrud, artistic director, Arlington Chorale: Last fall I intentionally planned a long rehearsal cycle so that we could have shorter rehearsals without a break. I didn’t plan that way for the spring; last summer we all thought that by January things would be normal. Most of the groups here did not rehearse during the surge in January, but we decided to keep rehearsing and have our members test. We met with half the group at a time.
We’ve been using more practice tracks this year than we did before the pandemic. It’s worth the time and expense and helps people feel more comfortable.
We also got a technical assistance grant to hire a consultant to help us with strategic planning. We’ve just met with him once, but he had a lot of great ideas about the future of our group. It was helpful to talk to someone else, because it’s been hard to do any long-term planning not knowing what the world will be like.
Maria A. Ellis, teacher, owner of Girl Conductor LLC: Pre-pandemic I held [my singers] to a ridiculously high level. This year, I’ve chosen easier repertoire that they can master. This is where we are, so let’s rock where we are. There’s nothing exciting about coming to choir rehearsal and feeling like everything is over your head.
I’ve always given space for us to do wellness checks. I tell my students up front, just let me know where we are today. If today is not your day, let me know. I try to keep that line of communication open.
Daley: I have programmed fewer concerts this year to balance out singer fatigue. And I did less repertoire - fewer pieces, shorter concerts.
How are you making space for thoughtful leadership while still taking steps to move your organization forward?
Johnson: It’s as simple for me as the airplane guidance of putting your oxygen mask on before you help your neighbor. I need to ground myself every day in meditation and quiet space. For me it’s 30 minutes a day, in the morning. I need to take that time to reflect on purpose and ask those larger questions of myself on a regular basis. Why am I doing this? What was I called to do? What is my work here? And then to try to stay with that larger sense of purpose when I go about the many challenges and tasks. Then I feel like I can be balanced and available to that sense of leadership.
Eanes: We start every staff meeting with a look at the long-range calendar. I don’t need to focus my staff members on the execution of tasks, it’s my job to pull them back out and say, what’s the overall goal of what we’re trying to do here and what do we need to be doing for six months, even a couple years out.
Ellis: I’m not full-time anywhere, so that gives me space to really think things through and try to calculate how I’m going to move next.
A lot of us are empty - so what do we do in those moments when we’re empty and we’ve got students who are also empty but you’ve got to figure out a way to make it work? On days when I know I’m running low, those are days when I tell my kids, today we’re going to have a meditation day and I’m going to play some soothing music and we’re going to just chill out - and be ok with that. Whatever’s going to happen that day will happen, but in this moment, for these 90 minutes we’ve got each other.
Lana: I’m trying to support the team as much as possible and find ways that I can take on more so they don’t feel as burdened and we can keep moving as we rebuild. There is a lot more burden on my shoulders than there has ever been, and that’s not healthy. I need to find people that want to join the team and help bring this program into the future.
Robles: The emphasis of self-care can’t be overstated. I actually have to schedule days that say “do not schedule.” That's what facilitates the time for creative leadership refueling to happen. We have to be really disciplined as leaders to create space for ourselves to recover. It’s frustrating because we’re so tired, and part of what we’re tired of is being disciplined. In addition, I’m intentionally going to see other people making art. I‘m realizing how much I grow as an artist by watching other artists.
What are your current pain points?
Lana: One of my personal biggest pain points is seeing the emotional health of our singers deteriorate. It's taken a whole different level of nurturing and guidance and self-esteem building because they’ve been isolated. We’re seeing, every day, new mental health challenges with our kids. It’s heartbreaking.
Robles: The pain point for me is the frustration with having had the building process put on hold for a while and now feeling like you have to start from scratch.
Lestrud: I have to think about my body a little more while conducting. Something I’ve noticed, I’m leaving my music everywhere. I can’t tell you how many times I have left my music at rehearsal. I never used to do that. I’ve read that forgetting things is a sign of trauma.
Everybody is under so much underlying stress. Sometimes the emails I get from singers are unusually sharp. I’m trying not to take it personally, because I think we’re all near our breaking points. A lot of us are making mistakes that we wouldn’t normally make, just because our brains are so overloaded.
Daley: My own health and wellness has come to the fore, and it’s been utterly essential that I address those things, given the context of the pandemic and the stress I’ve been under, those things have to be addressed in order for me to have longevity in this field.
Eanes: For us, it’s reminding ourselves of how to throw a concert. We’re redeveloping our entire operations manual. We have to teach ourselves how to do this again. Everything is taking longer right now.
Johnson: For every single pain point, there is a door we can walk through if we stay present to it. There is an opportunity in it. The challenge of keeping that sense of ensemble unity is something I’ve observed. I worried that might happen, that we might grow apart. The opportunity there was how can we communicate with each other more?
How does choral music play a role in your own wellness? Do you see it contributing to the wellness of communities that you are working with?
Lestrud: For so many musicians, music is part of our identity. When we’re not doing it, it feels like we are shadows of ourselves. Going back to rehearsals, I had to get used to being back in the world. For our March concert, everybody had tested twice so we allowed people to take off their masks. Most of them did choose to take them off and it felt so amazing to see their faces. It feels good to be with everybody in person again.
Ellis: Teaching is my superpower. I always feel better after I teach. Choir is a place of joy and happiness, choir is fun, a place of love and caring. That’s the world that we have as choir directors. I don’t take that for granted, that I get to stand in front of these students and be a part of their lives. I’m so honored, and I want to make sure that [their] experience with me is one of the best experiences [they] have. Our singing can transform somebody else’s life. I don’t take that for granted, and I try to make sure I pour that love and heart into my teaching.
Daley: One of the most painful things about the pandemic is that choral singing has always been celebrated as a way of bringing people together, and then it became a mode of disease transmission. No one is taking choral singing for granted these days. It contributes strongly to communities. I see that in my students, I see how much they love singing now more than ever. It seems to play a healing function.
In my own wellness, I have returned to my own love of choral music through listening. I’ve taken more time to be with the score and to listen for enjoyment. Certainly choral music has played a role in my own convalescence through this experience.
Robles: Singing is a way that we connect with our bodies, with our spirits; singing in community is such a holistic experience that can relieve stress. There is a spirituality from singing, not just sacred music, but the concept of voices and hearts mingling in space together.
Lana: Being around the energy and the sound in the room (especially after doing it for a year and a half on Zoom), it really does soothe the singer and anybody in the room listening or working with them as I am. Singing in the choir really helps their mental health. Now that we are singing with no masks, it’s been amazing to see the joy.
Johnson: It feels like an essential engagement right now, because it’s one of the few things that I can see culturally that gives us some sense of the universal in this very divided world. I believe that this music has the power to transform us, to change our perspective. It can remind us and show us what we have in common.
For my own wellness, it has been really meaningful, in my role as a conductor, to be even more present to the gift that is coming in my direction from a singer who is singing in an ensemble that I’m working with. The gift of an individual’s voice. I’ve been finding myself more and more refreshed that we get to do this and that we get to share this. We’ve come out of this thing where it was taken away from us; to be returning to it, my cup is filled up by this gift of engagement with each other. It’s just an extraordinary way to be with other people in this life.
Caron Daley serves as Director of Choral Activities at the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She frequently lectures on the applications of Dalcroze Eurhythmics to choral practice and is widely published on embodied teaching and learning. Caron serves as Past-President of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) of Pennsylvania and Collegiate Repertoire and Resources Chair for ACDA National.
Christopher Eanes is the executive director of the Cathedral Choral Society, the oldest symphonic chorus in Washington DC. He is a musician and arts leader who has engaged with communities of students, singers and supporters throughout the world. Before joining CCS, he served as the artistic director and CEO of the Cincinnati Boychoir for 10 years.
Maria A. Ellis is a conductor, passionate educator, and owner of Girl Conductor LLC, a company that creates diverse music education resources. She teaches at Sumner High School in St. Louis, the oldest Black high school west of the Mississippi River. She is the host of Bach and Beyoncé on the St. Louis radio station Classic 107.3.
Craig Hella Johnson is a conductor, composer, arranger, and educator known for crafting musical journeys that create deep connections between performers and listeners. He is the founder and artistic director of Conspirare and is also music director of the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Chorus America.
Robyn Reeves Lana is the founder, managing artistic director and conductor of the Cincinnati Youth Choir, Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. When not leading the Cincinnati Youth Choir, over the last quarter of a century she has served as a conductor and clinician across the United States and internationally. She is a member of Chorus America’s Board of Directors.
Ingrid Lestrud is the artistic director of the Arlington Chorale, an auditioned community chorus in the Washington DC metro area. Empowering students to serve their community through choral music, she also leads the Chorale's Youth Community Council. She conducts two choruses for Encore Creativity, and she has formerly served as faculty for the National Children's Chorus, as well as several colleges in the midwest and on the east coast, leading both choral and orchestral programs.
Zanaida Stewart Robles is an award-winning composer, vocalist, and teacher. She is a fierce advocate for diversity and inclusion in music education and performance. Born, raised, and educated in Southern California, she is in demand as a composer, vocalist, clinician and adjudicator for competitions, festivals, and conferences related to choral and solo vocal music.
Caitlin Patton is a Standards for Excellent Licensed Consultant and the Executive Director of the National Music Festival. She lives on a small farm in Maryland and is a violinist, choral singer, and former board chair of the Chester River Chorale.