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Avila Cathedral choir
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

The ethics of rehearsing and performing can be complicated.  Each situation is different!  That’s what makes collaboration so challenging, and interesting as well.

I’ve encountered various levels of ethical behavior in the many musicians I’ve performed with.  I wanted to provide some examples of what works and what doesn’t.

A Wonderful Example

Jennifer Larmore was one of my classmates at Westminster Choir College.  She was stunning every time she sang, even then.  So I was fascinated by a later broadcast of an oratorio where she was the mezzo-soprano soloist.

On performance day, the soprano soloist wasn’t so great.  Perhaps she was ill ~ there was no way to tell.

When Jennifer and the soprano soloist had a duet, the soprano had significant problems with longer phrases.  And her voice would certainly have been overwhelmed, had Jennifer not been exceptionally aware of the situation and considerate of her colleague.

As it happened, Jennifer listened intently, always balancing the soprano perfectly.  And when the soprano ended her phrases prematurely, Jennifer ended exactly with her, tapering beautifully and sounding like that was her original intent.

I’m sure you’ve heard duets that were out of sync.  It takes a superb artist to make this work when the match is so obviously unequal.

Later in the performance, Jennifer had an opportunity to sing as well as she always does.  Her sound was gorgeous and full, and she could enjoy sustaining long phrases.  What a pleasure to hear her.

Unacceptable Behavior

Have you ever accepted a performance only to get a call about a “better deal?”  What did you do?

I think it is vital to your credibility to keep your original commitment.  If you explain the situation to the “better” presenters, they will call you again.  But if you bail out of your first commitment, your decision affects the presenters (who have already done publicity, mailed brochures, sold tickets, etc.), the audience members (who choose concerts based on the brochure), and the other performers involved in the concert.  One thing is certain:  you won’t be asked back.

Unethical Behavior

I once overheard a violinist at a music festival talking to a cellist in the trio they were assigned to.  The violinist told the cellist very directly that he hated his playing!  I was appalled.

This was a temporary situation, lasting only for a week or two.  First of all, telling someone you don’t like their playing is often heard personally.  You don’t like the player. Artists are their art.  It is very difficult to separate the two.  And secondly, people can always find a way to work together for the duration of one concert.

On another occasion, my trio was about to walk onstage for a performance.  The house manager had already dimmed the lights, which was our signal.  No problem, right?  Except that the violinist wasn’t there!

I found him in an electrical equipment room, away from the stage.  So we entered late for our own concert.  That, to my mind, is unacceptable.

Thoughts on How to Keep it Ethical

A comment from Martin Katz comes to mind:  If a singer is not adding ornaments, then you should accommodate her/him by not adding ornaments, either.  It’s not your job to upstage anyone.

If you need a day or two to think about a possible commitment, then say so!  Presenters I have spoken with are happy as long as you provide a clear date when you can get back to them.  But don’t keep them waiting for weeks.  They get ticked off, and you could very easily lose the concert.

Knowing What to Accept

Most important:  know your strengths.

Include in this list skills you could learn quickly.  For example, if you are a pianist, learning to play synthesizer would most likely be easy.  But harpsichord?  Organ?  Fortepiano?

You may be asked to do any of the following:

  • improvise
  • play from figured bass
  • play chorus parts
  • play from open score (no piano reduction)
  • transpose an instrumental solo (i.e., viola) while also reading chorus parts
  • play from a lead sheet
  • play jazz, gospel, blues, or soul
  • conduct
  • lead a sectional rehearsal
  • transpose an entire piece
  • make up an intro, interlude, or postlude
  • add a descant
  • add ornaments

and other skills that haven’t occurred to me yet!

Do you know a variety of styles?  Can you play by ear?  Do you need to have the music written out?

Okay, you get the idea.  Now answer the phone!  Then show up well-prepared and early.

Comments about your experiences are welcome!!!

♥ ♥

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!