It’s late summer, so normally at this time I would be choosing songs for the church choir to sing at Christmas.
Christmas! Can you imagine worrying about that right now? In the middle of the summer we’ve had? My imagination is stretched to the limit. And beyond. And without even thinking about Christmas, because Christmas has been the number one thing NOT on my mind lately.
How can I possibly think about Christmas now?
I used to pride myself on being able to conjure up some Christmas spirit for myself as I would pore over holiday music in the middle of summer. It was a way for me to get excited about the coming choir season. I remember Luther Vandross once said in an interview that he enjoyed recording his Christmas album in the summer, because that was a time he felt compelled to MAKE the Christmas spirit real, and his singing could be all the more authentic.
If I’m being authentic right now, I’d say my concerns are a long way from choir directing; my concerns are about surviving the pandemic, like most typical folks around me. There’s no more room for concerns about choir directing. If anything, choir directing has become something of a threat: The pandemic has rendered singing in groups physically dangerous, and so now I have a deadly weapon in my breath. Meanwhile, the racism pandemic has rendered the classically trained choir director psychically dangerous, a threat to the indigenous, authentic voice we only think we know how to access. I am a typical white Western choral artist, and the patriarchy that upholds the typical white Western choral artist is having its reckoning right now.
I say, bring it on. I’m happy for this.
Earlier in the spring, I had something of an identity crisis, thinking about the future of my profession and what I should be doing. The pandemic has offered some of the most powerful, sweeping answers: Distinguish your identity from your work, and take a critical look at both in terms of your place in humanity and your true will. Yikes! This should be fun.
Which, of course, completely upended my sense of time and space, such that I’m not thinking about Christmas in the summer anymore. Plus, I’m reading Ibrahim Kendi instead of the Episcopal hymnal. I’m setting aside Aristotle for Augusto Boal. I’m throwing out everything I ever believed about my art that made me pretentious, inauthentic, and self-serving. The podium is no longer the pinnacle. There is no more winning, no more striving or competing.
Just recently a voice student of mine said, “There is no competition, because no one can take away what’s yours.” And now I’m constantly thinking about ownership in art – what do I actually own, what do I actually claim as mine, and most importantly, who owns the original? Do I really own my art, or is it appropriated from another culture? Is it authentic, or is it the product of my cultural programming?
More questions keep flowing from these, more questions that strip away pieces of my identity and expose all the PROGRAMS that run me instead.
At the end of the process, I stand like the exposed chassis of an android from space.
This is not supposed to feel good. It’s not supposed to be cool, even though it is. Deprogramming takes away our inner securities. It’s supposed to leave us vulnerable.
Western culture calls conductors to be conquering heroes rather than vulnerable artists, at least in the schools where I was taught. Embrace vulnerability, and you cede power. And it’s all about having power.
But is there no power in vulnerability?
I’d say this is a much better question to focus on right now than, “What Christmas carols do I want to do this year?” Before I do anything with my singers – even just a Zoom call to see how everyone’s doing – I want to make sure I’ve dealt with the right questions, and with my own intentions.
This is a journey.