Choral Harmonies

I have now sung in choirs for over 50 years. I began singing in the Lincoln Boys Choir, a mixed voice choral group that existed in the mid 1960’s. I sang in choruses in high school, and as an engineering student in college, singing in a choral group each year kept me sane. I veered into singing in musicals for a while, but returned to church choirs and other choral groups. My children had the opportunity to sing in the Appalachian Children’s Chorus while their voices were still in the treble range. Singing has offered me the opportunity to perform multiple times at the Piccolo Spoleto festival in Charleston South Carolina, and on the football field at the University of Nebraska. I’ve traveled to Scotland and Yorkshire with a church choir. My children performed in Europe, and in Hawaii. Throughout my life I have found fulfillment and excitement while singing.

What does singing (especially in a choral group) give to those of us who sing? There is extensive research that shows that singing and other musical pursuits does good things to the wiring of the brain. It seems to enable the two hemispheres of the brain to be in better connection with each other. It also appears to be beneficial to mathematical skill development. And I’ve already mentioned the opportunities for travel that can come with singing in a group.

But beyond the physical benefits that can come from singing in an ensemble, the biggest benefits come from subjugating your own individual will to that of the collective. You have to accept that you are not the leader. The leader is the conductor, and that person is the owner of the entire process. You are just a cog in the overall process.

Just being a cog does not mean that you cannot show leadership. The greatest benefit to a section in singing is to exude confidence (and actually be correct with the notes and rhythms). By leading, you can help the rest of the section gain their own confidence, as they lean upon you to show the way. But still, you must always make certain that your own voice blends with the voices of the section. It is only through this process that you can assist in your choirs increasing competence with a work, leading towards a successful performance.

It is my guess that Donald Trump has never sung in a choral group. Had he done so, he would show a bit of humility in his actions. He would recognize that, in order to be successful, you have to work in harmony with those you are trying to lead. No, instead of singing, Donald Trump is trying to emulate the flamboyant conductor (think Stokowski with his flowing hair). Donald Trump as a conductor reminds me of a performance I saw once where I asked my wife, “Is he conducting in 2, 3, 4, 6, or 7?” and she said “Yes.” I think that is an apt analogy to what I am seeing out of the Trump administration to date.

If you are a competent conductor, it is important to make a distinction between working with professional musicians, or working with amateurs. Since very few choirs are professional, it is necessary to deal with a wide range of competency in your choristers. It is different when you are dealing with professionals. There you can presume a level of competency and subject matter knowledge. Donald Trump pledged that he would surround himself with the best people, which I would take to mean that the level of competency and professionalism would be outstanding. Instead, what we have seen to date is an administration that is making a mark for itself in the incompetence it is exhibiting.

Think about the botched roll-out of the travel ban. It is a mark of rank amateurism to roll out such a sweeping policy without having consulted with the agencies that are expected to administer the program. The chaos that ensued shows that, far from working with a cadre of competent professionals, Trump has surrounded himself with those who have no knowledge of protocol or required communication and consultation practices. It is one thing to pledge to simplify government procedures. It is quite another to present a substantive change in processes via a simplistic administrative order, and expect the various functions of government to turn on a dime and implement these changes without generating upheaval. Maybe in Trump’s limited administrative experience where there were few links between the pronouncement of expectations, and the execution of actions to implement those expectations, maybe in a small organization these types of pronouncements from on high would be implemented successfully. To hold a belief that the same management style would work for the Federal Government shows a supreme hubris that is frightening to me, thinking that other program changes will be implemented in a similar way.

A good conductor will study the score so thoroughly that he or she knows every nuance of the piece. They will anticipate the section where the soprano’s may have tuning problems. They will know where the basses require extra monitoring to ensure that they don’t lumber and drag the tempo down. A good conductor of an administration should be able to understand the implications of what he or she is doing and have contingency plans in place to deal with the areas where difficulties may be expected. If there’s evidence of this type of care and concern in the Trump administration, I have not seen it yet. Instead, what I sense is that we have an administration that is reminiscent of the old Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney movies. “Hey, let’s put on a federal government administration!” , and just wing it. This lack of competence shows up in the almost complete lack of appointees for administration positions below cabinet rank. There are very few positions where someone has been nominated, and even fewer that have undergone Senate approval.

A hallmark of a musician, or a conductor, is whether they work well with others. Donald Trump, by his actions and by the actions of those who surround him, is exemplifying the exact opposite of working well with others. One can only hope that he learns from his experiences, although the chance of an intellectually uncurious person learning at age 70 is minimal at best.

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