How long would you wait to fire a new, terrible volunteer choir member?
  • MarkB
    Posts: 878
    Summary: retired woman volunteers for choir, said she has a music degree from decades ago and is studying Vaccai vocal method. At the first rehearsal she scoops and slides into pitches and sings off-pitch, seems lost in the music. I tell the choir generally, so as not to single her out, not to slide into pitches; to hit each pitch precisely. Other choir members complain after rehearsal that her bad singing makes it difficult for them to sing accurately. I asked them to give her some time because she's new and might have been nervous, and she said it's been awhile since she's sung in choir. First Mass, she shrieks off-pitch on the high harmony on "Christ, Be Our Light," utterly ruining the song. Problem wasn't manifest during pre-Mass warmup, otherwise I would have addressed it then. After Mass I addressed her pitch and volume detractions immediately and bluntly with her. She thanked me for informing her.

    If she cannot or does not self-correct when she's singing off-pitch, if she doesn't blend her volume with the other voices, maybe she isn't even aware of how bad and how off she is. In that case, there's no way she can remain in the choir.

    Have any of you ever fired a volunteer choir member?

    How long should I wait, how much time should I give her to to see if she can improve or restrain herself before pulling the trigger? I'm thinking one more rehearsal/Mass will be it if she continues to sound terrible and be a detraction to the choir instead of improving.

    And, if it comes to it, how should I word it if I decide to fire her?

    I don't have auditions because I don't want that barrier to choir entry, but then I have to be willing to fire a volunteer quickly who obviously doesn't cut it: I can't let someone who doesn't sing well disrupt the choir's sound and progress for a long time out of misplaced charity to give her a chance. Choir has a job to do and choir members want to sound good, and we need to sound good at Mass, so keeping someone on who is a detraction at rehearsals and spoils the sound isn't wise nor charitable to the other choir members nor to parishioners. This is the first time I've faced the possibility of having to fire a new, volunteer choir member.

    Thank you.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,757
    If you have an extra priest you don't particularly like, you could encourage her to be "cantor" at that mass. Otherwise, you will either have to put up with her, or ask her to leave the choir. Having a volunteer choir does open you up to this sort of problem. I have found that many folks who once could sing don't know or accept what time has done to their voices. Generally, it hasn't done them any good. No easy solution.
  • I have an app in my phone "Nail the Pitch". It shows them the pitch of the note they are achieving, or maybe the range of notes over which they are wavering! I find a visual demonstration helpful, it would show her the problem.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Chrism
  • Tricky situation! If she doesn't improve, you could propose that you'd like to keep her ideally, but in order to address ongoing issues she would need to have individual lessons with you and improvement would need to be made. If that's too much work for her and she says no, then SHE is the one choosing to leave. If she accepts working one-on-one, presumably she improves and you get to keep a member. Obviously this only works if you're willing to follow through and provide lessons. Unless of course you only are able to offer lessons at 4:30am on Wednesdays...
  • TCJ
    Posts: 861
    Does she possibly have some hearing loss which makes it difficult for her to hear her pitch when singing in a large group w/organ?
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,683
    Is she new? Did these problems not manifest at the audition?
  • dad29
    Posts: 2,184
    If you have to ask the question, it's too late.

    Be sure to make a speech to the remainder of your choir that your intention is to preserve and foster THEIR music-making.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,690
    "Did these problems not manifest at the audition?"

    MarkB explained his rationale for not having auditions....
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,965
    For future reference, you can have an audition without calling it one: "vocal placement", for example.
  • Chonak,

    Yes! Or, he can say that he wants to get to know each singer outside of a group, since most of the singing they do is inside the group.

  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,444
    In your shoes my most serious problem would be with duplicity--throwing in a descant at Mass that she didn't do in rehearsals.

    Since there weren't auditions, I wouldn't fire her exactly, but I would make a rehabilitation program that could work if she follows through with it, but which she probably won't do, in which case she is quitting.

    I wouldn't let her rehearse or sing with the choir until she has worked very well outside of the choir.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,145
    Vocal placement... place her outside on the front steps. (sorry... couldn't pass that one up)

    Years ago, I did exactly as trentonjconn recommended and it worked out that the singer gave up.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,017
    Switch from 4 part SATB music to 5 part SLsATB music and put her on the Ls (Lipsynch) part.

  • Things like this do not vanish, Once one hears a problem voice he knows that immediately the choir's espirt de chouer is at stake, This should have been done after rehearsal at the beginning of the choir's new term. You will find that people will not sing for long in a choir that cannot grow because a prima dona' who has more voice than brains or her male counterparts, basso profundo, or the helden tenor, spoils every kind effort or charity which had been shown her. In a mini lecture how she should be singing (and breathing) and how to blend and not stand out (and tell her that it's not all about her.

    Ask her to sit out one Sunday and listen intensely to choir's tone and how the voices all blend as one voice with none standing out. If she shows understanding at the next rehearsal see it and heap compliments. Another method is to have your weakest soprano to sing just any pitch and ask the prima dona to match her, in tone and pitch, and her voice though medium part of an anthem.
    I have found that this is a make or break your efforts.

    You might address this matter with you past, too.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,757
    She rides again. I think she sings in every choir at some point.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMu9PKWthLE
  • Be honest with her, and make it quick. Give her one chance to adapt If she genuinely does have a music degree, she will likely appreciate this in a way that an unqualified person would not. Maybe she would like to participate in a non-singing role - do you need a music librarian, etc?

    That said - how long have you been back since Covid? If people have not sung for 18 months, their voices will be dreadful to start with.
  • Ha!
    In my experience a musick degree doth not a singer make.
    Sometimes, not even if it be in voice.
  • All the students at one of my schools used to laugh at the much-lauded voice professor who, we discovered during one recital, couldn’t hit a proper pitch with a whiffle bat. I remember, like it was yesterday, us all looking around at each other and then snickering afterwards about how demonstrably awful a singer she was. It was wild.
  • My experience as a voice major at a leading music faculty leaves me feeling disgust and despair for the future generation of singers. The technical focus is entirely on volume, neglecting proper registrational development which is necessary for complete security of pitch and dynamic. Rhythmic training is non-existent or treated as irrelevant to the vocal repertoire. The establishment of an honest interpretation is discarded in favour of emotional hystericalism, leading most performances to seem inauthentic or forced. Legato is completely neglected as the one "concession" to precision. Ironically, the instrumentalists who developed their schools of legato playing by copying singers now possess a truer legato than most singers today. As a result, all of the nuance necessary for the art song repertoire is completely lacking (to say nothing of the requirements of choral singing)
    Thanked by 2CCooze CHGiffen
  • CCoozeCCooze
    Posts: 1,259
    The technical focus is entirely on volume, neglecting proper registrational development which is necessary for complete security of pitch and dynamic

    Even to the point of not correcting someone singing the wrong voice part.
    While I was an instrumental major, I sang in various ensembles and even convinced the dean to vouch for me to take voice lessons from someone specific, rather than going progressive teacher route.
    I sang "Alto" for years just because I could, and because getting a spot as an Alto is easier than getting one as a soprano, since there's is always a plethora. However, not a single choral director or voice teacher in college told me I should be singing soprano.
    A professor who taught ear training said one day during an aural exam, "my dear, you should be singing soprano. What are you doing?" And a voice teacher post-university said that I shouldn't be ruining my voice by continuing to specifically sing alto parts in ensembles.
    Why don't any of the professors who supposedly are experts in teaching, maintaining, and progressing voices take the time to help people, rather than cover needed voice parts?
    /end rant
    Thanked by 3CharlesW CHGiffen Carol
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,757
    Good questions. I remember from college the actual voice professors taught the voice majors. Those of us who were not developing singers had music faculty who taught us what they knew. As noted above in another post, a few of them really couldn't sing very well. Then again, to refer back to the FFJ clone in the original post, many of us have voices that go into decline around the age of 50 or so. I know mine did.
  • ...into decline...
    I shan't reveal my age, but am very happy that my voice is in relatively nice condition. Basically baritone, I can sing low tenor and upper bass. I once could sing everything from a bass's low F to a countertenors high G. No more, but I'm thankful (and overjoyed) that I can still sing rather well.
    Thanked by 2CharlesW a_f_hawkins
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,757
    I can still do choir singing but the solo days are past.
    Thanked by 1Don9of11
  • Jackson,

    Did you attend Dean Inge's retirement party?
    Thanked by 1StimsonInRehab
  • Chris -
    No.
  • Weren't you and little Tommy Tallis school chums together?
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 1,112
    I shan't reveal my age, but am very happy that my voice is in relatively nice condition. Basically baritone, I can sing low tenor and upper bass. I once could sing everything from a bass's low F to a countertenors high G. No more, but I'm thankful (and overjoyed) that I can still sing rather well.


    MJO, I used to be able to do the same.
  • Chrism
    Posts: 842
    she shrieks off-pitch on the high harmony on "Christ, Be Our Light," utterly ruining the song


    Oh, no, ruined!

    OTOH, you could keep her as part of a new "Catholic Classic Choir" that has the exclusive right at your parish to sing works by Farrell, Joncas, Schutte, Haas, Haugen...

    Thanked by 2CharlesW tomjaw
  • Carol
    Posts: 790
    CCooze, I also have mostly sung alto in volunteer church choirs though I am actually a soprano, because I have the range and I can be a good section leader. As a result at 65, I find that, as a cantor, I now have a spot around the E and F above middle C that is very troublesome. Speaking of ranges, I can sing 4 D's. Not that anyone would want to hear the extremes, but I can produce those notes.

    Also, I have always been impressed by people who have great pitch, but can sing off key on purpose. I can only do it by accident!
    Thanked by 2CharlesW CHGiffen
  • ... off key on purpose..
    I once had a singer do that to me in a new choir. I applied the appropriate instructions to correct his shortcoming and all turned out well. It became known later that he was a flawless singer who enjoyed pretending to be a bad one once in a while. He could be flawlessly good or flawlessly bad at will, Good or bad, he was a superb singer.
    Thanked by 3Carol CHGiffen tomjaw
  • If you have legit reasons, and have decided she has to go, talk to her privately, but bring one of your choristers or accompanist with you as a witness, a SILENT witness. You need to be clear that she is not to return to choir. This is best done after she has returned any music materials such as octavos, binders and/or a robe. You must explain that she has issues which, in your judgement, are either insurmountable or would require so much time and effort to address and try to fix that it would be unfair to the rest of the choir and your work schedule simply wouldn't allow it. In either case, her dismissal would be done out of necessity, not out of spite. I've had to do this a few times. If she handles it well, great. If she does not, then propose alternative ministerial contributions. She can support your music/arts fund, or join a more appropriate parish ministry. If she really can't handle rejection, keep your cool and refer her to your to your pastor (assuming he would back you up). Let him handle it and be prepared to have a meeting between the three of you.
  • (assuming he would back you up).


    Start here. There's little point in planning a beautiful work of art if you may not purchase supplies or (as actually happened to me) your priest publicly trashes your approach, as part of the announcements at Mass.
    Thanked by 2WGS francis
  • jcr
    Posts: 116
    You have a problem that could be helped if she were willing to work at improvement. However, the chances are that if her voice has lost its luster it due to one of several problems.
    She may never have been a particularly good singer in the first place, or she may have been a reasonably good singer who, through a combination of neglecting her voice and her body has lost control of her vocal skills. I had a singer in the latter category at a church in Michigan. She had known some singers and teachers I had an involvement with in Massachusetts. I inquire about her and they said that she had actually been a pretty good soprano and in demand for choral and solo work in the Boston area. She was just too de-conditioned from inactivity and age-related issues that the voice was not what it had been.
    It would be a rare thing for a singer in this kind of shape to do the work necessary. It is also possible that she never did sing well.
    BTW; Vaccai is not really a method. It is an exercise manual with text and a great exercise in Italian diction, though.
  • It might just be a matter of redirecting their time, talent, and energy to the proper niche.

    The last choir I directed had a similar case. This gentleman was bristling with enthusiasm, always bringing in different pieces of music he had collected over the years in his voluminous collection. In addition, he was a virtuoso on the piano, and a stellar host as far as the ubiquitous post-rehearsal gatherings would go. However, he well into his octogenarian epoch, and as such, had to deal with the impairments often inherent to that stage of life: hardness of hearing, pitch issues, wanton scooping, and a general irascibility when the choice of music was not to his liking.

    I went about in two ways to resolve this issue: first, I made it a point of making him (as well as other members of my choir who were a little unsteady) listen, listen listen to one or more of his fellow section singers singing in problem areas before trying himself. Secondly, I assigned him more duties in a new position I created: choir historian. I told him to focus most of his energy in finding new music for us, researching the historical background behind said piece, accompanying practice videos for said music, etc. It helped quite a bit.

    So, it may just be that there's some strength she can provide to the choir, without necessarily throwing them off in choral singing.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen