The Second Class Musicians

“The musicians and the choristers.”

It’s sort of an inside joke among musicians. But all joking aside, that’s how most people view choristers, unfortunately.

Hola a todos. Mi amigo/My friend and I were watching a video featuring a superb Symphony Chorus recently. He leaned over and whispered to me, “They’re really not musicians, you know.” I just rolled my eyes. Of course he was joking and mocking the ignorant people among us who have so little respect for the Chorus.

In symphonic choral performances, the Chorus is “the star,” — not the soloists — along with the Orchestra. It’s a joint effort.

But on YT, it’s another story. A video will feature a major work for Chorus and Orchestra. When one hesitantly looks at the comments, who are most people praising? The screaming (celebrity) soloists who didn’t sing most of the time during the performance. Yes, the commenters praise and heavily applaud the “heavy”/excessive vibrato screaming soloists. Who do most people ignore in the comments? The Symphony Chorus who had the major role in the performance along with the Orchestra.


Therefore, who are seen as the second class musicians? The Chorus, seated behind the Orchestra. They’re just considered “background” to the musically-ignorant.

Upon reflection, maybe this ignorance is partly attributed to the fact that the traditional placement of vocal soloists is on either side of the conductor, so that gives the soloists this appearance of being more important than they really are, upon the edge of the stage staring at the back wall. These days, particularly in Europe, I’m seeing more performances where the soloists are placed back on the side of the Chorus or in front of the Chorus, if there’s room there. I much prefer that arrangement. When Boston University’s Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed The Bells by Rachmaninov, the two soloists were placed inside the Orchestra. The soprano was seated among the violins and the tenor was seated among the cellos. That worked beautifully. And they stood when it was their time to sing.

I think that in many (if not most) people’s minds, the Chorus performing with a (major) Symphony Orchestra is considered unimportant. Second class musicians. Sort of on the same level with that of your amateurish podunk church choir.

The highly-skilled Symphony Chorus is not considered on par with the highly-skilled musicians of the Orchestra or of the same musical caliber for some odd reason, even though they are all well-trained musicians in the Symphony Chorus. But to the musically-ignorant, they’re considered “fluff” and “background.” I don’t know where this unfortunate thinking began. But with few exceptions, I see this mentality all the time in YT video comments. I guess one should consider the source since YT/G**gle seems to prefer stupid and childish videos catering to the worst of people and the lowest common denominator.

It doesn’t matter which Orchestra it is or which country, I still see this mentality of disrespect for the Chorus. Although in Chicago, and based on one performance that I saw I noticed that their audience seems to have a bit more respect for the Chicago Symphony Chorus, based on the applause level when the CSC stood to be acknowledge at the end of the performance. I suspect that was especially true when the late Margaret Hillis (Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus) walked on stage at the end of performances to have her superb and Grammy-Award winning Chorus stand to be acknowledged for their performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This odd phenomenon of the Chorus being thought of as second class musicians was brought to mind recently when I watched a symphonic choral performance from Amsterdam. They were performing a piece for Chorus, Orchestra and two soloists. The Chorus had the major role along with the Orchestra. And in this performance, both the Orchestra and Chorus were excellent. But who were the commenters below the video gushing over? The shrill-sounding operatic screaming soloists and especially the “heavy”/excessive vibrato soprano soloist whose voice could probably have been heard metres away. Second in line for the gush-fest was the conductor (who didn’t play one note). Not one person in the comments said a word about the excellent Chorus. And I’ve seen this countless times, and find it so disrespectful to the Chorus. In the comments, it was as if all that people heard was the screaming operatic soloists. Were the soloists using “heavy” vibrato to mask their bad vocal technique and/or pitch problems as can be the case? Based on the comments, one or two people did hear the Orchestra.

I think the gushing in the comments was from — as expected and as usual — the pretentious Classical Music Snots who (for first time readers) are those self-appointed, know-it-all authorities on any and all aspects of classical music. I think they are people who wanted to be musicians but did not possess the talent, intelligence and did not want to go through the years and years of intensive training and work required for being a professional musician, so they decided it would be much easier (and far less expensive) for them to be classical music armchair critics on YT. There’s no work required for that! Unfortunately, these snots ruin classical music for a lot of people. I can’t stand them. They’re also the same basura who worship big-name/celebrity conductors as well as big-name/celebrity opera singers screamers, and they love to drop names. Of course it’s always the name of some well-known celebrity conductor or screaming soloist to give the impression (keeping up appearances) that they’re some sort of “expert.” I also get the impression they are mostly into screaming opera, in part, because they think they’re supposed to be in order to appear all-elitist. You see, there’s this class-ist element of wealth associated with opera and with many (if not most) pretentious Lah-Tee-Dah “opera goers” Dahling. There’s less of this pretentious nonsense with Symphony Orchestras, not that there aren’t some who have to tell everybody that they know, “We’re going to the Symphony, Dahling.” So, that could explain their (the Classical Music Snots) obsession over the excessive vibrato screaming soloists who sound very out-of-place in symphonic choral performances where the Chorus is singing with a lovely, pure, straight tone (giving them perfect intonation/the perfect blending of voices), and the soloists are using excessive vibrato and screaming — instead of singing musically and beautifully — which prevents the perfect intonation/blending of their voices where one can’t even tell what pitch they’re singing. Often they’re singing in between notes or sharp or flat. I also get the impression that the Classical Music Snots don’t know the difference between opera and a symphonic choral work.

When BBC Radio 3 had a message forum, I noticed this lack of respect and recognition for the Chorus in a performance. Some guy was going on about the Orchestra in a choral performance, so I challenged him on that. He responded to me by saying, “I consider the Chorus part of the Orchestra which is why I didn’t say anything about the Chorus.” I explained to him that the Chorus is not part of the Orchestra even for Orchestras that have their own Chorus, such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That’s why they are called the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, for example. The Chorus is a separate ensemble and they only perform with the Orchestra a few times a year during the season. All other times they are in rehearsal preparing the choral repertoire for the season. They have sectionals (the sopranos and altos rehearsing together or tenors and basses) and Full Chorus rehearsals every week so that the Symphony Chorus will be at the same level of excellence as that of its Orchestra.

I have noticed that choral ensembles do get more respect based on the applause level at BBC Proms’s performances when the Chorus Director comes out to take his bow and has the Chorus stand at the end of the performance. In that instance, there is usually a rather loud roar of approval for the Chorus. So maybe it’s a bit better in Britain. They do have a strong choral tradition, in Britain, including the choral tradition of the Anglican Church with its Choirs of Men and Boys, and most recently the addition of Girls and/or Women.

I also think the disrespect for the Chorus comes partly from people’s ignorance. I honestly don’t think the average person can tell one Chorus from another quite frankly. I suspect all Choruses pretty much sound the same to a musically-untrained and illiterate ear.

Also, due of ignorance, some people likely think that any piece that involves a Chorus is opera, in part, because of the often screaming, shrill-sounding and excessive-vibrato opera soloists brought in to symphonic choral performances, rather than using soloists singing with the preferred straight tone from the Chorus.

And, I don’t think that the average person knows the difference between opera and symphonic choral music. I think to them it’s all the same.

Maybe this will help to clue people in to the differences:

Opera involves costuming and scenery and (unfortunately) “heavy”/excessive, vibrato where the soloists usually sound like they’re screaming rather than singing musically and beautifully. Vibrato is often used to cover up/mask bad vocal technique and pitch problems. Can’t sing on pitch? Then sing with “heavy”/excessive vibrato — think screaming opera divas — where it sounds like they’re singing screaming in between notes and sharp and/or flat. They think the audience will never know the difference. I heard a diva like that recently in Amsterdam. She wasn’t singing exactly on the correct pitches but the casual listener probably didn’t notice because she was using excessive vibrato at times, especially in her upper register. In some instances, it’s difficult to tell the difference between an opera diva’s screaming and shrill voice — especially sopranos — and that of the high-pitched sirens on an emergency vehicle passing by in the streets outside the venue. Also with opera, the orchestra is in the orchestra pit (they vary in depths) in front of the stage so the orchestral conductor can see what’s happening on stage.

A symphonic choral performance does not have costuming or scenery, and it’s not supposed to include vibrato. Some people, including the Vibrato-bots, will dispute that statement and ask me “where did you get that from?” I’ll explain what I mean by that. That’s the problem with bringing in screaming opera divas as soloists because they clash with the Chorus. It’s a case of excessive vibrato (soloists) versus a straight tone (Chorus). The two don’t match at all. They don’t go together. This is another ill-thought-out tradition of the classical music field. I’ve seen some performances in Europe where they will do an encore involving all the performers and the conductors asks the soloists to join the Chorus (singing with a straight tone) for the encore piece. When the soloists become choristers, they turn off their vibrato as any singer can do. Either the conductor asked the soloists ahead of time to please turn off their vibrato or the soloists heard that the Chorus was singing with a straight tone and they knew (as good musicians do) that their voice needed to blend with the other voices in the section of the Chorus they were joining. A Symphony Chorus/Orchestra Chorus should be singing with a lovely, pure, beautiful and musical preferred straight-tone. That’s the only way to achieve the perfect blending of voices where each section of the Chorus sounds like one voice. One should not hear individual voices in a well-trained Chorus. It’s called perfect intonation, the perfect blending of voices in each choral section (SATB). The use of vibrato prevents the perfect blending of voices.

For a symphonic choral performance, the Orchestra is on stage. Occasionally, an Orchestra will have an “Opera Night” or something similar to that where celebrity opera divas perform solos or duets from operas. In that case, the divas stand in front of the Orchestra at the edge of the stage and scream at each other and to the audience. Sometimes, some operatic acting is involved (always the heteronormative “him and her”) acting out some love scene.

I’ve mentioned vibrato many times. This is from Vocal Technique Instructor, Karyn O’Connor:

“There are situations in which vibrato is an undesirable effect. In choral work, vibrancy rates among individual choir members may differ either slightly or enormously, and vibratos that aren’t synchronized can destroy the quality of a soft, unison passage. Wide-swinging vibratos that aren’t squarely on pitch in one singer can throw off the pitch of other singers standing next to them in the group. Most choir directors make the decision to have everyone sing in a ‘straight tone’ to avoid such inconsistencies in the overall sound of the choir. A straight tone can help singers in a large group blend more easily with each other. Therefore, tempering how much vibrato a singer uses or has, if any at all, is a valuable skill in an ensemble situation.” [Source: Singwise: An Information Based Resource For Singers By Vocal Technique Instructor, Karyn O’Connor].

As with choral ensembles, I also think that all orchestras sound the same to a musically-illiterate ear. The average person probably can’t tell when they’re hearing an outstanding Orchestra either, they’re merely going on the name of the ensemble and its reputation.

If we had a serious music education programme in the US public school system, over time this might help musically train the ear of students — especially the gifted students with an ear for music and inspire them to go into music — to recognise the finest of musical ensembles. But that’s not at all a priority with the perpetual war-based US Oligarchy and its corrupt Democratic and Republican corporate parasites who, most of whom I think, see music and The Arts as “fluff.”

Mi amigo/My friend says: “If you put a soloist — particularly an operatic soprano soloist who sounds like she’s screaming rather than singing — and a jet engine noise together, I doubt that most people could tell the difference between the two of them either!” Perhaps. Then after the performance given by the jet engine, you’d still have that perfunctory guy in the front row jumping up uncontrollable and grunting out a loud roar before the conductor lowers his baton at the end of the performance. The conductor was hoping for a bit of respectful silence between the last note of the piece and any applause, but that idiot guy in the front row who has to always be the first to applaud, prevented that. (Think: the BBC Proms).

I think that when the average person sees a Symphony Chorus performing with an Orchestra — even with major Orchestras — they see the choristers no differently than that of your average mediocre podunk church choir where some or all of them probably can’t even read music. That couldn’t be farther from the way things really are. These ignorant people in the audience — who watch YT videos — likely think that the members of the Symphony Chorus are people who just walked in off the street without auditions, picked up their vocal scores and that the piece the Chorus is singing has been drilled into them by rote, and that the choristers are only turning pages of the vocal scores in their hand to read the text, because they can’t read music. Wrong.

Choristers in Symphony/Orchestra Choruses are required to undergo very stringent auditions. I know from experience, having been through three auditions for Orchestra Choruses (Choral Arts Society of Washington, University of Maryland Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus). Some choral ensembles require re-auditions every year for current choristers where other choral ensesmbles audition current choristers every-other-year. In other words, a choristers continues to be auditioned as long as s/he is in the Chorus. One can’t just get in there and think, “my auditioning days are over.” No they’re not! Choristers are required to sing a piece of their choice (an aria from an oratorio, for example) — with the piano accompanist for the Chorus serving as audition accompanist — to demonstrate one’s vocal ability. Prospective choristers are required to sight-read during the audition, including contemporary pieces which are quite difficult. Sometimes the sight-reading part of the audition involves singing with another chorister to see how well their voices blend and harmonise with each other. The audition may also include the candidate being required to sing back random notes in a series played on the piano, which can be difficult, because of nervousness and one has to remember all the notes in the correct order one just heard and repeat them back to the Chorus Director. Auditions are required for all choristers in Orchestra Choruses because they only accept the best. So as the reader can see, membership in a Symphony Chorus is nothing like one’s membership in the average podunk church choir. Now there are some parishes and Cathedral Churches — especially in the Anglican Communion — who have the same choral standards as that of major Orchestra Choruses. One that comes to mind is the renowned Choir of Men and Boys at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (Anglican Communion). And they have a lot of respect and regard for their Choir at that parish, and they also have the only resident Choir School in the US.

The Chorus performing with an Orchestra is no different than the orchestral members as far as their musical training, sight-reading abilities, musical background and experience. It’s just that with choristers their training is in vocal music and they usually have trained in a different degree programme than that of orchestral musicians. Their voice is their instrument, not that they don’t play other instruments.

But with the Classical Music Snot (ugh), the voice is worshiped only when one is a (screaming) soloist. If one is a chorister, with few exceptions, the chorister is completely ignored. This thinking is very disrespectful to the Chorus.

Also, with Orchestra/Symphony Choruses, any of the choristers with their voice training could serve as a soloist, and in some cases they do. Some might not feel fully comfortable doing so and feel they have more of a “choral voice” than that of a “soloist voice,” but any of them are quite qualified to be a soloist, from my experience in three Orchestra Choruses. So there’s this glaring double-standard/hypocrisy between the respect given to (screaming)*** soloists versus choristers.

But I think this all boils down, once again, to a lot of ignorance about music on the part of the public.

The Symphony Chorus should be fully paid. Every Chorister.

The Orchestra is fully paid. Why isn’t the Symphony Chorus?

Most orchestras help promote this second class musician status onto choristers by refusing to pay their Symphony Chorus or an invited guest Chorus. I’m not aware that a guest Chorus is paid. The opportunity to perform with the Orchestra is seen as their “payment.” The convoluted mentality of orchestral management — with their exorbitant salaries — seems to be:

“We are giving you, the Symphony Chorus, the opportunity, privilege and exposure by performing with our Orchestra, and that’s all the ‘pay’ you need (unspoken: or deserve).”

That seems to be the mentality of those elitist jerks in orchestral management.

Of course, all the invited soloists are paid because they usually come from artist agents and not from within the Symphony Chorus, as they should. I wish the soloists were selected from within the Chorus, provided the Chorus is singing with a beautiful, lovely straight-tone.

I only know of two orchestras in the US that pay their Chorus — assuming my information about this is still correct — and that’s the fully-paid Chicago Symphony Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (20% of the SFS Chorus is paid, or it was when I was in the Chorus, and that was the case the last I heard. A chorister states that s/he is auditioning for a paid position, but s/he may have to accept a “volunteer”/nonpaid position, since there are only so many paid positions available).

I remember when Chorus Director Margaret Hillis — with her all-paid Chicago Symphony Chorus — stood before the San Francisco Symphony Chorus which was demanding to get some paid choristers at that time. As interim Chorus Director for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, she said, “Professional does not mean paid.” What an arrogant thing to say as she’s standing there in Full Chorus rehearsal receiving her generous salary! And some of us really resented that and I personally noted the hypocrisy. To support orchestral management bringing Ms Hillis here to San Francisco, she felt the need to stick her nose in our controversy. I thought to myself: Well if that’s the case Ms Hillis — that “professional does not mean paid” — why don’t we remove your generous salary that you’re receiving? I’m sure you wouldn’t mind since (as you say) “professional does not mean paid,” no? So I’m sure you wouldn’t mind volunteering your services here as interim Chorus Director for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Hypocrite. Then when you go back to Chicago, inform the orchestral management that you’ll start volunteering your services there as Chorus Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Can we expect you to do that? To this day, I have the greatest admiration for her as a Chorus Director and the stellar results she received from her Grammy Award-winning Chicago Symphony Chorus in the Best Choral Performance Category, but I have to say that some of the things about her personality left me feeling cold about her. I remember reading some comments online awhile back about Ms Hillis and how some of the choristers of the Chicago Symphony Chorus felt that she was difficult to work with and that she was so picky. Was she difficult to work with because you’re all being paid? And I’m not clear on what they were talking about but her being “picky” achieved the most superb of results. I received the same “picky” complaint — so I guess I was in good company — when I served as Organist and Choirmaster in Anglican parishes. Some of my choristers referred to me on occasion as “you’re so picky.” They said it in a friendly, smiling way. I was paid to do my job and I wanted the highest of choral excellence. I was a stickler for diction. My view was/is that “if you can’t sound that good as a Chorus, you can at least have good diction.” (smile). I think Dr Traver (University of Maryland Chorus) said the same thing. And it’s true.

All other Orchestra Choruses perform for free to my knowledge. What if they refused to perform? In that case, the Orchestra would just find another Chorus of the caliber of excellence they require and invite them to perform, and the new Chorus would likely agree and would be delighted to have the opportunity. Years ago, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra disband their Symphony Chorus. From what I read, their Symphony Chorus wasn’t that good. They were not of the same caliber level of excellence as the BSO. After their Symphony Chorus was disband, whenever the Baltimore SO performed a symphonic choral work they invited Dr Paul Traver’s stellar University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them. After they were liquidated/disband by the University of Maryland’s School of Music at College Park, the BSO has since invited the University of Maryland Concert Choir to perform with them on occasion, or the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

Serving as a chorister in a Symphony Chorus is a major commitment — I can vouch for that! — because one is usually volunteering one’s time for free with all-expenses (travel time, gas, food) being paid for by the chorister.

For the major Orchestra Choruses, some Chorus members travel far distances (at least 4-plus hours round trip in some cases) for the opportunity to perform with the Symphony Chorus with a major Symphony Orchestra in a major concert hall.

It is a thrilling musical experience to be part of a superb Symphony/Orchestra Chorus and to hear that beautiful choral sound that one is surrounded by as a chorister. It can put a lump in one’s throat and can bring tears to one’s eyes it is so beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous, when one has an outstandingly superb Chorus singing with a lovely, pure straight tone giving one the perfect blending of voices in all sections (SATB). When one is performing with other professional musicians of the same caliber as oneself it’s extremely rewarding, and especially if the chorister gets to perform a major choral work that one has always wanted to sing. This remains true until one starts to burn-out after awhile. Because of burnout and the demanding rehearsal/performance schedule, there can be quite a turnover within the Chorus where a chorister may only serve 2-4 years/seasons with a Symphony Chorus. While others will sing with the Chorus for decades.

It does depend upon the situation however. I recently saw a performance of a Baroque oratorio where, I think, the entire Chorus was paid. That’s most unusual, as you’ve probably gathered by now. This performance was in Vancouver. The names of the choristers were listed at the end of the video and of the names I searched, they had artist agents. They were available as solo vocal artists (their main occupation) but also available as a chorister, singing with a straight-tone when in a Chorus. After enjoying that oratorio performance (it was Georg Friedrich Händel’s Israel in Egypt), I had wondered why this musical organisation hadn’t performed anything else, or at least that they had uploaded to YT. I suspect it was probably because of the expense involved of having a fully-paid (I assume) Chorus as well as a fully-paid Orchestra. In that performance, the soloists were selected from the Chorus. It was a superb performance.

I also think the public’s awareness has changed in a negative direction since when I was a chorister in Orchestra Choruses. In those days, whenever anyone asked me what I did outside of my day job, I would say: I’m in the Choral Arts Society of Washington, or the University of Maryland Chorus, or (after moving to San Francisco) I said the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The response was most often, “Oh wow, you have to be pretty good to be in that, and you perform at the Kennedy Center (or Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco)?!” I said, “Well thank you” and then I’d explain a little bit more about it and how I was busy with rehearsals and our upcoming performance at the Kennedy Center or Davies Symphony Hall. But I didn’t have to explain to anyone what it was that I was talking about. The average person even without any musical training had enough knowledge to understand it in those days. Today? I think I would get a blank stare if that situation repeated itself with most people. I don’t think most people today have any idea, any clue what a Symphony Orchestra Chorus is or does, nor do they care. And I include in that group the Classical Music Snots considering their disrespect and lack of acknowledgement for the Chorus in a performance.

Can anything be done about this disrespect for the Symphony Chorus? I don’t think so. It is what it is. Outright stupidity is in today (especially in the shithole US) and it’s so engrained in people. Just look at the state of things. And who has the time to go through YT videos correcting every idiot on there ignoring and disrespecting the Chorus for a major symphonic choral work? One can write comments on YT videos about it but I don’t know that doing that would accomplish anything. And some of the comments I’m talking about are from years ago. Is that idiot who worships soloists still on YT?

Mi amigo/my friend had this to say about this topic: “The people who do most of the work — the Chorus and Orchestra — are ignored in favour of the people who do the least amount of work: the (screaming) soloists. That is so typical, and that’s across the board.”

That’s true reading comments on YT from the Classical Music Snots. But as I said earlier, to most people, it’s all about the soloists first and foremost, followed by the conductor, which I don’t understand other than what I’ve said here about it. The conductor didn’t play one note (unless he was conducting from a keyboard), and as violinist Nigel Kennedy has said, “conductors are so over-rated.” In YT comments, someone might mention the Orchestra and praise them after gushing over the conductor.

And finally, when an Orchestra does not tour with their own Chorus and/or uses another Orchestra Chorus at an international concert venue in another country for a symphonic choral work, that too relegates their own Chorus to second class status. In some instances, the replacement Chorus may be better than their own Chorus, but that’s not the point. And I understand the expense involved for touring with the Chorus. But if the Orchestra can afford to tour, why not the Chorus? Orchestral management would likely oppose and/or scream about that by saying “we can’t afford that; we can’t afford to send the Chorus.” As second class musicians, they can go if they pay their own way in full would be management’s thinking. Of course some of orchestral management could take a pay cut in their exorbitant elitist salaries to help pay for the touring of the Chorus.

But only on the odd occasion should one expect to see any mention or appreciation of the Symphony Chorus because to the sheeple, the Chorus is seen as “background” and second class musicians. Chau.—el barrio rosa


*** I mentioned “(screaming soloists)” up above: It seems it’s impossible to find a “perfect” group of vocal soloists. I’m referring to a group of soloists who try to blend beautifully with each other without any one voice overpowering the others, rather than sounding like a “trainwreck” (think: the quartet in Beethoven’s Ninth). There’s usually one soloist in the bunch — it’s often a soprano — who is a screamer, followed by the tenor. Most bass soloists that I’ve heard seem to be able to sing beautifully without screaming. I’m currently watching a performance where there are three vocal soloists. The tenor and bass are excellent. The soprano? I can’t listen to her. She’s a screamer. Her voice can overpower them all and it seems most difficult for her to sing quietly, even when the score indicates “p” or “pp” or “ppp.” Last week, I listened to another performance where the soprano soloist sang beautifully. She has a lovely voice. No screaming. She sang with her subtle natural vibrato which was quite musical. Her vibrato was not the least bit offensive. We thoroughly enjoyed her voice. The bass soloist in that performance didn’t do anything for us. We had to bypass him due to his rough-sounding vibrato. This is what I mean by how rare it seems to find a “perfect” group of soloists where they are all a delight to listen to, and their voices blend beautifully together. One is not trying to out-scream the others.


What happened to the renowned University of Maryland Chorus?

BSO and the University of Maryland Concert Choir perform Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45