Books that Have Nothing to do with Chorus
(But Taught Me More About Chorus Than Chorus Books): Part 1
I used to be a reader, back in my 11-year-old, midnight-book-selling-at-Barnes-and-Noble Harry Potter days. As I got older, I enjoyed reading, but had less and less time for it. Life got in the way, technology got more advanced, and after I graduated college I basically never read anymore.
And then, this past winter, I discovered gold.
I could listen and absorb and think and learn while walking my two golden retrievers for an hour every day. In 2021, I had finally taken a dive into the world of podcasts and had really enjoyed listening to several about music, teaching, philosophy, and nonprofit management. (Some of my favorites? Music Ed Matters with Emily Williams Burch, Choral Connectivity: A People First Approach to Singing (hosted by yours truly), and Nonprofits are Messy by Joan Garry). But I was getting bored of learning about the thing I do in every podcast. I wanted to learn more about the people I work with and how they work.
The books I will list (in truly no particular order) in this series of articles have absolutely nothing to do with chorus…except for the fact that they have absolutely everything to do with chorus.
I had read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly in the Summer of 2022 for our South Shore Children’s Chorus staff retreat, and loved it. I decided to jump in and listen to Brené’s Dare to Lead podcast on Spotify. One of the first episodes I listened to was with soccer star Abby Wambach. In that episode, Abby and Brené go through Abby’s leadership book, Wolfpack. Let’s just say…I was shook.
Book #1: Wolfpack, by Abby Wambach
A few months ago, if you asked me “Do you think that this leadership book written by an olympic soccer player will help you teach chorus and lead your organization better?” I would have probably laughed and made some sly comment about “sportsball.”
But what Abby writes about in Wolfpack goes beyond soccer. Yes, it uses many of her soccer experiences as examples. But what the lessons in the book teach about leadership, humanity, being yourself, and generosity to others are directly applicable to what we do as chorus directors. Bonus? It’s a short read - the audiobook is just over an hour long, and the hard copy fits easily into your bag. Perfect for one long commute.
Abby’s book is divided into several lessons with stories, including a “call to the wolfpack” at the end of every chapter. The book packs a punch - because it is so short every word and every story is necessary. My favorite “call to the wolfpack” comes from Lesson 2: Be Grateful AND Ambitious.
“Be grateful. But do not JUST be grateful. Be grateful AND brave. Be grateful AND ambitious. Be grateful AND righteous. Be grateful AND persistent. Be grateful AND loud. Be grateful for what you have AND demand what you deserve.”
In this chapter, Abby talks about receiving an important award alongside Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant. She talks about the feeling of standing up beside these icons, and feeling grateful that she was able to represent women at this table. However, she then had another realization: the unjust pay gap between her and her fellow athletes standing beside her, receiving the same accolades. She talks about the wage inequity between women and their male counterparts.
Abby talks about how, in part, this pay gap is due to the gratefulness of women. Women in the field are so grateful to even get a paycheck, to be the “token woman at the table” that it stood in the way of standing up and demanding more.
How does this relate to the choral field? Well…the first is obvious. Leaders in our field now are working hard for equity in so many ways - whether it be race, gender, or privilege. The parallels there are easy to draw, and I’ll let you come to those conclusions on your own.
My personal takeaway from this call to action is how, with our organizations, we are so grateful for the space that we have worked really hard to take up. But as we build, market, and grow our organizations we mustn’t just be “the grateful, small organization” that usually also has no money or funding. In the world of the arts, we have been accustomed to being grateful for just enough so that our organizations can thrive. As Abby says, we must demand what we deserve - whatever that means for our organizations, and go about doing so confidently.
A friend of mine once introduced me to a professional fundraiser. He had run multi-million dollar fundraising events in the past for celebrities like Beyoncé and professional sports teams. I was nervous meeting him, but told him about my organization. “We are a really small nonprofit organization that does singing with kids, it’s really fun,” I told him. “But we need to be better at fundraising. I’ve got the talking about the organization down, but the fundraising part -”
At that point, he interrupted me. “I don’t think you do have the talking part down. Because your organization changes lives. And you’re talking about it like it’s your pet project.” There I was- thinking I was being grateful and humble - stunned at being called out by this professional. But he was right! I was not speaking confidently about my organization. I needed to be grateful and ambitious/brave/persistent/loud in that moment. Needless to say, I’ve drastically changed how I talk about my organization.
Another thought: as conductors or singers, how often do we take gigs because we are grateful for the opportunity? Or, how often are we creating excuses about why we can’t pay artists who work for us (or ourselves) a fair wage because the arts are starving and we don’t have enough? Why aren’t we out there being brave, ambitious, righteous, persistent, loud, and demanding of what our organizations, or ourselves, deserve?
Is it because we have accepted to live gratefully in a society where arts are underfunded and under supported? Is it because we have accepted and are grateful for a $100 donation when that same donor could give $500 and it wouldn’t break the bank?
How do we present ourselves when we are outside of the arts world, connecting with people from the community, that may not regularly engage with choir? Does how we present ourselves reflect how we see ourselves and our art?
My other absolute favorite story in this book changed the way I look at our field. Abby tells a story about the US Women’s Soccer Team when they all met their new coach (Pia Sundhage) for the first time. She begins the chapter, as she does every chapter, stating the “old rule”, and proposing a “new rule” in its place.
“Old Rule: Lead with Dominance, Create Followers.
New Rule: Lead with Humanity, Cultivate Leaders.”
Abby starts the chapter explaining that, physically, the USA women’s team was the best in the world. They were dominant and intimidating. Pia, their new coach in 2007, walked up to them and stated, “You are the best in the world, but there is still a higher level in you…I want us to win while honoring ourselves...we will win with creativity, innovation, and steady assuredness, instead of just physical dominance. We will win beautifully.”
After that, Pia did something that not a single member of that team expected - she pulled out a guitar, and sang to them - Times They Are A’Changin’, by Bob Dylan. Abby talks about the vulnerability that Pia had as a leader in this moment, and that it was the first time that she had seen a leader embrace vulnerability over dominance.
Abby says, “...she taught us that real leaders know who they are, and bring every bit of themselves to whomever they lead. Real leaders don’t mimic a cultural construct of what a leader looks, sounds, and acts like. They understand that there are as many authentic ways to lead as there are people.”
In the remainder of the chapter, Abby discusses the difference in the players as they were shown (not just told about) vulnerability, and the difference it made in the team and how they played together. The act of leaders telling what was going to happen was gone. Leaders were instead asking other players for input. The team was empowered. …and it all started with the simple act of singing with a guitar. (hah! Who’da thunk….)
While it’s great that this particular example draws an easy parallel with music, I interpret this example in a deeper way.
What I see is that a great coach (aka conductor/artistic leader) can achieve the “best in the world” (best notes, rhythms, maybe even…”musical excellence” whatever the heck that may mean) but it is not the highest level. The highest level is in showing up as fully ourselves, and in doing so showing our singers, staff, and those we lead that being fully human is accepted and expected here.
“Best in the world” matters little if it is not matched with big, open, brave hearts. I personally took a great amount of time reflecting and meditating on the idea of winning with “creativity, innovation, and steady assuredness instead of just physical dominance,” and what that could mean within the choral space.
Creating the best singers in the world doesn’t move people. It doesn’t make people better or impact them forever. It’s the other - the how you get there - that is palpable in process and performance. It’s those moments that create an “x factor” between you and the singers and the audience that lifts everyone off their feet.
When I think about my own leadership with my organization, I think about that quote from Abby, that “Real leaders don’t mimic a cultural construct of what a leader looks, sounds, and acts like.” In a way, it is almost freeing. I don’t have to be what our choral culture has decided a leader looks, sounds, and acts like.
I only have one thing I have to be - true to who I am. While I am always chatting with other choral directors and asking them about their projects, ideas, and organizations, my ultimate decision making comes down to one thing and one thing alone: does it feel like me and does it feel like us? If so, then let’s go for it. Because being ourselves is the number one most important thing in leadership, and in order to develop young leaders, we have to help them discover who they are too.
Before we leave this book for the next book, I also have to plug the Young Readers Edition of this book. I am embarking on a journey with some of my student leaders in my choir this summer where we will read the book and have guided discussion around its topics. I highly recommend considering it for your high school level students!
Book #2: Untamed, by Glennon Doyle
Wowowowowowowow this book changed my life this year in more ways that you can imagine. A friend of mine and I were texting back and forth, and she said “wait, have you read Untamed?” I immediately downloaded the audiobook and am so glad I did.
This book centers on themes about how society can construct our personal ideas around women’s issues, family, and gender. But the way Glennon so honestly and vulnerably sees and communicates about the world around her is inspiring and invigorating. I’d never really seen how cookie-cutter the world is trying to make me until Glennon explained it. She asks the question “why” about basically everything, and learns to make her own choices and decisions from herself and her spirit. There are so many personal lessons I learned from this book that made me a better leader and has furthered my journey as a human being on this planet. And if I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that if I further my journey in learning how to be a more grounded human being, my choruses and organization will be better as a result.
I want to share two quotes from this book (from the literal 50 that I could possibly share because this book is truly THAT good) that inspired my thinking about this career and my role in it:
“The fact that we define ourselves by our roles is what keeps the world spinning. It’s also what makes us untethered and afraid. If a woman defines herself as a wife, what happens if her partner leaves? …If a woman defines herself as a career woman, what happens when the company folds? Who we are is perpetually being taken from us, so we live in fear instead of peace. We cling too tightly, close our eyes to what we need to look at hard, avoid questions that need to be asked, and in a million ways insist to our friends, partners, and children that the purpose of their existence is to define us. We build sandcastles and then try to live inside them, fearing the inevitable tide….Sandcastles are beautiful, but we cannot live inside them. Because the tide rises. That’s what the tide does. We must remember: I am the builder, not the castle. I am separate and whole, over here, eyes on the horizon, sun on my shoulders, welcoming the tide. Building, rebuilding. Playfully. Lightly. Never changing. Always changing.”
OK DO YOU GET IT NOW? Seriously go read this book yesterday.
If this doesn’t relate to you on a personal level, that’s ok. I totally relate to this on a personal level, but when I narrow the scope of how I think of this quote to the choral world, it still packs a punch.
The lesson is loud and clear. This job and career does not define you. So many of us - music teachers, conductors, nonprofit leaders - cling too tightly to these definitions of ourselves. And it is understandable. Choral music is how we relate to the world - it’s how we feel like we create impact and connect with those around us. It’s a method of relationship where we can be comfortable. But in defining ourselves by our teaching job, our choir, our music room, our nonprofit, we are building a sandcastle. There will be years that the tide rises - a low enrollment year, a big “no” on a grant or funder that was considered a sure thing, or even just a less-than-great rehearsal night. We cannot live inside that sandcastle. If we define ourselves by living inside that sandcastle, we damn ourselves to a life of riding that wave with no anchor.
Many of you reading this article are probably very adept at conducting choirs. You can study a score and translate the magical noise that is supposed to happen with a literal wave of a wand. You can say just the right thing to encourage the human beings in front of you to waggle air and sound waves in a particular way that is sonorous to those listening. You are magical.
But you are also magical in so many other ways. This was a hard lesson I had to learn - especially as someone who grew up with two choral conductor parents and a very musical family. My whole life, my worth was tied to music. I played violin when I was just beginning to walk. I sat down at the piano and was able to read the music when I was ridiculously young. I have a distinct memory of coming along on a caroling trip with my mother’s high school choir when I was 8 or 9 years old, and having the high school singers fawning over the fact that I could make up harmonies to the carols on the spot without breaking a sweat. My tightest teenage and adult relationships have been born through music. It lead me often to asking a similar question like Glennon posed in the quote above, “If I define myself by choral music - singing it, conducting it, running it, writing it - what happens if choral music ceases to exist?”
Funny - it kinda did cease to exist for a while there, didn’t it.
And while I’ve talked in previous posts about my experiences of personal growth through the pandemic and losing the ability to teach singing to the students in front of me, what is even more important is that I continue to explore that going forward.
“I am separate and whole, over here.”
Even though choral music is back and rockin’ and rollin’, I am still who I am beyond what I do. I do not define myself as a conductor, nonprofit leader, singer, composer. I define myself as a human being. And because I define myself as a human being here on this planet first and foremost, it gives me a fantastic starting point to connect with my students, audience members, and those around me. In a way, it makes my organization and my work more relevant on the planet. Because it isn’t about choral music. It’s about the people.
The second quote I want to share today is long, but is pretty much the newfound mantra of my life. I want to take this quote and paint it on my wall. If it wasn’t so long, I’d get it tattooed on my arm so I could wake up every morning and live like this every day. I read this quote almost daily because it so perfectly defines how I want to live and the work I hope to do in this field. And now that I’ve hyped it up…
“Igniting our imagination is the only way to see beyond what was created to leave us out. If those who were not part of building the reality only consult reality for possibilities, reality will never change. We will keep shuffling and competing for a seat at their table instead of building our own tables. We will keep banging our heads on their glass ceilings instead of pitching our own huge tent outside. We will remain caged by this world instead of taking our rightful place as co-creators of it.
Each of us was born to bring forth something that has never existed: a way of being, a family, an idea, art, a community - something brand-new. We are here to fully introduce ourselves, to impose ourselves and ideas and thoughts and dreams onto the world, leaving it changed forever by who we are and what we bring forth from our depths. So we cannot contort ourselves to fit into the visible order.
We must unleash ourselves and watch the world reorder itself in front of our eyes.”
I read this quote aloud to my students at rehearsal one Sunday evening and an 8th grader reacted by saying…Mrs. Oberoi….what kind of books do you READ?!
Let’s be real - our art form has been around for a really long time. Even before it was really considered an art form. Group singing, and singing, has a long history that involves every single culture on the planet in a different way. That history has informed how we do chorus here in America every day in our schools, our community choirs, our church choirs, and beyond. We’ve created rubrics and standards and shoulds. We’ve seen successful organizations and teachers and modeled after them, hoping we’ll reach the same level of success (decided by the same rubric) in the same amount of time using the same methods.
What I love about this quote is that it doesn’t say “eff reality just do it your own way.” It says that if we only consult reality, reality will never change. And our choral landscape - our reality - is greatly changing. People are changing, Generations are changing. And if we only consult what we know, we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
As a leader of your choral organization, do you consider yourself a co-creator of the definition of what a chorus is? If not, start. Stop contorting yourself and your singers and your organization into the molds that were created before you. If it doesn’t fit, don’t do it. Do something else - create it. Make it up. Why not? Look at the beautiful ever-changing human beings in front of you and realize that they are also co-creators of this art form. Who they are informs every moment of your rehearsal or performance. Allow them space to create the table or to pitch the tent outside. Encourage them to bring forth something new into the space. If they can bring forth what they have in the depths of their soul, it will almost certainly be nothing like any chorus you’ve ever seen. Let that influence your budget, your concert style - and even the sound of your group. Reality will never change if we don’t consider and create possibilities outside of what exists right now. YOU are the co-creator of this art-form. So go forth and truly create!
I hope this has been an inspiring article for you - I know I feel so inspired writing it. Stay tuned as I have several more books that I can’t wait to share with you that have helped me define how I am going to be a leader in the choral field. Leave a comment below with any books you think I should add to my reading list! The only qualification? They can’t technically be about the choral world. ;)
Kirsten Oberoi is a music educator, podcaster, composer, vocalist, and arts administrator in the Boston Area. She is the Founding Artistic Director of the South Shore Children's Chorus, the General Manager of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, and recently launched her podcast Choral Connectivity: A People-First Approach to Singing. When not chorus-ing 24/7, Kirsten enjoys cooking meals for her and her choral-director-and-musical-theatre-composer husband and heading to competition obedience class with her two golden retriever puppies Chester and Charlie.