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Op-Ed | Canadian Choral Musicians Deserve Better

By Benjamin Stein on November 6, 2018

In the age of #metoo, a local musician questions whether the current employment model of choir musicians is partially to blame for the problems of alleged abuse of choral singers the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Elora Festival Singers, by conductor Noel Edison.

The travails of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and its former director, Noel Edison, have been the talk of the Ontario choral scene during the last year. Edison’s resignation was a result of an investigation into allegations of improper behaviour towards singers in his ensembles, but the details are both debated and unclear. Many people continue to wonder and gossip about the exact nature of the events in question. Is it true? What really happened? Whom do you believe?

But when the Globe and Mail article “What happened at the Mendelssohn Choir” was published on 29 September, I saw no links to it on social media, despite my many friends and acquaintances who are professional choral singers and conductors. I didn’t know it had been published until I was informed by a colleague. Many choral musicians comfortable trumpeting their thoughts about world politics and social justice were disturbingly silent on an issue that comes close to home — workplace conditions in the local classical music scene.

The article attempts to give a balanced picture of the different perspectives pertaining to the events in question. But it quickly glosses over one crucial aspect of choral singing in Ontario, which may have contributed to why the alleged behaviour was allowed to continue for so long — and may also explain why many choral singers are reluctant to make any public statements about either the specific story, or the larger issues it brings to light.

The article states, “The tale of the TMC cuts to the heart of an oft-heard refrain at many arts organizations, many of which are not unionized, and are small enough that artists and employees may feel uncomfortable voicing a complaint.”

It would be more accurate to state that arts organizations of all sizes regularly hire unionized and non-unionized musicians. If we take a standard TMC concert as a template for choral music making, we find three distinct groups — unionized orchestral musicians contracted for the event; a large group of volunteer singers; and a smaller group of choral singers paid to bolster and support the larger group.

One group are contracted as professional arts workers; one group volunteers its time. And the final group — hired choral singers — lies uneasily in the middle, paid for their time but not quite professional, highly skilled and trained sopranos or basses with decades of experience, who nonetheless are paid less per hour than a trumpeter or percussionist fresh out of school.

Choral singers hired for concert performances in Ontario have no organized representation. There is no voice to speak for them as a collective in matters relating to contract negotiation, working conditions, rates of pay or workplace discrimination and harassment. Canadian television and film performers are required to join ACTRA. Theatre performers have the Canadian Actors Equity Association. Instrumentalists and vocal soloists have the Canadian Federation of Musicians, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Musicians. The Canadian Opera Company’s occasional use of an onstage chorus falls under the responsibility of the CAEA.

Professional choral singers are not a clear or precise fit for any of these organizations, and as a result they have fallen through the cracks. In Canada, choral singing has traditionally been an amateur and volunteer pursuit, and few professional choral singers make a living entirely from singing. Most of them have a day job or, like many musicians, cobble together a living from freelance work. Choral singing is also a way for young singers to gain professional experience. This means that there is always a new crop of younger musicians ready and eager to sing choral music for any kind of compensation at all.

Organizations that specialize in choral music, or hire choral singers, have used these factors to their economic advantage. Choral singers are paid at a significantly lower rate than instrumentalists. Choral ensembles hire singers as short-term contract workers. Contracts are usually renewed year to year in the professional chamber ensembles, or concert to concert for other freelance work. Choral singers are regularly offered a flat fee, or low hourly fee; there is rarely a negotiation process. Even as ensemble singers are required to sign stock group contracts, they operate as their own representatives, and have no power to bargain collectively. They may attempt to negotiate for themselves, but they have no protection or recourse against an employer’s decisions — or abuses.

Most singers keep their mouths shut and sign whatever the organizations put in front of them. They know that they can be replaced by others competing for the same work. As a professional choral singer who also wrote a choral music column for Toronto’s Wholenote magazine in past years, I often heard stories about work conditions and incidents that singers felt were exploitive; but singers were also aware that they had no recourse for complaint, and were highly reluctant to speak out.

In the wake of Edison’s resignation, both the Elora Festival and the TMC have promised to review their policies; the TMC is launching an initiative entitled Creating a Safe Creative Space. These responses are laudable, but clearly insufficient. It is significant that many of the quotes in the Globe article are given anonymously; those quoted clearly fear the repercussions of speaking out publicly. This indicates the continued power imbalance between choral organizations and individual singers. Despite the TMC and EFS organization’s apparent attempts to improve in accountability and communication, those involved with these organizations appear not to trust the safeguards enough to openly state their concerns.

Ultimately, choral singers need more than a “safe creative space” within one organization. They need general representation, and clear policies that extend to any and all professional choral employment.

We can take some small comfort that, considering the potential for abuse that the current employment model fosters, there have been no other revelations of harassment in the Ontario choral scene other than those ascribed to Edison. But an absence of egregious treatment is the minimum standard that should be expected in musical employment. Canadian choral musicians deserve and must demand better. The organizations that rely on their specialized skills and training have a responsibility to treat choral singing as a professional avocation.

The Globe article goes into some detail about Noel Edison’s feelings about his firing. I wish that we had also been told more about the experiences of the musicians who spoke out, and the price they have undoubtedly paid for being willing to stand up and tell their story. It is possible that, had there been a parent organization representing the singers in the ensembles Edison directed, his alleged acts might not have taken place. Or if they had, they would have been addressed before it required the larger cultural shifts of the #MeToo movement to give singers the knowledge that they were not alone, and that their voices would be heard and respected.

Read more about, Noel Edison

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