An interesting question came up over tea this morning with Helene Whitson, the creator of the useful and exhaustive Bay Area Choral Archive and one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable choral bods I’ve ever met. The subject under discussion was to do with professionalism in choral singing, but you could just as easily apply the same thoughts to professionalism in any field really.
What makes a choir “professional”? For Chorus America, and many other organizations and individuals, the distinction between amateur and professional choirs is largely related to finance. If you get paid for what you do, you’re pro. If not, that makes you am.
Helene fervently disagrees with this definition and is in the process of trying to come up with a better way of categorizing choirs. “For me, professionalism is defined not by the amount of money that a chorister makes, but by his or her abilities as a singer,” she says.
Helene’s ideas come from years of watching choirs in action. She thinks that there are many paid choral singers who don’t deserve to be paid and many others who don’t get a dime for what they do, but are worthy of being compensated for it. It is this discrepancy which makes her want to change the way in which her own organization categorizes vocal ensembles.
I agree with Helene. I sing in a volunteer chorus. Many of its members are as good as anyone that gets paid to sing in, say, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. But at the same time, I wonder if it’s time to do away with the professional/amateur categories entirely. They’re just not all that useful anymore. And even if Helene changes her definition in the Choral Archive database, it doesn’t mean that the people who use her resource will adhere to her meaning.