Competence panic

by , under church, services

I’ve been handling the choir again for three Sundays while Fr T and Choirmistress were on holiday. The first Sunday it was hard because the visiting priest fell ill, making for a very chaotic service and several unnerving-the-choir moments (but in the altar Fr Deacon R rescued what he could, and I had two reassuring basses at my back, one an accomplished paramedic so even if I’d fainted from stress I’d have been safe).

The second Sunday was, by comparison, tame, Fr W on his own in the altar and two women apart from me in the choir. The only hard thing was singing the main melody all the time, letting the other alto take the alto part and the 16-year-old soprano use her sweet clear voice to sing descant as often as she could. With Fr W the melody part falls exactly on my high register break, around G above middle C, making it very exhausting to keep up.

The third Sunday we had Fr J, the Force of Exuberance, always fun and always leaving me breathless at the end. I wanted to foist the thanksgiving prayers off on someone, but she’d disappeared before I could get hold of her, to smoke or to make coffee or both. This time I also sang the main melody, but that was less hard than with Fr W because Fr J intones so high that I can just pretend his note is an A and get below it. The other other alto was there, whose voice is much lower (lower than mine, too) and she was recovering from a cold so she didn’t mind that her notes went through the floor.

I’m not a natural leader. People think I’m good at it, but I still don’t like it, I prefer having power over things (like the liturgy book; I’m an excellent liturgist for A, who is a natural leader but can’t handle the book at the same time) rather than over people, and being looked at is always uncomfortable. When it’s going well I can almost ignore that and coast on the heady “Wheeee!” feeling, but it feels as if there’s a timer on that because at some point (later every time, true) it turns into a very specific kind of performance anxiety that a writing buddy aptly calls “competence panic”. Not “I can actually do this, wheeee!” but “Eek, I can actually do this, PANIC!” It can knock me out as completely as the stage fright that makes me do a false start whenever I have to give a presentation. It’s a good thing that it takes longer to kick in every time, because now it falls in a part of the Liturgy that I can just let my vocal apparatus take care of without me, or even fall silent for a bit. The rest of the choir knows and can compensate.

Oh, and people? Singing along in the congregation, however helpfully you may mean it, doesn’t help at all. In fact it makes my work about ten times as hard, because I have to wilfully ignore you and at the same time listen to my choirmates and compensate for the extraneous noise. It really is noise: it takes time to arrive from the other end of the church so you’re a perceptible number of milliseconds late, you’re not reading the book, you’re not seeing my signs if you’re even paying attention to me at all, you haven’t practiced so you don’t know what we’re doing, and most of the time, sorry, you’re not singing in tune. This music is actually intended to be sung with only some of the parts when we don’t have people to sing all the parts (and sometimes even when we do). If we seem to be struggling, it’s likely to be because you’re distracting us with your ‘help’.

There’s also a huge (and increasing) when-the-cat’s-away effect when Choirmistress isn’t there, as if I don’t object to singers in the congregation as much as she does. Or, more worrying, that they can get away with more because I’m easier to handle. I’m not as vocal about it because of my insecurity, but yes, I do object and it does annoy and distract me. On this third Sunday I was tempted to step off the choir platform in the middle of the service to say “Either shut up or come stand here and read what you’re singing!” but I didn’t do that, mostly because I didn’t want to disrupt the service but also because some people probably would have come and I didn’t want to set a precedent. I can’t handle people I haven’t practiced with anyway, except at an event where that’s the point and I’ve been able to prepare for it.

Leave a Reply

  • This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.