Unwanted compliments

by , under church, o tempora, services

I had a rather embarrassing experience Saturday night. Choirmistress couldn’t make it so I was on my own– Prima, who has just rejoined the choir after a far too busy year, was at a church youth event, and most other people never come on a Saturday night. This is exhausting because there’s never any pause, I have to do all the readings as well as all the singing, but I can do it. I have strategies to cope with singing a higher part than usual most of the time, I’m fairly good at looking things up while singing something I know so well that I don’t have to look at the music or the words, etcetera.

But there was this Russian woman who turns up every now and again, mostly for the Vigil. First she kept Fr T talking for ten minutes so we started late, and then at the first serious piece (Psalm 103) presented herself at the choir dais, offering to sing along. No, I said, I’d rather do it alone because I can manage on my own, leading someone who hasn’t practised is too much! Her Dutch probably wasn’t good enough to really understand what I meant, but she went to the other side of the church (according to Tertia, the only one of my daughters who could actually be there, she inched closer and closer sort of behind me) and sang everything she knew by heart, in a thin soprano, just out of tune.

Now there are various kinds of people who offer to “help” with the singing. They’re mostly women, so I’ll use the female throughout. Dutchwomen either don’t believe in “only the choir ought to sing” (even though that’s in the canons) and think they’re entitled, or they’re moved by a great urge to be helpful and think they’re Doing Good (and, in the particular case I’m thinking of, not good enough to be any help at all and so uncertain they need constant reassurance or they’ll panic. Ah well.). Or perhaps both at the same time. Russian women (1) genuinely think the poor lone singer needs their help, or (2) they’ve had a proper musical, perhaps conservatory, education so they’re convinced they know absolutely everything about singing, or (3) they know far too well how it should be sung in Holy Russia and are convinced that our church is a small displaced part of Holy Russia. Letting (1) on the choir dais is an admission of defeat but it can turn out well or badly. Letting (2) on the choir dais is usually disaster because a conservatory education does not prepare for liturgical singing and she’s likely to sing ‘concert’ style instead, without listening to what other people do. Letting (3) on the choir dais is usually disaster because she’ll be annoyed that it isn’t Russian enough and will try to make it so, without honouring local custom. I didn’t know in which category this woman was, but I charitably assumed (1).

All through the service I felt vaguely uneasy, thinking “have I done the right thing? should I have allowed her to sing after all? am I not being snooty and superior?” so at the end I went up to her and apologised, trying to explain again that I wouldn’t have managed to lead her as well as negotiating the whole service. But before I could even get started, she took me by the arms and said “it was good of you do to that! You should always sing alone! Much better than with those other people!” And as if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, “it was like a monastery!” Then she started really to diss the rest of the choir, especially one person –I don’t know whether that person really sings badly, I think not– and I’d had it.

I do like compliments, and I know I’m good at this: God gave me a strong useful voice, the brains to use it and a passion for liturgy. But “you’re better than them” and worse, “X is no good, you shouldn’t sing with them” is a kind of compliment I can’t deal with. Deprecating other choir members to get into one choir member’s good books just doesn’t work, at least not in the choir we have now. Which is not a democracy, as Choirmistress stresses whenever necessary, but it’s not a contest either. It didn’t make it any easier that this wasn’t the first time that a Russian woman had made me such embarrassing compliments. I’d rather be told “wow, you were doing well on your own” or perhaps “you have a good voice” though that’s already going almost too far because it’s not about something I do.

On the Sunday, when Choirmistress was back, I told her about the experience and she could confirm that I’d done the right thing: she’d let this woman join in once and it had been a terrible mistake. She’d been the (1) sort of person all right, honestly eager to help, but not being a choir singer she hadn’t learned to listen and react to what was going on. And, as I’d also noticed, singing in tune was beyond her capability.

So: I am competent. I like my competence to be acknowledged. For instance, it was very bracing when Fr T said “good job!” at the end of the service. But when a random woman starts gushing over me, I feel like I might just as well stop singing altogether because that’s not what I’m doing it for. Liturgy, leitourgia, means “service”– what needs to be done to keep everything running smoothly. (In Greece it’s disconcerting at first to see leitourgia used to mean “roadworks”, but after a while it starts to make perfect sense.) It needs competence, not virtuosity; it’s an artisan’s job, not an artist’s.


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