Thoughts on Professionalism

By Richard Huggins
From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
AccompaList Home Page


To set the stage for these expanded thoughts on professionalism let me first reprint some comments first expressed by me in an AccompaList message. It refers to an account sent in by one of the list subscribers, telling of a particular organist of long tenure who rudely disregarded a request by the music director during a worship service:

"If ever an accompanist quits caring about being professional in what he or she does, it is a sad and foreboding thing. As a professional instrumentalist, that organist--despite his tenure or standing--was to follow the directions of the conductor (the music minister). Disagreements can (and must) be worked out off-service, not as-you-go.

I believe that we accompanists must care about maintaining some form of professional behavior, if for no other reason than a fear of not acting in a professional manner. We have to care even if no one else might. Professionalism is as much or more an attitude as it is a skill level.

Ya'know those days when you sort of drag around in hope-no-one-sees-me
clothes---before a shower, unshaven (beard *OR* legs!!), etc..... Once you
get around to doing those things, of course you feel better about yourself.

That's a key point about professionalism: you do it for yourself, not for
anyone else. You honestly should fear the day that you start slipping in
that regard. You should fight to maintain that standard about yourself, for
when it slips the greatest casualty of it may be you."

Expanding on those thoughts, I would say that among several characteristics that could be named, three key ingredients to professionalism seem foremost to me, two of which that don't require professional playing skills. In other words, two-thirds of what it means to be professional are within the scope of anyone! The three ingredients are: skills, attitude and values.

SKILLS

Not much needs to be said here. Professional skills are normal performing skills taken to a higher level. From accuracy to sight reading to difficulty levels to musicality, it is a certain degree of refinement and reliability. Most of the professional musicians have had extensive training, even though there are of course those rock guitarists who made it on their own!

If you don't think you are a professional player, at least you can strive to reach higher than where you are now. And that's all that really matters.

ATTITUDE

The second ingredient, attitude, has two applications: our attitude toward others and, perhaps just as importantly, our attitude toward ourselves. Re-read what I had to say about that at the beginning of this article. An attitude of respect for the conductor/music minister, as well as fellow musicians, is a hallmark of a professional.

When I am asked what my occupation is, I am proud to answer that I am a professional musician. Professional music is a noble thing (no more noble than other professions, of course, but that's not the point). I feel almost duty-bound to represent my profession honorably, lest I sully it in the eyes of those who use me. A bad attitude puts a black eye on the profession, and goodness knows that has happened too many times.

How I think about myself also plays a role in my performance skills as well as my confidence. I believe this: If you think better of yourself as a musician, you will put more artistry into your playing because you will be that much closer to thinking of yourself as an artist!

A right attitude helps me respect the printed score that much more. It helps me ask for the kinds of conditions that will make it possible for me to do my best job. It gives me better judgment about those musical tasks I decide to tackle and the ones I don't. It helps set an example for other musicians, particularly rising musicians. It sets a positive tone for rehearsal. Don't ask me how it does these things, it just does.

(Let's put this article in Pause for a moment: If at this point you are saying to yourself, "But I am not actually a professional musician..." remember that part earlier about two-thirds of the characteristics of professional having nothing to do with skill! Unpause!)

Attitude toward others needs little expansion here. Think of those pro musicians you have known or encountered who seemed not to have a good one and strive to be the opposite! Kindness and respect always have their place.

But there's another dimension to attitude: being a Christian musician. All of the requirements of the Bible are added to the existing characteristics of a professional.

For most of you this comes naturally, springing up out of the overflow of your heart for the things of the Lord. But as I often told a vocal ensemble I used to lead, "I want and hope that you'll always sing from and show a face from the overflow of your heart. But if you argued with your spouse on the way to church, or don't feel well, or have some other face-deflating or spirit-deflating situation going on, then I expect you to be an ACTOR!"

And that's the truth. To maintain the witness sometimes we may have to be an actor, then work it out with God later (or whoEVER needs our working it out with them).

These are just some of the ways that professionalism is an attitude.

VALUES

I believe that there is a set of values that are held by the professional-acting musician. They are a little similar to attitude but perhaps having a more immediate practical impact. They would include such things as:

+ arrive early and prepare/organize your music for rehearsal or performance (notice that this is nearly always what you see professional musicians do that are hired for your seasonal presentations)

+ practice in advance any particularly tricky sections, if you have been given the music with enough time to do so; mark your score to help prevent making the same mistake twice (ok, maybe twice but not three times!)


TIP: the less time you have to prepare in advance (thus invoking your sight reading skills, whatever they are or are not), then the less notes you try to play at those tricky moments, in favor of keeping the beat going. This is the key attribute of a good sight reader. Remember, if you have not been given the music with adequate time, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT and never should you take upon yourself this burden of self-proclaimed, self-flogging sense of inadequacy!!

By the way, I believe I know where that sense of inadequacy comes from. It comes from your heart's desire to do a good job. It comes from your heart's desire to be helpful. It comes from your heart's desire to hold up your end of the bargain. And yes, it comes from your heart's desire not to embarrass yourself, a purely natural and honorable thought! So, when you are confronted with a situation where you know you won't be at your best, somehow it meanders its way through your psyche until it becomes something you feel responsible for. But you're not! You only are responsible for developing your skills as best you can, on a continuing basis, thus to be found as ready as possible for REASONABLE expectations and once in awhile the unreasonable ones!

+ pay attention in rehearsal; don't be distracting during performance

+ acknowledge the conductor (music minister) as the authority in charge and work out any touchy differences with him or her in private; never embarrass the conductor--ask questions without using a tone that suggests any untoward feelings;

+ if you have suggestions that you feel would help the cause of producing the best music possible, use good judgment as to if it's important to bring them up at a rehearsal point or if it might should wait until later;

+ don't lord your greater skill over lesser-skilled players, in attitude, "looks" (with the eyes), or comments [I know none of you would do this but it has to be on any list of professional values]; don't be patronizing

+ take advantage of the opportunity to impress younger players toward going further with their musical interests and abilities;

+ do your profession and the cause of Christ a favor--have a kind demeanor and a helpful and sincere spirit.

One last time let me say that professionalism is an attitude that ANYONE can have, if it is properly aligned with the tenets above, regardless of their actual playing skills. In fact, just like that feeling you get that somehow your car seems to run better after it's been washed (smile), you feel better overall about your abilities and your contribution when you have adopted and maintained professional standards, even if your playing seems no different than before (but I bet it will be!).


AcccompaList members: if you'd like to comment to the list on this article, this link will produce a mail form with the subject filled in.