5 Pieces of Valuable New Job Advice for Music Directors

March 14, 2019 Kaitlynn Eaton

Two professionals seated at a wooden table and holding up a silver electronic tablet together, with one professional navigating the screen

We’ve all been through the rollercoaster of emotions that come with interviewing and getting a new job. First, the fear. The fear that you’ll mess up your interview, the fear that you won’t like your potential future employer or they won’t like you, or the fear that you just won’t get the job. Second, the excitement. The excitement that comes with, perhaps, a change of direction in your career or a new environment. Third, the relief. The relief that you’ve done the best you can, you’ve presented everything you have and everything you are, and you can finally take a deep breath.

Then, you get the call: you got the job! Now, you have to fill out all the paperwork, call everyone who's been rooting for you and tell them the good news, find a place that will let you move in by your start date, pack all your earthly belongings, and travel to your new workplace. At least, that’s what I had to do. I had to move 1,000 miles away from where I had been living for my new Director of Music position. My spouse and I had to pick up our lives and move all of our possessions and five animals across the country - phew!

Now you’re at your job and you’re getting settled in. This is a new environment with new staff, new ensembles, new personalities, and you have to find out where you fit. What will you do about pushback? How will you connect with the personalities around you? How will you know when to stand your ground or when to back off? How will you gain and maintain your credibility? I’m going to tell my story and, by doing so, I’ll be touching on all of the questions that have been posed.

A choir performing in front of a large audience in an ornate church with high ceilings.

In April of 2018, I lost my church music job. I had been there for only 9 months. All I could think was: if I was only at this job for 9 months, who is going to want to hire me? I’m unemployable. They’ll think: she can’t last, she can’t hack it, maybe she’s not a team player, maybe she’s good on paper but not in person. A lot of insecurity comes with losing your job. From April to the end of June, I applied for around 30 jobs. I was rejected from all of them. I finally put in a last-ditch effort to a job I felt I was under-qualified for. The church wanted someone with more years of experience in different areas than I had. It’s a big parish in an older community that, truly, needs a choral conductor. I’m an organist by trade; my skills really aren’t in conducting. I’ve worked with choirs before but it had been years since I hadn’t had to conduct from behind the organ. I was really rusty in the “standing in front of a group and waving my arms around” department. I took a shot in the dark: I sent in my application materials on the day the application period closed. I got an email the next morning asking if I was available for a phone conversation. At the end of that conversation, I was asked to get on a flight the next day. At the end of the interview, the then-Director of Sacred Music asked me what I thought. I said “I love it here but I’m not sure here loves me back. I’m not sure I’m the person you need.” He smiled at me endearingly and seemed to know something I didn’t as he said, “I’m glad you enjoyed your time with us.” I ultimately ended up getting the position, with a caveat. The caveat was that yes, as I already knew, my conducting skills were very rusty and he was going to mentor me until I was ready to take over the position. My mentor decided I was ready to take over on January 1, 2019.

I had worked really hard to be ready, to learn everything I could, to write down everything my mentor said, and now I have the opportunity to share some of the things I learned with you.

Don’t change too much, too quickly

I started the new position in September, and I was on the ground running from day one. The beginning was a little bumpy. In the first 60 days or so, I made mistakes and got quite a lot of pushback. It was never overt, but I knew it was there. Sometimes, it still is. The choir knew who they were with their previous Director, but they didn’t know who they were with me. They didn’t trust me yet. So, how do you face pushback? How do you not just give up and break down and give everyone everything they want? The first way to combat pushback is by being diplomatic. Something people really want to know is that they’re being heard. So, when I face pushback, the first thing I say is “I hear your concerns and I will consider them.” Most people just want to know you’re paying attention. The next thing you need to know is: historical standards. What have they been doing in the past? What are the ingrained expectations? One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was: change nothing in the first calendar year. People are slow to change. Stop throwing new things at them because you’re fresh, shiny, and new. Too many new things throws in an air of mistrust and instability. Another great piece of advice I received was: once you’ve made a decision, you have to stick with it. Again, don’t invite an opportunity to cause instability.

Make an effort to get to know your coworkers and ensemble members; be yourself

Something I was deeply concerned with, at my new job, was fitting in. I am an introvert, and sometimes, this can conflict with other, more extroverted coworkers., I process quietly and internally, I don’t often have much to say around more exuberant colleagues, and this can come across as unlikeable or disinterested. I had to make a concerted effort to step outside my comfort zone and engage more with staff members because I genuinely like them and I want them to know this. A few weeks in, I found out a colleague was pregnant and going to have a baby. I got her and her husband a cute card and told them how excited I was for them. I make an effort, every morning, to say good morning to everyone before I sit at my desk. I check in on my colleague across the hall and ask after her and her husband. If you’re worried about getting along with your new colleagues, simply make the effort to be friendly. If you’re going to be directing an ensemble, I have some wisdom to impart: be human. It is perfectly okay to be private, to be an introvert, to keep things to yourself but what people really want to know is: are you a real person? Do you have a personality? Are you able to recognize when you’re wrong? I once read a screenshot of a Facebook status that said: "The best thing I ever learned from a teacher was that sometimes, teachers don’t have all the answers. I respect my teachers and professors more when they admit they’re unsure of the answer." I take this to heart. When I’m in front of the choir I am: motivated, focused, driven, I have a plan, and I am also human. If they ask a question and I’m not sure of the answer, I say I will look it up or ask around. If I make a mistake, I cop to it, laugh about it, and move on. I also have expectations. I expect certain things out of people. I have, what I call, a standard of excellence. We maintain the standard of excellence by meeting, or exceeding, expectations. The expectations are literally printed on a sheet called Choir Expectations 2019. They don’t need me to hold their hands but they want to know what I expect. This was how I won the choir over: by being myself while having expectations and standards.

Try your best to be graceful under pressure, communicate directly, and be polite but firm

By being a regular, approachable person, you’ll be confronted with issues. People will bring issues to your attention because they feel comfortable doing so. Colleagues will tell you about problems or will create problems on accident. What do you do about it? Do you blow your top and tell your colleagues you’ve never felt so disrespected in your life? Do you talk about one colleague with another and say you can’t believe how ridiculous this is? Do you do nothing at all? I’ll say that doing nothing at all and blowing your top are the absolute worst options. Standing up for yourself, your standards, and your department doesn’t have to involve a lost temper. Doing nothing says that others can do whatever and treat you however they want. The first thing you need to ask yourself is: is this a problem or an inconvenience? If it’s an inconvenience, don’t poke the bear and create a problem. If it’s truly a problem, determine why. Does it break policy? Does it put someone at risk in some way? Will it cause a logistical problem? The second thing is: talk directly to the person there is a problem with. Most of the time, it’s a simple misunderstanding. Finally, try to come to a mutual agreement. Sometimes, that’s even too much. Recently, I was told by a colleague that they were going to direct one of my employees to do something. I firmly reminded my colleague that whatever this employee ended up doing was, ultimately, my decision. They responded with “well, yeah, but.” I repeated myself, politely but firmly. That’s the phrase you need to remember: politely but firmly. If you’re going to stand your ground, be polite but firm. You have your reasons, your motivations, your historical standards for your decisions. Remember, the trust others have in you comes from a place of knowing and understanding who you are and how you operate.

Maintain your credibility

I was once told that credibility is akin to a vase on a table. When you have built, cultivated, and maintained trust and credibility, your vase stays in the center of the table. Whenever you do something to break that trust, your vase teeters to the edge of the table. Once it falls and breaks, you will never get the same trust and credibility back. You won’t be able to glue the pieces back together. This is where a culmination of all four previous points come in to play. Credibility is the combination of: historical standards, current expectations, being an approachable person, being diplomatic, and being polite but firm. The expectations go for everyone, not just a select few. The standards are applicable to all, not just the best or worst among you. You will, very quickly, lose credibility if you play favorites or are indiscreet. You will lose credibility if you’re found to be blabbing about your colleagues. You will lose credibility if you blow your top every time you’re confronted with an inconvenience. Keep your frustrations under your hat and vent about them at home or with a trusted mentor. I learned that the hard way. I said something regrettable in front of other colleagues who were immediately concerned about my ability to be a team player. I was letting some personal, home life, frustrations color my attitude at work and I ended up eating those words. I was really embarrassed about it because it wasn’t really how I felt about the situation, it was just a convenient scapegoat. I had to work really hard to rebuild my credibility and trust with those colleagues. Credibility is an uphill battle. Gaining and maintaining credibility is a constant effort and, once you get it, you have to work on keeping your vase safe in the center of the table.

Getting a new job is a lot like juggling, while the balls are on fire, you’re on a unicycle, and you’re riding through hot tar. You can avoid falling off the unicycle by respecting historical standards, creating and maintaining expectations, being polite but firm, knowing who you are and how you operate, and by keeping your credibility vase in the center of your table. The transition period can be extremely difficult but if you follow these few pieces of advice, I hope it will be rather painless!

I welcome hearing any other advice readers may have about transitioning into a new job! Leave a comment with your experience.


About the Author

Kaitlynn Eaton

Kaitlynn is a professional church musician and organist based in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Kaitlynn’s passion for music and her faith led her to complete her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Church Music. She enjoys performing and is available as a recitalist, discussing church music’s rich history, and discussing theology in worship music. Kaitlynn tries to live a life of humble service to God, the world around her, and her family; she has 2 cats, 3 dogs, and an animal-loving husband.

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