A Place In the Choir

"All God's creatures got a place in the choir.
Some sing lower, some sing higher,
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire,
Some just clap their hand, their paws, or anything they got now."
Bill Staines


"Hey, why don't you come sing in our choir!” the choir director says to a likely looking young man. “I'd love to,” he answers sadly, “but I can't sing a note.” Or maybe he says, “I'm completely tone deaf.” Or “I can't carry a tune in a bucket!”

That exchange, in all its variations, is all too familiar to Shivon Robinsong, Val Rogers, and Karen Mihalyi, pioneers of the budding community choir movement. People everywhere want to sing—would dearly love to sing—but they're convinced they can't.

Well, they're just plain wrong, says Robinsong, director of Victoria's 250-voice Gettin' Higher Choir. Everyone can sing. And everyone—the self-proclaimed nonsingers, the physically and mentally handicapped, people of all races and sexual persuasions—is welcome in her choir.

They're also welcome in the Eugene, Oregon, Peace Chorus, and the Seattle Labor Chorus, and the Syracuse Community Choir in New York, and the Labor Heritage Rockin' Solidarity Chorus of the Bay Area, and countless other community choirs across the country. Attention to inclusiveness is part of what sets the community choirs apart from traditional choirs. That, and a serious intention to change the world.

“These choirs are creating a new paradigm for choral singing,” says Val Rogers, director of the Eugene Peace Choir. “We're motivated by much more than aesthetics alone. We're singing for liberation, singing for a better society, to reinforce values that are vital to us, and to reclaim some of our cultural commons.”

A place in the choir
It was the women's movement that first started Karen Mihalyi, director of the Syracuse Community Choir in Syracuse, New York, thinking about inclusion: “It was painful. People were confronted by each other: about the whiteness of the movement, about its middle classness, about the absence of women who were disabled. The movement left in me the intent to do something about class, race, disability, gender, and homophobia issues.”

So she put that philosophy into action when she founded the Syracuse Community Choir in 1995. She works hard to make sure her choir is as richly diverse as she can make it, because to her, the idea of creating a community that considers no one as “other”is truly “beautiful.”

When she talks about inclusion's rewards, Mihalyi talks about a woman named Margaret, who sings tenor in the choir. Margaret is about 50 years old and lives in a group home. She was institutionalized for many years, labeled severely mentally retarded. One night, Margaret came to a makeup rehearsal and sat at the piano. The choir was singing a song with Spanish in it, but Margaret knew every word in the song. Mihalyi was surprised and asked her about it.

“I learned,” Margaret told her proudly.

Margaret's vocabulary has improved significantly from being in the choir, one of the women from the community housing agency told Mihalyi.

But sometimes the reality of inclusiveness can be tough. The logistics of finding accessible rehearsal space, organizing transportation for singers in wheelchairs, and getting music in braille are sometimes daunting. A few people have left the choir because the special needs of some of the choir members got in the way of their own singing.

Is it worth it?

The benefits gobothways, Mihalyi points out. The choir has widened her own circle of friends and enriched her life. Margarent, in particular, has become very important to her. “I've learned about and accepted her caring for me. I've learned that I need her to complete the circle.”

Re-amateurizing singing
As evidence of the new popularity of choral singing, Val Rogers ticks off the names of inclusive community choirs from Boston to Seattle and beyond—the Mystic Chorale, Rainbow Chorus, One Voice, Concord Choirs, Sacred Fire, Laughing Spirit, the Sheffield Socialist Choir in England. She also describes the Community Choir Conspiracy, an event she organized for the recent Seattle Folklife Festival. Five community choirs performed, drawing an audience of hundreds of people who stayed for the three-hour concert, sang along, then marched out into the street with the choirs, singing.

But if we're so eager to sing, why are most of us so bashful about it?

It's only in the last few decades that we've started to believe we can't sing, Shivon Robinsong says—a belief that coincides with the rise of commercial, studio-enhanced recorded music. Like the woman who feels her body is unacceptable because she doesn't look like an airbrushed supermodel, many of us assume that if we don't sound like Whitney Houston or Garth Brooks, we shouldn't open our mouths.

But if we leave singing to the professionals, if we acquiesce in the silencing of our own song, we've surrendered an essential source of what Robinsong calls “soul nutrient.”

Robinsong herself knows how painful that silence feels. Until just a few years ago she had serious doubts about her own voice, commonly describing herself as the only nonmusical member of a musical family. Then one day the people in her small community on Cortes Island began to get excited about forming a choir. There was just one problem—no one knew how to direct a choir. Hesitantly, Robinsong agreed to try, though she couldn't even read music at the time.

Well, the choir thrived. So when Robinsong moved to Victoria a few years later, she founded the Gettin' Higher Choir based on a philosophy quite different from the choirs most of us remember from school. There are no auditions, no rejections, and no required number of rehearsals. Members simply pay a fee to belong to the choir for a 12-week session (which includes a concert), and many scholarships are available. Most important, anyone who wants to sing is welcome, including those who say they're tone deaf or that they can't sing.

“Especially them!” Robinsong says with a proselytizing gleam in her eye.

In many traditional societies, she points out, there's no such word or concept as nonsinger. “Your voice is simply your voice,” she tells choir members and anyone else who will listen, “like your nose is your nose. It's nothing to worry over.”

Singing to change the world
Just as important as the joy of singing, community choristers seem to agree, is the politics of it. On the personal level, reclaiming our right to sing is a powerful political act, says Robinsong. It is refusing to buy into the notion that we are the passive consumers of music produced by superstars for profit-driven corporations.

On the societal level, singing tends to be an activity of the oppressed rather than those in power, according to writer and activist Bill Moyer. Perhaps that explains why every social change movement—civil rights, labor, abolition—has understood its importance and contributed to the vast repertoire of protest songs, from “Union Maid” to “We Shall Overcome.”

The view of singing as empowering, as community building, as carrying forth a vital social message has deep, strong roots in the African–American tradition and the labor movement, Rogers points out. These movements have cross-pollinated and spawned not only the thriving gay and lesbian choruses of recent years, but also the larger community choir movement as well.

So it's not surprising that community choirs of all stripes share a common commitment to social action. Their strategies, though, are as different as the choirs themselves. Labor choruses, such as the Seattle Labor Chorus, the Bay Area Labor Heritage/Rockin' Solidarity Chorus, and the New York Labor Chorus work to support the labor movement by singing on the picket lines and keeping alive the labor songs of Woodie Guthrie, Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, and many others. They also sing new, tongue-in-cheek social critiques like “Join a Union,” a song the Seattle Labor Chorus sings to the tune of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The Seattle group also marched and sang in the November 1999 WTO demonstrations.

Members of the Eugene Peace Chorus take a local approach in their social activism. They reinforce and reinvigorate groups working for a more democratic,
sustainable society by performing benefits for the local chapter of the Alliance for Democracy, the local women's shelter, and at events like Martin Luther King Day
celebrations and political fundraisers.

Up north in Victoria, the Gettin' Higher Choir works for social change on a global level. All their concerts are benefit concerts, and the proceeds go to the village they've adopted in Mozambique. Already they've built and are helping to support a school. Closer to home, they do an annual benefit concert for the Power of Hope, an arts-based workshop for teens.

Singing for a harmonious community
“Community choruses are critically important in rebuilding the fraying connections in our communities,” says Tom Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. These connections, known to sociologists as social capital, are the foundation of community, and they're “crucial to schools working well, neighborhoods being safe, economies working well, government being responsive.”

But why choruses? Why not build community through potlucks? Or social clubs?

Those who've sung in a choir intuitively know the answer to that question. A choir of human voices singing in harmony is the most elegant metaphor we have for a community that works. Every member contributes something unique—a high voice, a low voice, a voice somewhere in the middle. Who can say that a soprano voice is more beautiful than a bass voice? Or more important to the whole? The lesson the choir teaches is this: To get the best harmony, we need all the singers. It's a lesson that applies to communities, from small rural villages to the global community itself.

Then there's something that musicians call “ensemble,” that magical moment when the choir ceases to be a bunch of individuals and becomes a single musical instrument, sensing changes and tempos together, truly singing with one voice.

The chance to be a part of that magic is what brings singers to rehearsals week after week. “Our modern lives often feel sterile,” says Rogers. “Creating beauty in a group is a powerful antidote to that feeling.”

And so all across the country people come together to sing. They're not polished, trained singers, they're not part of an institution like a church or a school. Few of them read music, and their directors are not graduates of Julliard or Curtis Institute. There's no coordinating umbrella organization, no website. Just people doing the hard, joyful work of creating harmony.


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