How Can Many Singers Speak with One Voice?

More and more choruses are practicing advocacy inside the concert hall, representing social justice and community issues in their performances. What kinds of steps are they taking to ensure that singers are on the same page so that they can perform as a collective?

The impulse to lend singing voices to social causes is bound up in choral DNA. It surfaced in Dublin in 1742, when Handel donated proceeds from the premiere of Messiah to a debtors’ prison and hospital. Over the next 100 years in the American South, it rose again as African Americans created spirituals that gave voice to the struggle and heartache they experienced under slavery. In the next century, groups such as the Freedom Singers carried on that legacy, using the music tradition they’d learned in African American churches to power the Civil Rights Movement with protest songs.

Among the efforts to tap the potency present in a chorus of voices is the rising Justice Choir movement, with chapters forming in cities throughout the country, aiming to inspire their communities to take social action. At the same time, more and more choruses founded around principles of artistic excellence or providing a fulfilling singing experience for their members are finding themselves moved to sing repertoire that calls attention to social issues.

Growing public awareness and concern are pushing choral leaders “to program in such a way that would help frame those issues,” observes Eric Nelson, artistic director of the Atlanta Master Chorale since 1999. The chorale’s mission statement does not mention social justice. Nonetheless, Nelson says, “we can use the choral art to get in tune with these things. Choral music moves us to the big human questions. I’m most interested in leveraging the thing that only we can do to make the world a better place.” In May his group will perform a concert of music from the Civil War, in part to lend perspective to “the discourse and division we’re experiencing in America today.”

Rollo Dilworth’s Temple University Chorale has no social justice mandate either, but he asserts that “all art should provoke thought.” Dilworth, whose research has focused on social justice, diversity, and inclusion in choral settings, feels “art should be an opportunity to not only learn more about world around us, but art in many ways lifts a mirror up to our own faces. I can’t see why the choral art wouldn’t be a part of that.”  

“A chorus in my opinion and experience can be—and has a responsibility to be—about more than making beautiful music,” says Micah Hendler, an American who founded the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, composed of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. “It can be a force in a world divided and full of conflict. As people who have the power to bring us all together, we have the responsibility to do so.”

Managing that responsibility requires skill, sensitivity, and intentionality. Knowing the 75 members of your community chorus love singing and are likely to be socially engaged does not guarantee they will unite behind the same cause. Under what circumstances does it make sense for your chorus to advocate for a social cause? What are the challenges you can expect to face, and how can you best respond to them? How do you approach repertoire and other programming choices?

“Why are we doing this?”

The process starts with introspection, says Dilworth. “What is our ethical responsibility to go beyond the page?” In essence, he says, the question becomes, “Why are we doing this?”

For one thing, it’s a natural response to the times we live in. America’s currently polarized political climate “inspires us,” says Peter Leo, artistic director of Carolina Voices in Charlotte, North Carolina (formerly the Charlotte Choral Society). “It strengthens our resolve to be a voice for unification in the community.” Following a series of race-related demonstrations that took place in Charlotte in late 2016, Leo recalls that several members of the chorus were too upset to go about business as usual. “So we scrapped rehearsal and just had community time,” he says. They sang some songs, including “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and also considered “what we could do to give voice to those people that were stressing and to hear particularly our black brothers and sisters talk about the fears that they have that are real. It was powerful, and I think it was uniting.”

In certain kinds of choral music, social engagement goes hand in hand with the singing experience. As its name implies, the Minneapolis-based National Lutheran Choir (NLC) specializes in sacred music. “As I say to the choir, we get to mean what we sing,” notes music director David Cherwien. In its performances, the NLC identifies ways to apply spiritual meaning in the physical world. Each year, says Cherwien, its Christmas festival begins with the question, “Why do we care about the birth of Jesus now?” Noting that refugees around the world are finding borders and doors closed to them, the 2017 program asked, “Is there room for Christ to be born today?” “We couch things in ways that different faiths can translate as their own and still make sense,” Cherwien says. “Do we have room for each other?”

In a more direct way, the African-American spiritual provides “a gateway into the social justice arena,” as Dilworth describes it, because so much of this music responds to racial oppression. As part of its mission to preserve and “lift up” the spiritual, the Heritage Signature Chorale of Washington DC embraces the social justice aspect of the spiritual tradition, perhaps most notably when performing contemporary pieces that carry on the spiritual’s legacy. In 2012 it performed Ysaye Barnwell’s cantata Fortune’s Bones, which tells the story of a Connecticut slave whose corpse was used without consent as a medical specimen and later as a museum exhibit. In pre-concert discussions, the audience received a history lesson that set the stage for the raw subject matter. But for founder and artistic director Stanley Thurston, the main reason to perform this or any music resides in the quality of the piece itself. Quite simply, he says, “It has to be art.”

Getting on the same page

Echoing Thurston, Steven Edwards says his priority as music director of the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans is “looking for great music we can sing well.” After that, he’s about finding music that responds somehow to needs identified in the community. The chorus has partnered with New Orleans social service agencies in a concert focused on homelessness that featured Kathleen McGuire’s Street Requiem. It performed Tyler’s Suite, a multi-composer response to bullying, in collaboration with the New Orleans Gay Men’s Chorus. “The thing that resonates with me,” says chorus member and administrative director Michael Grumich, is that “these partnerships expose me to social issues from a whole different perspective. For example with Street Requiem we had three homeless people giving their testimonies in performance. Many chorus members said that was one of best things…to hear their personal stories.”

“Homelessness is not a red or blue issue,” says Edwards; few would question whether it’s an appropriate concern for a chorus to address. But taking sides in hot-button political or cultural debates? That’s another matter. “Our mission is to unite,” says Leo, describing a commonly held stance. “We collaborate in order to hear from different sides, and as an opportunity to unite different groups. It’s not about taking a stand on one side or the other; it’s about awareness or bringing people together.” In its Voiceless Concert Series, his organization aims “to give voice to the voiceless, a part of the community that’s marginalized,” Leo says. Like its counterpart in New Orleans, the Charlotte chorus has focused recent performances on bullying and homelessness.

While taking a stand against homelessness is unlikely to arouse controversy, it is not a “pretty topic,” Edwards acknowledges. He says it was “a hard sell for people who found it difficult to deal with the issue.” Grumich knows fellow chorus members who sat out performances of Street Requiem and Tyler’s Suite: “Someone two weeks ago said, ‘I’ll be glad when we get back to something classical.’ I can understand why they’d have a personal reaction to something that’s been hard in their own life, whether someone they know is homeless or someone they know has committed suicide.” Edwards responds to those singers by acknowledging their feelings. “I’m not in a position to argue with them. I give them room to step back.” The option to sit out concerts is “well communicated” in Carolina Voices, Leo says. “We know those risks are inherent in doing programming that talks about social issues.”

How much communication does it take to unite singers behind social justice themes? When introducing ideas for a program like the one presenting Christ’s birth as a refugee story, Cherwien takes a less-is-more approach. “I don’t do a lot of explaining to the singers,” he says. “You get into trouble when you try to explain what something must mean. There can be so many different understandings.” NLC soprano Katherine Castille finds that the approach “helps everyone have a voice, everyone gets to collaborate. You understand that it’s OK to bring your own meaning to what you’re doing.”

Members of the Atlanta Master Chorale “question everything—in the best possible way,” says Nelson. After he announced the Civil War program, several singers worried the topic would be “too hot, too dangerous, too potentially divisive.” Nelson put together a “framework that looks honestly at the division that happened then” and presented it over lunch to several chorus members, all of them longtime Atlantans, but representing different ages and ethnicities.  “‘I’m thinking about doing this,’” he told the group. “‘This is your chance to wave me off.’” They all brought up “a couple things that were dangerous,” he says, including a recommendation that the program not include “Dixie.” Despite the song’s strong attachment to slavery and segregation, Nelson says he’s convinced the chorus could have “found a way to do it with integrity and sensitivity,” but in the end he decided other songs from the era worked better in the program.

Nelson says he left that lunch meeting with a “thumbs up” from his singer focus group. Still, Nelson felt the need for further vetting from local experts, including a “major historian” at the Atlanta History Center who went over his script line by line. The aim of the performance, he says, is to “remind us that at end of the war we got the Gettysburg Address,” with its vision of a more perfect union. “I’m hoping those that are aware of our current divisions will find that perspective in this program on many levels.”

Dialogue is built into the weekly four-hour rehearsals of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which Hendler established in 2012 after his graduation from Yale with a degree in music and international studies. The group’s repertoire reflects Arabic, Hebrew, traditional, and pop influences, and that is the attraction for the Israeli and Palestinian teens who join. The dialogue may not be what draws them, but Hendler says “it’s a core part of our mission. That’s different from other choruses, but if we create the space and follow the proper process, even skeptics can be brought in.” Leading the dialogue are professional facilitators trained in group dynamics and the Palestinian conflict. Groups talk about values shared or not shared, using them “to go into hardcore conflict issues ranging from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to feeling safe in their own house. We create a space for people to talk about them and be angry with each other, but in the context of a group that has music holding it together.” The process requires intentionality, much planning, and ground rules, says Hendler. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’”

If singers question how much room inside the choral circle ought to be created for social justice, you can be sure audiences do too. Hendler has heard concertgoers argue that music is or ought to be unconnected to social issues. Those people, he says, “are the ones not being affected by the social issues.” After a concert of spirituals, Dilworth recalls being asked, “‘Why are you still doing this? Slavery is over. Spirituals just make white people feel guilty.’ My response is, ‘Why do you feel guilty?’” Dilworth suspects they react that way because—whether consciously or unconsciously—they know that racial discrimination still exists and feel they may not be doing enough to fight it. “Social justice is also about challenging people in your sphere to do something.”

If not outright guilt, William Skoog has experienced at least unease as a white conductor leading spirituals. He didn’t feel that way in the Midwest, where he began his conducting career. But when working on that music with students at Rhodes College in Memphis, where he’s been director of choral studies since 2009, he sensed discomfort among some choir members. It peaked last fall after the group started rehearsing Stacey Gibbs’ arrangement of “Great God Almighty.” While one of his altos, an African American, thanked Skoog for choosing the piece, saying she could feel it “connect me to my roots, my color, my background,” a white tenor described the opposite reaction. The work song’s graphic language evoking cruelty to slaves moved the young man to tell Skoog “’I’m the wrong color’” to sing this piece. He didn’t want to disrespect African Americans in the choir, Skoog says.

For help, Skoog turned to a dean responsible for college diversity, who agreed to lead an open conversation with choir members that would chart the course for the group’s approach to spirituals. During the discussion, one white singer explained that he was uncomfortable with the genre because it wasn’t part of his history. Skoog remembers the dean responding, “‘This is all of our history. You just don’t like what side of the history you’re on. Not to sing spirituals is to deny that history.’”

In his dealings with this question, Thurston has witnessed what he calls “a turning of the tide.” The Heritage Signature Chorale now includes several members who are not people of color, five to ten percent, he estimates. “As musicians, you have the right to perform any music that’s been written,” he says. When he chooses music for his ensembles, one thing Dilworth says he tries to impress on people is that “building community is not just about bringing people together and talking about how we’re alike. We often want to highlight similarities in choruses; we still need to highlight differences and deal with them.”

Crafting a program to convey the message

For choruses that address contemporary issues in their concerts, programming becomes a special challenge. Artistic directors must consistently locate integrity and resonance not only in the music, but also in the narrative. “It’s always been my presumption,” says Cherwien, “that people really are looking for something deeper than interesting music at the musical level alone.”

Programs centered on social justice are often built on themes to provide what Nelson calls “scaffolding.” He says, “Our audiences are used to coming into a concert and being asked to think about some kind of concept to which music is related.” One result of that, he senses, is that they are “less likely to fold their arms and set their jaw” when an event like his Civil War program looks as though it may push the envelope. Another outcome, Cherwien finds, is that “people come away having gone on a journey rather than having been amused or entertained for an hour and a half. A story line is set up, they’re drawn into that, and they remember the essence of the journey.”

The journey can—probably should—wander along varying paths, including familiar ones. In every concert touching on social issues, Skoog aims to make roughly 60 percent of his selections classical repertoire. Especially in the NLC’s annual Christmas program, Cherwien makes sure to include selections that touch a familiar chord, having learned that “if memory is not blessed, people are not open to new experiences.”

No one argues that community choruses ought to include a social justice message in every concert. But Nelson feels it’s important “that one doesn’t think of this as a one-off.” Follow-up is particularly important for nurturing collaborations, Leo adds. He wants to leave no doubt among community partners that “I’m more interested in getting to know you than having you on a concert program so we can sell more tickets.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not just about the dots and dashes on the page; it is about the meaning of life,” Dilworth believes. Because choral music can tap the deepest emotions, because it can make real the vision e pluribus unum, choruses have the power to become what Hendler describes as “social engines.” Skoog goes further than that. “It’s a miracle,” he says. “Absolutely a miracle.” He considers the chorus one of the rare places in society where a successful “community of expression” is being realized. “C’mon, look at our country right now! It’s hard to get five people to agree on anything. Here we get 90 or 100 people to agree on a 16th note, and every utterance of text, and even the phrasing and the tuning and the vowels and the timing. I’ve done this for a long time, and it continues to just amaze me.”

The choice to use that power rests in the hands of choral directors. “Sometimes we can shy away from that,” says Dilworth. “And that’s OK if you’re all about art for art’s sake. But given that it’s 2018 and we’re still having difficulty getting along with each other, I think we would be missing a great opportunity if we did not address the human experience in our choral rehearsals and performances.”

Don Lee is the managing editor of the Voice, as well as a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.