Choral leaders and organizations bring value to their communities in multiple ways. Here are some of their stories.
As we begin to emerge from the isolation and dissonance of the past year and before, there’s no better time to celebrate the way that choruses, choirs, and singing groups bring us together. This fall, Chorus America launched #RediscoverHarmony, a campaign that encourages the public to support choral organizations and puts a spotlight on the value that they bring to their communities.
Choral leaders and singing groups have been rediscovering harmony in many different ways this fall. That might look like returning to in-person rehearsals and performances, engaging singers and audiences with creative community building activities, deepening work on access, diversity, equity, and inclusion, or even taking a thoughtful pause on activity to recalibrate and make sure that the path forward is the best way to achieve their mission and vision.
These conductors, educators, and organizational leaders shared the ways in which they are helping their communities #RediscoverHarmony—something that’s more important now than ever before.
Cory Davis, Artistic Director
One Voice Chorus
Cory Davis assumed the role of artistic director of One Voice Chorus in 2019, already making the 2019-2020 season one of transition. Throw in a pandemic, and it’s easy to understand how a group just figuring out its new leader might lose a bit of momentum. Undeterred, Cory and his team set out to provide opportunities for their community of singers to be together one way or another.
Through the creation of some virtual offerings, they engaged a small-but-faithful group of 20 or so singers, but still felt they could do more. “We just began to feel like the space we create for our Charlotte queer community is crucially important for our well-being,” Davis explains. “We began to rebuild ... just taking things day by day. We are deliberately trying to focus more on just being together and less on getting to the performance that we've scheduled for the beginning of December.”
Through a combination of logistics, flexibility, and myriad public health precautions, One Voice Chorus has returned to in-person rehearsal to extraordinary results. From a virtual cohort of 20, they have welcomed as many as 75 singers––many completely new to the ensemble––to their in-person gatherings. As a safe space for anyone from the queer community, these rehearsals are profoundly meaningful, especially to some members who are only able to be their authentic selves during these weekly meetings. “Seeing how much it means for people to physically be in community with one another, joining their voices together, makes it worth any challenge,” says Davis.
Arreon Harley-Emerson, Director of Music & Operations
Choir School of Delaware
Arreon Harley-Emerson, director of music and operations at the Choir School of Delaware, speaks about his work with passion so palpable as to be contagious. “We’re really focused on what we can do to move the needle as far as inclusion and equity in choral spaces,” he says. The programming he describes doesn’t just allow the Choir School community to #RediscoverHarmony, it creates harmony in places where it never existed.
After a long stretch of virtual choir, during which the Choir School produced five full-length choral concerts, and sustained both its academic support and social services offerings, last season ended with several outdoor, in-person concerts. Over the summer, they even mounted a full-scale musical. Harley-Emerson reports that many of the kids cried after the final performance, because being able to perform together again was so profoundly moving to them.
The Choir School’s newest venture is Bent But Not Broken, a conference slated to take place in April 2022, which will amplify the work of Black composers and musicians. Bent But Not Broken will include a Youth Honor Choir experience and sessions highlighting HBCU education and the contributions of Black choral leaders and scholars. One planned lecture and recital will explore the connections between African American spirituals and the Underground Railroad, along with the opportunity to take a walking tour of Underground Railroad locations in Wilmington, Delaware.
Attendees will also enjoy performances, including one from professional vocal ensemble EXIGENCE and one from the Choir School of Delaware’s own intergenerational choir led by Jason Max Ferdinand. “The intergenerational experience is core to the Choir School. We say we’re for children ages 7 to 77, and that’s who we serve, quite literally,” says Harley-Emerson.
Minister Walt Blocker, Director
St. Thomas Gospel Choir
Like so many houses of worship across the country and around the world, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia turned to what choir director Walt Blocker calls “virtual church” during the height of the COVID pandemic. Church pews remained empty, congregants worshipped via Zoom from the comfort of their homes, and the once-thriving St. Thomas Gospel Choir was, for a time, silent. Now, however, in-person worship is back, and vaccinations and public health protocols make ensemble singing a less risk-laden endeavor.
For those who worship at St. Thomas, the return of the Gospel Choir is not only an opportunity to #RediscoverHarmony, but also a chance to re-examine what role music plays in worship itself. “The congregants are elated!” says Blocker. He doesn’t refer to “worship,” but rather to the worship experience. “When music was missing, it was noticed,” he observed.
With renewed faith in the idea that music is fundamental to our life experiences, Blocker and his choir have decided to say “yes” to opportunities they might not have previously considered. They’ll be heard at a regional ACDA conference in the spring, they’ll perform in one of Baltimore’s largest theater venues, and they’ll be back and better than ever with the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra for their Christmas Spectacular.
Tom Cooke, Board President
Professional chamber choral ensemble Voce’s mission statement begins with the words “to serve harmony” and rests on the organization’s bedrock values of selflessness, synergy, commitment, and community. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, “we concluded that the musical component of ‘serving harmony’ would have to wait,” explains Voce’s board president, Tom Cooke. “Voce chose instead to focus on how it could best serve one of its core values: community.”
This fall, serving Voce’s community of singers and audience members meant making the hard decision to cancel an October concert. “We knew that members of the choir and undoubtedly many in our audience would not yet feel comfortable returning to a public forum,” explained Cooke. He is optimistic that Voce’s upcoming holiday performances will be the “unconditional celebration of the return of choral music” for which the group has been waiting.
In the meantime, Voice has created Voices of Hartford, a new program that collaborates with young musicians and organizations in Hartford, Connecticut neighborhoods. Helmed by Hartford native bass-baritone Miles Wilson-Toliver, Voices of Hartford launched its pilot in June for a small group of young men. In this short time, the ensemble has performed at community events including the City of Hartford’s Juneteenth celebration and a “National Night Out” initiative designed to bring communities and their police forces together. Voices of Hartford is working to finalize a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Hartford to establish “Build Your Voice,” a choral opportunity for young men and women.
Eric Williamson, K-5 music teacher
NYC Department of Education, P.S. 32
As a teacher of elementary school students in a Brooklyn public school, Eric Williamson has had to adapt constantly. He started the school year at a time when students couldn’t yet sing together at all; now, they are able to sing, but only in small groups. But he says that needing to find new ways of doing things gave him the space to try approaches that “have really just transformed my educational practice and philosophy.”
“I spent a lot of time the first few weeks of school really centering identity in a meaningful way,” he says -- something that he’s always incorporated but had more time to explore this year. This meant a lot of discussions and sharing about topics that ranged from who his students are and how they felt about needing to wear masks to what music helped them feel happy during the pandemic and what they wanted their music space to be like.
He’s also tried to give his students more opportunities to “use their voices and their power of choice.” When a class got excited about creating a rap inspired by “Halloween and character day and candy”, he went with their excitement and worked with them on an original song. “It’s been a very co-creative process where they are constantly telling me what they know and giving me feedback on what we’re learning.”
Williamson says that he sees a new confidence and sense of self-responsibility in his students due to the time they have spent focused on building community. “It’s made our music-making together much more meaningful.”
Mark A. Berry, Chief Marketing Officer
Los Angeles Master Chorale
“We are pleased to be back with a full slate of performances, running from September all the way to late June,” says Mark A. Berry, Chief Marketing Officer for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
As they #RediscoverHarmony through music, the Master Chorale looks to a part of their community that has been deeply affected in recent months. To thank and honor teachers for the hard work they continue to do during the pandemic, the Master Chorale offered complimentary tickets to its first concert of the season to educators from across Los Angeles. “Everyone who attended was moved by the emotional power of live music, which we were all missing for so long,” Berry says.
To rediscover organizational harmony, the Master Chorale also looks inward. In part, this means continuing to meet their commitment to access, diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Last July, the Master Chorale promised to dedicate 50% of its programming each season to composers from historically excluded groups; audiences will see the results of that pledge in the music they hear [beginning] this season,” according to Berry. The Master Chorale will also conduct a survey this fall to better understand the range of needs of their musicians, staff, and board. By becoming more understanding and responsive, they hope to bring more diverse musical offerings to a broader audience.
Juliana Joy Child, Assistant Artistic Director and Alex Gartner, Artistic and Executive Director
Pensacola Children’s Chorus
In September 2020, six months into the pandemic, Hurricane Sally swept through the Southeastern United States, resulting in the collapse of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, a three-mile bridge that connects downtown Pensacola to the suburb of Gulf Breeze. The collapse quite literally split the Pensacola Children’s Chorus family in two.
Although many members were able to sing through all of last year’s struggles either in-person or virtually, some members were unable to sing with the chorus at all. This season, however, the chorus is back together, the way that music makes them come alive.
“With the bridge now rebuilt, our Resident Choir Program members are all back together as one, and our singers are rebuilding relationships with friends whom they have not been able to see for over a year,” says PCC Assistant Artistic Director Juliana Joy Child.
But emerging from hurricane- and pandemic-related challenges was just the beginning for PCC. In the summer of 2021, and with generous support from the City of Pensacola, the American Choral Directors Association, and local sponsors, PCC partnered with local community centers to create Pensacola SINGS. This multi-site network of neighborhood choirs provides high quality choral experiences to youth in Pensacola in locations where they didn’t exist previously. Elated by this chance for community inclusion, Child is effusive about “plans for many new singers to discover harmony for the first time!”
Catherine Roma, Artistic Director
World House Choir
With a mission centered around inspiring communities “toward justice, diversity, and equality,” the need to be together has never been more urgent for the World House Choir. In the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, they have “rehearsed on tennis courts, under tents, in a nearby barn, and under a big roof” at a local college, says artistic director Catherine Roma. They have also performed at events including a commemoration of 20 years of peacebuilding after 9/11 and a celebration of the UN International Day of Peace and the opening of the new location of the Dayton International Peace Museum.
Echoing a sentiment shared by so many in the choral community, soprano Laura Curliss tells us that “continuing to sing together during the pandemic feels essential to life right now.” Alto Pam Schall agrees the pandemic has been “emotionally taxing for everyone,” and reiterates that “singing together during this crazy time has been a way to reconnect with each other … and it helps us to recognize the needs we all have as we see strangers respond to our music, our message, and to the spirit in which we are coming together.”
Outdoor community performances have provided the World House Choir singers and audience opportunities to #RediscoverHarmony together. Schall reflects on why coming together––even in unusual settings––has been so important: “We have been living in a world full of anger and fear, but the love and determination we gather with makes a small space for beauty and peace.”
Mitra Khazai, Executive Director
Phoenix Boys Choir
According to its mission, the Phoenix Boys Choir seeks to develop “character, discipline, leadership, global awareness, and a strong commitment to excellence” in its singers. After enduring many months of unprecedented pandemic-induced adversity, they were back to living out this important work in a very real way. “The Phoenix Boys Choir is working to #RediscoverHarmony by reaching deeply into our community to support efforts to provide words and music of healing and hope,” says executive director Mitra Khazai.
In September 2021, the choir sang for the 20th anniversary of the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered while planting flowers at his gas station just four days after the events of September 11, 2001. The first fatal hate crime post-9/11, Singh Sodi had been planning a news conference to educate his neighbors in Mesa, Arizona about the Sikh faith community. This tragedy became a harbinger of targeted violence that profoundly impacted an entire generation of Sikhs and other underrepresented communities.
“If the gift of live choral music is not work to #RediscoverHarmony, we don’t know what is,” says Khazai.
Angela Goldberg, Managing Director
Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus
For the last year and a half, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus has “rehearsed over Zoom, hosted Beer Choirs on Facebook Live, and connected with more than 17,000 viewers through a virtual presentation of Handel’s Messiah,” says managing director Angela Goldberg. The group even celebrated winning a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance together with a virtual watch party. Despite the tenacity they’ve shown these last 18 months, they are thrilled to be back together and making music in person. Managing director Angela Goldberg explains that the chorus has “focused more intently on understanding what it means to be a singing community.” And it’s that word––community––that seems to have stuck for this chorus.
Partnering with the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and honoring those affected by Alzheimer's Disease with the inspiring new work Alzheimer's Stories by Robert Cohen are only some of the new opportunities the chorus is exploring. “As we return to in-person singing, we are excited to reexamine not only how we connect as a singing community, but also how we can better connect with our community as a whole through thoughtful programming, inspiring events, and intentional partnerships with other local organizations and groups,” says Goldberg.
Koriana Lewis Bradford, music educator
Boston Latin School
“I have to say, I truly miss being able to see the students’ full expressions on their faces as they sing. It’s difficult to gauge a reaction with only the eyes.” Koriana Lewis Bradford, who teaches music at Boston Latin School, surely isn’t the only educator or choir director who feels this way when looking out at the masked faces of their singers.
As in-person singing slowly returns for the Boston Latin community, Lewis Bradford has managed to #RediscoverHarmony with her students in a variety of ways. At the start of the academic year, students had to be divided up into sections, or small subsets of the full ensemble. While everyone missed that “big, booming sound when [they’re] all singing together,” many students developed a more independent ear as they worked on harmonies between sections in those smaller rehearsals.
As the school year has progressed, Lewis Bradford has been able to make use of a much larger auditorium, which has allowed her to bring together some of her choirs in their entirety. “This has been a complete game-changer for all of us!”
“One student told us that sometimes what they hear in their head is not always what comes out from their mouth when they sing,” Lewis Bradford explains. “It was so powerful that he was willing to share that with the class. It was a moment of vulnerability that helped me gain understanding as to why I couldn’t get the sound from the choir that I wanted.” Since that interaction, the choirs have been taking more opportunities to sing in the larger spaces, hear the various parts, and realize the full potential of their sound. “Students’ confidence absolutely skyrockets, and they love hearing their voices echo harmoniously in the large auditorium space!”
Find More #RediscoverHarmony Stories here!
Kenny Litvack is the managing director of the Bucks County Choral Society, marketing manager of Princeton Pro Musica, and a freelance arts nonprofit consultant.