WM: What's the biggest change you've seen in the field over your tenure?
DC: I think it is critical to mention that I was the first person from the gay choral movement to serve on the board of Chorus America, beginning in 1990. I was one of the founders of GALA Choruses, which is now a significant service organization in the United States.
When I came to Chorus America, the organization was very focused on serving the professional choral singer and ensemble. At that time, we were teaching management skills primarily to fairly small fledgling professional choruses and symphony choruses. And the discussion was, those same principles were necessary for the community choruses. Chorus America has opened the door and welcomed everybody to the table, because we recognize there is a common need for choral groups of any type to learn management principles.
From the Interviewer
Wendy Moy. Photo by Danielle Barnum
"When I first met Dennis Coleman at a rehearsal in January 2011 I was instantly put at ease. He shook my hand and said that he would love to talk to me sometime about music literature for his women’s chorus. I smiled sheepishly since I was there to learn from him, the artistic director of the largest community chorus organization in North America. From that first rehearsal observation, I knew that something was “special” about the Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC), Seattle Women’s Chorus, and their director. That casual rehearsal observation turned into a 31-month in-depth exploration of the culture of the SMC in my dissertation, Come Together: An Ethnography of the Seattle Men’s Chorus and an ongoing friendship with Dennis. Years later, I am still in awe of his work and mission of changing hearts and minds through music. I feel profoundly fortunate to call him one of my mentors, and I am thankful for the opportunity to honor him in his retirement through this interview."
And overall, the biggest change in my time is that the table has grown bigger. When I began my career, there was a very traditional model. In high school you sang in the a cappella choir, you studied seriously in college, and then most often you went into teaching. But the revolution is taking place through the media, with TV shows like Glee, and the college a cappella movement that has taken off so strongly in the last 20 years. I think GALA Choruses could be considered part of this movement, too. There’s room for all of this under the umbrella now. It used to be as a high school choral director, you tried really hard to get the captain of the football team into the choir, because if you could do that, then you had a chance of having a men’s section. But now I think it’s seen in a different light. People want to sing, and sing well. How do we capture the pop choral movement and move them over to the “other side” somewhat? That’s an important thing.
WM: What is your hope for the future of choral music?
DC: I really believe that groups of people singing together in whatever fashion—in church, community choirs, in folk communities—is a profound human activity, one that historically has had a deep impact on countries and groups of people. We’ve seen recent studies of the value of singing in a choir in a person’s social life. All of it is affirming what those of us who have worked in the field a long time have always known: Singing in a choir changes your life, and it can also change the lives of the people you sing to. It’s something that reaches into your heart quicker than most anything. Of course pop music does that, but choral music captures that tribal instinct that we all have of wanting to be a part of something, not just a soloist. I hope that we continue to expand the role of singing together. As the world moves forward, I think it could have a tremendous effect.
WM: What is one important lesson that you learned during your career?
DC: I grew up wanting to be a choral conductor, in an evangelical Southern Baptist church. I’m very thankful for that, because I learned that music—especially choral music—could really move people and reach into their hearts and effect change. While I felt music was a means to the end—of social change, for example—when I began my studies at the university, I was being taught that the end was the music. The purpose was to perform it historically correct and with the highest quality. Whether it communicated to the audience was to some degree secondary to the actual performance of the repertoire.
Wendy Moy and Dennis Coleman together at a Seattle Women's Chorus concert. Photo by Alan Tchochiev.
Then while I was at the university, I lost my job in church music. They discovered I was gay, and I was fired. That was a traumatic event for me. The Seattle Men’s Chorus hired me quickly after, and that’s when I learned that everything that I had learned at church and the university applied to my job immediately. I started on a path of following choirs of the past that have used their music to effect specific social change in their community. From the beginning, we sang literature by the great composers, but we always sang our story as gay men. We took the music, whether it was Brahms or our own personal story, and put it into a theatrical setting that flowed through emotional highs and lows and had a message. My life sort of fell apart when I was 33 years old, but boy, it all came together.
WM: You have said, “I constantly have to juggle, is it art or is it social activism?” Can you speak more about that? What is your philosophy?
DC: That’s been the artistic struggle of my career. I’m pulled to one side where I want to perform the great masterworks, commission new works, and undertake the most adventurous programming, like my Chorus America and ACDA friends. On the other hand, that’s not the job
I have with my chorus. My job is to put groups of gay men or feminist women on stage and try to create the broadest community that I can within this city to create social change and acceptance.
We’ve made so much progress. My career has been an arch. When I came out in 1981, it was the beginning of a wonderful period in the gay community. People were coming out and we were proud for 3-4 years, and then AIDS hit. It changed everything. Then the political campaigns began to win our civil liberties, and finally we have marriage equality. This huge arc in my career in choral music went right along with that social dynamic in the gay community. Even the things we commissioned, like John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 that we did at the height of the AIDS crisis. You cannot separate the social activism and the social environment we were in from the repertoire, our activities, and our mission.
WM: You are one of the founders of GALA Choruses. What is something that the choral community can learn from the gay and lesbian chorus movement?
DC: I would say our emphasis on inclusion and diversity. We’ve always stressed inclusion and diversity in terms of who can be a member and in terms of repertoire, trying to be multicultural and bring the world into our performances. They go hand in hand, because you can’t attract diversity unless you perform the music of a diverse audience.
What's one piece of advice you have for emerging leaders?
DC: You have to find your place and your passion. If your passion is church music, that’s where you need to work. If your passion is social change, then you need to work in a chorus that does that. If you’re an academic and you want to do research, you need to do that.
It seems to me these days that every student I see just wants to have a big university job—or if that’s not available, then a professional choir somewhere. And I’ll tell you, take that little church job. And learn how to work with amateur voices and be able to make a sound with them. Sure, you could probably come close to the sound that another director can get with his or her professional choir of trained voices, but you’re probably not ever going to walk into that situation. When you get into a college job as a new person, you’re probably going to come into a situation where you’re going to have to build, where you have to learn to create a program. Don’t be afraid to take what comes at you. There’s so much to learn. You can make anything pretty great, if you’re good. The really talented people rise to the top, but there’s a lot of luck involved, and being at the right place at the right time. This little job I took with the Seattle Men’s Chorus was a tiny community chorus of about 40 singers and not much of a budget. I just took it, and we went, and now it’s the largest community chorus organization in North America.