Choruses and Community Wellness

How can we share the wellness benefits of choral singing with a broader community? A growing number of choral leaders are looking at ways to extend the group singing experience beyond the concert hall.

Singers don’t just join choruses; they belong to choruses. In that unique, ritualized setting, people of divergent backgrounds gather in order to make music, and by making music together, they form a community. Choral singers experience the truth in the cliché that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

What if we could share that experience more widely? What if we could broaden the feeling of community that flows from the act of singing together? A growing number of choral leaders are looking intently—and pragmatically—at how the bonding power of choral singing can extend beyond the rehearsal room and concert hall. They sense that choruses have untapped potential to foster the health and wellness of the community as a whole.

Different generations singing together at a Friday Night Sing-Along. (Photo: John McCoy/Courtesy of The Music Center)

“We’re living in a time where there’s been anxiety about jobs, the recent election and other issues,” says Mitch Menchaca, an experienced arts administrator—and choral singer—who came last year from Americans for the Arts to join Chorus America as chief operating officer. Throughout his career, his goal has been “to build healthy, vibrant communities with the arts at the center…to create a sense of community using the arts.” 

Advocates often argue that the arts convey “instrumental” benefits to society like improving students’ test scores or pumping money into the local economy. But, Menchaca says, don’t forget about the “intrinsic” value of the arts. “The idea of community wellness sits between the instrumental stuff and the warm and fuzzy intrinsic value stuff. There are those like decision-makers authorizing spending on the arts who need hard data; the general population may sit closer to the intrinsic element.”

Sharing Messages of Hope and Understanding

Chorus America’s Chorus Impact Study demonstrated that adults who sing in choruses have characteristics that make them remarkably good citizens. They are more likely to contribute their time and money to community causes and to take on leadership roles. As Chorus America’s President and CEO Ann Meier Baker wrote in her introduction to the study findings, “Simply put, if you’re searching for a group of talented, engaged, and generous community members, you would do well to start with a chorus.”

Choruses as organizations often show this same commitment to improving the quality of life in their communities. The Boston Children’s Chorus was founded in 2003 on the belief that shared song can help unite Boston’s diverse populations and inspire social change. Executive director David Howse recalls the words of singer and actor Paul Robeson: “Get them to sing your song and they’ll want to know who you are.” 

The Boston Children’s Chorus is the brainchild of social worker Hubie Jones, one of several efforts he has made to salve the racial tension that has long scarred the city. Inspired by the work of the Chicago Children’s Choir, Jones saw the Boston chorus as “a joyful, nonthreatening approach to what had been an ugly issue, a way to have real conversations about the things that keep us apart,” Howse says.

The conversations often begin during rehearsal in one of the organization’s 11 choirs, drawn from 50 neighborhoods. A song about slavery may grow into a discussion that has contemporary relevance. A piece about death moved one singer to raise her hand and bring up the issue of suicide, Howse recalled. The conversation led ultimately to a collaboration with a Boston suicide prevention organization. 

“Our role is to provide the space for those types of conversations. It starts with the music,” Howse says, and with the singers and their families, unfolding from there into the broader community. “When our kids step on stage, Boston sees what it can become. We’re sharing a message of hope for our city.”

Creative Placemaking and Active Participation 

In recent years, consultant Alan Brown has observed “a shift in priority from art as a disembodied commodity for those who can afford it, to art as a fully integrated element of community life.” Brown, who delivered a keynote address at the 2012 Chorus America Conference, writes in a 2012 paper for Grantmakers in the Arts that setting has become increasingly important for cultural consumers; it is “a subtle, if not profound, driver of arts participation…Settings are important because, for a finite period of time, they create ‘community.’”

Alan Brown (Photo: Anthony Kwan)

Focusing on how setting creates community, arts strategists have come up with new ways to highlight the instrumental and intrinsic benefits the arts bring to society.  

The term “creative placemaking” was coined to describe a multilateral effort to “strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” That’s how researchers Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa defined the activity in a study that animated the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) “Our Town” initiative, which funds projects that use the arts to make communities more livable. At first, says Menchaca, creative placemaking focused on “the built environment.” It gave a name to artists’ longstanding role as urban pioneers. Now, he says, “people are realizing there’s another side to the discussion: how to bring a sense of belonging to the community. You can have a beautiful museum or park, but if people don’t feel they belong there, they’re not going to go there.” 

At the Chorus America Conference, Brown made his case for a related strategy: encouraging active participation in the arts. He pointed to a societal shift in participatory culture, citing as evidence a growing DIY movement, the influx of new demographic groups who place a premium on active participation, and the wider availability of technological tools that foster creativity. Not content to be passive spectators, these consumers want to curate their own cultural experiences or share in the actual creative expression.

Menchaca shares Brown’s belief that this shift presents an opportunity for arts organizations, including choruses, to build deeper relationships—even if the current interest in active participation turns out to be short-lived. “If you create relationships,” Menchaca says, “you will continue to contribute and stay relevant even as the community changes.”  

In a breakout session following his talk at the Chorus America Conference, Brown argued that choruses are well positioned to experiment with active community participation because they are scalable, portable, and inherently social entities. The NEA’s director of the office of research and analysis, Sunil Iyengar, added weight to that opinion, using data to emphasize that choral music crosses boundaries into communities that other art forms struggle to penetrate. For instance, of the 12 million American adults participating in choruses in 2011, Iyengar says the NEA's research found that 20 percent were African-American. Seven percent were rural residents, who make up just five percent of the U.S. population as a whole. Two-thirds do not have a college degree. He adds that the coveted 18- to 24-year-old demographic was well represented in choruses. 

In light of this data, Brown suggests that the crisis the arts are facing is not really a financial one; it has more to do with creativity. He challenged choral leaders at the conference with this question: “What’s your next product line?”

Singalongs, Spontaneous Choirs, and Random Acts of Culture

Consider the Friday Night Sing-Alongs at the Los Angeles Music Center, held monthly during the summer in an outdoor amphitheater. “They’re very popular. It fills up quickly,” says Ming Ng, director of programming for Active Arts, the umbrella initiative for the center’s array of participatory programming funded by the James Irvine Foundation. For the free come-one, come-all Sing-Alongs, the center chooses a theme like the Beatles, Broadway, or Motown, and supplies song sheets, a back-up band, and a facilitator from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “But the people who come and sing are the stars of the show,” says Ng. “It’s really about validating the artist in everybody.”

Young singers from the Boston Children's Chorus out in their community. (Photo: Boston Children's Chorus)

The Sing-Alongs and the rest of the Active Arts programs serve as a counterpoint to the staged, professional performances the Master Chorale, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the LA Opera offer at the center. Ng says they engender a judgment-free atmosphere; no one joining the Sing-Alongs has to worry about intonation. “You don’t have to be part of the one percent elite. You can still be creative in Active Arts. This is an unconventional way to enjoy a performing arts center.”

And those who attend enjoy these events, according to Ng, because “people just love to sing. There’s a very communal feeling.” To take advantage of that, “you have to set it up right and just let it go. Don’t get in the way.”

Singer and teacher Melanie DeMore is all about getting people who don’t normally sing in groups to throw their heads back and let go. In addition to teaching a cappella singing at St. Paul's School in Oakland, California, she leads “Sound Awareness” gatherings in prisons and other settings where group singing is not necessarily common, forming what she likes to call “spontaneous choirs.” DeMore believes everyone needs and deserves opportunities to sing with other people. “I think that singing in a community allows people to have a certain ‘bigness’ that they cannot have in a solitary way.

“I say, ‘You know, honey, you were born singing. Maybe that’s not how you are going to make your living, but I am going to make it possible for you to sing with another group of people.’ You can see those people who are resistant in raising their voice, you can see them start to move around and first of all feel like they are not alone. They just want to be able to get with some people and sing a song. It is as vital as water. 

“Singing should be a part of community well being,” DeMore says, “so I am trying to think of what we can do as choral people.” As one idea, she imagines choral groups organizing events along the lines of the Active Arts Sing-Alongs—but very informal and much smaller in scale. Just “coffee and tea and snacks and bring the kids, and you sing. The whole purpose is not performance, it is just singing. And eating—don’t forget that part.”

The spontaneous feel of flash mobs helped make them a cultural phenomenon during the past decade. But there’s another element to their appeal. In an unexpected setting, for a brief moment, flash mobs can create a feeling of community.  

That’s what members of vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire discovered in January 2011 when they converged incognito on a suburban Miami mall. They startled—but ultimately delighted—unsuspecting shoppers with the pounding of suddenly unveiled tympani and the roaring chorus “O fortuna!” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Singers read the text on their smart phones. “One guy hid his phone in a pizza box,” says managing director Joey Quigley. 

The effort was a part of one thousand “Random Acts of Culture” funded in 2011-12 by the Knight Foundation. About a dozen of the flash mobs involved choruses. Seraphic Fire got involved, Quigley says, because flash mobs are inclusive. Going to the mall is “an everyday thing. The performance doesn’t take place in the temple of high art.”

Removing barriers is consistent with Seraphic Fire’s overall approach. “We want to reach people who don’t know that classical music could be their thing,” says Quigley. “They might have been put off by the highbrow conservatism that is true of a lot of organizations. We want to be a down-to-earth, family-type, involving organization.” 

Who Is Our Community?

A community-building strategy that aims to encourage social change or explore new ways to engage audiences may not be for every chorus. “It shouldn’t be forced,” says Menchaca. But, he says, every chorus should be asking, what community do we serve? As Brown put it in his paper, the arts sector as a whole must develop a clearer perspective on the dynamics among audiences, artists, and settings. Otherwise, he wrote, it “will not develop the capacity it needs to engage the next generation of art lovers.”

Menchaca has this advice for choruses: “If you want to reach the broader community, have a conversation that goes beyond marketing just to sell tickets.” He suggests a conversation that includes questions such as, what kind of performances do you want? Why do you come? Why have you stopped coming? “If you start by thinking about the community you want to serve, it opens up a whole world of possibilities.”

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2013. In this special issue devoted to singing and wellness, Chorus America explores current research and tells stories about how singing together contributes to the well-being of individuals, groups, and communities. Our Singing and Wellness Resource Guide explores the studies cited and further reading.