We Sing and We're Proud!

Erasing Our Choral Inferiority Complex

It's time we check our choral inferiority complex at the door and assert choral music's rightful place as the noblest of the performing arts.

If you're like many choral artists, you might have an inferiority complex about your artistic medium. You might wish that your chorus enjoyed the same media attention and donor support that is lavished on your more glamorous rivals—the local symphony orchestra, opera, or ballet company.

My message for you today: Get over it and fight back. It's time to assert choral music's rightful place as the noblest and the most socially important of all performing arts.

How is choral music the superior performing art? Let me count the ways.

The voice was the first musical instrument, it was there before humans began beating on drums, blowing into gourds, and plucking gut strings.

Choral music is a universal art form, a distinction it shares with dance. The massing of voices, whether in spoken chants or sounds with musical pitch, is practiced by virtually every society on earth.

No Need for Money

Of all the musical arts, choral singing is the most democratic because the voice is the one instrument everyone owns-the one instrument you don't need money to buy.

Choral music is how people express their most powerful and deeply-felt emotions.

In a time when society is becoming more fragmented, when individuals are feeling more isolated and alienated, choral music brings people together.

Choral singing is the sound of celebration. In the joyous concert at the demolished Berlin Wall after the fall of East German communism in 1989, what was the featured masterpiece? A choral work, of course-Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Throughout history, choral music has exhorted people to social action and human liberation: The great Spirituals of the early 19th century. The powerful hymn of the Civil Rights movement, "We Shall Overcome." The raucous union organizing songs of the 1930s.

Choral music is how people express their patriotism, from the "Marseillaise" of the French Revolution to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the American Civil War.

Throughout history, group singing has helped laborers build camaraderie and endure the hardship of grueling work: the sea shanties of sailors, the rhythmic songs of railroad crews and prisoners on chain gangs.

Choral music is how people soothe their grief at the passing of loved ones—with familiar hymns shared at funerals.

Finding Their Voice

Choral music is how people give voice to their spirituality. For the serious choral singer, performing the great sacred works can be a personal religious experience like no other.

Is there any other musical composition, in any medium, more sublime than the Bach Mass in B-Minor? More dramatic than the Verdi Requiem? More triumphant than Handel's Messiah? I know of none.

Now, I like orchestras as much as the next guy, and many of the greatest choral works—from Monteverdi's Vespers to Orff's Carmina Burana—were made richer by instrumentation.

But great choral music doesn't require an orchestra. Indeed, some of the most sublime choral works of the 20th century are a cappella works, such as Maurice Durufle's "Ubi Caritas" and Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria."

In a time when society is becoming more fragmented, when individuals are feeling more isolated and alienated, choral music brings people together.

It is the music of social cohesion, the music that builds community. It brings together people of different ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, united in a love of great music.

Taming the Beast

How do summer camps bring the shy campers into the fold? With group sings at meals and around camp fires-everything from nonsense songs to the ubiquitous "Kumbaya." How do colleges make their returning alums feel at home? With glee club concerts of the old school songs.

In the hit French movie Les Choristes, what was it that tamed those incorrigible delinquents at that vile reform school? Well, it wasn't ballet lessons. It was teaching them the joy and discipline of choral singing.

Choral music is the music of jubilation, of grief, of toil, of worship. It is the music of protest and patriotism, the music of religious passion. It is the only kind of music that connects people in the most profound ways.

This is the social capital possessed by choral music, and no other performing art can match it.

So check your inferiority complex at the door. It's time to develop in ourselves, and communicate to others—the public, the press, your funders—a well-deserved superiority complex.

Express your choral pride: Say it loud: "We sing and we're proud!"

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2006.