Sometimes you need to get out of town to get a fresh perspective. I had the opportunity to do that recently as a first-time attendee at a conference sponsored by Chorus America, an organization committed to supporting and promoting community choirs across North America. I’ve done my share of music educator conferences and a few writing conferences, but this was different. I expected to hear great performing ensembles and get lots of information about how to better support the chorale that I currently sing with. What I didn’t expect was to be astounded at how the choral art is changing lives (and in some cases, probably saving lives) with a mission that has gone far beyond bringing people together in the pursuit of vocal excellence.
Choirs are now going through all kinds of technical gymnastics to stream concerts so that elderly residents gathered in the community room of a senior living facility can experience performances they may be physically unable to attend. So that family members anywhere in the world can watch a child or grandchild sing or conduct or hear his or her composition performed in real time. So that members of a choir can receive an email that says, “I am a choral singer currently serving in the armed forces and being able to see and hear my choir’s Christmas concert was the greatest gift I could have ever received.”
In many urban areas, choirs are literally taking it to the streets. I was privileged to hear truly superb performances of youth choirs whose members were recruited from city neighborhoods infested with poverty, gangs, and crime. One was a gospel choir who sang with energy and conviction and then came out into the audience at the end of the performance to share their message of love with each one of us. This stodgy old Episcopalian was moved to tears and that doesn’t happen very often.
A select ensemble from the Chicago Children’s Choir, an organization which includes nearly 5,000 children from all over the city performed works ranging from Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” to stark and painful texts about lynching in the south to songs about striving for racial equality in South Africa. They told their story in plain truth and sublime beauty. Two long-time members spoke eloquently about how the choir has impacted their lives and that the opportunity to make music with people from all walks of life has made them better human beings. One of the singers quoted in the program said, “We respect each other’s differences and are drawn to each other’s uniqueness.” What a powerful affirmation for the world we live in now.
I heard a brilliant researcher talk about the incredible, scientifically documented evidence that music enhances brain development in all stages of human life. No hocus-pocus, no spin, just the simple truth that music makes us smarter and healthier, and she showed us the data to back it up.
I heard someone who arrived here as a child speaking only Vietnamese and whose family could not afford nice clothes and a decent haircut, describe how an early morning choir rehearsal was the only thing that kept him coming to school. That he found a home in the choir room, where a music teacher welcomed him and changed his life.
I sat at tables and listened as representatives from choirs across the country talked about how they’re trying to expand their reach. Whether that means providing a vocal ensemble for those in their 80’s and beyond or funding more scholarships for a youth choir or figuring out the best way to address concert attire for those in the LGBT community, choir people are all in. They’re swinging at every pitch, not just paying lip service, but doing something. Trying in some small way in their own community, through their own organization, to heal a broken world.
Although I spent my professional life teaching instrumental music, my heart is in the choir. Most of us who do this are not paid. We do it because we love to sing beautiful music with other people, and if we’ve had the opportunity to work with fabulous conductors, as I have, all the better. I met many of the people I am closest to, including my husband, through singing in a choir. My life has been enriched from the relationships I have found there, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.
After what I have seen and heard in the last few days, I have never been prouder to be a singer. To know that I’m part of something bigger than just getting the notes and rhythm right. That the product of grueling rehearsals and aching backs from standing on risers for hours, can touch someone, change an attitude, soothe a hurting soul. That thousands of us around the world are truly taking our healing message of music far beyond the concert hall and into the streets.