“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship of mutual respect…”
In a world of technology, participation in choral music offers students a valuable experience. Choral ensembles provide a face-to-face human connection. If we approach the ensemble as an opportunity for building community, we can fortify that connection. If our programs allow the singers to say something important rather than simply sing a list of songs, we can build deeper connections.
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can produce the illusion of friends without the commitment required for true friendship. Technology allows everyone to be elsewhere all the time. Walking down the halls of the School of Music at Ithaca College, students listen to music or talk to disembodied others on the phone, ignoring contact with the people who are physically present. Although they seem content with constant connection via smartphones or laptops, some of my students, enveloped in loneliness, have shared that they long to try a day without technology to force students to connect with the people around them.
Choral conductors can combat this isolation by building a collaborative environment, seizing opportunities for human interaction, and sharing the power of decision-making. Traditionally, conductors stand on the podium allowing choristers to sing until the conductor hears a mistake and provides a prescription for correction, which encourages a passive model of participation for the singers. We need to progress beyond error detection and plan for deeper learning and development, cultivating passion, ownership, and the ability to listen.
People join choirs for many reasons: to tell our stories through song, to express emotions beyond words, to meet the challenges of good repertoire, and to connect with others. We can encourage that connection through our process.
To move away from the error detection model, invite singers to think. Rather than stating “no breath there,” we can ask, “Do you think we should breathe there? Why or why not?” Rather than always having singers stand in formation facing the conductor, we can have singers in circles of their sections or in octets of all sections, providing opportunities to work out problems within these small groups.
Even the agenda of choosing a program can be shared with the singers. After I have done the work of choosing a program, I play a recording of the selections for the choir and ask for responses, which influence my final decisions. I am not abandoning control or diminishing my creative artistry but inviting the singers into the process. These strategies allow singers to exercise critical listening and share their ideas.
There is considerable research on the benefits of group singing. In an article in Time magazine, Stacy Horn describes how music changes your brain. Researchers are discovering that singing has similar effects to a tranquilizer which calms you down and raises your spirits. Horn suggests that the euphoria singers experience is the result of endorphins, which are released by singing and related to contentment. Horn further suggests that the feeling of elation singers experience might also be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing. Oxytocin has been shown to diminish stress and increase feelings of relaxation and trust. Oxytocin enhances feelings of trust and bonding, and Horn proposes that this is a possible explanation of why studies have found singing reduces feelings of loneliness.
Across history, we have witnessed community building through making music together. In times of tragedy, we turn to music. I was part of a vivid example of the connection between tragedy and music in Virginia. I was conducting the Virginia All State Chorus one week after the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University campus shootings in 2007. Virginia Tech’s small choral ensemble was scheduled to sing. A young woman from the group announced that they had discussed whether they should perform, but they realized it was no longer a matter of deciding to sing. She said, “We knew that we had to sing.”
Their performance for the members of the all-state choral ensembles propelled a moment of total, immersive community. Many of the high school students attending had friends who had been injured or killed. As the group sang, a very large young man in front of me shook, his sobs audible. I placed a hand on his back to comfort him. We all came together, united by grief and moved by music. At the final concert, the Virginia All State Mixed Chorus sang Ysaye M. Barnwell’s moving song, “(The) Spiritual (Cain’t No One Know).”
Cain’t no one know at sunrise
How this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset if the next day will begin.
In this world of trouble and woe, a person had better be ready to go.
You know we look for things to stay the same, but in a twinkling of an eye,
Everything can be changed.
You know the troubles of the world fill our hearts with rage
From Soweto to Stonewall, Birmingham, and LA
You know we’re searching for hope that lies within ourselves
As we fight against misogyny, race, hatred, and rage.
There is a singular reward in being part of something larger than yourself, in pooling efforts to do something greater together than any of us can do alone. We have to select a compelling repertoire that speaks to us and to audiences. We need to listen – to singers, to choirs, to songs, to the complex tapestry of the world around us.
Society comes together or falls apart based on whether we are all committed to do the right thing. I propose to do all that we can do to create a human connection with all singers who grant us the privilege of leading them in song.
As musicians who perform with ensembles, we are blessed to work with a compelling art form. We must do all that we can to mobilize the power of ensemble music. It holds the potential to empower, to support, and to connect people to one another.
 James Comer, Lecture delivered at Education Service Center, Region IV, Houston, Texas, 1995.
 Stacy Horn, “Singing Changes Your Brain,” Time, August 16, 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain/.