National ACDA 2023: A Place of Belonging. Could there be a more needed theme? As choral educators of all levels we constantly face the task of creating a culture of belonging in our classrooms, rehearsal spaces, and concerts. Frankly, we are (rightly) held accountable for not doing so by both our singers and our colleagues. Sometimes, programming a simple concert is not so simple. Did I include: secular and sacred music, music of various religions, from various traditions, that one piece that that one donor likes, a composer of color, a female composer, a female composer of color, a queer composer? I know you all know this truthful stress, and perhaps, like me, you have felt like you are really good at tokenizing your concert rather than diversifying. What started out as making sure you create belonging now feels like you have a list of boxes to check, and you feel inauthentic.
To all of this, I think it’s important to evaluate your programs but not nearly as important as evaluating the breadth of your programming over a stretch of time. One concert is not a sample of what you do or how you create community and belonging; it is one example, and your work cannot be judged on that alone. Imagine if your life was judged by only one day in your life, and that day was the day you were dog-tired and snapped at someone at the DMV. This is certainly not a comprehensive view of who you are (at least I hope not). In the same way, take a look at your programming choices over the span of a season or two. Do the singers under your care see themselves represented in what is presented to them? Or, do they only see representation of certain segments of the singers under your care?
Sometimes, belonging is more social and internal and has little to do with the conductor’s programming. Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus just performed a new work by Timothy Takach called, “I Belong.” In an effort to connect to the music and strengthen our internal community of singers, we had an open forum discussion about what it means “to belong.” What surfaced was the reality that many felt as if they didn’t always socially belong; some felt like an outsider in their own chorus. Perception versus reality is a trap rooted in blame, so to avoid that, let’s just honor the perceptive truth that, at times, our singers feel like they don’t belong no matter how much work goes into programming and shared conversations. Singers can feel isolated because of many factors: ability, age, gender identity, race, substance history, mental health etc.
The belonging discussion prompted our chorus leaders to talk about what they could do to get members to see their similarities. The result was an incredible DEI activity about belonging called the “snowball fight.”
Each singer in the chorus was given a paper snowflake and was invited to write something vulnerable on it – – something they might not share publicly. Then, we wadded the snowflakes into balls and set the timer for a 5-minute snowball fight; the rehearsal space became immediate, beautiful, chaos. At the end of the five minutes, singers picked up the snowball nearest them and read it. Each note was anonymous, so some chose to read theirs aloud:
“I struggle with imposter syndrome.”
“I have extreme social anxiety.”
“I feel like people don’t like me.”
“I wish people respected me for being a Christian.”
“I thought about taking my life this week.”
Over 100 notes were read, and at the end of the evening, everyone left knowing there were shared anxieties and insecurities in the room. A few singers assembled a list of free mental health resources to share. One singer emailed me to thank me and said that that exercise showed him that he did belong.
In addition to the social benefit of this exercise, I can’t help but believe we sing better when we feel valued and build trusting relationships in our singing spaces.