Choral singing justifies itself as an activity not because it makes us smarter or more marketable. It is justified because it is simply something which humans are supposed to do. Our state of being demands that we sing, and for that reason, singing transcends the realm of mere activity and becomes a human right.
Here is my evidence: take a group of humans from any point in our history, leave them alone for a while, and pretty soon, some of them will go off and sing together. People have a right to sing, because it is what humans do, a part of our essence. And we have an obligation to help people sing.
It follows that if singing is a human right, then access to singing becomes an issue of equity.
Our current health crisis has made it difficult for our most vulnerable and marginalized populations to participate in singing activities. They may lack access to technology, or they may face language barriers, or they may confront a lack of basic resources or medical care.
But it has always been hard for certain people to participate in our choirs for all of these reasons, or because of differences in ability, or because they feel bullied or terrorized or just…different. These people are not free to express themselves as singers. They are not allowed to experience the fullness of their humanity. This is a human rights issue, and it will remain a human rights issue after the pandemic is over.
What is the equitable response? I wish that this short article had all the answers. Many of the issues facing these singers are societal issues, which must be addressed.
Erin Guinup responded to a specific need in her own community and started the Tacoma Refugee Choir. In a beautiful article about her work published by NATS, she quotes from Article 27 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
All persons enjoy the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity, which includes the right to freely experience and contribute to artistic expressions and creations, through individual or joint practice, to have access to and enjoy the arts, and to disseminate their expressions and creations.
Did you know this language existed? I did not!
But what about the singers in front of us right now – the children, the teenagers, the church choir members, the older singers, the friends in our community choirs? How do we address issues of equity in our own choral programs? Starting a new choir may not be feasible, and our own energy and enthusiasm have been sapped.
In humility, I would like to suggest that one way forward for us choir directors is to take a step away from the general or universal, which can be overwhelming, and to focus instead on the specific situations facing the individuals before us. Respond to what they need.
You might not be able to accomplish all that you had hoped this year. A polished concert, or the perfect “virtual choir” – or even just live singing – is out of reach for so many. It may be difficult, or even uncomfortable for us to let go of these goals, but that’s okay. You may not be able fix the world, but you can make the hours that you share with your choir enjoyable. Singing, expressing, and simply being human together and knowing that we are not alone: that’s the thing, the essence of what is most important and fundamental about our shared experience.
You know from your own experience in this moment that it is not easy. It takes time. With this in mind, it seems to me that equity is not a state of being, or something to be found or “solved.” It is instead a state of doing, a series of actions, a constant giving, and our work is never quite done. But what you have to share as a musician is vital to people who desperately need it. It is difficult, but we have to do it. And it is the fair and just thing to do, because our state of being demands that we sing.
The people in front of you have the right to express themselves.
To facilitate this, to help them through the many limitations and difficulties that surround them: this is equity.
Banner Photo: Children in 1950 from the United Nations International Nursery School look at a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Photo from the United Nations Source