Strengthen your chapter by developing habits that will draw a bigger slice of your community
When I started teaching band in the mid-1980s, I made an effort to encourage my students to play the instrument they were drawn to, not one based on gender stereotypes.
If students were drawn to a particular instrument, I nodded and signed them up! With consistent encouragement, the students started to drop the notion that any instrument was destined for a particular gender. Boys started to choose the instruments they wanted to play rather than the ones they might have thought they were expected to play, including flute and oboe. Girls started to select other instruments, including low brass and percussion.
My boy flute players were great and quickly fit in with the mostly-girls section. My tuba-playing girls were the envy of the school, and proudly blasted out bass lines in pep band. My deaf percussionist was one of the best players I had! Once these young people were encouraged and welcomed in the section where they naturally fit, the sections improved with the mix of new energy and passion. The band got better, and we had a much richer experience. It took a little extra effort up front, but it was worth it!
A bigger welcome mat may lead to a bigger chorus.
I joined my first barbershop chorus in mid-1980s as well. It looked like most chapters, filled with kind, older, white men of similar backgrounds and experiences.
Twenty years later, I took a directing job just outside of Seattle, at a chapter that met near the Microsoft and Amazon campuses. These giant tech companies recruited people from all over the world, bringing a diverse workforce to that area.
Soon, some of the men who worked at these companies were visiting our chapter during our annual Learn to Sing event. Most grown up singing in some way but were unfamiliar with barbershop. Our chorus leaders and members made a commitment toward creating an overtly welcoming and inclusive environment, and our chorus began to grow.
This mix of new people altered our path in a very positive way. The chorus got better, our membership more accurately reflected our community, and we had a much richer experience. It took a little extra effort on the front end, but it was worth it!
An intentionally welcoming environment.
Karen Mihalyi, founding director of the Syracuse Community Choir, has a vision for the choir to create an "inclusive community." She comments, "This does not mean that there was no prejudice... but at least people met up with each other." She adds, "To create community today is difficult- so many forces work against it- but people are hungry for community."
Karen teaches that diversity can grow in your choir when you:
- Intentionally invite everyone. Are we overtly encouraging new people to sing with us? Are we as friendly to potential singers who do not share our backgrounds?? Do we reach out to people who do not represent the majority of folks in our chapter?? Do we perform in community spaces outside of our comfort zones?
- Create a welcoming environment where people feel comfortable, heard, and valued. Are we using best practices of choral groups of today? Do we have leaders who yell and/or curse? Do groups have subtle hazing? Do you demean singers who are not prepared? Do singers feel safe to express themselves?
- Sing a wide range of music. Is your music appealing and understood by your community? Are you singing music that connects with your community? Do you sing mostly sacred, patriotic, or music with outdated and/or insensitive lyrics?
- Make your rehearsals and events more accessible. Can your members in wheelchairs get into your rehearsal space? Do you offer music tracks for non-readers, online, in print or, if needed, in Braille? Do you help singers with transportation to or from rehearsals or events?
Prepare for a wider variety of singers.
Just like my band kids learning that anyone can play any instrument they want, we need to reach out to new communities and show them that they have a place on our risers and in our quartets. If we truly want to keep the whole world singing, it is time to intentionally reach out to people who do not share our same backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and views.
Along with that comes the responsibility to prepare for this influx of new people, which may include difficult conversations about music choices, chorus culture, or other legacy practices that may not fit in with the inclusive future your group envisions. Your chorus will grow, and you will have a much richer experience. It takes a little extra effort at first, but it's worth it!
About the Author
Donny Rose is Director of Education for the Barbershop Harmony Society, based in Nashville, Tennessee. He is in charge of education for 19,000 members, providing director schools, music educator classes about barbershop, workshops, online learning, outreach at ACDA and NAfME events, and a week long immersion camp in July at Belmont University for members and music educators.
Donny is a busy clinician all over the United States, Canada, and Europe, teaching at youth and adult music camps, barbershop quartet and chorus coaching, and arranging. His passion is sharing the joy of a cappella harmony with others, and reminding kids and adults that everyone can sing!