Gettin' Higher Choir
Eugene Peace Chorus
Seattle Labor Chorus
Syracuse Community Choir
Labor Heritage Rockin' Solidarity Chorus
That exchange, in all its variations, is all too familiar to Shivon Robinsong, Val Rogers, and Karen Mihalyi, pioneers of the budding community choir movement. People everywhere want to sing—would dearly love to sing—but they’re convinced they can’t.
Well, they’re just plain wrong, says Robinsong, co-director of the 250-voice Gettin’ Higher Choir in Victoria, British Columbia. Everyone can sing. And everyone—the self-proclaimed nonsingers, the physically and mentally handicapped, people of all races and sexual persuasions—is welcome in her choir.
They’re also welcome in the Eugene Peace Chorus in Oregon, the Seattle Labor Chorus, the Syracuse Community Choir in New York, the Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus of the Bay Area, and countless other community choirs across the country. Inclusiveness is part of what sets the community choirs apart from traditional choirs. That, and a serious intention to change the world.
'These choirs are creating a new paradigm for choral singing,' says Val Rogers, director of the Eugene Peace Chorus. 'We’re motivated by much more than aesthetics alone. We’re singing for liberation, singing for a better society, to reinforce values that are vital to us, and to reclaim some of our cultural commons.'
But if we’re so eager to sing, why are most of us so bashful about it?
It’s only in the past few decades that we’ve started to believe we can’t sing, Shivon Robinsong says—a belief that coincides with the rise of commercial, studio-enhanced recorded music. Like the woman who thinks her body is unacceptable because she doesn’t look like an airbrushed supermodel, many of us assume that if we don’t sound like Whitney Houston or Garth Brooks, we shouldn’t open our mouths.
But if we leave singing to the professionals, if we acquiesce in the silencing of our own song, we’ve surrendered an essential source of what Robinsong calls 'soul nutrient.'
Robinsong herself knows how painful that silence feels. Until just a few years ago she had serious doubts about her own voice, commonly describing herself as the only nonmusical member of a musical family. Then one day the people in her small community on Cortes Island, British Columbia, began to get excited about forming a choir. There was just one problem—no one knew how to direct a choir. Hesitantly, Robinsong agreed to try, though she couldn’t even read music at the time.
Well, the choir thrived. So when Robinsong moved to Victoria a few years later, she founded the Gettin’ Higher Choir based on a philosophy quite different from that of the choirs most of us remember from school. There are no auditions, no rejections, and no required number of rehearsals. Members simply pay a fee to belong to the choir for a 12-week session (which usually includes a concert), and many scholarships are available. Most important, anyone who wants to sing is welcome, including those who say they’re tone deaf or can’t sing.
'Especially them!' Robinsong says with a proselytizing gleam in her eye.
In many traditional societies, she points out, there’s no concept of a non-singer. 'Your voice is simply your voice,' she tells choir members and anyone else who will listen, 'like your nose is your nose. It’s nothing to worry over.'
Just as important as the joy of singing, community choristers seem to agree, is the politics of it. The view of singing as empowering, as building community, as carrying forth a vital social message has deep, strong roots in the African American tradition and the labor movement, Val Rogers points out. These movements have cross-pollinated and spawned not only the thriving gay and lesbian choruses of recent years, but also the larger community choir movement as well.
The chance to be a part of that mission—and the magic of singing with one voice—is what brings singers to rehearsals week after week. 'Our modern lives often feel sterile,' says Rogers. 'Creating beauty in a group is a powerful antidote to that feeling.'
From Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures (Fall 2001). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.