Over the last two years I have traveled the country holding round table discussions, children’s leader summits, focus group and industry meetings, attending association and guild events, and engaging in numerous detailed discussions on the topic of “What it is going to take for us to create the opportunities for every child in the U.S. to be able to sing in a children’s choir.”
I have collected and studied models of choir programs, from an “adopt a choir” program in the Northeast, to the ENCORE program in Dothan, Alabama, to faith-based community youth choirs in Little Rock, Arkansas, to traditional tiered children’s and youth choirs in the Midwest, to summer children’s choir camp experiences in Georgia, to rigorous children’s choral organizations in California, to ethnic community choirs in the Northwest, and even the legacy cathedral choirs in England. I have studied Great Britain’s Music Manifesto, Venezuela’s Social Action for Music program, commonly known as El Sistema, the Music for All effort in the U.S., and any other attempt at a scaleable national program for engaging children in choral ensemble music making.
Cognition traps occur for many reasons, but two frequent and interconnected causes are a lack of empathy and limited imagination. Empathy lets us feel what others might be feeling and how others may see the world. Imagination permits us to perceive the world in multiple dimensions. It lets us speculate how life could be different for ourselves, and empathetically, for others. It enables us to consider values and behaviors at variance with our own without rejecting them out of hand. If imagination resides in the mind, empathy is imagination of the heart.
The difficulty is routinely to translate the ephemeral, and often transportingly beautiful, process and product that we achieve in choral music making, and through music in the lives of the children we work with, to those that influence the perpetuation of arts’ efforts in schools and communities. To this end, I propose our first steps:
- First, I believe this difficult translation must start with the reality that these beautiful children we get to work with are also instruments. It is a cognition point that we must firmly establish with those that influence decisions and policy. Our bodies ARE vocal instruments. That is simply how we are built. Singing has the potential to involve children and young people in music and in learning on a scale that we have not witnessed before. It is the most elemental form of music making, and it is within the grasp of all of us, whatever our ability. It is a powerful community activity binding individuals and community together, and as research now shows, contributes to a student’s success in life. This is the genesis of our story.
- Secondly, we know no better physical, emotional, or intellectual mass participative experience than helping people find their voice and to give opportunity, through choir, to express that voice. When we reflect on how we feel when we sing with others, conductors know we want to support that experience for life, or as ACDA’s first purpose states, “To foster and promote choral singing, which will provide artistic, cultural, and spiritual experiences for the participants.”
- Thirdly, we must believe and act on our belief that what we do is relevant to the 21st century. If we believe, passionately, that what we do is critical in making a difference in the lives of children and human beings, then I believe we can make opportunities become a reality for the children of our communities.