In March 2020, Dr. Derrick Fox was leading students toward a performance of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by Joel Thompson. This performance was a culmination of choral experiences over multiple years, where Dr. Fox and students had worked to build an awareness of the human experience. They sang octavos covering different topics, such as mental health, and discussed how the topics were experienced by different people. Students engaged in leadership activities and the choirs met with local school choirs. In Thompson’s work, students had to be able to sing the pieces and have open conversations about the lived experience of Black folks in America. It had taken three years of work to lay the groundwork for this particular concert project. The performance was on Tuesday. School shut down the following Friday.
With the performance behind them, Dr. Fox faced another problem: Students didn’t get community recovery time after this emotional performance experience due to the shut down. He was determined to find space to uplift, challenge, and affirm their experience. He knew hybrid learning, masks, and shields would be barriers to connection in Fall 2020, so he created “choir families” for students to build community and process their previous spring. He would sometimes observe these interactions to listen, learn, and find a way to recognize and see these singers in rehearsal and their community.
It’s Fall 2021 and they’ve been singing together– masked and 3 feet apart. His choirs are strong. He was surprised, because he thought there would be a long journey rebuilding. But they spent so much time taking care of each other, creating community and building trust, students returned in the fall and were all in. “I don’t wait for something wrong before I look up to see how something is going,” he says of his philosophy with students, in and out of rehearsal. He says to his students, “All I want you to be is the best version of you today. I’m not one of those teachers who says leave it all at the door because music will make it all better, because that’s a lie. It can, but it’s a lie to say that’s a [capital T] Truth.”
Dr. Fox’s Cultivating Choral Communities workshop series were created specifically for the choral world. Every workshop is different, but begins the same: defining terms. It’s hard to move forward without a shared language. He facilitates conversations about diversity, including but not limited to racial equity. For example, he led sessions with a high school choir about power and proximity to power in the form of friendships. It was transformative and empowering. With organizations, he can empower them to do the work internally– fix processes or challenge curriculum that disenfranchise those that don’t have power. Communication within groups is imperative to this work. People who attend the workshops have varying degrees of knowledge and understanding. The real difficulty is when people are so locked into their own experiences that they aren’t aware of other people’s needs in the space. The dominant narrative in our country is the white perspective. Until we can all come together to have conversations that lead to action, we’re going to be stagnant. His ability lies in consensus building and bridge building.
Evaluating the last 18+ months of equity work, it’s evident the choral profession has aligned with the trend to appear as if they are doing something. Part of the work is vetting professionals invited to facilitate ADEIB (Access, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging) work. One has to do the work to bear the culture, and being from a culture does not make one a bearer of it. If we aren’t intentional, we can actually exclude people from our organizations; someone observing could say “Oh, that’s who they see as representative of my community” or “It doesn’t seem that the organization has done the work.” Going viral doesn’t mean it’s viable. On the other hand, our profession doesn’t give much leeway for mistakes. As soon as someone does something problematic, they are dropped, without being given any support to grow and change. Some organizations within the choral profession are more thoughtful about this work than others.
“How do we support long-term work?” It requires investment of time and thoughtfulness. While a one-off workshop can be important, it’s not just about the music sung; it’s about the words said. There needs to be space/time to talk; only then can we bring in what is needed. We can’t be enticed by expediency. This work doesn’t have an end time. With that commitment, we will begin to prepare people coming into the choral profession. Then maybe in the future, we won’t have to convince people this is a pillar of our organization. We are very concerned with changing the NOW, but there is a generation who have grown up with equity in a way many of us haven’t. Our profession can capitalize on this, and bring major change to the future.
“Equity is the action we put in place to achieve equality.”