By Karen Bruno
What is advocacy? Advocacy is an opportunity to share with other people, many of whom are decisionmakers in some way, why choral music matters—to us, to our singers, and to the world. Advocacy should not be a term that frightens us. It should be a term that inspires us to explain to others why choral music makes a difference for the better. There are many people who never had the opportunity to experience or understand the art form that is so important to us as choral conductors and music educators.
There are lots of ways to share the impact of music education, and many organizations have spent a good deal of time and energy compiling statistics, sharing research, and distributing creative tools for large- and small-scale advocacy. The National Association for Music Education (NAfME), Chorus America, Americans for the Arts, and National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) are some of the organizations who do this sort of work regularly, and we should all familiarize ourselves with the advocacy tools they provide. But statistics and studies tell only part of a story. They tell the larger story of why music or the choral art form is important and discuss the impact choral programs have in general, but these are probably not the primary reasons your principal, community foundation, or singers and their families support your choir. They are likely to be more interested in what you have to say than statistics provided by a national organization. Why are you a choral musician? Why do your singers show up to participate? When we tell our own story in conjunction with research about the impact of choral music writ large, we provide complete and compelling reasons to prioritize, staff, and fund choral music in our schools and our communities.
Part of the problem is that we know we should advocate for choral music, but we aren’t sure how to do it. What do we say? To whom do we say it? We have our hands full selecting repertoire, writing lesson plans, studying scores, teaching and conducting, and meeting the individual needs of our singers. We are busy! Isn’t a beautiful concert advocacy enough?
Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED talk and subsequent book, Start With Why, took the business and leadership worlds by storm. His thesis was that people are not as interested in a product as they are interested in why a business exists in the first place. The core belief, cause, or reason a business exists can be a compelling story. If a company sells its story, consumers are more likely to purchase its product, he claimed. He encourages CEOs to build a culture within their companies that is mission driven and to hire people aligned with the company’s core beliefs rather than those who are just excellent sales people. Identifying and prioritizing why a company exists, he argued, is foundational for success.
Although Sinek was speaking to business leaders, it is easy to see how his ideas are relevant to teaching and to advocacy. When we identify our core beliefs and values, we become better teachers, leaders, and storytellers. We can explain why it’s important for a student to schedule choir amid Advanced Placement (AP) classes, a foundation to award our program a grant, or an adult to attend a weekly Tuesday night rehearsal across town. While we may have spent time creating our own mission statements as undergraduates, for most of us it has been a very long time since we checked in with our own “why.” Consider:
- Why do you teach and conduct choirs?
- Why do your singers choose (and continue) to participate?
- Why did you enter the profession?
- Why do you stay in the profession?
- Why does singing matter to you?
- Why does singing matter to your choristers?
These are not easy questions, but the answers will help you shape your everyday advocacy stories.
If we want to tell our stories clearly and compellingly, we must identify our core values and guiding principles; these are the heart of everyday advocacy. Our stories become the message of everyday tools to engage and educate our communities. Go beyond the general research, beyond the beauty of the choir’s performance, and articulate the most profound reasons you and your singers are involved in your choral program.
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is remembered for saying, “All politics is local.” Whether or not this statement is true, we do well to remember that local issues are important to communities, and that sharing the value of choral music is an important part of our job. If we don’t advocate for the choral art, who will?
Excerpted from Karen L. Bruno’s “Everyday Advocacy For Your Choral Program” from Volume 60, Number 2 of Choral Journal (September 2019).