A safe place to explore who I am: Choir singing, community and identity

The following series of blogs explores choir singing and leadership. They reflect my PhD studies and leadership experiences working with choral singers since 2009. This first blog introduces the important role of “choir” in members’ lives, as a safe haven and formative experience that builds resilience for members.

Singing in a choir is increasingly recognised by researchers for its physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits. In recent years, media interest and profile has fuelled public interest and engagement. But what does singing in a choir mean for individual members? Two years into my PhD, I am closer to answering this important question more fully. Is it really that important a question, you ask? Absolutely! Choral singing is much more than singing a line of music but it’s true significance is not often understood. Choral singing can be intimate and communal at the same time, empowering, and sometimes life-changing. It is my hope that as choir leaders we might integrate deeper understandings of what choral singing means and the underlying values and priorities that drive our members to improve our leadership practice.

Just as repertoire choice and setting and achieving musical challenges motivate singers (to discussed in a later entry), the choir community is essential. Choirs provide an opportunity to create, maintain and nurture musical communities of singers, with individuals all doing something they love. Many Australian choirs value musical excellence and elite music-making and this approach certainly has its place, to be explored further in future. Yet prestige and elite musicanship can only take you so far. In my experience working with and observing choirs in Australia, the US and Germany, community is an essential feature.

The very best choirs, whether paid or voluntary, are great places to sing in the company of like-minded people. They are musicking places (Christopher Small reclaimed this word to describe music as an action rather than static object) where music-making is alive, creative, and dynamic. They are places that nurture individual singers as well as the whole-of-ensemble sound. These choirs support individual members in their journeys, recognising that the foundation stones of a successful choir are not just members and leaders with advanced musical skills. The choir must also be a place of “communitas” as Victor Turner once described – somewhere “good to be in together”.

As Music Director of the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Youth Chorus between 2009-2014, I was proud to have played a role in facilitating the group’s growth from 8 to 25 members, to build upon its strong musical foundations and skills base, and to nurture its vibrant little community. The Youth Chorus (recently renamed to the more inclusive “ShOUT Youth Chorus”) is part of Australia’s first Gay and Lesbian Chorus (MGLC, est. 1990). Many times I left our weekly rehearsals wondering whether I could have handled the issues and challenges encountered during the rehearsal any differently. Was I an effective community choir leader working with this unique bunch? How would I know if my decisions had really made it a safe and supportive environment for young people, as the choir’s mission statement described? Was I helping these young people to improve as singers and resilient young queer* people or could I at times (even implicitly) doing damage to the choir’s primary aim?

I sought answers to these questions in a PhD study that captures the lived experiences of ten Youth Chorus members interviewed late in 2014. In their stories I have found both reassurance and challenging lessons that will inform my work with choirs in future. The interviews reveal a rich but diverse experience of what it means to be a Youth Chorus member. This youth chorus clearly has a special role in supporting young people on their coming out journeys as young queer people. Its establishment by the long-standing MGLC was visionary as both a musical training ground for future MGLC members but it serves a larger purpose too as a training ground for future LGBTI leaders. This has been recognised in recent years as several members were awarded leadership scholarships to support their studies by the Pinnacle Foundation. But returning to the idea of the choir community, member interviews affirmed the role of the Youth Chorus as both a community of safety and one that empowers others in its performances.

For many of the young people interviewed, this choir is their sanctuary – a place of asylum or safety where they can explore who they are without the implicit pressure of what is normal in their families, their workplaces and other communities where they live their everyday lives in Melbourne. Tia DeNora captures this idea in her a recent publication, “Music asylums: Wellbeing through music in everyday life“. On the one hand, choir is a place of safety and sanctuary where individuals can get away from things, a safe haven of sorts. Yet on the other such sites of music asylum are also places of formation, where individuals can build something new. Together. DeNora’s description captures a significant part of the experiences of these young members: sites of safety and sites of formation. Both are important elements that are woven together when the Youth Chorus gathers.

The Youth Chorus is deliberately a queer-friendly place. You may wonder why choirs such as MGLC and the Youth Chorus continued to exist as designated queer sites in a modern Australian society where, aside from marriage, there is broad equality for queer people under the law. When interviewed, youth chorus members valued this choir in similar terms to their discussion of university queer rooms and venues: for the assumption of “queerness” rather than “straightness”. This reverses the typical experience of everyday life for queer people and the assumptions made about them, where they frequently make decisions whether to challenge these assumptions and weigh up the potential costs. As one member described in her interview, “it’s exhausting!”. In academia this experience is described in theoretical terms as heteronormativity – prioritising heterosexuality and making assumptions about gender and sexuality on this basis. Young queer people all have in common a single moment where they become aware of their “otherness” (to appropriate Frantz Fanon’s term), an experience common to other minority groups in Australia. At this moment they realise that one fundamental lens through which they view the world around them – their sexuality or gender – is not mainstream, it’s marginal. For many young queer people, this is their first experience of an existential crisis, and a combination of factors shape how their journey continues after this moment.

For some members, choir plays a purely social and musical role, a place to have fun, to sing and be musical. Their coming out journeys are smoother: families embrace and support these queer youth and they find resilience and support through their existing networks. For others, the Youth Chorus acts as a replacement family at a defining time in their lives. Their stories of some members reveal their isolation, and the debilitating mental and physical health issues that flow from their realisation of otherness. Family networks, or indeed a person’s own beliefs and expectations about how their lives will take shape, can sharpen the sense of disconnect. When the Youth Chorus meets, marginal is the mainstream, and no assumptions are made relating to gender and sexuality. And “family” was the description most commonly offered by members who were interviewed when describing the Youth Chorus.

When harnessed correctly, otherness may be transformative. I recall leading several Youth Chorus concerts where the members’ otherness became a collective source of cohesion. Members supported and coached each other to achieve things musically, together, that would not have been possible individually. Herein lies a transformative tool that choir singing provides our society: its ability to draw people into a supportive network, using a universal instrument that reveals humans at their most vulnerable. Choir is after all a collection of individual singers baring all through their voices. As the experience of the Youth Chorus reveals, what makes a community successful internally can be even stronger with an audience to listen to them.

Choral performance may also be also transformative. In the act of performing for an audience of listeners, singers are heard. And to be heard transforms lives. One member commented about being grateful “that the audience is willing to sit and listen to us”. In the act of listening the audience – whether intimate partners, families, friends or others – is party to this transformation. They are affirming the lives, unique stories, journeys and truths of the choir members singing before them. And when these members are same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people forging their identities by singing proudly in a choir, an audience can take credit for its role in building greater resilience.

Ben Leske – 21 January 2016

*I use “Queer” in this post to refer to members who are same-sex attracted and/or gender diverse. In other settings this community is often referred to as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI).

Read more about the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Youth Chorus:

ANCA Magazine 2013