Uniting in Song Through the Lens of Inclusion

I just finished transcribing the audio recording from my panel discussion at a choral conductors conference in February (many of my readers will know ACDA - American Choral Directors Association) and I AM CHANGED  — AGAIN! 

Immediately following the panel session, I felt incredibly grateful for the gift my panelists had given to the attendees, not only their gift of knowledge and experience but, as importantly, their vulnerability and grace. I don’t have to remind any of you that our culture is changing quickly towards more inclusivity. And although that’s a good thing, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard at times as we fumble around for the right words, as our minds work to comprehend new information. We may also find ourselves alone, with no one to bounce ideas around with or turn to with questions. Sometimes we face pushback against new ideas.

At the panel discussion, we made a space for exploration. A space where the panelists — Arianne Abela, Katherine Chan, Joe Osowski, Erik Peregrine, and Glen Thomas Rideout — told stories and shared their insights, even their mistakes. The attendees were engaged and asked thoughtful questions.

We covered a variety of topics, including gender, ableism, diversity and inclusivity with regards to repertoire, cultural appropriation, and what it means to unite in song.

I will be writing a series of blogs to cover these important topics. In this first blog, I am focusing on the topic of gender.

The topic of gender came up in answer to my questions about diversity and inclusion in repertoire and gendered language in the rehearsal space. Several panelists spoke about the importance of using non-gendered language with their choirs. For example, referring to sopranos and altos by their voice parts instead of ladies or women. Erik, who is non-binary, reminded us that, “You may have a bass who is a woman. You may have an alto who is agender or doesn’t have a gender identity.” They said, “the thing that was missing for me across the board was language in rehearsals that welcomed me as a human being... because it is really challenging to be in a room and know by the way that the conductor is speaking that you are invisible.”

We discussed gendered vs non-gendered choral concert dress and gendered language in songs. Katherine Chan told us one of her students asked her, “Do I have to wear a dress?” We talked about the lack of diversity in the gender of composers represented in concert programming. Erik Peregrine said of their education, “I went six years and I was never taught a single piece by a woman." We discussed ableist language and cultural appropriation. 

The panelists spoke of choir being a safe space for singers, a place where they could make mistakes. Joe Osowski said he encouraged his students to make mistakes. “Please do” he tells them, “I want to get to know the real you.” Glen Thomas shared, “It is our job to present the subversive truth that no matter who you are, no matter how much money you have, no matter how you identify, beauty is possible — for free.”

This openness to thoughtful conversations about inclusion sums up why so many of us sing in or direct choirs, because even in the darkest of times, it reminds us that beauty is possible.

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