Member Spotlight: Anne Sears and Westminster Choir College

Anne Sears, director of external affairs at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, tells Chorus America's president & CEO Ann Meier Baker about a special audience participation project during this year’s choir tour.

Ann Meier Baker: Please tell me about the photography project you took along with the Westminster Choir’s tour this year.

Anne Sears: The project is called Giving Voice to Community and is an informal effort to document the community created through a concert. 

Anne Sears
Anne Sears

When you think about it, each time we perform we create a new community—a community composed of the chorus and the audience. For those few hours we share an experience, a connection, a moment in time. We may enter the concert hall as strangers and we may never see each other again, but for those few hours we are a community connected through music.

In fact, the project illustrates some of the research findings in Chorus America’s Impact Study as it pertains to the behaviors of choral singers, showing that people who sing in choirs also elicit behaviors that strengthen communities.

AMB: How did the project work?

AS: Before each concert began and during intermission, the audience and choir members were invited to consider their lives and to choose one word that defines them as a member of the concert “community.” After writing the word on a piece of paper, he or she was photographed holding the paper with the selected word. While the choir was performing, we created a slideshow of the photographs and displayed them on a monitor outside of the concert hall after the performance. Later we uploaded them to the Westminster Choir College website.

Now we’re creating a video combining the photographs taken at each concert with some of the music performed by the choir to upload to the internet. This digital creation will serve as an archive, a memory of a unique moment in time shared by a community created through music.

AMB: How did people react?

AS: Many people were extremely enthusiastic and immediately chose a word. Others said they had to think about it for a while. Some came back and others took a pass. The people who did participate were very engaged. Most didn’t just write the word, they also used an interesting font or embellished it in some way. Their expressions and stance seemed to reflect the word they chose.

AMB: Did you notice any commonalities or differences?

AS: The level of enthusiasm and participation cut across age and gender. We had teenagers very excited about being a part of it, and some senior citizens also really embraced it. Some words appeared more frequently: loved, grateful, inspired, and blessed were among the most-used words.

AMB: How did you get the idea?

AS: The idea grew out of a few initiatives in which Westminster was involved last year. Throughout much of 2011, we partnered with Princeton University and area arts organizations in a project entitled Memory and the Work of Art, which investigated the relationship between the arts and cultural memory. As part of the project, Joe Miller (director of choral activities at Westminster) programmed a Westminster Choir concert focusing on memory and music.

Also, last summer Joe and I participated in a photography project at the annual Art All Night festival in Trenton, NJ. The project, the Anthropological Wordsmith Show, was quite simple: People were asked to write a word on a piece of paper and have their picture taken holding the word. There were no other instructions. The photographs were projected on a screen at the event and later uploaded to the internet. It was remarkably engaging. Looking at the photographs, we wondered, “Why did he choose that word? How does her expression reflect her word?”

Over the summer and throughout the fall, Joe and I kept talking about both of these projects and how we could involve their essence in the Westminster Choir’s tour program in some way. The result was Giving Voice to Community.

AMB: Did you accomplish your goal of engaging audiences?

AS: Yes, we were able to connect with some of the audience members in a more meaningful way. We were able to chat with them as they participated in the photo session. Some wanted to talk about their word choice. Also, everyone who participated completed a photo release, which included contact information. We’ve created a listserv with their email addresses so that we can update them about the project and other Westminster activities. Many of them now like our Facebook page, where we also post updates about the project.

AMB: Where can people learn more about Giving Voice to Community?

AS: Check out our website at www.rider.edu/givingvoice.

AMB: How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

AS: Chorus America has been a tremendous resource for me and for Westminster Choir College. I always come away from the Annual Conference with some new and practical ideas about communications and audience building, and I’ve developed a wonderful network of colleagues who offer valuable advice and counsel.

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