Beyond Outreach: Four Community Engagement Stories

Choral music has a unique power to touch hearts and souls – but how can choruses leverage that power to impact their communities? These four stories provide some answers. 

Are choruses as relevant as they can be to the concerns and aspirations of the communities in which they exist? It is a question that a growing number of organizations are asking, especially at a time when our society can feel more divided than ever and arts groups struggle to exist, let alone make a difference.

Even with all the thinking and talking about community engagement that goes on these days, it can be a difficult term to define. So what exactly is “community engagement”? And how does it differ from that older, also often-used term “outreach”?

Doug Borwick, an artist, educator, and leading advocate for community engagement in the arts boils it down to one important distinction: outreach is done for, while community engagement is done with. “Outreach, as the word implies, keeps the outreacher at the center,” he writes. “The targets of the outreach are outsiders. The entire center of gravity as well as most of the concern is with the arts organization.”

Community engagement, Borwick says, is rooted in relationship building, and the art produced needs to grow out of the relationship. “If the art does not bear evidence of community involvement,” he writes, “the work is not a result of community engagement.”

These four stories highlight choruses that – each in a different way – have embraced the power of with. Their journeys show the impact that this kind of work can have on communities – and on organizations themselves.

The Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus: A Safe Space for Transgender Singers

By Kelsey Menehan

Butterfly Chorus Member

In 2004, a new voice student came to Sandi Hammond with a burning desire to start singing again. The troubles with his voice had begun when he had made a gender transition from female to male.

(Click to expand)


“I was really moved by how terrifying it was for this person to relearn singing,” Hammond said in an interview with WBUR public radio in Boston. “Imagine living with your voice one way your whole life and you have to find a new voice, a different voice.”

After a few lessons, Hammond’s student was able to successfully audition for and join a local chorus. But other transgender people told a different story—of not feeling welcomed in choirs, of struggling to fit into the SATB mold, or of finally dropping out because they felt too exposed. As a trans ally—she is not herself trans—Hammond saw a need that she wanted to fill.

Listening to the Community

Hammond was surprised to find so few resources to help transgender people with their voices. The Boston area has a large transgender community, and several medical facilities in Boston have active programs addressing the needs of transgender people—including providing gender reassignment surgery, if desired. But there was little attention to the voice.

Hammond headshot
Butterfly Chorus director Sandi Hammond

She put up a notice on the Transgender Alliance social media page about the possibility of starting a choir. Within two hours, there were some 120 comments, not just from the Boston area, but from around the world. A couple months later, some 35 people came to the first choir meeting.

This first meeting was part voice lesson and part small group discussion of participants’ past experience with singing and what they were looking for in a choir. George Hastie, 46, who was newly identifying as a male, recalls that the early meetings were “very exciting and very collaborative. Sandi wanted a lot of input from us. That really grew to shape the Butterfly Chorus we have now.”

The Flexibility to Find Your True Voice

The “shape” that chorus participants agreed on makes room for accessibility as well as musical rigor. The first hour and a half of each Wednesday night gathering is devoted to “Trans Song Time” where any transgender person can come and sing. The second hour and a half is for people committed to the Repertory Chorus—the group that rehearses and performs.

Many members struggled with traditional SATB choral arrangements, feeling that the format that often did not accommodate their changing voices or their gender perceptions. Hammond worked with the group to come up with a more flexible option. She arranges music into high, middle, and low parts, with the parts clustered closer together than the typical choral range. Singers can choose whatever part is comfortable—even changing parts for different songs, if they like.

That freedom has been important to Hastie. “I just started testosterone in September and my singing voice went lower,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect with that. Transitioning changes the brain and the voice, and the brain has to catch up with how you imagine the note. Getting support at time when it’s hard to get the pitch was important to me.”

For 22-year-old Harvard graduate student Crash Wigley, gender nonconforming means identifying as a female while maintaining a lower voice. “It’s been so nice to just be able to relax about my voice,” says Wigley, “to not be worried about how you are being perceived by other people.”

A Safe Space for Singers

Getting together just to sing has helped establish a “happy space,” says Hammond, for people whose lives have often been difficult. As a group, transgender people are at high risk for suicide and are often targets of discrimination, and violence. “Some of the singers have told me this is the first time they have gotten together with other trans people where it wasn’t a funeral or a political rally,” she says.

Butterfly Chorus
The Butterfly Chorus's first performances were closed events to protect members' privacy.

Butterfly Chorus singers range in age from their late teens to mid 60s, and have vastly different life experiences. “Gender identity is complex,” says Jessica Mink, an astronomer, who transitioned to female at age 60. “I already had a bunch of accomplishments in my work life, and people accepted me there. But that is not common in the chorus. Some are ‘out’ only to a few people. And they are struggling.”

To protect members’ privacy, the Butterfly Chorus’ first performances were closed events in a local church and a synagogue, during which several singers also shared their stories of living as a gender nonconforming person. For Hastie, it was the first time he had ever spoken publicly about his transgender experience.

An Expanded Public Role

With at least one other all-trans chorus in the U.S. and a handful of trans choruses that include non-trans allies in their membership, the Butterfly Chorus is part of a movement that is breaking new ground in the choral world—at a time when transgender issues are getting more media attention. The chorus’s increased visibility—stories have appeared in papers like The New York Times and the Boston Globe, on ABC, and on public radio station WBUR—has led to opportunities to educate the public about gender identity. Chorus members have discussed at length what their role should be.

“Some choir members are enthusiastic and others are not ‘out’ and find this scary,” Hammond says. “So it is always optional. We don’t have to do every interview or tackle every question. But the opportunities are there to tell the story we want to tell.”

Being a chorus helps overcome barriers to communicating about transgender issues. “The cool thing about a choir is that it is not threatening,” says Mink. “People may come in not understanding the trans world, and they go out understanding it a little bit more. It’s like we’re not weird. That’s a big deal for us. No matter how we look, the sound that comes out is really good. People hear that sound, and the feedback is all positive.” The Chorus’s first “public” concert, on April 9 at First Church in Boston, sold out well in advance.

Hammond hopes the greater visibility will have an impact on the medical community, which she says has been slow to study and address trans people’s vocal issues. A parallel scientific conference for researchers interested in learning more about transgender people and the voice will be held in conjunction with the April concert. The chorus is also participating in a study with the speech therapy department at Lesley College in Cambridge to document the mental health benefits of choral singing for the trans community.

Like many fledgling nonprofits, Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus is working hard to raise the funds needed to support its expanding programs. Commissioning more music by transgender composers and for transgender choirs and supporting transgender people seeking careers in choral conducting are among its goals.

“I see us influencing voice teachers and choral conductors around the world to educate themselves and take the time to be inclusive,” Hammond says. “We are about challenging social norms. Why are we so threatened by gender variation? Differences are to be celebrated.”

newVoices: Programming that Speaks to a Community Issue

By Don Lee

newVoices

As Phillip Swan describes it, “an Andy Griffith feeling” pervades northeast Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley. Like the TV sitcom’s fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, “it’s a safe, connected community.” So in 2015 when Swan and his 85-member choral ensemble newVoices announced a concert focused on the issue of sex trafficking, they were prepared for questions.

(Click to expand)


“‘How the heck are you going to do a concert about that?’” was one of them, recalls board member Mary Schmidt. But a more fundamental question was, “Why?” “Most people didn’t understand that we are on the cusp of a big problem,” she says.

Followers of newVoices (formerly White Heron Chorale) have come to expect the chorus’s programming to reflect local issues. Part of its mission statement reads, “Through vocal music, we want to create a sense of community through social connection and a joyous exchange by collaborating with other regional organizations and nonprofits.” As Schmidt puts it, “We don’t necessarily want to change the world, but we do want to be bigger than just singing. Taking issues to the concert hall gives them more depth and a different type of awareness than a story in the newspaper.”

An Emerging Local Issue

Members of the newVoices board were the first to call the organization’s attention to growing local concern over sex trafficking. Schmidt says several board members are community leaders, plugged into recurring studies of regional quality-of-life issues, and closely connected to social service agencies. When reports of home-grown child sex trafficking began to emerge, they were “shattered,” says Schmidt.

Phillip Swan
newVoices artistic director Phillip Swan. Credit Image Studios.

To learn more, she turned to a friend, Caroline Lasecki, who has headed the Sexual Assault Crisis Center-Fox Cities for more than five years. Lasecki defines sexual trafficking as “a commercial act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced has not attained 18 years.” She won’t have data till later this year, but firsthand experience leaves her convinced the area faces a severe issue. She has witnessed stings in which police posed as teenage prostitutes. “The demand would blow you away,” she says. “The phone calls came one after another. The stings couldn’t keep up with them. It would sicken you.”

Engaging the Chorus

After listening to Lasecki, Schmidt had an immediate response: “Oh my God, we’ve got to do a concert about this. Nobody in the community has any idea of what’s going on.” Swan felt the same way after joining the conversation. But when it came time to bring in the choir, he struggled at first to allay fears that the concert might be “preachy,” depressing, or less than satisfying on a musical level. He asked for their trust, based on five years of working together to create community-inspired programming.

The value of collaboration has been Swan’s career-long focus. At the moment he’s writing a chapter about the subject for a book intended for high school choral directors. As Swan sees it, collaboration enhances both the end product and the process itself. “The heart and the philosophy behind it is that what we gain in the process and what we contribute in the process are both important. We give and get back at the same time.”

In that spirit, Swan wanted choir members to learn about sex trafficking for themselves, so newVoices scheduled a retreat with Lasecki as a featured speaker. Schmidt describes it as eye-opening, an experience the board hoped would ripple out from the singers to the audience and beyond that to the community.

Engaging the Community

As a marketing consultant experienced in communicating about tough topics, Schmidt knew the concert could not stand alone. The chorus formed a large project team, partnering with the Sexual Assault Crisis Center and the Outagamie County Sex Trafficking Steering Committee, an alliance of area law enforcement and social service agencies, to develop educational materials and public events. In advance of the concert, they scheduled a community roundtable with members of the Steering Committee and group readings of a book about the issue.

The concert itself, on October 24, 2015, carried the title “Facing the Music: The Unfamiliar Truth about Human Trafficking.” A pre-concert presentation featured members of the Steering Committee describing the scope of the problem and a screening of an anti-trafficking film documentary. At several stages of the concert, Lasecki and other guest speakers from the Wisconsin Anti-Human Trafficking Consortium and the Appleton Police Department addressed the audience both to lay out the problem and to deliver a call to action. “We wanted to aim for a bigger impact than just awareness,” Swan says. “That was important, but we also wanted to provide tools people could use to respond. That was why we added speakers and the community engagement discussions.”

newVoices
Caroline Lasecki, the executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, addresses the audience at the newVoices “Facing the Music” concert. The silhouettes represented victims of sex trafficking. Credit Image Studios.

The concert structure helped Swan with the challenge of choosing the music. How, he wondered, could he represent the topic of sexual trafficking “in a way that isn’t depressing, or so hard-hitting that the audience will walk away feeling informed, but not entertained”? He challenged himself to stretch beyond standard concert repertoire, embracing pieces a general audience can readily relate to; alongside J. Michael Saunders and Pierre de la Rue, he placed Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton. Choices like Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” as well as contemporary Christian songwriter Matthew West’s show-ending call to action “Do Something,” also buttressed one of the program’s thematic pillars: “expressing a message of hope—to show how we can make a difference. That was critical.”

West’s rhythmic anthem had the audience on its feet singing, says Lasecki. “I have so much respect for Phillip and whole choir—how they could pull it off.  The issue is so complex, and how he wrapped the music around it was unbelievable.”

Impact and Next Steps

From the outset, Schmidt expected the concert would be a tough sell. The chorus needed effective outreach not only to persuade skeptics that there was a troubling problem in their midst, but also to give the community a reason to attend the performance. She recalls telling the board, “‘Either nobody will show up or everybody will show up.’”

According to executive director Kristopher Ulrich, a typical newVoices concert draws 400-500. He counted 677 in the audience at “Facing the Music.” The more than 100 teenagers who walked up the day of the concert especially pleased him. They were there because they had friends on stage: the High School Master Singers, area students chosen annually to join newVoices for its fall season. Ulrich says what the young singers learned during “Facing the Music” encouraged some of them to take action with friends who may be at risk.

Going into the concert, some older newVoices patrons told Ulrich they were “less than excited” the chorus had taken on this topic. “But those people had the strongest turnaround. They went away and said, ‘I’m gonna go tell somebody.’”

Since October 24, sex trafficking has not disappeared from the Fox Valley, and the list of other concerns keeps growing. So newVoices still has work to do. “The exciting part is that the community is changing, it’s becoming more diverse,” says Schmidt. “As the community grows, there will always be change and opportunities to reflect the change in music.”

As far as Schmidt is concerned, community engagement is really enlightened self-interest. “When I started 16 years ago, we didn’t do this. I knew if we weren’t more relevant, we would watch our audiences die, and we wouldn’t attract younger singers—people who are interested in not only singing, but also creating community.”

The approach has made newVoices a better musical ensemble, as far as Swan is concerned. “Thinking in broader strokes about how the choir can impact the community makes the musical aspect more practical, more tangible, and more educational.” He says he’d like to see more choruses taking on topics relevant to their communities. “Choral music will be a much more effective and vibrant art form if we do.”

303 Choir: A Diverse Musical Community of Artists and Students

By Don Lee

303 Choir Members

At first, Travis Branam didn’t want to call his 6th-12th grade singing group a choir. He thought the term might turn off the kids he wanted to reach—young people not drawn to traditional choral music, but still interested in a collaborative singing experience. Hip-hop, for example. His hope was to create a group that would bridge the gap between their enjoyment of music and their opportunity to experience it as performers.

(Click to expand)


In 2012, under the umbrella of the Colorado Children’s Chorale (where he’s assistant conductor), Branam formed what he originally called simply “303.” That’s Denver’s area code, but otherwise it’s an abstraction, which, he reasoned, would help to avoid limiting
Travis Branam
Travis Branam

preconceptions about the group’s identity. Later, realizing his new brand needed a bit more context, he added “Choir” to the name. In the words of its newly minted mission statement, “303 Choir celebrates the Mile High City’s diverse musical community by providing students opportunities to collaborate with local artists along with other youth from the Denver Metro area. As youth meet, learn from, and perform with contemporary and community-minded musicians, they are inspired to connect with the world around them and empowered to find their own creative, artistic, and social voice through locally created songs and experiences.”

The 303 Community

The Denver-centric approach is key to 303 Choir’s efforts to create an inclusive musical community that bridges another gap—the one Branam sees between classical music and other genres. As one of the Colorado Children’s Chorale’s community choirs, 303 Choir complements the Chorale’s core program, which provides professional-level performances to the Denver arts community and appears with the Colorado Symphony, Opera Colorado, and other organizations. By expanding its musical scope via 303, the Chorale is able to demonstrate that it “values good music of all styles and genres, and that the Chorale is part of the broader music scene,” says Branam.

For its young participants, 303 Choir is a way to assert their existing musical values in a new context. “Kids (and their families) who might not identify themselves as choral singers can get on board with learning a song in a genre that’s meaningful to them,” Branam says. In the process, they begin to appreciate value in the music other 303 members prefer. Rehearsing and performing with popular local musicians of all types, they experience the diverse Denver music community firsthand. Branam believes the Choir’s collaborations with Denver-area artists have fostered “a loving community collective” of punk rockers, hip-hop MCs, ukulele pop artists, and classical composers. “It’s about creating unity among artists and youth who share a dot on a map,” he says.

Learning By Listening

When he began to engage with the larger Denver musical community in 2011, Branam was mindful of the mantra, “if we want to be heard, we must first learn to listen.” His efforts to persuade friends and family to attend choral and classical concerts had failed, so he decided to push himself beyond the “tunnel vision” he had developed during his music studies and get better acquainted with the music they were listening to. Via social media and through visits to clubs, dive bars, and other venues, he began to discover a diverse music scene. At first the experience was uncomfortable; he felt judged and self-conscious. “That’s how some people feel about choral music,” he realized. “I had the shoe on the other foot.”

Still, he found the nerve to begin conversations with musicians, and heard a wealth of music he wanted more people to know about. He decided to use his skills and his position “to bring awareness to these artists and bring together a community of artists in the name of young people.”

How the Choir Works

Branam started small by working on a couple of songs by local songwriters with an honor choir. Now, with 303 Choir, his group’s makeup ranges from a few girls in all-state choir to a couple of young people who, he says, don’t like to sing; they rap. The 30-member ensemble meets weekly. Branam estimates half of the current members were first attracted to 303 by the choir’s genre-specific weekend workshops spread throughout the year. The Denver-area artists he collaborates with also help get the word out to prospective singers. Although no fee is required, families are asked to pay $95 per semester in tuition if they are able.

Traditional choral music is part of the choir’s repertoire, but in rehearsals and workshops, Branam has found a traditional approach doesn’t work. He’s learned to let go of control, seeing himself as “a logistical and musical facilitator.” He provides rehearsal structure and reminds singers about diction, intonation, and dynamics, but R&B and punk are not his expertise. He leaves it to guest artists to show the choir how to move their bodies in time to the beat.

303 Teaching
Aja Zamundu of the ReMINDers works with a 303 Choir member.

“At first they’re a little reserved,” says hip-hop artist Antoine Zamundu. “Watching them open up is the beautiful part of it.” Under the stage name Big Samir, Zamundu and his wife Aja form the ReMINDers. Branam considers them “a huge piece” of the Denver hip-hop scene, and has invited them to collaborate with 303 Choir multiple times.

The ReMINDers pick catchy hooks and bridges for the choir as a whole to sing. For the verses, they identify singers who are comfortable soloing. When a chorus of kids performs his music, says Zamundu, it’s like hearing one of his songs on the radio. “I felt great. The choir made the sound bigger. And the kids really get this. The meaning of the song comes out more when you hear it from them.”

Looking at their faces, Zamundu can tell choir members feel the same way. “The experience of performing a song for parents and others… that’s always big. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, look, we’re famous!’ It makes it cool.”

Being Part of a Bigger Community

For high school senior Emma Bechler, the cool factor carries over into her classical choir experience. She believes her five seasons of experience in 303 Choir have transformed her approach to choral singing. “In 303 we’re taught it’s OK to move around a little. You lose your self-consciousness, and just go for it. It’s taught me how to perform and interact with people who are different from me.”

303 Performance
303 Choir in performance.

When 303 Choir is on stage, Branam senses “a synergy of different forces.” It starts with the kids, “who’ve been willing to go out on a limb and stretch.” The repertoire features uplifting, encouraging themes. Along with the singers and local artists, the room is full of parents and fans. The performances, most of which are genre-specific, are “slowly but surely gaining momentum as something the audience is interested in,” he says. “They come and are blown away by their own community.”

It’s not about public relations for the Colorado Children’s Chorale, cautions Branam. “If we are attempting to engage the community because of what’s in it for us, the community will sense that.” He believes 303 Choir demonstrates the Chorale’s genuine willingness to collaborate and reach out.

Plans for the Future: More, More, More

At the end of last year, Branam asked choir members about changes they’d like to see. “They wanted more,” he says. More interaction with artists. More concerts. More diverse repertoire. And Branam has his own wish for them: more creative involvement. He wants to do a concert of music written entirely by choir members so “they can see themselves as artists with voices that should be heard.”

Branam may have overcome the tunnel vision that once constrained his musical outlook, but he hasn’t lost sight of his commitment to mainstream choral tradition, and he’s still eager to find new audiences for it. “Even though choral institutions want to be inclusive and to encourage diversity, and to have all people understand choral music is for you, that message doesn’t always resonate.” His experience with 303 Choir gives him hope. Placed among a diverse range of genres, choral music “shows its true power and magic,” he says. “Not its superiority, but its power.”

Midcoast Community Chorus: Where Every Voice Matters

By Kelsey Menehan

Midcoast Community Chorus

From teaching middle schoolers to leading congregations, choral conductor Mimi Bornstein has observed a phenomenon that troubles her: people are scared to sing. So she set out to create a safe place for everyone—from the skilled to the tone-deaf—to exercise what Bornstein calls a “God-given right.” The Midcoast Community Chorus (MCC) of Rockport, Maine, where Bornstein is the founder and artistic director, reflects this radical welcome.

(Click to expand)


The chorus itself grew out of an impulse to give back. In 2004, Bornstein’s church choir had plans to perform Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) as a benefit for a local 4-H camp. Needing more singers for the piece, Bornstein opened the choir to anyone in the community and was floored when some 140 people showed up. Equally surprising was the fact that the concert sold out and raised $10,000 for the local organization.

“It was really a powerful model of creating a community for a purpose through music,” Bornstein says. When Bornstein resigned from her church job in 2006, people asked if she would continue the community chorus benefit concerts. In the spring of 2007, the newly formed Midcoast Community Chorus put on its first benefit concert in support of Rockland’s free health clinic.

Creating a Community Spirit

The Midcoast Community Chorus considers its primary “community” to be the people who come every week to sing. By tending to the spirit of that community, they create a ripple effect that reaches beyond it.

“I think community engagement is ultimately about building relationships,” Bornstein says, “first with each other as a singing community, then with the music we are singing, then with our audience, and then with the larger community through these benefit concerts.” The MCC’s mission—“to sing as a community, for the community”—reflects its inward-looking and outward-looking understanding of what community is.

Midcoast Community Chorus has continued the open-door policy it started with, welcoming all singers in the community, including many with little or no prior choral experience. “I’ve always had a passion for the person who is not singing and wondered, why aren’t they?” Bornstein says. “We really believe that everybody’s voice matters.”

Hands
Singers in the Midcoast Community Chorus gather before going onstage at a concert. “We always hold hands and share energy as I bring the group together one last time before we perform,” says Bornstein.

Bornstein teaches both with scores and without scores (for the non-sight readers), and provides online rehearsal tracks for people to learn the music. Voice checks are encouraged but optional, so as not to exclude singers for whom singing alone is too threatening. When a novice singer joins, they are connected with a mentor who sits next to the novice for as many weeks as it takes to feel comfortable. Bornstein usually starts off the first few rehearsals of a new semester with an African chant or some other piece that can be taught without musical scores. “They sound good right away and feel successful,” she says.

With these supports in place, the chorus has slowly improved and gained confidence. “When we started, it took six weeks to learn ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Bornstein says. After eight years, she is proud that the chorus has evolved to a group that sings Moses Hogan pieces.

The point, says Bornstein, is not to sing everything perfectly. “In a non-auditioned group, the people come first, and the music is second,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t work towards excellence. It’s just that how people feel is more important.”

Expanding the Circle

Bornstein chooses diverse repertoire that is accessible both to her singers and to the audience. The songs represent another “community” that singers and audience members can get to know, whether it is the people and stories of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement or of Latin American social resistance or a particular religious group.

At every concert, audience members also are invited to raise their voices. Bornstein is not a fan of the term “sing-along.” From her perspective, the “community sings” are much more than simply breaking down a barrier between performers and audience members. “I believe that the audience completes our circle,” she says. “When we sing a song like ‘We Shall Overcome’ with an open heart and a clear intention, we literally change who we are on a cellular level. And when we sing it with 1,000 other people, it is that much more magnified.”

Midcoast Community Chorus Audience
At every Midcoast Community Chorus concert, the audience is invited to sing with the chorus during two songs.

“You feel it when you are on that stage that you are all together and that is a very spiritual experience,” says tenor John Bird. “That bond within the group is—love is the word I would use—and the audience feels it.” 

Singing for the Unheard

MCC’s benefit concerts have helped create connections with people in the community who are often unseen and unheard—the homeless, women in abusive relationships, families without enough food, people without health care.

“They were not just raising money for us,” says Sherry Cobb, president of the board of the Area Interfaith Outreach, whose pantry and emergency services program was the beneficiary of the MCC’s June 2015 concert. “They invited me to come and talk about the issues and the singers brought groceries to every rehearsal. In the end they donated close to a ton of food. That was remarkable.”

In the early days, the Chorus chose community organizations that were working on issues that interested the music director or chorus members. Now community organizations can apply to be considered. “In that way, we have turned it around from here is what we want to do for you,” says Bornstein, “to what’s the call and need from the community?”

“We are a small Maine community, so you would think people would know about what’s going on, but they really don’t,” says singer Cherrie Waxman, who is serving on the concert beneficiary committee for the coming year. “So increasing awareness of each other and the issues that we all face together as a community is a great benefit for all of us.”

Room to Grow

Midcoast Community Chorus is always looking for ways to make its connections with its “communities” deeper and more meaningful. Sometimes these efforts are limited by the organization’s relatively small budget. For its benefit concert for the local homeless coalition, for example, the MCC wanted to invite people who were homeless to come and sing. But without staff to make it happen, the idea foundered.

Mimi BornsteinMidcoast Community Chorus founder and artistic director Mimi Bornstein.

“We just haven’t figured out how to do some of these things logistically,” Bornstein says.

Some of the signs that community engagement is happening around the MCC’s mission are simple things. Concerts consistently sell out, community organizations receive support (MCC donates an average of $10,000 per concert), and some 20 to 25 new singers register to sing every semester. “There is something about music that brings people together to celebrate what they share rather than where they are different,” says Cobb.

“The bottom line for me is how can music be relevant,” says Bornstein. “How can music be a means to an end, rather than just an end. I’m always thinking of what bridges we are building.” 

More Examples of Community Engagement
There are many different ways choruses are leveraging the power of choral music to impact their communities. In this companion article, we asked our members about their experiences with community engagement, and the responses we received represent choruses of many types and sizes from all over North America.


Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, at NPR in Washington, DC, he was executive producer of Performance Today.

Add comment

Login or register to post comments