Community Engagement: More Examples From Around North America

In preparation for publishing a series of community engagement case studies, we asked our members to share their own experiences with community engagement. The responses we received represent choruses of many types and sizes, from all over North America. They show the many different ways choruses are leveraging the power of choral music to impact their communities.

The original series of case studies from the Spring issue of the Voice can be found here.

(Click to expand each section)

Connecting the Creative Community

WomenSing, VocalEssence, British Columbia Choral Mentorship Project

WomenSing, Orinda, CA

As a critical component of our mission, WomenSing is committed to supporting the creation of contemporary choral music and introducing it to our community.  We are fortunate to have two projects that support that effort and have engaged our community. 

The first is our well-established and long running Youth Inspiring Youth-Commissioning Emerging Composers (YIY) project.  This competition for California composers ages 18-30 was begun in 2008 and has resulted in 12 new choral compositions for treble choir and helped further the careers of 12 talented young composers.  But what has resonated most with our community is the collaborative aspect of YIY. 

Youth Inspiring Youth
WomenSing's "Youth Inspiring Youth" program has fostered relationships between young composers and poets, and brings their audience and other choirs into the creative process.

The collaboration begins with WomenSing’s partnership with the River of Words poetry project, which provides our winning YIY composers access to the award-winning poetry of this annual, national poetry contest. River of Words is part of the Center for Environmental Literacy at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, located right in our neighborhood.  The collaboration continues when the winning composers converse with the young poets whose writing has inspired the new choral works.  The YIY Composer’s Public Workshop takes the collaborative nature of this project to an even higher level. 

At that workshop, the young composers hear their new work-in-progress given voice for the first time by WomenSing and other invited choirs.  The YIY composers receive suggestions from their mentors and try out changes with the choirs as their instrument, as they prepare the new piece for its eventual premiere by WomenSing. The workshop provides an inside look at the creative process in action, as the young composers, their mentors, the singers, and even members of the audience on occasion, work together to help bring the new composition to life.  It is an exciting and extraordinary experience for all! 

Building on the success of YIY, WomenSing inaugurated our new music festival, Treble Voices Now in 2014. Through this project we’ve been able to offer the unique collaborative experience of YIY to an even larger number of choirs and audience members.  Our community has responded with generous donations from individuals, grants from community foundations, and venue sponsorships.  Best of all, our free Festival Concerts have been filled with a growing and very enthusiastic audience for contemporary music!

-Teresa Caldwell, YIY co-chair and board member

VocalEssence ReMix, Minneapolis, MN

Four talented, emerging composers/songwriters have been selected to have a six-month one-on-one composer mentorship through VocalEssence ReMix as they each write a choral work.

Each has been paired with a Composer Mentor, and on Saturday, June 6, they will gather for a one-day Summer Workshop where they will meet with VocalEssence Artistic Director and Founder Philip Brunelle, their Composer Mentors, and a quartet from the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers. Through the experience of writing short pieces and hearing them read by the singers, they will learn the finer points of writing for voices.

Professional singers will premiere the composers’ finished works at the annual American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota State Conference in November.

-Katrina Wallmeyer, Director of Development & Communications

British Columbia Choral Mentorship Project, Vancouver, BC

Here in Vancouver, we have a project called the British Columbia Choral Mentorship Project. BCCMP is a collective of community choir and school choir conductors who are interested in strengthening the choral community, pooling knowledge, and learning together. We run a three-day summer camp for the 18 or so conductor-members, and then meet on four or five Saturdays over the course of the year for workshops and talk back sessions. We decide as a group who we want to learn from and what we want to learn, and we fill in the gaps by mentoring each other with peer-led workshops, round table sessions, and PechaKucha-style information sharing. We also share resources on our shared Google drive (from tour itineraries to theory assignments to letters to the board about budget expansions to repertoire lists) and we advise and counsel each other on our members-only Facebook group.

The whole thing is very grassroots – no website and we just divide whatever the cost of the guests is by how many people are in the group. This being said, it has dramatically changed the choral community in Vancouver. It has taken everyone out of their “silo” of conductor-as-isolated-individual and created a community of support, laughter, learning and GREAT advice.

We even host a wine and cheese party, so that all of our community and school conducts can meet and mingle with the conductors of university and professional choirs in Vancouver.

-Carrie Tennant, Vancouver Youth Choir; Coastal Sound Youth Choir

Expanding Access to Music

Montana A Cappella Society, Carolyn Eynon Singers, Baltimore Choral Arts Society

Montana A Cappella Society, Hamilton, MT

From our inception in 2003, the Montana A Cappella Society has worked to be our community’s choir. Whenever the community needs a large turnout, we are asked to headline the event. One of our founding principles is that no one should be denied the pleasure of music because of money. So we stopped charging for admission to our concerts. 

We have two major free performances a year. The first is a concert on Mothers’ Day at a local church. Many of our fans find it difficult to go out at night so this annual concert in the afternoon is perfect for them. Our second free performance is a major production at the local performing arts center. This is our “Christmas present” to the community. It is always on the last Saturday night before Christmas and has become a community tradition. We also invite a local charity to provide intermission refreshments as a fundraiser for their organization. Following the performance, all of the Society members go out to meet our audience. The response has been so overwhelming that we start getting calls in October from businesses making sure that there will be a space for their ad in the program.

-Don Matlock, artistic director

Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Baltimore, MD

To kick off Baltimore Choral Arts’ 50th anniversary season, the chorus and community came together for the second annual Free Community Sing. This Community Sing promotes positivity and unity in a city working so hard to overcome the unrest and distress affecting Baltimore since April 2015.

Guest conductor Michele Fowlin, music director of the Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir, joined Baltimore Choral Arts Music Director Tom Hall, Open Church Music

Baltimore Choral Arts Community Sing
Baltimore Choral Arts Society's Community Sing lifted the spirit of a city that went through a year filled with strife.

Director Marco Merrick, and their choirs for an evening of spiritual song and gospel music. This year’s event drew over 150 participants, some as young as 12 and others as old as 85, braving flash flooding to attend. It was a beautiful gathering of various faiths, ethnicities, and generations, filled with clapping hands, tapping feet and glorious music. It was a glimmer of hope and beauty in a city that has faced much heartbreak in 2015.

-Linda Moxley, executive director

Carolyn Eynon Singers, Scottsdale, AZ

We are a community choir of 24 singers who donate student and family tickets to a very successful respite care home in Phoenix called Ryan House. The children of families annually receive donated tickets to our family concerts as our guests. Ryan House is a haven for families with sick children that cares for eight families at a time. We know how music lifts their spirits and it brings the singers such joy to see their faces shine when they sing. We include in our program a printed wish list including food items, toys, house supplies, and gift cards for our audience to deliver to Ryan House.

This spring, Carolyn Eynon Singers was invited to perform for the Catholic Diocese Elementary School district for 800 children in two daytime concerts. There is no music in these schools' curriculum. This is our first daytime music education outreach.

-Carolyn Eynon, founding artistic director

Senior Health and Aging Issues

Back Bay Chorale, VocalEssence

VocalEssence Vintage Voices, Minneapolis, MN

A new VocalEssence program is working wonders for senior singers and their communities. Vintage Voices, which integrates the arts into the lives of older adults by creating choirs in assisted living communities and senior centers, has inspired older adults at Ecumen Seasons at Maplewood, Sabathani Community Center Senior Center, and Open Circle at Heritage Park Senior Services Center.

Through 12 weeks of rehearsals, free tickets and transportation to a VocalEssence concert, and a final concert for family and friends, the program boosts singer morale and fosters bonding.

Vintage Voices
Happy participants of VocalEssence's "Vintage Voices" program. Credit Stephen Maturen

One of our Sabathani Community Center Vintage Voices singers, Alberta Johnson, shared her experience in a Minnesota Women’s Press article, writing, “As I became more involved with VocalEssence Vintage Voices, I’ve learned that music can be as enjoyable with elders as it was in all of the other phases of my life.” The program had a positive effect on the whole community.

-Katrina Wallmeyer, Director of Development & Communications

Back Bay Chorale, Boston, MA

We're happy to share a community outreach program of the Back Bay Chorale (BBC), in Boston, a 41-year-old, 120-member auditioned ensemble under the musical leadership of Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, called BRIDGES. Two years ago, the Chorale launched this new project to celebrate and share the healing power of music with those who cannot join us in the concert hall. 

Our focus has been to sing for and with people living with Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia, and Parkinsons's disease.  Smaller groupings of BBC members visit area assisted living and secure memory support facilities, as well as veterans hospitals and soldiers’ homes for 45-minute performances of American Songbook standards, jazz classics, and lots of sing alongs. We are motivated and compelled by the research that shows the capacity of people, even with late-stage dementia, to connect, recover memories, and "awake" when they hear and participate in singing songs.

That's certainly been our experience!  We remember the veteran who struggled to stand from his wheel chair, tears coming down his cheeks, when we sang the Star-Spangled Banner. We loved singing for a woman who proudly stated that the cousins she grew up with were renowned gospel artists, CeCe and BeBe Winans. We've met a woman who didn't really sing with us, but did make sounds that staff of the facility marveled at, when we performed favorites that touched something in her. 

In all, this has been a moving and educational process for Back Bay Chorale singers, over 80% of whom have participated in BRIDGES.

This year, we are engaged in two new efforts: 

• A new partnership with the Tremble Clefs, a chorus of people with Parkinson's disease, sponsored by Jewish Family & Children's Services. BBC members will join them at some of their rehearsals this fall as volunteers, and we will also learn a song together to perform at the Chorale's December "A Boston Christmas" concert.

• A new campaign, called "Why I Sing."  This effort will take the form of a photo display, to communicate our BRIDGES work to the public and why we do it. We will interview people from all backgrounds and levels of health whom we sing for (as well as our own members and some in our regular season audience) about their love of music, ending with their statement of "why I sing."  Their photo portraits and statements will be on display at our concerts, on our own website and the websites of our BRIDGES partnering organizations, and, eventually we hope, at other public venues as BRIDGES continues our current work and sings for people in other areas of social change concern. We want "Why I Sing" to celebrate the vital nature of singing in people's lives and the importance of bringing art into the community.

Janet Selcer, BRIDGES Coordinator, member

Exploring Community Heritage

Albany Pro Musica, Bach Society of Dayton

Albany Pro Musica, Albany, NY

Albany’s history as a mosaic of cultures inspired a unique concert and week-long regional celebration, “City of Immigrants,”an homage to the rich heritage of the Capital Region. The concert – the capstone of the week’s events – included music from many of the cultures that have influenced our entire region, including Dutch, German, English, Italian, Polish, African-American, Asian, Irish, Hispanic, and Jewish. The concert also included the world premiere of a work by Steve Murray, Albany Pro Musica’s 35th Anniversary Year Composer-in-Residence, commissioned exclusively for this event, and featured The Musicians of Ma’alwyck, The Capital District Youth Chorale and Saratoga Springs Nacre Dance Company.

In addition to the concert, the City of Immigrants celebration included a week of festivities throughout the Capital Region, including art exhibitions, lectures, and other educational activities which celebrate the region’s rich cultural heritage.

-Dr. José Daniel Flores-Caraballo, artistic director

Bach Society of Dayton, Dayton, OH

Last spring, the Bach Society of Dayton took on an initiative to engage the small but growing Hispanic community in Southwest Ohio. The Bach Society performed Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramírez in a concert entitled “South American Accents.” The intensive outreach to the Hispanic community before the concert included an advertising partnership with the area's Spanish language newspaper, work with the Welcome Dayton immigrant initiative through the City of Dayton Human Relations Council, joining the Dayton Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, support from Wright State University's Office of Latino Affairs, outreach to churches, and the involvement of a tutoring program for Hispanic students, who attended a dress rehearsal with their parents.

Jaime Morales-Matos, associate professor of music at Miami University and director of the Central Ohio Symphony, Clermont Philharmonic, and Son del Caribe, provided a pre-concert lecture on the Misa Criolla from the composer’s point of view. Two talented tenors from Latin America, Pedro Arroyo from Puerto Rico and Emmanuel Vargas from the Dominican Republic, were hired to sing the featured solo parts. Thomas Garcia from Miami University played the charango and other indigenous instruments. The concert also featured guitar solos of Spanish music.

In addition to raising the Bach Society's visibility in the Hispanic community throughout the region, the effort also attracted several new sponsors and introduced exciting music by Spanish composers, which was new to both our singers and much of our audience. The concert also was broadcast on our local classical music radio station, WDPR. The board is now considering how best to build on this outreach in the future.

-Sara Pearsaul Vice, communications consultant

A Community Engagement-Centered Mission

Thomas Circle Singers, Jerusalem Youth Chorus

Thomas Circle Singers, Washington, DC

Thomas Circle Singers (TCS) is celebrating forty years of community service. TCS was founded in 1976 with a dual mission: to raise funds for the underserved population of Washington DC, especially its neighbors in what was then a neglected and blighted corridor, while providing spiritual nourishment through song. While our neighborhood has gentrified, we have continually carried out our mission. We partner each year with a DC social service organization. We share half of our box office receipts, conduct in-kind drives (e.g. toiletries, clothing, food) at concerts, and provide a platform for publicity through our website and through providing information about our partner organization’s programs at our concerts. We also provide complimentary tickets for the staff and clients of our beneficiary.

This concert season we continue our partnership with N Street Village, which provides a full range of services, from temporary to supported housing as well as counseling and rehabilitation to homeless women.

-Robert Verdile, member, board of directors

Jerusalem Youth Chorus, West Jerusalem, Israel

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is a choral and dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. The following is an excerpt from a 2015 New York Times article that the chorus sent to our office:

“Avital Maeir-Epstein and Muhammad Murtada Shweiki live about 150 yards apart in Abu Tor, a Jerusalem neighborhood that straddles the pre-1967 armistice line, a mostly invisible but politically charged marker of this city’s Israeli-Palestinian divide. The teenagers live on opposite sides of that divide, but for a few hours each Monday afternoon, they come together.

Avital, 16, is a soprano and Muhammad, 15, is a tenor/bass in the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which brings together young Israelis and Palestinians for singing and dialogue sessions run by professional facilitators. Established in 2012, the chorus is one of the few coexistence initiatives to weather the hatred and violence that have erupted on both sides over the past year.

Meeting in one of the rare places here that are considered neutral ground, the imposing Jerusalem International YMCA on King David Street in West Jerusalem, the group does not ignore the politics but creates an alternative environment where young Israelis and Palestinians can discuss their differences while producing music together.”

-Micah Hendler, founder

Academic Approaches

Ryan Luhrs, Barbara Tagg

Ryan Luhrs, Cuthbert, GA

My community engagement story centers on using choral music as a means to get people to sing together who might not do so because of social barriers. In the four locations I have lived since graduating from college, I have initiated annual choral events that sought to build bridges between otherwise divided groups of people. In Minnesota, these events typically brought together church choirs that wouldn't otherwise interact, such as Lutherans and Catholics. In Tallahassee, Florida and southern Georgia, the demographics have been more diverse and, in addition to challenging barriers of Christian denomination, these festivals have brought together people otherwise separated by race/ethnicity, age, student/non-student status.

Typically, I've recruited singers from various church, community, and college choirs. All the music is learned in a three-hour rehearsal and then performed the same day. Whatever choir I direct on a regular basis learns the music in advance and serves as the "experts" to help others learn the music quickly. An attempt is made to select music that is representative of the traditions represented in the diversity of the choir.

This past year, I began collecting data formally on these events and a case study focusing on this endeavor was the topic of my dissertation, which I completed at Florida State University this past spring. I'm looking forward to continuing this research and activity at my new position at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia.

Barbara Tagg, Syracuse, NY

Syracuse University Women’s Choir presented an historical retrospective concert on the university’s rich history of military support dating back to 1918, entitled “Syracuse University and National Defense: Forgotten and Untold Stories.” The performance was based on over a year of historic research, interviews, and involvement/assistance of over 60 people spanning many generations, ranging from World War II veterans to current award-winning military photographers studying on campus, faculty, staff, and more. The concert featured Grammy Award-winning composer Libby Larsen’s While We Are On Earth based on texts by Eleanor Roosevelt, Kalil Gibran, and Mother Teresa, as well as premieres by Chad Steffey, Sean O’Loughlin, and Jim Papoulis.

I will present a paper in Athens, Greece this summer based on this multimedia and collaborative concert model that builds community. The title of the paper is: Building Community: From Historical and Qualitative Research to Collaborative Performance and Storytelling. It will track the complete 18-month process from concept through research to data collected immediately after the concert. We had SU Women’s Choir families in China and South Korea watching the concert via live stream as well as a 92-year-old grandfather of one of the singers who was in World War II.

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