Missions with Might

The Power of Purpose

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June 1st, 2007

For a handful of choruses, a unique mission galvanizes their entire community—singers, board, audience, and staff—and is the organizing principle around which all else revolves.

We take it for granted that every chorus—indeed, every nonprofit—develops a unique mission statement to guide its work. For all the effort it can take to craft a statement, the words can quickly be forgotten after the strategic planning process ends. Or not. For a handful of choruses, the mission galvanizes their entire community—singers, board, audience, and staff—and is the organizing principle around which all else revolves.

Serving a Greater Need

For those who join and lead mission-driven choruses, there's even more to the experience than the rich, communal process of singing together. They are there for a purpose. For Martha Cohen, an interpreter and program manager for the King County court system in Washington state, who sings with both the Seattle Labor Chorus and the Seattle Peace Chorus, the active missions of those organizations are key to her involvement

For those who join and lead mission-driven choruses, there's even more to the experience than the rich, communal process of singing together. They are there for a purpose.

"In both groups, it's the message of what I'm singing that makes it meaningful for me," says Cohen. The Seattle Peace Chorus, whose mission is to promote peace, travels abroad for people-to-people contact in such countries as Russia and Cuba. The Seattle Labor Chorus, which is "dedicated to economic and social justice, and the fundamental right of all workers to organize as a means of securing a living wage," sings music about those issues on picket lines and at rallies.

Though one of the founders of the Labor Chorus was president of the postal workers union, fewer than half its singers are actually union members. They are all activists, however, people for whom a song called "Fair Trade Coffee" or one about Wal-Mart, with a refrain "People deserve a living wage" express deeply felt convictions. "A chorus of activists means we're organized," says music director Janet Stecher. "When we arrive at an event, our chorus sets up the tables and cleans up. They know how to subsume personal needs to whatever the common need is. We're on a march." At the same time, she says, "Everyone is incredibly opinionated. They all think they know better. Then they are willing to yield to leadership, because they know that's how you get things done."

Chorus members also feel that their singing has an impact on the world around them. "When we showed up on the picket line, people didn't get tired so soon," says Stecher. "When we sang at a peace rally, things got moving. We are focused and energetic, and that attracts people to the cause." The Labor Chorus also gets hired to sing at union events, such as stewards' training sessions and monthly meetings of members. It now sings regularly at an annual event at the Pike Place Market for musical groups in downtown Seattle, and has won both judged and audience awards for its singing there, enabling it to spread the word even more deeply in the community.

The Kansas City Metro Men's Chorus, founded in 2002 "with the mission of dedicating our singing to the glory of God and serving our brothers in sisters in need," is also focused on the world beyond itself. This unauditioned chorus of 110 men ("If he's a man, can breathe, and wants to sing, I'll take him," says music director Noel Fulkerson) dedicates each performance to a particular local charity, which receives all the donations given at the concert. Fulkerson builds his programming around the two aspects of the mission, which means that he chooses predominantly sacred and patriotic literature.

The Chorus members pay all the expenses of the group's operation, so that all the collected funds go to the charity—usually $1,500 to $2,000 per performance. The Chorus donated $60,000 in the first five years of its existence; Fulkerson says that he could easily schedule beneficiaries for the next five years. For Fulkerson, whose background is teaching high school music and choir, the Chorus's mission is uniquely meaningful. "I came from a poor background, and my heart is always open for folks in need," he says. For the singers, he says, "The mission of praising God and helping those in need is more important than the performance. There's a special camaraderie, because it's not just about the singers themselves."

The Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace (RSVP) in Rocklin, California, an ensemble of 16 semi-professional and professional singers, also donates 100 percent of its concert income to charities and tailors its programs for the group that will benefit. "I love this part," says director Julie Adams, who founded the group in 2000. She seeks out small, local charities "for which $6,000 or $10,000 could make a difference" and builds programs around them. A concert to benefit the Adult Literacy Council was entitled "Shakespeare Sings," and was all settings of Shakespeare. "Mourning to Dancing" supported a group that takes women out of violent homes.

The idea, Adams says, is to create a good concert experience for the audience and to give a voice to the charity. A representative of the charity makes a brief presentation at the concert. "People sign up; they become donors," says Adams. "It feels like we are doing a service that may be planting seeds for other things, making our audience aware of the great things that are going on every day." The concerts are free. "We say, 'Tonight's concert is our gift to you; if you feel compelled to support the charity, you can.' Some give $1—some write a $250 check. We struggled with the idea of setting a ticket price, and our board has asked, 'Why not take 10 percent for the chorus?' But I think it works because we do the 100 percent donation." No one, including Adams, is paid. Because of its purpose, RSVP attracts contributors who value its vision—donations of rehearsal space, administrative support, and concert venues have come from the community.

Breaking Down Barriers

The One Voice Chorus of Richmond, Virginia, is also engaged in a world-changing mission, both in performance and within itself: racial healing and reconciliation between Caucasians and African-Americans. The group originated in a combination event with a white church and a black church. "We did a Schubert mass with string orchestra and a gospel mass with a jazz trio," recalls music director Glen McCune. "We had 75 singers, and everyone was very excited and asked, 'What can we do next?'" McCune, who had never thought about starting a community chorus before, felt that this was a special idea.

The group, which now has 86 members, is 40 percent African-American, an unusually integrated entity for Richmond. Part of the appeal for African-Americans, McCune says, is that One Voice is an unauditioned, or, as he says, a "y'all come" chorus. "We have several fine African-American singers who could easily be in the Richmond Symphony Chorus, but they don't want to audition in a strongly white environment," says McCune. The repertoire is predominantly classical, with some traditional spirituals and choral jazz. The chorus does almost no gospel music. "A lot of people are doing that really well, and it's not our niche," he says. "A good number of people in the African-American community want to sing classical music—we are breaking through the myth that they don't." McCune has also engaged an African-American associate conductor, Frank Williams.

The Chorus has received some significant invitations that advance its mission. It was the only choir to sing at a local memorial service for Coretta Scott King; recently, a small ensemble from the group performed at the legislature's black caucus. Its March concert of music by all African-American composers was performed in one of Richmond's historic antebellum African-American churches; a second performance was given in a church in a Caucasian neighborhood. "There were 400 people at each concert, and because of the racial makeup of the choir, the audiences are also racially mixed. We have receptions after concerts, helping people come together across racial boundaries."

The mission is beginning to play out within the Chorus membership as well. "Though people are cordial to one another across racial lines, it doesn't mean they are friends," McCune says. "We don't push friendship; we're just trying to be a chorus. But now we have roughly 100 people, every Monday night, choosing to be with one another, and they are offering rides to rehearsals, going out afterwards for snacks together, even, gradually, going into each others' homes."

McCune is trying to take that a little farther. He and a black One Voice member, Adele Johnson, director of community relations for a national bank and a member of the Chorus board, had discussed their personal histories regarding race relations. (McCune grew up in Texas during the time of Jim Crow, and had his first experiences of integrated life while in the U.S. Army.) "We decided to bring that talk to the rehearsals. Adele and I had a public conversation an hour before rehearsal for whoever wanted to come, and shared stories about our growing up. There are issues that occupy African-Americans that the white community is ignorant of. We may think the old racial issues are done with, but they aren't. African-Americans won't talk about it much in the Caucasian community. We're trying to break through those barriers."

The Mystic Chorale of Boston is also dedicated to breaking down barriers, though in a different way. One facet of its mission statement reads: "Make music a participatory experience, creating a dynamic collaboration among the bold and the shy, the untrained and the trained, the audience and the performers, challenging all of us to be truly amazing." Its music director, Nick Page, was inspired by Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock to form the group in 1990.

"The idea is to create a real sense of community among the performers and the audience," says Page. "The audience sings with us on about one-third of the songs. It also brings together 'the bold and the shy'—we don't have auditions, but we have high expectations—for example, everything has to be memorized. We have 260 members. Beginners love the fact that they are welcome, even if they don't know how to sing in tune. They know they will be taught, and they love the high expectations. The more experienced singers enjoy how we make it come alive in concert."

Differentiating with Mission

In a single city, Washington D.C., three choruses—the Congressional Chorus, the Thomas Circle Singers, and the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of Washington D.C., have three very different missions, all unusual. The Congressional Chorus, launched 20 years ago primarily as a lunchtime activity for Capitol Hill staffers, has developed a serious repertoire mission: performing exclusively American music. Although the membership is no longer exclusively from Capitol Hill, the Chorus has a Congressional charter and performs at various government functions, such as presidential inaugurations and the Christmas tree lighting.

David Simmons assumed artistic direction of the Chorus in the fall of 2006—founding music director, Michael Patterson, died in January 2006—and has discovered that the range of repertory is even wider than he expected." It's fascinating for me as a conductor—I thought I was fairly familiar with the American canon, but then I started doing some digging, especially through older works like the music of the Colonial era." The group's 20th-anniversary concert included many pieces near and dear to the Chorus and some that were new to it, including "One Land," an anniversary commission from Rand Snell, in memory of Patterson.

Claudia Levy joined the Chorus in 1999 when she retired as a reporter for The Washington Post and suddenly had free evenings. "I like the variety of music we do," she says. "There's no single style of singing—it's all over the map, from gospel to opera.

I'm also thrilled with some of the contemporary works we do, like "The Settling Years" by Libby Larsen. It is very modern in style; it reflects U.S. Western traditions and has strange rhythms—eerie reflections of the big sky at night. It gave me goosebumps. It was really hard—it took a long time to learn it. We are always learning—one of the main things I get out of this choir is the music lessons!"

Simmons intends to keep those challenges coming. "Part of our mission is to educate the audience in this repertoire, so we'll do lots of things that the choristers don't know," he says. "It is an auditioned chorus, and we're now moving into repertoire that would be done by a semi-professional or professional choir." The Chorus is also working on building its numbers, and Simmons is also hoping to launch an education program at their new home, the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

The Thomas Circle Singers was started in 1976 as a way to bring beauty to a rundown part of Washington, D.C. Thomas Circle itself is now a hot neighborhood, and the Singers, a 32-voice auditioned ensemble, has evolved as well. For the past 25 years, the group has donated all of the ticket revenues from its three annual concerts—ranging from $16,000 to $18,000 a year—to local groups that serve the needy. Each year, a committee chooses a theme—children's health, senior citizens, HIV/AIDS, for example—and researches three beneficiaries to receive the proceeds of each concert.

James Kreger, who has directed the group since 1989, says that the mission does not affect programming choices, and in the last several years the Chorus has developed a niche in 20th- and 21st-century repertoire, including commissions. "The singers say that they come for the artistic product; the benefit is the icing on the cake," Kreger says. "They are getting something that they need and doing something good for someone else. It's also a double incentive for selling tickets."

As part of its current strategic planning process, the group is considering developing a closer relationship between the singers and the beneficiaries. While Thomas Circle already works with the beneficiaries to maximize the value of the donation—by helping secure matching funds, for example—they are considering a single beneficiary each year instead of three and working with them more closely, possibly through volunteer work, or, ideally, by singing for them.

Listening To Every Voice

With a mission of "Every voice matters," the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of Washington, D.C. is run on a consensus model, which it calls "unity, not unanimity," and affirms the principle—appropriately for a chorus—that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While committees are in charge of Chorus functions, all meetings are open to the entire membership, with the goal that anyone who wishes to be heard can be.

For example, the music and program committee, headed by music director C. Paul Heins, is open to participation from everyone. Rick Mauery, one of two co-facilitators who are charged with making the system work, describes a discussion of repertoire for the group's two main concerts: "We had discussed the themes," he says, "and Paul came in with proposed selections and played them through. We talked about each one and whether it reflected the concert theme and the group's values, choosing some and discarding others. It takes a lot longer than having the singers show up, get their music binder, and sing, but we hope this allows every singer to have some ownership of the music and what we do." It has also empowered the music director to be completely in charge of rehearsals.

Jill Strachan, who has been with the group since its beginning 23 years ago, acknowledges that there have been bumps along the way. "It requires a great deal of trust, and education of members," she says." The goal of the process is not unanimity, but having a point of unity. "Given this discussion, can we move forward?" is how Strachan puts it. "When we decide something, it is rare that it is one person who is behind the decision. We move forward as a group. It's interesting that most choruses tend to be hierarchical, though they are creating a sound based on many voices."

The consensus model is an attraction for singers (the Chorus has 30; about half came to the most recent business meeting). "One thing we've learned along the way is that although every voice matters, it doesn't mean that you get your way," says Strachan. "Another part of the mission is to have fun," adds Rick Mauery. "We do see the value of entertainment!"


This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2007.

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