Monday, August 17, 2020

Can an “all voices welcome” choir ever be totally inclusive?

Many choirs are open-access: they welcome all kinds of voices and don’t hold auditions.

Photo by Fabrice Florin

But is it still possible to keep everyone happy and be truly inclusive without making too many concessions?

open-access choirs and individual differences

Part of the Natural Voice Network’s ethos is that everyone can sing and nobody should be excluded from music-making. Which means that all NVN choirs are open to anybody who wants to sing, without excluding anybody.

At least that’s the aim. But is it possible in reality? See Can open-access choirs cater for every kind of singer?

If your choir is open-access, it means that you will have a whole range of types of singers and people with very different levels of experience. Most of the time that’s fine, especially in larger groups. Any small differences will tend to get ironed out.

However, there can be that one singer who is out of sync with everyone else. Maybe they sing loudly and out of tune, or perhaps they make people feel uncomfortable socially. In either case, they don’t seem to “fit in.”

It may be possible to deal with them privately (extra exercises in pitching or a quiet word about disruptive behaviour). But sometimes that’s just not possible. There might not be the time or space to do that, or you might have quite a few singers who don’t seem to “fit in.”

The reality of any open-access group is that it tends towards the average ability and personality type of the group as a whole. That average will define the level of music-making ability as well as the kind of socialising that happens. If you’re lucky, most singers will be of the same ability and have similar outlooks on life. But there’s no guarantee.

The group will define itself, which means that some new members might not be a good fit.

define your choir in writing

Rather than excluding them when problems arise, a much better idea is to create some kind of statement which shows what you expect from members of the choir (see Does your choir need ground rules?). This could include a code of conduct (e.g. be respectful to other choir members, turn up on time, etc.) and an outline of what to expect musically (e.g. members should be able to hold a tune and take direction).

It’s when a choir has been going for a while that problems tend to arise. Involve current members in a discussion when creating a statement of intent for your choir.

Over time, what started out as a beginner’s choir, usually ends up being competent group of singers (see Beginner’s choir or established choir: time to re-evaluate?). Which means that a complete beginner wanting to join may find it a bit of a steep learning curve. Regularly evaluate what kind of choir you’re running and update your choir statement.

If your choir is focused on music-making and performing, you will have different requirements to a choir which is more focused on the social side and having fun.

As a choir leader, you need to be honest with yourself about what kind of choir you are running. Almost certainly you will have implicit expectations about what kind of singer you want to attract. If so, make that explicit in your recruitment blurb.

If you find that running an open-access choir is limiting your music-making, you can always start a different group which has a different focus, maybe even with auditions.

be clear and honest with your expectations

I personally don’t believe that an open-access choir can be all things to all people.

If you say all voices welcome, you need to mean that all voices are welcome. With time and patience it may be possible to pretty inclusive, but it may also limit aspects of music-making (e.g. you might always have to teach simpler songs).

If you’re honest with yourself, and not all voices are welcome, then make that very clear at the outset.

further reading

You might find these other posts of interest:

There's always one! – coping with different singing abilities in a small group

Help! How to deal with choir members who sing out of tune?

Can you join a choir if you can’t hit a note?



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Chris Rowbury




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