Supporting the Choral Ecosystem

A first-of-its-kind convening highlights some promising ideas for helping the choral field thrive

When you stop to think about the ways people sing together, the diversity is breathtaking. Just a partial list includes community, school, collegiate, and church choruses, as well as gospel choirs, barbershop groups, contemporary a cappella ensembles, men’s choruses, and special mission groups like threshold choirs.

In 2016, Chorus America and partners the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), and Yale University School of Music began a unique project that, for the first time, examined how these many parts come together to make up the choral community in the U.S.

“There is so much group singing happening in our country,” said Catherine Dehoney, president and CEO of Chorus America. “For a long time Chorus America has been curious about what knits all this activity together. We believe that understanding these connections better will help strengthen the whole choral field—and ultimately benefit the millions of people who love to sing together.”

From April 8-9, a group of 30 choral leaders gathered at Yale University for the Choral Ecosystem Forum. The participants represented a diverse range of singing communities and a wide variety of roles, from music educators and composers to conductors and administrators.

Co-facilitators Alan Brown of WolfBrown and John Shibley of John Shibley Consulting used the concept of an ecosystem—a set of connected entities in which the actions of one ultimately influence the actions of all—to help the group explore the way the choral field functions. Using this framework, the group mapped out the relationships between the “species” that make up the ecosystem—in other words, the individuals and organizations that are part of the choral field. In addition to bringing their own experiences to the forum, each participant prepared by interviewing three other people involved with the choral field about how they contribute to choral music and how they benefit from their involvement.

Intended as a first step in building a broader choral community, the Choral Ecosystem Forum was an unusual opportunity for the participants to put down their day-to-day responsibilities and spend two days focusing on the field as a whole. “For the first time, people reflecting the diversity of choral activity in the United States worked together, ate together, and sang together, developing the kind of trust and mutual understanding that is prerequisite to collaboration,” wrote Brown and Shibley in a summary of the convening. The two days of conversations led to some promising ideas for supporting the ways that the choral ecosystem functions and helping the field thrive.

Focus on the Resources that Really Matter

One of the major findings of the Choral Ecosystem Forum was that the choral ecosystem runs on artistry, recognition, and fulfillment—not money. Brown and Shibley referred to the choral ecosystem as a “generous” system. With so many participants volunteering their time and contributing non-monetary resources like leadership, they noted, relatively little money actually changes hands given the amount of activity.

ShibleyBrownForum co-facilitators John Shibley (left) and Alan Brown.

Far more important than money to the choral field is the kind of interaction between species that Brown and Shibley identified as the “virtuous circle of exchange” [see diagram]. In this circle, singers, conductors, and other choral artists express their artistry by performing. Audience attention and reaction gives the artists recognition and allows them to experience “self-actualization” or the feeling of being able to be what they most aspire to be. In return, audiences experience meaning and fulfillment through their encounter with choral music.

Of course, the fact that people ranked money as the least important benefit of being part of the choral field does not mean the system can survive and thrive without it. As Christina Lewellen, international president of Harmony, Inc. said, “You have to pay your rent, you have to pay your conductor, you have to pay your licensing fees.” But it does mean that choruses that want to nurture relationships with singers, board members, and other supporters might consider focusing on the power of non-monetary benefits. For example, Brown and Shibley speculate that because choral singers are fulfilled by working with talented conductors and guest artists, a chorus with $1,000 to spend would do better to hire an inspiring artist to work with its singers than to give each singer $20.

Discussion during the forum also pointed to another resource that could potentially help choruses and other singing ensembles grow: outside recognition and representation in the media and popular culture. “The cooler it is to sing in a choir and the more attention that gets paid to all the things that we do, the more money flows and the more people sing in choirs,” said Deke Sharon, one of the founders of the modern a cappella movement.

The “generous” nature of the choral system offers some interesting opportunities to raise this kind of public awareness for group singing in general. For example, Brown and Shibley suggested choruses might foster increased recognition by instituting branded events that could spread from community to community, such as an annual community sing that would eventually grow into a beloved and anticipated cultural tradition. Because these events would “pay” participants in artistry, recognition, and fulfillment rather than cash, they would be inexpensive to produce and therefore more scalable.

Education and Bringing in Young Singers

As participants in the Choral Ecosystem Forum mapped out the ways that different parts of the choral ecosystem work together, it became clear that certain species are particularly important to the health of the entire field. Brown and Shibley dubbed these species “fulcrum species,” because they interact with almost everyone else in the ecosystem at some point.

Top among these fulcrum species are K-12 music teachers. Because almost everyone in the choral field enters the system through their music programs, they act as gatekeepers for the entire field. Yet background interviews and forum discussions showed that K-12 teachers are also in some ways an “endangered” species. Data from the National Association for Music Education shows that 50 percent of music teachers leave the field in the first five years, and several forum participants shared their concern that challenges like funding cuts in public education are discouraging university students from going on to become teachers. K-12 music teachers often feel disconnected from the rest of the choral field as well. “Usually as a high school or middle school teacher, you’re the only choral teacher, and when you go to faculty meetings, you’re talking about things that aren’t related to music,” said Greg Douma, a music educator from Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minnesota. “So you’re kind of this island.”

Choral Ecosystem Forum Participants

Ecosystem Participants

The 30 participants represented a diverse range of singing communities and a wide variety of roles, from music educators and composers to conductors and administrators.
Mitos Andaya, Associate Director of Choral Activities, Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University
Michael Anderson, President, International Federation of Choral Music
Jeffrey Bauman, Director of Choral and Vocal Activities, Young Harris College
Michael Butera, Executive Director, National Association for Music Education*
Craig Coogan, Executive Director, Boston Gay Men's Chorus
Amanda Cornaglia, President, Contemporary Acappella League
Emily Holt Crocker, Vice President of Choral Publications, Hal Leonard Corporation
Catherine Dehoney, President & CEO, Chorus America
Dominick DiOrio, Assistant Director of Choral Conducting, University of Indiana Jacobs School of Music
Gregory Douma, Director of Choirs, Eastview High School
Jeffrey Douma, Professor of Choral Conducting, Yale University
Brandon Elliott, Founder and Artistic Director, Choral Arts Initiative
Doreen Fryling, Music Teacher and Choral Director, South Side High School
Mary Hopper, Professor of Choral Music and Director of Performance Studies, Wheaton College; President, American Choral Directors Association
Alysia Lee, Founding Artistic Director, Sister Cities Girl Choir
Christina Lewellen, International President, Harmony, Inc.
Mary Luehrsen, Executive Director, National Association of Music Merchants Foundation
Patrick Lundy, Founder and Director, The Ministers of Music
Kevin Lynch, Chief Strategy Officer, Barbershop Harmony Society
Christie McKinney, Member Services Manager, Chorus America
Mitch Menchaca, Vice President & COO, Chorus America*
Marty L. Monson, Chief Executive Officer, Barbershop Harmony Society
Ulysses G. Moye, Founder and Artistic Director, The Moye Ensemble; Transition Leadership Team Chairman, National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses
Kate Munger, Founder, Threshold Choir
Donald J. Nally, Conductor, The Crossing
Francisco J. Nuñez, Artistic Director and Founder, Young People's Chorus of New York City
Jim Rindelaub, Executive Director, Chorister's Guild
Catherine Roma, Professor, Wilmington College; Artistic Director, MUSE
Deke Sharon, Founder, Total Vocal
Tim Sharp, Executive Director, American Choral Directors Association

*Affiliation listed as of the time of the forum; now holds new position

A related challenge is the fact that not all children have access to high quality music education through their school system. Stronger music programs and more choral music opportunities tend to develop in wealthy communities because their school systems often have active PTAs or other external support structures. Jeffrey Bauman, the director of choral and vocal activities at Young Harris College, reflected on how getting more children singing earlier could have a ripple effect: “Not only could those young people be participants, but they could be more willing audience members because they’d appreciate it so much more having done it themselves.”

One way to involve young people who aren’t introduced to choral music at an early age in choruses is to hook them with the art forms that they already know and love. Ulysses Moye, of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, combines singing and dancing in his congregation’s worship services as a way to attract more participants. “We have to think outside the box,” he said, “because if you don’t, you lose the young people who don’t want to sing in the adult choir, but they do come and dance.”

Keeping Singers in the Ecosystem

Forum discussions revealed that, in addition to the many people who actively participate in the choral field, the choral ecosystem is characterized by a large volume of “inactive species”—people who once participated, but now no longer do, such as alumni of choral programs and other former singers. An effective way to keep these former singers in the choral ecosystem might be to encourage them to return as audience members.

This seems like an especially promising strategy because audience members who were interviewed for the forum, primarily former choral singers, said they come to choral concerts to maintain their connection to the art form—information that is consistent with the results of Chorus America’s recent Intrinsic Impact Audience Project. Brandon Elliot, the founder and artistic director of California’s Choral Arts Initiative, spoke with one man who told him that “when the chorus has success or failure, he feels like he’s a part of that, like he’s riding off that as well.” Amanda Cornaglia, president of the Contemporary A Cappella League, reported reactions from several audience members who had sung with a cappella groups in college and wanted to be part of today’s growing interest in a cappella music. “They want to feel like they are supporting something that was very small and niche for them in college and now is becoming very mainstream,” she said.

Another way to encourage former singers to become involved again despite the demands of today’s busy world is to create opportunities to sing that don’t require the same long-term commitment as a traditional chorus. Doreen Fryling, a music teacher and choral director at South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York, reported that she and her husband had recently started a choir that puts on four different concert programs a year, with a six-week commitment for each program. The participants, who Fryling said are mostly music teachers, can choose whether to be part of all four programs or just one.

Composers and Repertoire

Composers and arrangers, like K-12 music teachers, are another fulcrum species that touches every aspect of the choral field—and encompasses a wide variety. “The species within the species is hugely diverse,” said Donald Nally, conductor of Philadelphia’s The Crossing. For the purpose of forum discussions, composers were divided into two loose categories. One kind of composer primarily works on commission from orchestras and chamber musicians, tends to self-publish, and makes money mostly from commissions and performance fees. The other kind, also considered an arranger, writes for a publisher and makes money from the sale of printed music.

The importance of composers and arrangers to the overall health of the choral field came up many times throughout the forum. “Composers, I think, are really important,” said Mary Hopper, president of ACDA, speaking about the field of K-12 music education. “Writing music that is good for student voices, for middle school students, for elementary students … that’s something that teachers benefit from.” Other participants talked about the importance of supporting the development of repertoire suited for specialized ensembles, including church choirs, women’s choirs, threshold choirs, and prison choirs.

Composers and arrangers also have an important role in creating music that reflects the diversity of today’s world. “Classical music as we are taught it in the canon is, as time goes on, less and less representative of the communities we serve,” said Dominick DiOrio, composer and assistant director of choral conducting at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. This need to create more diverse repertoire extends to text as well. “There’s so much historical text that’s based on biblical or sacred themes, and this is limiting to the eclecticism that we are talking about,” said Tim Sharp, executive director of ACDA. “We need to put more emphasis on creating great texts.”

Alysia Lee, founding executive director of the El Sistema-inspired Sister Cities Girlchoir, sees a need for choral music that feels more current—especially when it comes to appealing to a younger generation. She observed that while the sound of popular music on the radio evolves quickly enough that you would easily distinguish a 1970s pop tune from music on the charts today, the same is not true for choral music. She imagines an approach that avoids the explicit nature of some of today’s pop music and that takes advantage of “all the wonderful things a choir can do that Beyoncé can’t do. Beyoncé can never sing four notes at a time.” One of the primary implications she took away from the Choral Ecosystem Forum was “really trying to push the envelope on the kind of music and repertoire that’s presented as a way for people to start that inclusivity conversation and diversity conversation at their organization. We need to let the music lead us toward that.”

Stronger Together

The Choral Ecosystem Forum found that the vast diversity in the choral field—including musical traditions from gospel music to symphonic choral works, to barbershop harmonies—is a source of strength and flexibility. However, because the systems and organizations supporting the field tend to be organized around these traditions, this diversity can also create choral “silos” that rarely interact. One of the most important outcomes of the Choral Ecosystem Forum was the simple act of bringing so many different facets of the larger field together. “This is historic for these organizations to be in the same room and talking,” said Mary Hopper, president of ACDA. “That’s really important.” And there was a sense that this first gathering was only the beginning. “We think that seeds have been planted here to form new connections,” said Michael Anderson, president of the International Federation of Choral Music.

One theme that emerged was the importance of working together to advance a common agenda: supporting group singing in all its many forms. “How do we really collaborate and talk about how we can do things with economies of scale and a common mission and vision?” asked Marty Monson, CEO of the Barbershop Harmony Society. “We don’t need to articulate it all in the same way. I think in the end it’s just about singing.”

Several participants wanted to work on finding ways to collaborate across genres and organizations to help interested singers find ensembles that would be a good fit for their lifestyle and tastes. “We open doors by being in the same room as each other,” said Christina Lewellen. “How do we say in a non-competitive way, ‘Here are your choices. We’ll help you find the right match. We’ll help you shop for a car because not everybody drives the same car, but we all need a car’?” Ideas proposed during the forum ranged from creating an app so that people could type in their zip code and find nearby choral concerts to a 1-800-SINGERS hotline whose operators could give singers information about the options in their area.

The forum also offered an opportunity to step back and look at how the choral field is evolving. “We need to try to find ways to lead change rather than follow change,” said Jeffrey Bauman. “The face of choral music is going to change. It’s changing already. It’s going to look a lot different 20 years from now than it does now. Is our current system supporting that view, or is it supporting the view from 20 years ago?”

For Alysia Lee, the key thing to keep in mind is that choruses and other singing groups don’t exist because they are necessary in and of themselves; they exist because they help people fill a need to sing together. “What people have to have is music. They don’t have to have a choir,” she said. “So we have to figure out a way to let the art form change and accept more people in. We have to figure out a way to bring more people into that same belief in the transformative power of uniting around music.”

The Choral Ecosystem Forum was supported by lead sponsor the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation (NAMM).

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