Building and Sustaining Inclusive Choral Spaces

Dr. Derrick Fox Feb 01, 2022

Learn more: chorus management, racial equity

Black woman smiling

Unpacking the bias in ourselves and the choral spaces in which we lead is a difficult but necessary process in creating and fostering a community where all singers feel welcome and see themselves reflected and respected in our daily work. By awareness of personal bias, implementing effective Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Belonging practices, and adopting pedagogical practices that sustain those DEAIB practices, we can intentionally create inclusive choral spaces that honor all voices.

Doing the Work 

It is vital that we do the required work to uncover our personal biases born from the Cycle of Oppression/ Socialization. Oppression refers to the maltreatment of people outside of the dominant cultural narrative developed and reinforced by society through its institutional systems, practices, and policies. Whether overt or implicit, all forms of oppression are profoundly detrimental to marginalized people's mental, physical, and personal wellbeing. The Cycle of Oppression/Socialization illustrates how false and misinformed narratives become the internalized thoughts and behaviors that underpin the inequitable institutionalized practices and policies that disenfranchise and marginalize groups and individuals.

We are born into fully developed social structures where prejudice, stereotypes, and misinformation are present. Within these structures, we learn what and how to value as well as cultural survival behaviors. By sharing biased histories/myths, we ascertain how our lives fit in or outside the dominant cultural narrative. These myths are socially reinforced in our institutions, societal roles, and responsibilities established during our formative years. These institutions include religious organizations, schools, social circles, media, books, and government/legal systems. 

In this timeframe, we develop life goals, lasting friendships, similarity groups, etc., that reflect the information that has been taught and reinforced. Combining the myths we were taught with institutional, social, and/or cultural power produces behaviors, policies, and practices that discriminate against targeted groups (historically excluded, marginalized groups) and benefits dominant groups. These behaviors are sustained and perpetuated because of the privilege held by dominant groups at the expense of targeted groups. 

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us all to raise our awareness of how the Cycle of Oppression/Socialization plays out in our lives. Breaking the cycle requires us to challenge the information we were taught to be true about lived experiences outside of our own, rethink our actions and beliefs while also examining the consequences that arise because of them. We must do our part to foster inclusivity so that all feel like they belong in the choral spaces in which we hold power.

Defining Diversity

To effectively embed Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIAB) in your pedagogy and practice, you must have a clear definition for each term. Developing these definitions is vital for creating collaborative experiences with your singers and colleagues. Generating shared language to guide the process, procedures, and practices is critical to successfully navigating social and institutional difficulties.  

Before reading the definitions below, take time to write down your current definitions of Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Belonging. Once you've completed your definitions, compare them to the definitions below and take a moment to note how the definitions may be similar or different from your own.

Diversity refers to all aspects of human difference, social identities, and social group differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, creed, color, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual identity, socio-economic status, language, culture, national origin, religion/spirituality, age, (dis)ability, military/veteran status, political perspective, and associational preferences.

Equity refers to fair and just practices and policies that ensure all community members can thrive. Equity is different from equality because equality implies treating everyone as if their experiences are the same. Being equitable means acknowledging and addressing historical and current structural inequalities that advantage some and disadvantage others.

Access is the ability to retrieve resources and contribute regardless of human ability and experience.

Inclusion ensures that all community members can participate and achieve to their full potential. A community can be both diverse and not inclusive at the same time; thus, a sustained practice of creating inclusive environments is necessary for success. This is where belonging is necessary!

Belonging is an experience of psychological safety that allows all people to feel welcome, take risks, and have a sense that they are a part of the community.

Implementing Inclusion has been the inspiration for many great websites and may give a glimpse from the outside into how people survive in your space (school, choir, band, orchestra, etc.). To truly honor all of the voices in our space, we must strive to create belonging.  Implementing Belonging inspires stories that people go out and tell of how they thrive in your space.

What are you doing to help people thrive in your space?

Diverse hands together on a table

Sustaining Change

Not only is it essential to uncover and grapple with your own personal biases and better define Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Belonging, it is crucial that this learning is shifted into actions that demonstrate your commitment to developing and sustaining an inclusive choral space. Programming a diverse repertoire and improving your allyship efforts are manageable and impactful behaviors that weave DEAIB into the fabric of your personal and professional actions.

Expanding Repertoire

Selecting repertoire is an integral part of a choral conductor/teacher's life. We often rely on lists of "tried and true" repertoire or utilize lists that center music from the white, Western European musical traditions. While neither of these avenues for seeking repertoire is "bad," they do not offer a full spectrum of repertoire that speaks to the lived experiences that comprise our choral communities. The following resources are excellent starting places for finding under-programmed repertoire by composers and arrangers from historically excluded communities:

It is prudent to vet repertoire for all ages, particularly novice ensembles for whom we tend to overlook/disregard the problematic nature of repertoire solely to accommodate the vocal needs of singers. The aforementioned challenges provide an opportunity for you or a consortium of schools and conductor/teachers to collaborate in creating choral music that meets your singers' vocal needs while promoting informed musical representations of varied lived experiences.

As you consider repertoire, I encourage you to look for ethical arrangements. I coined this term to reference pieces of music that include social, musical, and political information and pay homage to the originators of the work. The arranger's efforts to create ethical arrangements can be verified through notes in the score that spark in-depth conversation about the creation of the work. Ethical arrangements also include community context and incorporate knowledge from culture bearers.

Practicing Allyship

"An ally is any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole." – Sheree Atcheson.

Effective allyship necessitates an acknowledgment of the unearned privileges that give access to power and opportunity in contrast to those who have been overtly or covertly denied access to power and opportunity. Owning your privilege can be difficult, and it doesn't mean that you haven't earned aspects of your success. However, it is a necessary step that can produce powerful and informed engagements with people who have lived experiences outside of your own.

Allyship does not pardon our own biases, place us in high moral standing, and is not intended to make us "look good" or "woke." Instead, being an ally challenges us to empower people, support diverse practices, and challenge behaviors that intentionally or unintentionally disenfranchise communities that may not be included in our choral spaces.

If it is to be, it is up to me.

If it is to be, it is up to me are ten powerful two-letter words that point to where the work of DEAIB must begin. First, to truly honor diversity in the choral arts requires a personal and fundamental shift in who we were taught mattered on our journey to become choral artists and how we were taught to receive and perceive non- Western European musical traditions.

We are called to examine the language we use to describe lived experiences unlike our own. Committing to checking our personal bias and its role in developing our choral communities and embracing DEAIB centered pedagogical practices fosters inclusive choral spaces. It promotes a sense of belonging that empowers all voices. Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion, and Belonging have not always been at the forefront of the work we do in our choral classrooms and rehearsals. Still, I challenge you to lean in, feel the discomfort/affirmation and do the work required to build and sustain inclusive choral spaces.

For additional music and non-music DEAIB resources, visit And please share your thoughts in our comments section below. Thank you.

Help your chorus develop a deeper sense of community

Dr. Derrick Fox

Dr. Derrick Fox is the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has conducted and presented across the US and internationally. His works are published by Hal Leonard and Brilee Music, his book Yes You Can: A Band Director’s Guide to Teaching Choirs, is published by Carl Fischer and The Derrick Fox Choral Series publishes works by marginalized composers. He created the Professional Choral Collective to create learning activities for music educators during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also partnered with the Country Music Association Foundation to create the 2020 Unified Voices for Music Education Initiative. HE was recently awarded the 2021 Bryan R. Johnson Distinguished Service Award for his DEAIB contributions to the Nebraska Music Educators Association.

Dr. Derrick Fox