What Chorus Culture Cancels Out

Shana Oshiro Sep 22, 2021

Learn more: arts equity, singer recruitment, DEIA

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Culture is a term with various connotations and associations. I am inclined, as a Black and Indigenous woman, to immediately consider the implications of race and ethnicity. Though as culture pertains to shared values, traditions, and norms in general - there is much more the concept encompasses. While the dominant nationalities of a group will influence the types of life experiences and interpersonal dynamics represented in an ensemble’s chosen repertoire, there are other paradigms that create barriers to authentic inclusion for many potential singers and audience members.

Culture and Race

This particular dimension of cultural exclusivity has obviously called for more books, articles, and TED Talks than most would have the time or inclination to count. But I’ve noticed a few differences in cultural values as they pertain to music and sense of community at least between predominantly White and Black choirs, which I’ll risk extending to other Black and Brown cultures from my experiences with them in various contexts:

Vocal technique/HOW we sing:

Not merely technique, per se, but desired colors and textures. In church, school, and other professional settings I’ve noticed White directors and by extension, choir members, strive for homogeneity of vocal substance - which is a direct contrast to how singers in ensembles directed and composed predominantly by people of color sing together in my experience. While I am skeptical of the notion that people of different ethnicities have such different physiological structures that it renders different vocal colors, I do believe that the languages and social values influence the tendencies of inflection and placement in our speech, which transfer also to our approaches to singing. Therefore, when a vocal ensemble, especially a predominantly White one, presents an aesthetic that does not include another’s natural use of their voice - this can disincline people of color from an interest in participating. And for the record, this assumes comparable skill levels among the singers.

How a group sings also involves how a group learns their music: in BI/POC* music-making, oral tradition is much more the norm of the learning process. The Western European emphasis on transcribed notation and use of solfege as the primary system and vehicle for learning has cost a significant number of high-quality singers positions in any given ensemble. This is not to suggest that BI/POC singers generally don’t know how to read music, but it is a specific approach that comes from Western European traditions of formalized musical performance which, by extension, has been adopted as an educational standard. Depending on the resources in the community where one attends school, students may or may not receive this standard of learning music as part of their academic curriculum. This is yet another complex topic of systemic racism’s impact on the music world which requires its own separate discussion.

Repertoire/WHAT we sing:

Whether an ensemble specializes in contemporary, popular, and/or classical works, each of these categories has many subsets of genre, aesthetic, and artistry that can tend to present gaps of preference across racial groups. Across the board, the music industry is known to filter and marginalize works by composers and musicians of color, centering those of White musicians and often appropriating musical developments which are originally the contributions of BI/POC. The latter, then, remains more concentrated in the awareness of BI/POC social and music communities, while White counterparts remain immersed in that which enters into the mainstream and is directed at their respective communities. Therefore, when leadership remains homogeneous within ensembles, organizations, and directors (very much related to continued segregation practices) - so, too, is often the representation of composers in their programming. This impacts the degree to which singers can feel connected to chosen music, and therefore their inclination to invest their time and energy in participating. Beyond this, even when predominantly White choirs (let’s call them PWC’s from here) attempt to integrate works from BI/POC composers - typically spirituals or the occasional gospel piece - they are often presented without a working understanding of the substance and context of that music and are therefore limited in their ability to present and engage the group in ways that feel embracing, validating, and authentic to those who do have an existing connection to it. 

Community/WHY we sing:

While I would not venture to suggest that there is a unilateral power structure or set of social norms any given racial or ethnic group adopts, there are differences in how singers relate to one another and to the group’s leadership that can create tension when a person’s prior experiences with music-making and the influence on relatedness its process has on the people involved are different from the hierarchical approaches of Eurocentric power structures. This isn’t easy to encapsulate into a brief synthesis. Still, sometimes even the type of music a group is performing (which is not connected necessarily to its level of difficulty) elicits a different ethos from the drilled-to-perfection approach typical (though not necessarily required) of classical repertoire. This can mean that for those who grew up in community music-making traditions whose formalities did not separate the social experience from the rehearsal process, PWC’s tendency to do so can feel unwelcome and result in misinterpretations of behaviors from all perspectives involved.

For one small example: I once had a very difficult time sitting under the direction of a choir director near my age who spoke condescendingly and disrespectfully, in my opinion, to senior citizens in the choir. He spoke this way to everyone - but for me, coming from a culture (especially in church) where one maintains a certain deference for elders regardless of any other status/authority marker, I felt offended on their behalf (even with most of them being White, themselves). I recognize that in the context of classical music, deference for the status of the art form supersedes those of other social indicators, which would make his attitude acceptable perhaps to most. But it was enough to disincline me from wanting to be under his leadership. (I attempted to express my concerns for his way of speaking to the group as tactfully as I could, privately. I did not get the impression that my attempt was well-received.)

Reality/WHO is singing:

This is a point at which starting with basic logistics, we quickly find ourselves in intersecting territories that require considerations of exclusion. Circling back to issues of segregation and its implications on social strata, a chorus made up of a network of White folks whose norms are based on factors related to their positions on that ladder may have expectations that are incompatible with the sometimes different norms of BI/POC. I’ll venture out on the very shaky limb of scheduling and “timeliness.” There are a few things that contribute to the not entirely mythical concept of “CP” time - though it is, of course, a concept that exists because it comes from a set of cultural differences between BI/POC and their White counterparts and as a result, assumes negative connotations. In this case, (skipping over quite a bit of nuance) I’ll acknowledge that for people who work sometimes late and unpredictable hours, committing to rehearsal schedules with strict punctuality as a valued standard can be difficult. In BI/POC communities, there has tended to be a substantial enough number of people who share this reality, thus rendering flexibility and fluidity of timing and scheduling more generally acceptable and even expected. In more affluent communities of PWC’s, which is often the case for singers/musicians specializing in classical music (which often stems from the economic privilege of being able to afford formal training), the expectation for consistent attendance and punctuality and lesser tolerance for participation that cannot or will not conform to this can also make for a less than welcoming or comfortable setting for BI/POC participants. 

The how’s, who’s, and what’s of chorus culture which amplifies racial/ethnic differences and music-making practices bear implications for classism in general. They also extend to and intersect with ableism, heteronormativism and cisnormativity, and faith-based exclusionary practices. While there are a plethora of examples one could list to describe their presence, especially in PWC’s, they are arguably more concrete if not simpler to identify than the entangled complications of racism in which they tend to be embedded. 

Culture and Ableism

The emphasis on sight-singing in many choruses that specialize in classical repertoire not only is in conflict with oral and aural traditions of learning music but with a significant population of gifted singers and musicians who are physically/neurologically unable to efficiently process information through this approach. Where sight-singing is a required skill, what opportunity does a blind person have to contribute to a group? What of gifted people with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia? Assuming they are incapable of contributing or even leading effectively due to this gap in cultural norms in many choral ensembles is an ableist exclusionary practice for which there is plenty of opportunity to eradicate. 

Performance practice among choruses that generally favor standing for extended periods of time (sometimes even choreography) can also present less than desirable obstacles to participation for people with physical impairments. This is not to say that either of these necessarily warrants “cancelation” within chorus culture, but there is again, arguably room for normalizing options for posture and positioning in a group’s performance assembly. 

Often the collective mindset in considering neurological differences like autism involves a focus on children still in development and interventions which enable them to adapt to the broader environment. This is a mindset, though, which not only emphasizes assimilation rather than accommodation - but also fails to consider adults who are autistic and have low thresholds for sensory input. Choruses that explicitly embrace and support neurodivergent needs, as well as learning disabilities and physical limitations, may find is the key to creating the opportunities for inclusion a great number of people would love to seize in connecting with the community to share their own love - and even need - for singing.

Culture and Cis/Heteronormativity

One major prong of exclusionary practices within chorus culture with respect to gender and sexuality are those which involve song text. Outside of faith-based song literature, romantic love is among the most popular subjects which inspire our human compulsion for artistic expression of all sorts. And most often, the text references heterosexual relationships. Using gender-specific pronouns can be felt as invalidating to women whose romantic inclinations aren’t exclusively directed at men, and vice versa. They also simultaneously disregard the personhood of those who don’t identify with binary gender labels or constructs. If only he’s, him’s, she’s, and her’s are worthy of love stories to celebrate, why should anyone else feel accepted or safe in a space which reinforces these implications and subconscious beliefs of the mainstream? 

By extension, the other prong of exclusionary gender binary constructs which present in chorus culture is dress code. Especially for formal presentations, women/female-presenting people are often asked to wear skirts, and men/male-presenting people the traditional suit or tuxedo - the only discussion with regard to pants has ever been what color they are to wear. Shifting norms in this regard to only requiring singers to wear the same color scheme with the same amount of skin coverage (i.e. full-length tops or bottoms) seems like a simple enough change for choruses to make such that all singers - and even all audience members - can feel welcome. And yet gender-specific performance clothing appears to be the persistent preference, even in children’s choirs. 

Culture and Faith 

The dialogue with regard to faith-based content is most in the forefront during the holidays celebrated in mainstream Western culture: should we eliminate Christmas songs about the birth of Jesus and silent, holy nights? How far past songs about Hanukkah can a group comfortably venture into celebrating winter holidays and various non-Christian faiths? Still, a great deal of choral literature from Western European traditions is based on Judeo-Christian doctrine and scripture. While the Christian faith is so fundamental to the Eurocentric belief systems in which we are collectively inundated throughout the Western world, it’s difficult to imagine that all people who are devout Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. would feel completely at ease singing Messiah or really any mass cantata. In contemporary pieces, too, we are accustomed to Christian-based literature, even in non-religious ensembles. Perhaps it’s difficult to avoid this sort of literature for ensembles specializing in repertoire before the 20th century; this may be an element that calls for more choruses that are dedicated to programming pieces that offer equal or even zero representation of faith perspectives but aren’t limited to choral arrangements of pop music. 

Final Thoughts

The value systems embedded in White supremacist patriarchy yields cultural norms and practices which habitually marginalize all identities outside of typically-functioning White cis-gendered maleness. And while little to nothing discussed above is likely to be a major eye-opener to many readers, it is my hope that in presenting a number of the facets of choral culture which may be alienating to potential participating singers as well as audience members can illuminate various opportunities for growth any given organization may have. As much as we strive in the arts to develop and sustain connections with our communities, it behooves us to consider those in and beyond our networks who, as a result of these exclusionary practices, have not been part of that connection. It’s also perhaps worth mentioning, therefore, that inasmuch as none of these issues are breaking news - the biggest one is that those in positions of leadership have known about them for a long time. And it seems in all that time little has been done to change them. 

*I choose to use a slash in BI/POC in order to distinguish Black and Indigenous people from places other than Europe, as our places in and experiences with society are collectively different. However, they are still connected and subject to the same strata of White supremacy and systemic racism. It is important to me to both distinguish and include us in the same term.

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Shana Oshiro

Shana Oshiro, is an alumna of Morgan State University with a BFA in Vocal Performance and a former Miss Maryland. She has appeared with Opera Philadelphia in productions of Porgy and Bess and Margaret Garner and made several appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as a featured ensemble member, as well as multiple local orchestras and chorales in the DC Metropolitan area. Shana is also a board-certified music therapist with a Masters in Music Therapy from Shenandoah Conservatory. She has continued her performance career combining her interest in community music therapy to address racism in the United States with her barbershop quartet, HALO, and their collective community music therapy initiative with their program Race and #RealTalk — a program in which people are guided through the listening and singing experience of Barbershop music to help engage with one another in difficult conversations about our country’s complex issues with race relations.

Shana Oshiro