More than almost anything else, literacy is the key to freedom, possibility, and advancement. Those who are literate in a collective language are able to work better together, learn from and inspire each other, achieve higher, and discover a world of previously unknown possibilities.
Likewise, since music is a mode of understanding like a language, the means by which we understand, create, interpret, and perform at a higher level is by laying a common foundation of musical literacy
I became an educator to help young people find their singing voices and advance their personal musicianship. What I did not realize, at the time, was how engaged I would become with how adolescents develop through choral experiences. I remember when my thoughts came to a fore—the Mixed Choir was preparing for an international tour. We engaged in additional rehearsals and sectionals, the students sang run out concerts, faculty and administrators held meetings with parents, and the choir participated in team-building activities. With more than 55 singers traveling to Europe, we crafted several interactions to facilitate a smooth and enjoyable trip.
Upon our return, student after student told me the choir had “bonded.” I probed into the students’ experiences and realized they described a sense of belonging and community that developed through extended time together. Participating in choir helped singers feel connected to one another, fostered emerging friendships, and encouraged greater self-awareness and self-growth. Choir members positioned singing in the center of their social development. One student said:
But when you hear someone singing it’s their voice, but it’s also a different way of seeing someone. We are using ourselves. We become the instrument when we work together. When you are singing, you are making yourself vulnerable. You want to make friendships with those people because you are already opening yourself up to them by singing. (Parker, 2010, p. 347)
My interest was piqued when choir members discussed how the repertoire contributed to their experiences of belonging:
In English class the other day, we were reading Beloved and a character said, ‘Oh my Jesus.’ The rest of the chorus kids in the class broke into song [at that time in chorus class, students were rehearsing Moses Hogan’s I’m gonna sing ‘til the spirit which includes several ‘Oh my Jesus’ within it]. We always have that class right after chorus and so many chorus people are in it. It occurred to me after that experience that maybe other people don’t get it” (p. 346).
Adolescents shared that choir is significant because it is a protected, safe space for those who seek friendships and compelling musical experiences. For some, choir acts as an in-group that serves powerfully to build adolescent social identity. Through conducting several research studies, I have learned that young people have important experiences to tell and unique ways of telling—I believe listening to adolescent voices will sustain and inspire our developing practices as choral music educators and advance advocacy efforts for music education.
I look forward to engaging with you in how to create and sustain supportive communities through building relationships, student leadership, enhancing and expecting high-level music-making, and communication within and outside of the school community during my presentation, “What Happens in Choir…Adolescent Development through Singing” at Eastern ACDA in Boston. I hope to see you there.
Parker, E. C. (2010). Exploring student experiences of belonging within an urban high school choral ensemble: An action research study. Music Education Research, 12, 339–352. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2010.519379 Elizabeth Cassidy Parker, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Music Education at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. She also conducts the Troubadors, one of four ensembles of the Pennsylvania Girlchoir. Prior to her work at Temple, Elizabeth taught at the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University, GA. Selected journal publications include the Journal of Research in Music Education, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, Choral Journal, Music Education Research, and the International Journal of Music Education.