KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University students are raising their voices to raise money for charitable organizations. The innovative, interactive "Choir for Good" virtual concert weaves together music and social justice—an effort to give back while also giving students a meaningful experience in uncertain times.
"When the pandemic started, everybody wondered if choral music was still going to be possible. And a lot of choral conductors were afraid when the pandemic was finally past us, the music scene would have changed so much that choral music would never return to what it was," says Kimberly Dunn Adams, director of choral activities. "The title 'Choir for Good' is a bit of wordplay that choir is here for good."
In addition to persistence, the title is also a reference to the causes the concert supports.
"With everything that's going on in our community, our country and our world, sometimes it almost felt indulgent to just enjoy making music," Adams says. "So I had the idea for this project that we focus on high-level musical performance, like we always do, but then analyze the text of the songs with an eye toward social justice and making connections in the community."
An ambitious concept in its scope, the project also had to clear several logistical hurdles. In order to ensure the safety of students, Adams divided her classes into eight smaller chamber ensembles. Each group was given a different repertoire and charged with researching the composer, text and historical context of each piece. They then identified a societal issue connected to the piece—topics like hunger, racism, LGBTQ+ equality and access to clean water—and a nonprofit organization to highlight.
"They had to read charity rating websites; they had to find the 990 tax forms. We looked at the governance structure, fund usage, mission statements and diversity and inclusion statements," says Adams. "This is really outside the box from what we normally do in the choral program, so it really pushed the singers hard—not just researching the music and writing the program notes but also singing this repertoire in small ensembles outdoors. It increased their independence as musicians."
The project challenged students musically and academically as well as pushed them to develop their critical thinking skills as they analyzed the songs and selected organizations to support.
"That kind of critical thinking and analysis is what I really want the singers to have; those sorts of skills serve you in any career path and at any point within that career," Adams says. "Critical thinking is everything."
Because singing together for long periods of time—even while masked and appropriately distanced—increases potential exposure to illness, the class shortened rehearsal times and instead put more focus on their research. They watched podcasts and interviews with composers and, in some cases, talked to internationally acclaimed composers live via Zoom to get their perspective on the project. One group even had the chance to record Marques Garrett's song "My Heart be Brave" live with him.
"It was great getting his input on the piece and seeing exactly what he wanted and envisioned," says Justin Hamann, a senior trombone performance major from South Lyon, Michigan. "We also had a Zoom clinic with (composer) Missy Mazzoli, which was equally awesome as we got to learn more about why she wrote the piece ('Vesper Sparrow’) and how to execute some of the more advanced techniques more accurately."
While admittedly a lot of work, students say they appreciate being pushed outside their comfort zones.
"I full-heartedly believe that art can be a vehicle for change and charity," says Evan Stoor, a graduate student from Albuquerque, New Mexico, studying choral conducting. "I applaud the hard work of (Adams) and the effort she put into our semester so that students could feel motivated to create music, inspiring all of us to think outside of the box and make our time this fall meaningful."
"Choir for Good," they say, also helped them explore their purpose as artists and professionals.
"This project has helped me look deeper at music and try to find the connection from every piece to the social climate of the world," says Hamann.
"This experience … has affected my philosophy to teach and make music for a greater purpose—not just for the art of it but to contribute something meaningful to the community," Stoor adds. "It has inspired me to consider each performance, concert and piece of music as a means for change."
The "Choir for Good" concert program features video performances and information about each song and its social justice implications as well as links to donate to the corresponding nonprofit organizations. A YouTube playlist featuring the music is also available.
Adams hopes to do more projects like this in the future.
"Music isn't just a collection of notes on a page to sing; performance is not just a polished finished product that people applaud," she says. "Music can create connections that didn't exist otherwise, and we can use our art to amplify the good work of other people."
For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.