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Choir, Connectedness, and COVID-19

Choirs for Change
Choirs for Change Concert. Photo Credit: Suvir Pursnani
August 12, 2020

Sarah Roberts is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow, working with Common Threads to evaluate refugee integration in second-tier Canadian cities, namely London and Winnipeg. Sarah is pursuing a degree in Management at Dalhousie University and is active within the Nova Scotian arts community. This past year she has been singing weekly with Polaris, one choir within the Choirs for Change organization. 

It has been said that humans have been sharing songs and connecting with one another in choirs for as long as we have kept recorded history. Choir is a time-honoured practice, and one organization based in Halifax, Nova Scotia is taking an innovative approach to this tradition. Choirs for Change is a choral organization that creates thematic choral events to help create positive social change. I sat down with Ryan Henwood, a director at Choirs for Change to ask him about the adjustment of choir during COVID-19 and the organization’s unique use of choir as a means for positive social change. 

Can you tell me how you got started with Choirs for Change and the vision of the organization? 

I got started with Choirs for Change as the organization was being developed. In 2017 in Halifax, there were a couple of choral projects happening. One of them disbanded, so there was this idea to combine the organizations and create Choirs for Change. So, we had a visioning session where people came in and collaboratively discussed how we wanted this organization to work. The mandate we came up with was to support social change through innovative choral events. The choral world can sometimes be a bit stodgy, so we bring some exciting repertoire and put on concerts that engage the community and the choristers both with music but also with social themes. 

Tell me a bit about how you use choral events to create social change and some of the events that you have done in the past. 

Absolutely. So, as I mentioned, our mandate is supporting social change through choral events, so we will usually pick a theme and find music that connects to that theme and supports it, even if it’s not literal. We also try to bring in guest artists to compliment the music whether that is through speech, poetry or other mediums of delivery. The reason we do that is because we recognize that we don’t have all of the knowledge and information, but we do have our platform, so we bring in members from outside the choral community which creates a great opportunity for social learning and social change. People in the audience get introduced to topics and begin to explore them themselves, but I think the biggest effect we have is actually on our choristers. They have the opportunity to be learning music and really engaging with these topics. Then, when the guest artists come in, we have this opportunity where we create true social connection, where the artist can share their story and we can share the music that we have paired. We kind of invite the community into that and give them the opportunity to start their own journey with that topic. 

In our second year, our theme was “Protest Songs”; we took different protest movements that have had large impacts in Halifax and explored them chronologically. Another exciting project was “Celebrations”, and the idea was to take the typical holiday concert and twist that into a more socially conscious perspective. The goal of that concert was to highlight voices that aren’t always celebrated during the holiday season and bring in members from different backgrounds. The most exciting concerts are where we see different members of the community come together and share their culture and their heart with each other. 

What makes the arts a powerful method for social change?

I think the big thing for many forms of art is that it transcends language. So, it becomes this experience that’s not about the words in front of you or the things that you’re hearing, it’s about what you’re feeling, so it brings some emotion. When a choir is singing the music, they’re not just singing the text; the music that they’re making is loaded with emotions and feelings and I think that makes it easier to connect with the audience. Art is a great way to introduce new topics to audiences in a way that is non-confrontational. You can present something to them, and it leads them into having an emotional connection with these ideas as opposed to distancing themselves from it. Social change is hard work and so sometimes it can be heavy. It can take a lot of emotional and mental labour. So, the arts kind of creates this opportunity to uplift voices and explore social change from a different perspective, perhaps focusing on the beauty to come. 

How did you adapt during the pandemic to create social connection when singing together wasn’t possible? 

When singing together wasn’t an option, we quickly moved to a virtual platform. So, we started having these zoom rehearsals/social gatherings. We weren’t learning music anymore; we knew that would be put to the side for the season, but we wanted to create a space where we were still able to connect with each other socially and do a bit of music learning. So, we came up with this formula of having musicianship sessions at the beginning of the meeting and then transitioning into a social activity like trivia, movies or open mic nights. We also had the opportunity to meet choristers from Prairie Voices, a choir out of Winnipeg. And in a way we realized that we could have done this anytime, we had the technology to meet, but it wasn’t something we had ever thought of. It wasn’t a super exciting way to end off the term, without a final concert, but it allowed us to maintain that social connectedness that we have in choir. At a times like this, I can see how important that was for the choristers. It wasn’t that everyone was coming, but there were people that wanted some social connection and so we wanted to create that opportunity and make sure that they were able to come to Choirs for Change for that.  

What advice would you give to those in the arts on creating social change through their work? 

I think the first question for artists to ask is “how can the art that you already create be a vehicle for social change?” and also “who can it be a vehicle for?” Especially now, there is a lot of discussion on allyship and looking at the tools you do and don’t have. So, I think that it’s important for an artist who is trying to make social change to take the time and listen to the communities that they’re trying to support with their art making. Making sure to recognize that even if it’s something you feel equipped to do. For example, for myself, as a gay man, I am queer, but I am not a monolith and I can’t present all queer perspectives. So even as a queer person I need to take the time to listen to my community and see in which ways my art can support them. And for communities that you’re not a part of, I think it’s important to create meaningful connections with those communities. I think it’s important to remember that those connections are going to help foster community between the arts sector and the social change sector. 

To learn more about the organization and listen to the recordings of choral pieces, visit the Choirs for Change website and Facebook.