Heavenly chorus


NOVEMBER AND December are to choral singers what July and August are to Ocean City: peak season. For the last two months, all across the United States, singers in choruses large and small have rehearsed and performed thousands of holiday programs. For singers, Santa's arrival means they finally have a day off.

In a recent study conducted by Chorus America, the association of choruses, researchers found that there are more than 250,000 organized singing groups in the United States. More than 28 million people participate in these groups, far more than in any other performing art. Fifteen percent of American households include an adult who has performed publicly in a chorus within the last 12 months. If you include children, that number jumps to 18 percent.

They obviously enjoy singing, because they put in hours and hours of practice. But it turns out that it's not only good for them, it's also probably good for their neighbors.

In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard University's Robert D. Putnam suggested that when people participate in community activities, they create what he calls "social capital." Mr. Putnam has identified group singing as one of the activities that generate tremendous social capital, and he has demonstrated that high levels of social capital are directly related to higher standards of living, lower crime rates and higher employment.

There is also a growing body of research that shows that choral singing and academic achievement are closely linked. The skills that students learn singing in a chorus - team-building, listening and following, creativity, social interaction and discipline - are important components in their academic development.

Mr. Putnam's work and the Chorus America study showed that choral singers are among America's most involved, active and engaged people, and that they participate in activities outside of singing that benefit and strengthen their communities.

Nearly 76 percent of choral singers are involved in charity work, compared with 44 percent of adults in the population at large. While more than 60 percent of Americans voted in the last election, a level not reached since 1968, a whopping 93 percent of choral singers regularly vote in local and national elections, and have done so for a long time. These folks are involved not only in their choruses but in their communities.

Choral music is, at its heart, about community.

As the great conductor Robert Shaw once observed, choral music concerns itself with texts that are worthy of communal utterance. The operative pronouns in classical choral music are "we" and "us," not "me" and "I."

For example, the words "grant us peace" are the final lines of the Catholic mass liturgy, a text that thousands of composers have set to music. When these words are clothed in beautiful melody and glorious harmony, it doesn't matter if you're Catholic or Jewish, black or white, rich or poor, old or young, smart or dumb. It only matters that you are a human being who yearns for peace - peace on your block, peace in your country, peace in your heart - and that you wish to add your voice to that simple, direct, universal plea.

So if you notice some of your co-workers and neighbors walking around a little bleary-eyed at this time of year, perhaps it's because that in addition to their responsibilities at home and in their jobs, they have spent several nights a week rehearsing and performing as choral musicians. When they and their fellow choristers make their voices heard, and when those voices are united in purpose and love, chances are they have something to say that's worth hearing.

Tom Hall is the music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the host of Choral Arts Classics on WYPR-FM. He is also a former president of Chorus America.

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