Safe(r) Spaces for Our Singers

I'm so excited to finally share a project that I've been working on with two of my dear colleagues for the last several months! First, let me introduce my collaborators:

  Alexis Hillyard  is deeply in love with Edmonton and everything in it. She is a top-notch choir nerd, a champion for LGBTQ rights (Alexis previously directed of Camp fYrefly, Canada's National LGBTQ leadership retreat) and a YouTube chef on her show 'Stump Kitchen.' By day, Alexis is the City of Learners Project manager at the Edmonton Public Library. By night, you might catch her swimming at the YMCA, busking on  Whyte Avenue  with her ukulele, or exploring the many markets and festivals this great city has to offer!

Alexis Hillyard is deeply in love with Edmonton and everything in it. She is a top-notch choir nerd, a champion for LGBTQ rights (Alexis previously directed of Camp fYrefly, Canada's National LGBTQ leadership retreat) and a YouTube chef on her show 'Stump Kitchen.' By day, Alexis is the City of Learners Project manager at the Edmonton Public Library. By night, you might catch her swimming at the YMCA, busking on Whyte Avenue with her ukulele, or exploring the many markets and festivals this great city has to offer!

  Tyson Kerr  is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and provisional social worker with experience working with youth, professional musicians and educators, and wider artistic communities.  In addition to being in demand as a pianist and composer through jazz and vocal groups like The Writers' Guild and 6 Minute Warning, he also teaches individual and group lessons through MacEwan University, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, and iHuman Youth Society.  Tyson has sung in and accompanied choirs through the Kokopelli and T.I.M.E. organizations as well as in Edmonton Catholic schools and the United Church. Tyson aims in all his work to foster relationship and community through music.

Tyson Kerr is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and provisional social worker with experience working with youth, professional musicians and educators, and wider artistic communities.  In addition to being in demand as a pianist and composer through jazz and vocal groups like The Writers' Guild and 6 Minute Warning, he also teaches individual and group lessons through MacEwan University, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, and iHuman Youth Society.  Tyson has sung in and accompanied choirs through the Kokopelli and T.I.M.E. organizations as well as in Edmonton Catholic schools and the United Church. Tyson aims in all his work to foster relationship and community through music.

Alexis is also a long-time member of my young adult choir (among the many amazing things she does), and I'm so lucky to have Tyson sitting at the piano as my accompanist for the same group. He also lends his fine tenor voice to the choir during a cappella moments. (You can read more about me here.)

These fine humans have been helping me with something that I think most choral conductors (especially those working with youth and adults) have begun to struggle with in recent years. We choir leaders have long touted our choir rooms or rehearsal spaces as "safe", by which we mean: a space safe from ridicule when people try solos, or a space where we can share our thoughts freely, or a space where we can "be ourselves" without fear. This has led to choral classrooms in schools being a de facto LGBTQ-safe space.

(Note: American conductor and CSU Long Beach professor Josh Palkki has done some amazing research in this area, as well as in other areas that we will touch on.)

But increasingly, we are encountering bigger ideas of what it means to create and maintain a "safe space". We live in an age where our governments and school boards and granting agencies have explicit policies surrounding human rights in the classroom and within organizations. There are open debates about washroom usage, about government-mandated gay-straight alliance organizations, about religious freedom and practices. We are also in the midst of rising immigration and increasing diversity of cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs among our members. This is the world our young singers are growing up in – and, I'd argue, a world they have a big hand in shaping even now!

So, what does a truly "safe" choral space look like? And are we really making it safe, or can it be "safer"? Alexis and Tyson, along with ideas from many in my choral circle with whom I've discussed these things in recent years, have helped to craft a list of five ways that we can make our choral space – classroom, rehearsal venue, or performance place – truly safe(r) for our singers.

Today, I'm going to just present our list of practices for safer space, in brief. But as this post goes public, I will be part of an interactive panel at Music Conference Alberta where we will present these practices for the first time to a group of music educators and leaders in Alberta. We are very excited about the ideas and questions that we are sure will arise in this panel. For that reason, I'm going to summarize some of those discoveries and thoughts in the weeks to come, one practice at a time. I'll leave the details to our attendees, because I'm certain they will be insightful and brilliant!

PRACTICES for creating safer spaces for our singers

1 - Be intentional with your language.

Try to stop using men/guys/boys to mean tenors/basses and women/ladies/girls to mean sopranos/altos. When addressing the whole group, avoid gendered nouns like “guys”. Try “folks”, “people”, etc.

Be thoughtful about your repertoire choices, especially in terms of text. Be open to discussions about heteronormative, cisnormative, sexist, racist, or ableist undertones

2 - Be explicit about diversity and acceptance.

Bravely use the words “gay”, “lesbian”, “trans”, instead of blanket statements like “we are all welcome/safe here”.

Being direct means no one is left secretly wondering if they are included in the “all”. Kids don’t have to be out in order to be explicitly accepted by your words.

3 - Value your singers’ individual stories and experiences.

Discourage interruption and always let everyone finish their thoughts when they are speaking.

Create a place/practice where everyone is listened to without criticism.

Honour cultures of origin within your choir’s membership (which could include First Nations, various immigrant groups, and others) without tokenization.

4 - Teach and practice consent.

Singers give permission to be touched (i.e. the “massage line”, group hugs, etc.)

Let your singers decline invitations to sing alone or sing solos. Don’t push. If they really wanted to say yes, they will learn to do say so when asked the first time!

5 - Be accountable for your actions and create accountability in your choir.

Have an open door policy, and take a firm, explicit position against bullying, name-calling, and sexist/racist/ableist behaviour.

Make it clear that you are an ally. 

Consider having a sign or poster on your classroom/rehearsal space wall that lists many diversities and ends with “all are safe here”.

Resources:

Here is a link to the handout circulated at Music Conference Alberta 2016.

Here is a link to the presentation given at Music Conference Alberta 2016.