Introduce yourself. What you are studying in school, where you are from, and why you wanted to intern with FCS.
Juliana: My name is Juliana Stewart, and I am studying Arts Management through George Mason’s graduate program. I am from Fairfax, but I lived in many other states and countries in my childhood due to my dad’s military career. I am really happy to have this opportunity to intern with FCS because of the experience and knowledge I am gaining in the field I am studying to enter and the respect I have for FCS’s mission. Although I only began singing in a choir during my undergraduate studies (being a violinist from an early age, orchestra was my extracurricular activity), the experiences I had in choir quickly caused my affections to lean more towards favoring the ensemble created by human voices. I especially appreciate FCS’s wide range of opportunities. Now that I realize the beauty of participating in choirs, I wish I had a) joined a choir from the first opportunity I had as many students have done by joining the Da Capo and Lyric Choirs and b) taken advantage of the privilege the Northern Virginia community has to listen to a highly skilled choir, the Symphonic Chorus.
Ben: My name is Ben Parsell and I am one of the interns here at The Fairfax Choral Society this summer. I am an alum of the Masters Singers and simply could not stay away from the organization. I am a Vocal Music Education and Computer Science dual major at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. I was born in New Jersey but grew up here in Northern Virginia. I wanted to come back and intern for FCS for two main reasons: learn the arts administration side of an organization that I was already fairly familiar with, and to give back to FCS after they provided such great choral opportunities for me!
Where do you think the choral arts fit into the broader cultural landscape? Is there still a place for chorus, and why should young people be interested?
Juliana: The act of singing is ages old and has lasted because of the unique ability that singing has to convey meaning and emotion in beautiful and interesting ways. Too much excellent choral repertoire has been created for the choral arts ever to fade from their place of importance in our culture, and young people should and will continue to realize and appreciate the worth of such music. Choirs provide an excellent way of learning vocal technique, meeting wonderful musicians and mentors, and meeting challenges to accomplish the goal of creating pleasant music together. The choral arts have been a constant stable backdrop to the arts, and thereby, to society for almost all of history. In the best of times and the worst of times, a mass or a barbershop quartet (or a piece in any of the many genres of choral music) can portray emotions or comfort.
Ben: I think the choral arts responds to current events and social tides that reflect the life experiences of its singers. Further, I think the choral arts has the power to respond and advocate for social change and serves as a positive force working towards a more equal and equitable social world. The choral arts communicates human vulnerabilities and presents the platform where these vulnerabilities can be discussed, argued, and shown compassion. Choral arts teaches us of our past, informs us of our present, and influences how we will respond to our future.
Chorus engages the singer in a completely communal experience of singing. You sing together, yes, but that’s not where the experience stops. Together as an ensemble, choirs delve into texts, both sacred and secular, to experience and begin to unravel the complexity of what it means to be human. A chorus affords the vocal musician the opportunity to be a part of an ensemble that breathes together, that proclaims texts together, and conveys their messages and spirits to broad audiences through sung text. Choir, frankly, is a form of community—a social system within the broader community of a city, a state, or a nation. On a micro-level, we experience the daily occurrences of humanness.
I can sing, but why join a choir at all? Why not just sing solo?
Juliana: Choral singing requires many tangible skills (breath control, pitch correction, timbre blending, and many more) as well as many mental and emotional skills (humility, patience, and willingness to cooperate and make the odd face that is required to make that one vowel correctly). While solo singing shares the need for many of these skills and are often under more scrutiny of their mastery of their skills, the work required to lead a choir of dozens of singers to the level of ability where a section can sound as uniform as a single trained voice is immense, and therefore, the enjoyment which the singers and the audience receive as a result of sharing in the final performance is appropriately immense as well.
Ben: Singing in a choir is so much more than just another outlet to sing. The differences between singing in a group and singing alone are innumerable. Choir is not entirely about singing—yes singing and music is a large part of it, but ultimately choir is about community. Rehearsals are a time when people unite together to work diligently towards a group goal, and every single voice in the group counts.
There are social reasons: You make so many new friends. I can’t count the amount of new friends I’ve made from the choir. They come from all walks of life, ages and parts of the world. Music breaks down barriers and allows people to come together despite and in celebration of our differences. There are physical reasons: It’s good for your health. Singing is an aerobic activity, and when we sing we draw more oxygen into the bloodstream, improving circulation. Research shows that singing in a choir produces antibodies in the blood which enhanced their immune system. It tones the muscles in our throats that are responsible for some people’s snoring, and can completely eliminate it! Singing releases endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals, cortisol, the stress relief hormone, dopamine, the hormone responsible for that shiver-down-the-spine feeling, and oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone. There are emotional reasons: Choir makes your venerable (the good kind of venerable). You spend hours tediously and meticulously rehearsing and fixing small musical details and then join together to expel all of your energy and outpour all of your emotions. The amount of emotion that is put into each performance a choir has is a staggering amount, and that performance is not the same if every member commits and allows themselves to serve the music.
But, ultimately, the main reason I sing is the music. I love it, and choir is one way I have found to completely give myself to a larger cause. Not everyone in the world is able to, and I can’t imagine what I would do without it—that’s why I think music making is a privilege.
What is your experience with arts education? Do you feel that the tide is turning for arts education in public schools, or are we continuing to lose ground?
Juliana: Ultimately, I have only been a recipient of arts education during my life, but I have also provided arts education in the form of violin lessons for a few years. Having participated in public school orchestras from 5th grade onward, a community orchestra from 7th grade to high school, and in orchestras, choirs, and even marching band as part of my degree in college, I have a great appreciation for arts programs and the instruction and skills they provide. From recent news, an increase in awareness about and concern over the detrimental result that decreasing arts education funds could result in has allowed many arts education programs to progress although not all. This shows that while a decline in arts education is still present, it is not and will not be ignored passively, but instead the students like me who have benefited from arts programs are investing their time and energy to maintain such programs.
Ben: I think the tides are very much turning in arts education. As a music educator I see the landscape changing in the classroom culturally, racially, socioeconomically, etc. However, while many of these realities are apparent in our classrooms, the broad system of arts education still very much leans toward an affluent heteronormative caucasian representation of education and arts education at large. The nomenclature of “multicultural” in the sense it’s broadly used in choral arts education is a form of “othering” cultures that differ from Western European literature and repertoire. While the majority of educators entering the classroom continue to come from White, affluent backgrounds, the students that fill our rehearsal spaces look, act, and experience life much differently. Many claim that they incorporate music from a variety of genres and cultures, when in reality, the majority of performances tends to be sacred, christo-centric literature with a touch of secular modern Whitacre and the bone thrown to multiculturalism with a programmed spiritual. While the tradition of American choral singing is very much embedded in these programming trends, it does not equally and equitably represent the singers and cultural realities of society today.
The music rehearsed and performed must reflect the social and cultural realities of our students in order to truly be considered “musically universal.” In their book “Kodaly: A Cognitive Approach to Elementary Music Education” Micheál Houlahan and Philip Tacka express that “children (students) are stewards of their culture;” the musical literature and the ideas explored and studied must reflect these cultures. The present reality of American arts education reflects poorly on our ability to be adaptive to the ever changing cultural and social landscape of arts education. Musical universalism has been shamefully negated by society’s tendency to substitute “some” for “all.” Often we as educators assume that the bodies of literature we ourselves consider universal may not translate to being relatable to all.
We need arts education in all of our public schools. We need proper funding for quality teachers and materials. We need full support—as much support as subjects like English and Math get. We need all of this, but it is insignificant if we cannot connect with ALL of our students in a meaningful and inclusive way. Music education improves language development, increases your IQ, makes the brain work harder, improves spatial-temporal skills, and improves test scores. This is all proven, yes, but music also improves the lives of children, they become better people, they become more compassionate and considerate, their lives are touched by it.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in the arts?
Juliana: I began my undergraduate studies at Grove City College in Electrical Engineering. Happily, many events occurred to turn my head back to the arts, a field I had adored since beginning violin but had put out of my mind as a career field without knowing the various ways one can work in the field. Working as the President of my college’s orchestra for two years allowed me to get a taste of the field of arts management which I enjoyed because it involved the arts which is my passion and required administrative abilities which is just my set of skills. After that, everything unfolded better than I could have planned including attending graduate school in my hometown and this great internship.
Ben: I chose this field because I saw gaps and inequalities in arts education specifically related to gender and socio-economic equity in musical arts education. In the words of Shinichi Suzuki, “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” I believe that quality music education should be available to every child. I think that it is one of the single most important subjects that schools can offer, and if that is not possible than it should be available outside of the public education system. As a music education student, I want to develop the skills needed to provide this to future generations. I want to be able to make connections with students and be able to make a difference in their lives through music. In the words of Suzuki, I want to help people find their beautiful heart.