Culturally Connect in Chorus

“Performing music of another culture can give us a direct visceral experience that listening alone cannot.”  — MENC member Clayton Parr According to Parr, the root of the word “culture” is the Greek word kultus, meaning “belief.” Multiculturalism involves multiple beliefs, some of which will be different from those we hold in our native culture. Parr states, “If music is to function as a bridge between cultures, as performers we must be ready to move out of our comfort zones and experience music in a completely new way. We need to suspend our own beliefs at least temporarily to fully appreciate the music’s emotional depth and cultural richness. As singers, we must internalize the other culture to some extent to allow the other belief system to influence our physical being through singing technique, so that the musical result is more in line with the original expression.”

A Vocal Music Performance

Parr proposes that our musical belief system is challenged when we hear groups from another part of the world perform “our” music, the music from our own indigenous culture. Parr believes indigenous culture ” means the music you grew up with in your country of origin”. He explains that as an American coming of age in the choral culture of the 1960s and 1970s, folk music, American composers, jazz, pop/rock, spirituals were all part of what he experienced musically. “Understandably, it’s different for everyone. And certainly, Americans of a newer generation will grow up with a different set of musical experiences. I am just trying to encourage people to imagine him or herself in someone else’s shoes.” In a musical context, our beliefs about our music influence things such as: what makes good singing technique, the proper time and place to perform a certain piece, who should sing a certain piece, what constitutes a good musical arrangement, as well as other issues of performance, practice, language, and religious beliefs. When we hear groups not of our indigenous culture singing “American” music, we appreciate their interest in “our” music, but, we hear the performance through our own musical belief system.  We hear how we’d like it to sound. We don’t want to hear any distortions.  We want “our” music to be performed in a way that enhances musical understanding.  Similarly, we ought to carry the same care and thoughtfulness to our approach to music that’s not from our indigenous culture; when we sing music of cultures other than our own. Parr reminisces: “I think about an experience I had hearing a choir from Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon, singing an American spiritual. They were very earnest and musically prepared, but I wish I’d had some time to talk to them about the spiritual style to place it into context for them.” To perform multicultural choral music with accuracy, honesty, integrity and passion, in a way that enhances cultural understanding for performers and listeners, Parr urges choirs to agree on a set of guidelines. In the next two weeks, we’ll explore Parr’s eight simple rules for singers and conductors when performing music of the world’s traditions and add some insightful comments from MENC choral mentors. Adapted from “Eight Simple Rules for Singing Multicultural Music”, by Clayton Parr, director of choral activities at DePaul University, Chicago ; Music Educators Journal, September 2006 –Sue Rarus, February 17, 2010, © National Association for Music Education