On March 13 of this year, 21 singers from the Los Angeles Master Chorale were in New Zealand for a performance at the Auckland Arts Festival. That morning we were invited to participate in a Maori welcoming ceremony called a Powhiri. As a final symbol of unity, we each stood face to face with our New Zealand hosts, pressing foreheads and noses together, looking into each other’s eyes … and literally breathing the same air.
As I write this at the end of June, it seems like that ceremony happened in a different world. Breathing is now at the front of our consciousness due to the twin crises of COVID-19 and brutality against Black people in America. In both ICU wards and on our streets, “I can’t breathe” is the defining phrase of this period we are in. How can the arts help to rebuild such a damaged society?
We can’t pretend that artists have easy answers to this question. Our major arts institutions certainly have their own issues with systemic racism and lack of access. This is therefore a time for us as artists to both carefully examine our own biases and to listen more intently to the historically underrepresented voices in our communities.
I believe that the single most important thing that arts organizations must do now is lift up a multiplicity of voices. Our society is incredibly, fantastically complex — it comprises countless individual and shared histories, perspectives and creative forces. Going forward, our arts institutions must make the space for far more voices to be recognized and heard.
I’ve spent much of my life in choral music, which celebrates the power of human voices breathing together to lift us all up with unity of purpose. When we finally emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and are able to sing freely together again, it will be with a renewed sense of responsibility and mission. At the L.A. Master Chorale, we believe in the power of singing to transform lives, to create a sense of belonging and to benefit mental, physical and spiritual health. We have noted that too many young people in our community lack access to this transformative form of expression and creativity. Therefore a huge part of our renewed sense of responsibility and mission is to provide opportunities for any young person who wants to sing in a group to have that experience. Historically, access to this kind of direct participation in the arts has been far too limited by socio-economic factors and systemic racism. With ongoing cuts to arts education in our schools this inequity has been exacerbated. Going forward, our major arts organizations must help to lift ALL voices.
Breathing. Breathing together. Breathing freely. These are things that many of us took for granted before the spring of 2020. I look forward to a time, sooner than later, when we all can take a deep breath and sing out strong, with music of justice and beauty surrounding us.
Top Image: Los Angeles Master Chorale Photo Credit: Jamie Pham