Associate Professor Ronald Sherwin uses song to enact social change in communities
Inspired by initiatives like Singing for Change, their observations of community need, and a personal desire to make music with a purpose, UMass Dartmouth Associate Professor Ronald Sherwin (Music) and Dr. Sarah McQuarrie of Bridgewater State University envisioned a vocal ensemble drawn from across campuses and community organizations that would use music to share a message of social justice while also undertaking practical non-musical projects benefiting their shared communities. With the support of both institutions, the pair developed a large-scale project they titled: “Making a change in the world through choral music.” After obtaining approval for a small COVID-compliant ensemble that could rehearse online, outside, or socially distanced with singers’ masks, a pilot ensemble began to rehearse in the Spring 2021 semester.
From its initial conception, the musical goal has been to rehearse and perform music that shares the message of social justice as well as highlighting compositions by composers of underrepresented populations. The challenge for Spring 2021 was that this literature also had to be appropriate for a collegiate-level ensemble, while simultaneously being simple enough to be learned under the challenges of rehearsals that rotated between in-person and remote. Specifically, any musical selections had to work with an ensemble divided into two SATB choirs with one group attending in-person rehearsals on Monday and remote on Wednesday and the other group the opposite (when the weather improved approval was granted for combined outside practice sessions). The literature selected ranged from the Baroque era with Antonin Vivaldi’s Gloria which was composed for orphaned girls in Venice, Italy, to the very modern Come to Me in the Silence of the Night by transgender composer Michael Bussewitz-Quarm that addresses the issue of school violence.
In addition to raising awareness to audience members, and undertaking practical community projects, another goal of this initiative is to use the medium of choral music to facilitate student dialog about the current climate and news of the day (with a focus on a current issue of social justice). This was an area of success with the Spring 2021 pilot choir because the group was able to engage in lively discussions about the meanings of texts in each piece as well as the socio-cultural backdrops during the times they were composed. Further, students were given the chance to write introductions to each piece to better help the audience understand the significance of the work and why it was included. And while restrictions meant the audience for the final concert was online, a small number of students were able to stand outside during the filming and thus receive a brief pre-concert talk about music, social justice, and the music of underrepresented populations.
While recognized by participants and stakeholders as a success, the Spring 2021 virtual performance of the Making a change in the world through choral music initiative was nonetheless only the first stage of a long-range project that continues to develop. First, in addition to the support from their respective deans, it has also been endorsed by both the Leduc Center for Civic Engagement at UMass Dartmouth and the Martin Richards Institute at Bridgewater State University. Second, the project is going to be tied to the well-established choral festival for social justice held annually in Belfast, Maine and where Dr. Sherwin and Dr. McQuarrie have both served as guest artists. And most recently, Dr. Sherwin has been invited to guest conduct a choral residency at Carnegie Hall in New York City where a multigenerational choir from around the United States will collaborate for a concert with a full orchestra on the main stage of the hall, and in between rehearsals engage in several social justice activities ranging from helping the homeless to working on dilapidated playgrounds.
It is hoped that this high-profile experience will create additional energy to move the project forward toward the ultimate goals identified as:
- To perform choral literature with messages of social justice and by composers from under-represented populations.
- To use the medium of choral music to facilitate student and community dialog about the current climate and news of the day (with a focus on a current issue of social justice).
- To provide students and community members with an opportunity to participate as active citizens by using their musical voices to share a message of justice.
- To create an intergenerational community of musicians who have a joint purpose, live meaningful lives, and share the beauty of music to a world in need of beauty.
- To create a group of students and community members who engage in activities (outside of the arts) that improves the conditions of our fellow humans.