Familiarity, far from breeding contempt, increases tolerance. That's common sense, but also researched sense. Now one Twin Cities chorus is providing familiarity with a soundtrack.
The specific mission is to give gay and lesbian students a means of responding to bullies, but the vision applies to anyone who has felt the sting of slurs and even violence because of disabilities, race or because they simply are perceived as different, said Jane Ramseyer Miller, who directs the One Voice Mixed Chorus, North America's largest chorus comprising gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight singers.
A day rarely passes without high school students hearing an anti-gay slur in the halls, said Miller. "One of my theories is that as more kids come out and are more visible, I think there is increased backlash. At some point there has to be a tipping point."
Miller spoke at the national convention of Chorus America, which concludes Saturday in Minneapolis. Her session, "Confronting Bullying Through Music," described a program that One Voice has developed to bring music, as well as a message of tolerance for differences, into schools.
The program involves several weeks of rehearsals with students, mostly in high schools, that culminates in a joint concert.
"The Pew Research Center has found that there's a high correlation between knowing someone who is gay and supporting the fair treatment of the GLBT community," Miller said. Yet she's as invested in bringing a music experience into the schools. With recent funding cuts, she said, "sometimes we're that school's sole music programming for the year."
The program, OUT in Our Schools, mostly involves "hanging out and singing," she said, which sounds simple, but it's the coming together over a love of singing that begins to break down barriers, she said, while also fulfilling the chorus' mission of building community "instead of just singing to people who like us."
Chorus members, all amateurs and volunteers, take time off work for school programs, "because they can't imagine what it would have been like as a gay person to have a gay choir come to their school," Miller said. "For anybody over 30, it's beyond imagining."
Before coming to the school, One Voice distributes a survey seeking students' attitudes about GLBT people, then offers the survey again when the program is over. It's called "narrative research," she said, which tracks how attitudes change. Effectiveness is difficult to gauge otherwise, she explained. "We have plenty of statistics about bullying, but it's difficult to show how well it can be combatted."
The program aims to give the students strategies to use when confronted by bullying, using the acronym SAFE to help them recall a message of speaking up, asking for help, finding a friend and exiting a situation.
One Voice was in six schools this past school year. Not every experience was wholly positive. Some parents pulled their students from rehearsals. Some wrote letters to the editor in protest.
"But really, across the board, we have administrators who believe in this," she said. "And we are very clear about who we are. There are no surprises."
There is, however, always food. "We serve food at every rehearsal," Miller added. "When you're dealing with kids, food is always important, and it's a great way to get to know one another."
At schools' requests, One Voice has developed a similar anti-bullying program for younger grades, employing such familiar childhood stories as "Ferdinand the Bull," who preferred to smell flowers rather than fight in the bull ring. The story enables One Voice to bring in music such as Bizet's "Carmen," the "Flower Duet" from Lakmé and "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
"We want to plant the idea of the ways in which music can really address these issues," Miller said. "Our key message is that normal is fine, but different is great."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185