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NewsJun 23, 2020

Cambridge Common Voices inspires a harmonious revolution

Lesley-Harvard collaborative chorus models inclusivity

Cambridge Common Voices, a partnership between Lesley University’s Threshold Program and Harvard University, isn’t your typical chorus, and not just because there are no auditions and the occasional Beach Boys song shows up on the setlist. This neurodiverse group of singers is out to change how people view and interact with music, and as their recent socially distanced performance states there is “Work to be Done.”

“It’s very amazing what we’re all, as a huge group, capable of doing as a choir,” says Tess Stromberg ’20, a Threshold graduate who joined the chorus last fall.

Giving anyone who wants to sing an opportunity to do so isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky concept. It’s a different way to make music.

“We’re trying to revolutionize choral music and practice,” says Harvard University Director of Choral Activities Andrew Clark.

Clark taught a course on music and disability for several semesters, with his students volunteering throughout the Boston area with adults who have learning and physical disabilities and mental health challenges. But he wanted to “create a space of intentional difference” closer to home — not as a service project or music therapy, but as a way to bring lovers of music into a “mutually beneficial partnership.”

Clark knew he needed a partner with expertise in the area of neurodiversity, so he connected with Cara Gorham Streit, Threshold’s associate director, who in turn introduced him to the Threshold community. Many students and alumni from both of the neighboring schools were eager to join the chorus, which had its first rehearsal in October 2018.

From the start, Clark says, “The Threshold community brought a lot of fearless enthusiasm that really helped our students at Harvard feel more comfortable in the space."

Group of people sitting in or standing around pews wearing green shirts that say "Make Art"
Top row left to right: Nathan Reiff (Harvard), Henry Wienberg (Lesley), Andrew Clark (Harvard), Kristina Gillis (Lesley), Jennifer Zuk (Harvard), anonymous (Harvard). Bottom row: Clara Jane (Lesley). Photo courtesy: Cambridge Common Voices

You say you want a revolution

The group chose its name with deep symbolism. Cambridge Common, the grassy public park just north of Harvard Square, is a thoroughfare for both the Lesley and Harvard communities. It has long been a place of gathering and uprising, including as a meeting place for George Washington and his troops during the Revolutionary War.

They’re not trying to start a choral coup d’état, exactly, but Clark does want to upend outdated and exclusionary approaches to music.

“Our values, our approaches to the music aren’t just designed to include diverse learners, but they’re meant to also inform music education and choral music practice,” says Clark. “We want to begin to break down the normativity in choral music, not necessarily to make people feel guilty or shameful for the way they love music but to broaden our concepts of how it can be experienced. That it is for everybody.”

Cambridge Common Voices strives to be different. There are no auditions for membership or solos; rather, most decisions are made with a democratic process, from concert attire to music selection. At performances — which have included appearances at the Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs at the Berklee School of Music, Harvard’s annual Arts Festival and the American Musicological Society — the group has sung Bill Withers,’80s pop and the Beach Boys, in addition to more traditional arrangements.

Ally is a verb

“We think a lot about allyship, ally more as a verb than a noun,” says Clark.

To that end, Clark employs a variety of methods to teach each song, using the oral tradition of call and response, traditional Western notation, hand signs, lyric sheets in braille and more.

“Identifying yourself as a person experiencing disability brings to light how often you are navigating a world not built for you, within a body that’s been stigmatized by our culture,” Clark says. “Music and art can bring some of these things to light, to build a more just world and a more empowering perspective of disability.”

He wants the music sphere to reconsider its approach — “how music can help us consider disability not as a deficit, but as an identity; not as a problem to accommodate, but a beautiful way of being in the world that we should anticipate.”

And what if this sometimes stodgy community were more inclusive? It could mean a different experience for passionate singers like Stromberg and her fellow Threshold musicians.

Choir wearing holiday sweaters and singing
Cambridge Common Voices performs a holiday concert at Harvard's Holden Chapel in December 2019. Photo courtesy: Cambridge Common Voices

Even after years of participating in choirs, she didn’t get to sing her first solo until raising her hand for a part in “Rainbow Connection” with Cambridge Common Voices.

“It felt so great because, unfortunately, with the past choirs I did in high school and middle school, I would audition so much for solos but then I wouldn’t get them,” Stromberg says.

Despite rejections in each choir she joined, Stromberg kept auditioning.

“I’ve always loved performing for people and being in a choir and getting to see people be so happy with hearing music and just giving them so much joy with just sharing so much music,” she says.

The lack of inclusivity in music has limited everyone’s experiences, from listener to performer, says Clark.

Speaking of Stromberg, who also writes music and plays the ukulele, Clark says, “Her natural ability is up to par with just about any soprano her age that I’ve encountered. She is a bona fide talent. We have to ask ourselves, if someone like Tess wants to follow music as a vocation, how do we build a world where we can make that possible for her?”

It’s not an easy question to answer but one that Cambridge Common Voices will fight for with every performance as well as on their respective campuses.

“We want to try to encourage our universities to not just consider disability as an issue of legal compliance, to not just view disability as something we have to remediate or accommodate but actually to frame it in an empowering way, in the same way that we want to empower other identity groups to feel that they belong," Clark says.

A man (the choir director) sings with hand raised at the holiday concert
Harvard University Director of Choral Activities Andrew Clark leads the chorus at the holiday concert in December 2019. Photo courtesy: Cambridge Common Voices

Songs of the pandemic

Although they can’t be in the same room right now, the chorus is continuing its mission of uniting communities and creating beautiful music through Sunday-night video chats. Trying to sing all together at one time over Zoom isn’t feasible, but this spring they were able to post a performance of “Work to Be Done,” written by musician Sarah Nutting, with each part recorded individually from member’s homes. The song remains a powerful testimony to what the group can and will do. It's also an invitation:

“There is work to be done, there is work to be done
With these hands, this heart, this mind
There is work to be done, there is work to be done
I am on, on your side”

Follow Cambridge Common Voices on Facebook for announcements and to learn about future performances.