Anyone can be a singer, says Augustana music professor

Professor Ardelle Ries fights against the notion of music exclusion in Western society and instead encourages all, regardless of age, ability or perceived sense of "talent" to sing.

Tia Lalani - 22 January 2019

By Ardelle Ries

Multigenerational community inclusion choir SingAble member Eldon Jackson, along with professor Ries at their Christmas concert celebration in December.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few years ruminating on who makes music, and how, and who does not, and why. To quote myself from 2011: "Over the last century, electronic gadgetry has slowly inhibited us from exploring the unique voices and talents that we possess…I heartily encourage you to dispel the talent myth by actively making music, and encourage those around you to do the same." To again quote myself in 2017: "As we celebrate, explore, and experience life-long, song-based music education, we encourage you to join in and celebrate, explore and actively experience music and singing in your life!"

Between 2011 and 2017 the tone of my message seems fundamentally the same. Although now 2019, the life-long commitment to preach the gospel of singing for all and "musical inclusion" continues; however, this year, my song is sung more passionately than ever before.

Before one defines musical inclusion, it is first necessary to examine the antithesis, musical exclusion. In Western society, participation in music and the arts is typically exclusionist or "able-ist" in nature, largely dependent on hierarchy, audition and competition with reverence for those who have been identified as gifted or talented. The chosen few are granted privilege to engage and are encouraged to participate, explore and excel. On the flip side, those labeled as "unmusical" or "unable" are discouraged from any kind of musical participation. Depending on the age that this has been decreed, a designated musical outcast will for a lifetime carry a deeply ingrained belief about their perceived lack of musical ability.

Classical music has frequently been considered to be the biggest exclusion culprit; however, I argue that exclusionary practices are pervasive in any genre within Western musical culture. Although audiences at popular music concerts may appear to be much more engaged than the silent, reserved and well-behaved classical concert audiences, if an audience member attempted to hop on the stage and actively participate alongside any featured country, folk, funk, heavy metal, hip-hop, jazz, punk or rock performer, that individual would be either arrested on the spot or swiftly escorted from the stage. That said, we have been trained to worship performers and obediently accept the role of passive listeners. In so doing, we discredit any musical ability that lies latent within.

To advocate for inclusion, social justice and equity in the realm of music education is neither new nor unique. Around the world, across Canada, and within our own community, over the last thirty years, musical inclusion research and inclusion practices manifest themselves within gender-neutral ensembles, prison choirs, choirs for individuals with specific health conditions and choirs for the musically marginalized. Within this latter category fits SingAble, a multigenerational community inclusion choir serving Camrosians who wish to engage in music-making at any age or stage of life, or of any ability or disability. Amid a joyful and supportive community context, the diverse group of SingAble choristers from the ages of 2 to 92 (or so!) sing, play, dance, compose, improvise and learn. As unique voices and musical gifts are discovered, common goals are achieved, friendships are made and community is created. The Camrose Association for Community Living, UofA Augustana, the Alzheimer Society of Alberta and the Battle River Community Foundation are profoundly moved to witness the powerful impact of music and song to unite, to educate, to move, to inspire and to lift the spirit. In the words of the SingAble theme song for 2019: "We love to sing because we are able. We will sing with voices proud and strong; and we will sing together without label. We are singers and this is our song."

Articulated in another way, and yet again at the risk of repetition, I continue to say, "You are a singer. Now go find your song."

Ardelle Ries, Music, Augustana Faculty, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on January 15, 2019.