Member Spotlight: Jane Ramseyer Miller, One Voice Mixed Chorus
One Voice Mixed Chorus, Minnesota's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allies chorus, is committed to building community and creating social change. The group's music director, Jane Ramseyer Miller, talked with Chorus America about how their mission propelled a unique outreach to public school students in the Twin Cities.
How did you get started in choral music?
I grew up in a Mennonite community, which is known for its four-part a cappella singing. It is also a community with a strong sense of peace and justice. That was a big part of my early years and training as a musician. My undergrad degree is in psychology, but I ended up with more music credits than psychology when I graduated, which maybe should have been a clue! I thought at the time that music was not a practical thing to major in. By osmosis I started doing a lot of music, and eventually I went back and did a masters in choral conducting at the University of Minnesota. I am just beginning my 19th year with One Voice. We are celebrating our 25th anniversary next year.
Since 2000 One Voice Mixed Chorus has been bringing music and the message of tolerance into the public schools in the Twin Cities. How did this program get started?
Jane Ramseyer Miller
Our chorus’ mission is “building community and creating social change by raising our voices in song.” So at a choir retreat a number of years back, we divided everyone into ten different groups and asked: “In terms of social change, where do you feel we are most needed?” Eight of the ten groups came back with schools at the top of their list. It is something that as a GLBTA chorus I had never considered before. The idea came from the singers.
I did some cold calls to the schools and worked through some teachers in the chorus. We set up three concerts in one day that first spring. We had 80 singers in the chorus at the time and 60 took the day off work. We have had that kind of turnout consistently every time.
When you did your first programs, was the focus on bullying?
Bullying wasn’t even part of the language that people used back then. Our motivation was really to deal with homophobia in schools. Kids were not “out” as much as they are now, and I think that is part of the reason for the increase in bullying now. There is more awareness, which is great, but it is part of the backlash that kids are experiencing. We really started this as a way for students to get to know normal GLBT individuals.
You came up with some clever ways to talk about bullying, using stories and music and humor. How did those ideas develop?
We did some brainstorming with singers about what would be good stories to include. Someone mentioned Ferdinand the Bull—a story about a bull who preferred to sit under trees and smell flowers to clashing horns with his fellow animals. So we partnered with a puppet company here called Heart of the Beast. They helped us create this large Ferdinand puppet. And then as I was dreaming about what this might look like, some classical pieces came to mind—"Toredor" from Carmen, "The Flower Duet" from Lakme, and "Flight of the Bumblebee." It was a great way to give the kids a way to hear some classical music. It blossomed from there. Our singers are not trained actors, but there was a core of them that had a fun time working with the stage director to put the acting parts together.
Do you find that the bullying issue is broader than homophobia?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think GLBT kids have been targeted in a particularly ferocious way. But bullying happens for all kinds of kids. Anyone perceived as different can be a target. At the Chorus America Conference, a man came up after the workshop and said that he had a granddaughter with DownSyndrome and he was so moved because he was really afraid of what she was going to experience as she gets older. He was connecting what we were doing to kids with disabilities, as well.
Any lessons learned from your in-school programs?
The first school we went into, I had not prepared the teachers at all. We introduced ourselves as a GLBT chorus, and by the time we left, kids had lots of questions. The teachers were like, “eek!” There were not tools back then to talk about these things. We do a much better job now of offering training to teachers and administrators before we go in and preparing them for the kind of questions they will be asked. This year we partnered with a group called Out for Equity, a GLBT resource group in the St. Paul school system, to help with the trainings.
Also, when we started doing the kids concerts, we thought, "we will lose our adult audience and it won’t be popular." But it has really broadened our audience. And we had strong grant and foundation support. The learning is to take risks and to go with what you believe in in terms of programming.
How has Chorus America been helpful to you?
The website has many helpful resources and I enjoy reading the interesting articles in the magazine, The Voice. I attended my first Chorus America conference in 2012 in the Twin Cities. At any conference one of the best things is connecting with colleagues. The choruses that performed are all in my backyard so I get to hear them any time I want to. But I loved the workshop that Dale Warland did working with composers. That is a real interest of mine.
What have you heard from your singers about the experience of reaching out to kids in the schools?
They are so motivated to do this kind of work. For the singers who are gay or lesbisan it would have been incomprehensible to have a group like ours come into their school and just sing. Many said, "it would have changed my life." Some of our singers have come out at age 45 or 60. It was just not an option for them when they were younger.
I just did a survey with my choir in the fall and one of the questions we asked was about sexual orientation. It turns out that 29 percent of the choir is straight. I had no idea. So we have these straight people doing this because they believe in the mission or they are parents of gay kids or they are straight kids with gay parents or spouses of transgender individuals. We are called One Voice Mixed Chorus and it is really an interesting mix of people who are fired up about the mission…and the music.
Feedback from teachers and students about One Voice Mixed Chorus:
"If you aren't around kids on a daily basis, you might not know how impactful music can be for them and how much it can allow for discussions. It has opened up many conversations about the words gay, stupid, retarded, and other terms that kids throw around. By using music and dancing, my class has started to talk about being proud of who they are and standing up for what they believe in. Although some of the bullying continues, I hear students telling other students that it is ok to be different and not to make fun of others."
- Elementary school teacher
“I don’t have any GLBT friends but I felt a stronger connection with these singers than other adults I have known a long time. I really liked that I could spill my guts and I would already be accepted. It is like they have gone through so much they can really talk and be open to anyone. It makes me feel more confident and less like holding back my voice.”
- Elementary school student
One Voice Mixed Chorus www.ovmc.org
Stop Bullying.gov www.stopbullying.gov
Make It Better Project www.makeitbetterproject.org