Inclusiveness at HU 2018: Miscellaneous Observations

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HU2018 Female Faculty: most of us - one or two missed the picHU2018 Female Faculty: most of us - one or two missed the pic

In my reflections on the Inclusiveness session at HU 2018, I got to the point of noticing how it is at the grassroots, the behaviours between individuals, as much as the lead taken from the front, that defines an experience as feeling inclusive or exclusionary. So I’m going to start this post with a pile of anecdotes, some of my own experiences, some collected from friends during and after the week, to give a flavour of where the culture change in the Barbershop Harmony Society is going well, and where it has a way to go yet.

  • For me, the big-picture comparison is with 2002, when I came as a student to the Directors’ College. This time the event was immensely more welcoming to women, with our presence and participation recognised in a number of structural ways: a general session piece in 8 parts, the Women’s Honour Chorus, and females ensembles represented in the coaching streams and consequently the shows. It felt good that the inaugural Red Caps Scholarship went to a female quartet, and female faculty members were foregrounded in the big set-piece events each day, not just hidden away in our classrooms.
  • At the grassroots level, I only experienced one egregious instance of mansplaining – a word that did not exist back 2002, though the behaviour certainly did. Of course, this time I was wearing a faculty badge, whereas back in 2002 I was merely a certified Music judge with a doctorate in music and a recently-acquired contract to write a book about barbershop (n.b. you only get the benefit of cultural capital when it is visible to strangers). So the comparison isn’t really like-with-like. But I still think the culture was significantly more welcoming to women this time.
  • Several female friends had stories of condescension, though, often in musical behaviours. When someone asks you if you know a polecat or a tag, and you say you do, it is not then necessary for them to give your start note every time or indeed try to teach you the part you already know. These forms of social singing don’t really need directing, but if anyone is to take the lead in managing pacing with their body language, etiquette suggests it should be the person who is singing the primary musical content, usually the lead. Even if she happens to be female. Not someone on a non-dominant part, even if he is male. Somewhere in the week, this cluster of behaviours acquired the descriptor ‘Tag-splaining’
  • Female friends also reported instances of male class-mates talking over women while they were asking questions or making contributions in class. The session facilitator apologised and made a point of making room for female voices, but only when the behaviour was pointed out.
  • Repertoire choices. It is easy to get so used to the traditional barbershop polecats that you don’t notice how dodgy their lyrics are. People who don’t sing them as a matter of course (Sweet Adelines, for instance, or music educators visiting from the outside world) can’t help but notice the issues with female sexual agency in My Wild Irish Rose. When the issues are raised in a class, the people raising them are not always satisfied with a response that tells them to ignore the problems and sing the song anyway.
  • In a similar vein, I spent a few days quite discomboobled with the references to ‘creeping up on you’ in the General Session song ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’, which seemed to turn what should have been a joyful song of desire into something rather more predatory. Somebody more street than I am eventually explained that in this context it implied a more openly engaging form of interaction on the dance floor. I’m still somewhat weirded out by the thought of all the not-particularly-street men in the hall who might have thought the song validated stalkerish behaviour. (To be fair, the rhythmic challenges were such that I don’t expect many of the not-particularly-street guys in the room had much cognitive space to consider the meaning of the lyrics…)
  • Repertoire choices 2. The above all refer to music provided centrally as learning materials for the week. Individual sessions unsurprisingly engaged with a wider range of songs, not all of which were #donewithdixe. A barbershopper of colour of my acquaintance was unimpressed by a class exercise singing the tag ‘When it’s Sleepy Time Down South’.
  • Amongst the call-outs for group photos (Canadians, Sweet Adelines, etc) was a call-out for a photo or LGBTQ friends. I don’t know how long this has been happening, but that it was included in the General Session announcements as the perfectly normal thing it always should have been says something very cheering about the culture. A traditionally same-sex artform makes a good shared interest for same-sex couples after all.

The other observation I’d like to make is how the discussions in the Monday night session framed my week and drew my attention to inclusion-themed moments in my class sessions that may otherwise have passed unremarked. A student who invited the class to ‘stand if you are able’, for instance, held a succinct but gentle mirror up to the assumptions implicit in standard rehearsal instructions. And when a rehearsal instruction about the meaning of a lyric stumbled over which pronoun to use for the beloved in a mixed-sex group, it thereby opened up a productive conversation about heteronormativity.

Possibly the biggest penny-drop moment for me was in the Thursday of my Chorus, Cults and Charisma class. We were discussing how cliques disrupt the free-flow of emotional energy required to potentiate a charismatic encounter, and in particular the kinds of toxic us-and-themming you can sometimes get between sections, whereby the baritones (for example) shore up their sense of self-worth by criticising the leads (again, for example; other part stereotypes are available).

This became a wonderful moment to link back to the point in Monday’s session about how to build a culture of inclusive behaviours in a chorus that currently does not appear diverse, as preparation to enable it to become more so. If we can’t stop beating up on each other about the minor socially-constructed differences between voice-parts, what hope do we have to deal with the major socially-constructed differences that constitute the systemic hierarchies of our culture at large? Conversely, if we want to learn how to behave inclusively towards people who belong to groups that feel unfamiliar, we can practise by fostering equality and mutual support with those familiar people already on the risers with us.

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