Creating social change, in song WordsAndPictures: One Voice Mixed Chorus builds community with LGBTA members and straight allies
Jane Ramseyer Miller, center, with One Voice Mixed Chorus at the "Eat, Drink & Be Married" concert last year. Photography by Brent Dundore
"We are really moving away from this binary of male and female. The lines that were so clearly transgender, gay and queer are now blurred. ... It's beautiful." - Jane Ramseyer Miller
by Kendall Anderson
One Voice Mixed Chorus is the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight allies (LGBTA) mixed chorus in the United States.
When Jane Ramseyer Miller became its artistic director in 1995 there were 35 singers in the chorus. Audiences reached about 150 people when she started. Today, the chorus numbers 125, and it performs for more than 10,000 per year.
"Our audience sizes really have increased, and One Voice has grown and changed in the past 20 years," Ramseyer Miller says.
The full chorus performs about eight times a year and a smaller ensemble at least 20 times. Many of the chorus members identify as transgender, while others find the old categories of "gay" or "lesbian" too limiting.
The group reflects societal changes in the LGBTA community since its founding in the 1980s by Paul Petrella. It started around the time of the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, when the men and women's LGBTA communities "were very separate," Ramseyer Miller says.
That separateness changed over the years - as did the group's advocacy mission.
Singing in the schools
Today's work continues in areas such as awareness of HIV but also involves LGBTA issues among young people. One Voice collaborates with schools through its OUT in Our Schools program, creating mentoring and professional performance opportunities for young people through an extended singer-in-residence partnership.
In the spring, the chorus performed with students at several Twin Cities area middle schools. In fact, the group is one of the first LGBTA choruses to do work in schools, Ramseyer Miller says.
The reception of the chorus has been mostly positive, she says; however, a recent performance had several fewer singers because a coach who is also a parent had stormed in and said he would kick his players off the team if they performed with One Voice, Ramseyer Miller says.
"There is still work to do," she says. "There is still serious prejudice."
One Voice's mission is: "Building community and creating social change by raising our voices in song" - a perfect match for Ramseyer Miller whose background is in community organizing and church music.
Ramseyer Miller thinks the community work has made a difference within the ranks of the chorus. She discovered through a survey that 29 percent of her singers reported that they were straight allies, Ramseyer Miller says.
"It did surprise me, because our mission is very clearly for advocating for LGBTA," she says. "Straight people were drawn to us by the strong sense of community and family and the community work that we are doing."
'Lines are blurred'
Over the years, the choir's singing has risen to higher levels, Ramseyer Miller says.
"Just having more singers helps the vocal sound - over the years, as we have gotten better, we attract better singers," she says. "It has certainly gotten harder to get into the chorus."
Among the director's favorite things are concert programming and creating new collaborations with music, dance and visuals for concerts.
The June 13 "Gender UnChecked" concert is an example.
"We are really moving away from this binary of male and female," she says. "The lines that were so clearly transgender, gay and queer are now blurred. . . . It's beautiful."
Social activism powered by song and human voices is powerful, Ramseyer Miller says; she never doubts that One Voice is doing meaningful, society-changing work.
"A lot of our work has been influenced by my previous work as a community organizer and working in the peace and justice world. It's been a really great fit," she says.
Ramseyer Miller relies on both her undergraduate training in psychology and her master's degree in choral music. She has also had to develop a new expertise: vocally guiding transgender individuals who are in transition.
Singers taking testosterone and going from soprano to bass were a mystery to Ramseyer Miller - and so she hired a clinician and studied it.
"A decade ago, I had no idea what was happening physiologically to their voices," she says.
And those transitioning from male to female don't experience a vocal change - an entirely different identity challenge that Ramseyer Miller has had to understand, to be supportive of all her singers.
That means not referring to sopranos and altos as women nor bass and tenors as men, as would be common in traditional choirs.
"Instead, we refer to singer voice parts as a reflection of the many genders represented in our chorus," she says.
Ramseyer Miller's latest excitement is commissioning a musical piece for taiko drummers in connection with a concert by women composers, who, she notes, "are still fairly invisible."
"The power and sound of taiko drummers will be a powerful way to illuminate the voice of women composers," Ramseyer Miller says. "I am interested in creative choral collaborations ... crazy ways to put art together."