To sing like this, in the company of other souls, and to make those consonants slip out so easily and in unison, and to make those chords so rich that they bring tears to your eyes. This is transcendence. This is the power that choral singing has that other music can only dream of.
— Garrison Keillor

A large percentage of the American population appears to be drawn to choral singing and the desire to participate in the communal expression, creation, and performance of beautiful music. Whatever motivates choral singers to sing, the data indicates that choral singing is a thriving and growing form of artistic expression in America, and can be acknowledged not just for providing great musical performances, but for advancing many of the positive qualities associated with success in life both for children and adults.

This piece originally aired on Sunday, June 14, 2009 on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood.

According to a new national study by Chorus America, nearly 28.5 million adults and children regularly perform in choral groups in the U. S., more than any other art form. One or more adults in 15.6 percent of households in America performed in at least one chorus, and of those, almost 45 percent performed with more than one chorus. The study also estimates the number of choruses in the U.S. to be 250,000. (For details on the study, see the Chorus America website, chorusamerica.org ).

For most, choral singing begins in a school chorus - almost 70 percent of those who sing in choruses today say they sang in a chorus when they were in elementary or middle school. More than half of choral singers say they grew up in a home where another family member regularly sang in a chorus. These findings have important long-term implications for the role of education and families in early exposure to the arts. The study illustrates that an early introduction to the performing arts is a building block for life-long learning - it helps to build social skills, community involvement, and enhances academic skills in general. Additionally, choral singing provides an extraordinarily accessible entry point for arts exposure, with fewer barriers to participation - economic, cultural, educational - than those posed by other art forms.

The broad appeal of choral singing is based in the unsurpassed opportunity it gives each singer to participate in an activity that involves them artistically, builds community, enhances their skills, and results in a product of great beauty. In working toward a beautiful choral sound, people contribute to an artistic product greater than themselves and forge friendships that change the course of their lives. The synergy of this musical mission infuses choral organizations and their singers with energy and purpose that result in extraordinary contributions to their communities - through stellar performances and recordings of great works, the creation of new repertoire, innovative educational programs, and cooperative partnerships with other community organizations.

Choruses, Civic Engagement, and Bridging Social Gaps

The fact that choral singing is a communal activity is especially significant today when we increasingly rely on Internet-based communications, rather than face-to-face interaction. Several recent studies have shown a significant decline in civic engagement in our communities. Robert Putnam, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government scholar (best known for his book, Bowling Alone) asserts that the significance of choral singing goes beyond music making, and even beyond the arts. He sees group performing as contributing directly to the social trust and reciprocity that is the basis of civic engagement. His work shows that the mere existence of choral groups helps foster America's democratic culture (see his website, BowlingAlone.com ).

Chorus America’s study found that choral singers are far more likely to be involved in charity work, as volunteers and as donors (76 percent), than the average person (44 percent according to a 2001 report by Independent Sector). Choral singers are also more than twice as likely as non-participants to be aware of current events and involved in the political process. They are also twice as likely as the general public to be major consumers of other arts - and not just music.

The study explored the depth of feeling that participants had about their choral experience, with many reporting that the requirements of choral singing - discipline, attention to detail, teamwork, and the social value of the experience - combine to improve their daily lives, in both their work and in family relationships. Many choristers testified to the degree to which their choral singing made them more aware of other people’s life experiences, helping them to bridge social gaps. "That connection with people exposes me to ideas...that aren’t otherwise available," one respondent said. Another chorister said of fellow singers, "These people, whom I love dearly, are politically or religiously very different from me." Seventy-four percent said they "agreed strongly" that choral participation had helped them develop new friendships.

Choral groups and choral singers are diverse in the broadest sense: involving people from every region of all ages, in myriad musical styles from classical to gospel. Some choruses employ professional singers with significant music background and training. Professional choruses often set the standard of quality and beautiful choral sound. Some choruses are rooted in volunteerism, and their mission is to involve singers from the community who share the love of singing.

All of these various groups promote cultural excellence, community and national pride. Their performing venues are equally diverse - from community festivals and shopping malls to major concert halls - ensuring that choral music touches all members of a community, regardless of economic status, age, or ethnic origin.