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Groningen Vocal Exploration Choir

Chris Tonelli on Community Music, Health, and Improvisational Choirs

Singing in a choir can produce positive emotions and social connections, and is an embodied activity that contributes to our general physical fitness. But some traditional choirs can alienate some people, they can be hierarchical and often exclude certain kinds of singers and sounds. Improvising choirs are a relatively rare, but currently expanding choral alternative, one that tends towards radical inclusivity, being able to incorporate any kind of voice and any kind of singing, including varieties of vocal sound often marked as “unmusical” or “unattractive.”


Dr. Chris Tonelli has been conducting research on the benefits of improvising choirs since 2014, as part of his broader research on the symbolic functions of various human vocal sounds. The “practice-centered” component of his research involves forming and leading these kinds of choirs and teaching workshops on how to organize and facilitate choral improvisation. He founded the Groningen Vocal Exploration Gatherings Series in 2017, a series of twice monthly vocal/choral improvisation workshops open to everyone at no cost, and the related Groningen Vocal Exploration Choir, and is working to make this series/choir as accessible as possible to anyone interested in participating, regardless of any barriers they or others might view as standing in the way of their choral participation: individuals with voices perceived as weak or damaged will find a community that values the vocal sounds they are able to produce and makes space for those sounds to be heard; individuals who might not be able to physically produce voice can participate using technologies that supply them with a voice-like instrument; Deaf individuals sometimes thought to be disqualified from choral participation because of their lack of access to dominant forms of hearing will find a choral community that values the ways they feel sound and the vocal sounds they might choose to contribute to the choir; and anyone who has ever been told they aren’t good enough to sing in public will find a vocal community with an alternative aesthetic disposition, one that values sound as sound and will work to find interesting ways to interact with any sounds choir members choose to contribute. As he organizes these inclusive choirs, Dr Tonelli studies the ways they bring people together across various kinds of difference and the ways they intervene into how audiences think about voices and value. The benefits participants and audiences might gain from this form of music making are interconnected with the both the social and the symbolic dimensions of these practices. Audiences are often confronted, in improvisational choral performances, with sounds they have not been taught to value. However, Dr. Tonelli is interested in studying the potential for these performances to expand listeners’ sense of what kinds of sounds have value and, more broadly, how expanding the scope of what human practices contain value can help to shape a more inclusive, accepting, and, subsequently, healthy world.

Last modified:26 February 2019 12.47 p.m.