I’ve been thinking a lot over the years about integrity. Honesty, transparency, respect, and particularly integrity. It’s something I aspire to, care about, and do my best to maintain, in as far as any flawed human can.
Muddy areas of thought, in some circumstances, can create unnecessary suffering, discomfort and confusion. Vaguery, in some circumstances, can greatly reduce respect, comfort and (obviously) clarity. This may seem a bit vague so – let’s get specific!
In a professional sense, I’m a big fan of things ‘doing what they say on the tin.’ For example, I’m a Natural Voice Practitioner (for more info, see https://naturalvoice.net/), and part of our ethos is that Natural Voice Choirs are choirs in which all voices are welcome, regardless of current levels of skill or experience.
So, in all the singing groups I’ve run over the years, I put statements on my fliers such as, ‘all voices welcome! No auditions, no judgement. All voices welcome!’ Having stated what I’m going to do, that’s what I do – I hold a space in which all voices are welcome!
So I’m continually surprised when singers who’ve read the fliers, know what Natural Voice Practitioners do, and know what I’ve stated explicitly that I’m running, still ask me to ask people to leave based on current musical ability! Or when they comment – sometimes within earshot of the person they are talking about – that it’s a much nicer sound when such-and-such person isn’t there.
Shocking, right?! It doesn’t happen that often, but it has happened a few times over the years (I’ve been leading NVN choirs and workshops for well over a decade) – where a few people assume that, even though a choir or workshop has stated that all voices are welcome, some voices will actually not be welcome. Where a few people assume that their choir leaders will not have noticed that some people are currently better/worse at pitching, melody recall, blending or rhythm (for example) than others, and feel the need to point it out that they’ve noticed. Where a few people assume that their leaders are not actually making an informed effort to get the best sound possible out of everybody there, in an encouraging, specific and respectful way. Where a few people think that there should be some musical-skill-based-gatekeeping going on, despite the choir or workshop having been publicised very clearly as, ‘all voices welcome.’
It’s quite frustrating, as the message of ‘all voices welcome’ couldn’t be made much clearer on the NVN website, or in the publicity for most NVN choirs. Literally the first sentence or two on the NVN home page is “Welcome… We are a network of people who work with voice and song, and who believe that singing is everyone’s birthright, regardless of musical experience or ability.”
I don’t think it’s often intended maliciously, this ignoring of the whole ethos of the NVN and its practitioners, by some choir members in some choirs. I would most often put it down to cultural conditioning being louder than individual awareness of what NVN is about. As a guess!
Everybody benefits, in various ways, from an atmosphere in which all voices are welcome. Highly skilled singers have bad vocal days too, or songs they just can’t get their heads around at first! And the net of acceptance and encouragement is there to catch them, when they fall from their usual spot of picking things up straight away and sounding brilliant! Different people bring different unique voices, skills, backgrounds and challenges, and a choir is essentially a magical way of creating something greater than the sum of its parts.
Don’t get me wrong – beautifully tuned singing done reliably by experienced and skillful singers is a thing of great wonder! But don’t go to an ‘all voices welcome’ community singing workshop, expecting everyone to already have all the singing skills in place and well practiced! A central part of the Natural Voice ethos is that giving voice is a human birthright, and that everybody deserves to sing and to enjoy doing so. Every voice is deserving of encouragement and being heard! This is worth remembering, when you attend a singing workshop. The magic being weaved is not just how the music comes together – it’s also how the people come together, and how respected and included they feel in the process.
Of course, sounding good is an important part of feeling good and having a good experience, and there are ways that I address this with group teaching about specific singing skills, encouraging the whole group to consider and to practice things such as volume balance, pitching, tuning, octaves, different vocal tones/qualities, emotional content of the song, group blend, listening to all the other parts whilst holding your own, and other technical/important skills involved in singing.
But in a non-auditioned choir that has stated ‘all voices welcome’, it can often take some time to get to a place of sounding a particular ‘type of good’ (eg well tuned, balance of voice volume between parts and individuals, rhythm spot on, appropriate vocal tone for a style, lyrics clear etc). This is because the point is not that your choir sounds good quickly at the cost of hurting and even traumatising people, by excluding or chastising them when you’ve said they would be welcome. Hell no! The point is that people have a good time together, in an atmosphere where they are respected, given permission to be wherever they are currently at in terms of vocal & musical skills (and how they feel on that day), and encouraged to improve from there! Patience and respect are required, from the leader and between the choir members. And what brilliant human qualities to cultivate – patience and respect.
So, to sum up an NVN choir (or the ones I run anyway!) the point is the people! I’d much rather it took a bit longer to get a song well tuned, with everyone attending feeling included and respected in the process, than that we were brilliantly tuned straight away but people had been hurt or discouraged in the process. Think of all those horror stories where people are told to mime by their choir directors and spend the rest of their lives thinking they can’t sing – a crime against humanity, and the opposite of what the NVN is here to do!
Of course, sometimes you want to sound great quickly, and that can be a satisfying and important part of happy music making! But that’s not something to expect or demand from a ‘come all ye’ community choir group or workshop instantly. To scratch that itch, you might want to get together with a small group of people you’ve chosen who are at a similar musical skill level to you, with similar musical tastes. Again – doing what it says on the tin! ‘All voices welcome, community choir’ – if that’s what it says, that’s what it should be. ‘Small group of friends selected carefully doing some singing,’ that’s a very different thing! If you’re clear about it, it avoids hurt, confusion and resentment. This kind of clarity displays and supports integrity.
So, leaders – do what you’ve said ‘on the tin’ (fliers, websites etc)! If you’ve said ‘everybody is welcome’ – keep including everybody! Having patience with people, taking enjoyment in helping them grow and learn, learning and growing alongside them, and demonstrating that individual humans are more important than their current productivity or skill level in any particular activity, are all extremely rewarding, meaningful and important.
If you don’t actually mean ‘all voices welcome,’ don’t say it!! Say what you mean, and then do that. If you mean ‘no auditions, but you do need to already have good pitching skills in place,’ for example, then say that – don’t say all voices and then exclude some people. Integrity, people!
And singers – don’t ask your leaders to break their integrity. If they’ve said ‘all voices welcome’, don’t ask them to ask people to leave. It’s disrespectful on so many levels!
Also, if your choir leader is a professional, running a business, and with a responsibility to take care of the voices of a group of people, don’t complain about them taking the time to warm you up, or object to them allowing new people to be included in the group. Inviting new people into the choir (if it’s not at full capacity) will be essential for keeping the choir afloat financially, and will help make it viable for your leader to continue teaching and running the group. More people getting involved also means a stronger chance of all the harmony parts staying solid! Some choirs run as ‘closed groups’ with only a few specific sessions where new people can join that term; some run as drop in only, just as workshops; some run as ongoing groups where dropping in and out as needed is fine, and there is also a core of regulars who keep the continuity; and some run in other ways! If your leader has been clear from the outset about the joining process, and who the choir is for, don’t ask them to suddenly break their word about it!
The shifting, changing and growing nature of community groups is fascinating and fun, and of course individuals will enjoy the mix of people at some times more than others. That’s the reality of a group in which drop ins are allowed, and newcomers are welcomed throughout most of the term; and to be honest, any kind of group where people are involved! I love the newcomer drop ins – they often tend to come at a time when half the choir has a cold / a wedding to attend / some other commitment, and in the group that I run, they really keep the numbers up and make the harmonies possible each week! As well as bringing new and interesting humans into the group. So, do of course feel free to give feedback to your group leaders about ways to improve what they do! But know that objecting anytime that new people join the group (if the group management has explicitly stated from the outset that newcomers are welcome throughout most of the term), isn’t going to be well received.
That’s not to say that long term suggestions about how a group is run aren’t welcome – in fact they can be very helpful in growing a choir and alerting organisers to possibilities they hadn’t thought of. I’m very grateful to everyone who has given me feedback about how I run things, that means I now offer a better service! From set-up matters (like leaving small gaps in a circle of chairs for people to walk through), to publicity matters (like being explicit in publicity about exactly how much of the profits of a charity concert will go to that charity), to technology (like the usefulness of a facebook poll to choose colour schemes for choir concerts), to inclusion (like adding a ‘my pronouns are’ option in the introductions bit). Those are all things that seem obvious to me now and have much improved how I do what I do – but until they were suggested to me, I hadn’t thought of doing them, and wasn’t aware of the positive difference they would make! Co-creating aspects of a community choir by receiving feedback and making good use of helpful suggestions, ideas and and creativity, is part of the joy of the community aspect of a community choir!
However, there’s a big difference between suggesting small/creative tweaks to improve the running of things, and asking someone to betray the ethos they have set up, and are committed to as a professional.
If a group member’s suggestion goes completely against the nature of the group that’s been set up, it’s not going to be helpful, just a hassle! If an NVN leader has said that all voices are welcome, don’t ask them to suddenly start excluding people! You would be disrespecting their integrity by doing so, and asking them to sabotage their professional set up. If you want to be part of a group where skill-levels are policed, newcomers and beginners are not allowed, and you control who comes to the choir – start your own (non-NVN) group! Don’t ask your leader to go back on their word, especially if it means asking them to break their professional code (see NVN Codes of Practice), and basically also means asking them to bully people out of a group that had said it would be welcoming.
It’s very very rare that I will ask somebody not to come to an NVN choir that I’m running. The only instances where that has happened are where individuals have been aggressive or very inappropriate with me, eg asking me to be romantically/sexually involved with them and becoming extremely aggressive when I say no; circumstances in which allowing them to return would jeopardise my ability to do my job and feel comfortable and safe, and might potentially threaten the safety of the other people in the group, were they to repeat this behaviour to others. So for me the only real caveat to the principle of ‘all voices are welcome’, is where the safety of the group leader and the singers are threatened.
Back to the warm ups! Warm ups are essential for healthy vocal use, and a well trained leader who cares about their singers won’t leave them out. They might seem silly, but they are all there for a purpose! If an excercise isn’t working for you or is physically painful, stop, don’t do it, and join back in at the next one. If you don’t understand the point of an excercise, try asking your leader (when they’re not teaching), about what that warm up is for. Or google it – there’s a treasure trove of (mixed quality) vocal information on the internet now! Most of all though, if your leader is an experienced and trained professional, trust them and give things a try. If it’s not hurting your voice or causing you harm, and they are a good teacher, it’s probably going to be good for your voice!
Integrity. People should do what they say on the tin! Back to the ‘all voices welcome’ point, because I love a reprise – if a choir says it is for all voices, then it should be for all voices! If a choir states ‘all voices welcome’, but means, ‘all voices welcome unless we don’t like your voice’ – there’s no integrity in that. If there are vocal or musical skill level conditions for joining – don’t say that there aren’t!
Integrity in other contexts than vocal: the LGBTQ+ world/scene needs to take a look at this! If an organisation says it is for LGBTQ+ people, then that’s what it should be. Sadly, a lot of organisations and meet up groups state LGBTQ+, when they actually mean ‘LG only’. Biphobia, transphobia, and general objections to and policing of the rest of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, are rife. If something is not welcoming to the whole umbrella of identities – don’t state that it is! If you mean to include only people who identify as lesbian or gay – state that! Don’t mislead Bi, Trans, Queer, and other gender and sexual identities, to think that they’d be welcome and have a safe haven from prejudice, only to make them feel unwelcome and unsafe. I’ve seen this in too many community groups and it’s another example of careless use of words, and lack of integrity (and lack of compassion, in many cases).
I’ve even had it happen in a group that I was running, which I had stated clearly was for LGBTQ+ and Allies, that a few of the members displayed biphobia towards me when I was dating a man; and my ‘credibility’ as somebody leading an LGBTQ+ and Allies group (not an LG group, an LGBTQ+ and Allies group – just let that sink in), was questioned. It was suggested that I just lead a ‘normal choir’ that’s not for LGBTQ+ & Allies. A few people even had the audacity to tell me what gender of person I should be dating. A few people started to refer to me as an Ally, as if I had become straight (Nota Bene – a person who identifies as Bisexual doesn’t become straight or gay when they are dating a woman or a man, they are still bisexual whomever they are dating, whether they are single, dating a non binary person, a trans person, a cis man or a cis woman, anybody else or nobody at all. If they identify as Bi, they are still Bi!). Even within a safe space that I had created, explicitly for LGBTQ+ people and Allies (all those letters count, and I mean every single one with integrity), the assumption that LGBTQ+ can be used to mean only LG, was present; and some people assumed that biphobia, transphobia and other aggressions would be acceptable within that space. It was very uncomfortable and distressing – because my identity, my professional survival, and my social survival, were all being threatened.
The way I dealt with it was to lean into my integrity.
As a visibly bisexual person (at that point anyway, due to my position as leader of an LGBTQ+ and Allies group, and my two most recent sexual partners having had different gender identities to each other), I could (and still can) challenge biphobia by continuing to run and be part of LGBTQ+ groups, regardless of who I am dating or not dating at any given time.
As somebody who has stated that Trans, Queer and all others under the broad umbrella of gender and sexual identities are explicitly welcome at my group, I can work to learn more about the people I am running the group for, and how best to make the space safe and good for them. For example, as suggested helpfully by a few group members, introducing an optional ‘my pronouns are’ aspect to the group check-ins, that people can state if they want to, encouraging people to question their assumptions about other peoples’ genders, and encouraging respect for the diversity of people and identities that I have welcomed in. Also, seeking out LGBTQ+ supportive literature and bringing it to the group, to help increase understanding between people who identify differently from each other.
As somebody who has stated that allies are welcome, I can make sure that allies feel welcome, and that what I have stated is a group for LGBTQ+ people and Allies, is not actually an exclusive club for only LG people, mislabelling itself (see a few paragraphs down for an example of this in action!).
Being subject to quite strong biphobia from within the group I had created, within the supposed queer safe haven of Brighton, as well as from society at large, and also from within my relationship at the time (with a straight cis man), was hugely stressful and took a great toll on my health (which was also a challenge at the time, as I had caught a very strong and unpleasant virus, which kick started the chronic illness I am still managing today).
What came out of it all for me was, the strength of integrity. I stood my ground and said ‘this is what I’m holding, I mean what I’ve said, I have a right to be here, and this is how it’s going to carry on.’ Which was hard work!
And what has grown out of that, is a beautiful atmosphere of respect and diversity, and a safe space in which people can, I hope, feel safe to be themselves. I think people are learning about each other at the group I run, and I am proud that the uniting factor of this group is not that we are all the same as each other (because we aren’t), but that we are supportive and celebratory of each other, that we respect each other, and that we are supportive and celebratory of all the identities on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and can enjoy learning and growing as a community.
Another example of how integrity can commonly be lacking in LGBTQ+ community groups – is stating that Allies are welcome, and then not actually meaning that Allies are welcome. In my opinion, someone is either welcome or they are not – half welcome isn’t really welcoming at all. I had a situation with a group I run where, despite having stated from the outset that the group is for LGBTQ+ people and Allies, a few people started asking me to ‘police’ people’s sexuality. This kind of gatekeeping (and invasive questioning!) is utterly not how I intend to treat people, and asking me to break my integrity about this was incredibly disrespectful.
I was asked to ‘police’ how many Allies we had, and to make sure that there weren’t ‘too many allies’, which I think as a concept in itself is extremely problematic – the more allies in the world, the better! And the world is right here, this is part of the world! I can’t, with integrity, state that ‘LGBTQ+ people and Allies’ are welcome, and then counter that by saying to potential members ‘but we’ve already taken a compulsory survey of everyone’s sexuality (ugh) and have enough allies, so don’t be our ally, go away you’re not welcome’. It just doesn’t work like that!! To say that I’d have to be 1. Lying in my publicity where I said Allies are welcome. 2. Rude. 3. Not myself.
Policing of allies also doesn’t allow for the fact that some people might not know yet how they identify, but want to be part of something that supports people loving who they love, and being who they are. The last thing I would ever want is for people to start having ‘prove how gay they are’, to be part of a group I’ve stated explicitly is for the whole spectrum of LGBTQ+, and for Allies, together. It’s just so lacking in integrity, and not at all the offering I intend to make to the world.
Anyway, the whole situation of being asked to break my integrity in these ways, was very uncomfortable. So I laid down the rules again about what I’m holding, very explicitly on the publicity, and implied ‘look, this is what I’ve said I’m creating. This is the space I’m continuing to hold. And this is how I intend to continue.’ Making things extra extra clear (eg stating more than once on the flier about the inclusivity policies), has meant that people know where they stand, and people are no longer asking me to break my integrity on that aspect. And people who wanted something different have gone elsewhere – that’s fine! And quite right – if you know what you’re looking for and what someone’s offering isn’t it, and isn’t going to become it, go elsewhere!
So basically, community group leaders and organisers, if you say your group is for LGBTQ+ people and Allies, you should mean it and enact it! Find ways to think about the needs of all the different identities of people you have stated that your group is for, and do your best to make them feel welcome, and to create an atmosphere in which respect for difference flourishes. If you actually mean ‘LG only’, then be explicit about that! Don’t use the LGBTQ+ acronym, or state ‘and Allies,’ if you don’t mean it!
Integrity. It’s worth reflecting on in many aspects of life, outside of the two main examples above. For example, the way people engage with animal industries can highlight a lack of integrity, or a dissonance, present in many people and in our culture. E.g., saying that you are an ‘animal lover’, but also buying meat, dairy and eggs, is (in my opinion) a dissonance, a lack of integrity. Paying for the continuance of a painfully cruel industry, but stating that you love the creatures you are paying to be tortured and killed. There is no integrity in that. It’s what most of the world is initially culturally conditioned to do, but as soon as you are aware enough to start asking questions, it becomes clear that you cannot state with integrity that you have love and compassion for non-human animals, and still support their murder and torture.
Yes, humans are oxymorons, we don’t always make sense, and we very much have a right to change our minds! But integrity is something I highly value and respect, and I think that more widespread reflection on and enactment of it would do the world a lot of good.
What examples can you think of where integrity might be helpful to reflect on, for you or for others?
Brainstorming some more… If someone asks you to do something, and you don’t want to do it, say no. There’s no reason to be rude/hurtful – if you don’t like someone you don’t have to say ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘you’re not my priority’. But if you mean no, and you say yes, you’re starting things off on a very bad foot.
I’m quite bad at this when it comes to romantic/sexual relationships. Something about the social training/conditioning that people (especially women) get, and wanting to be a ‘good girlfriend’ (don’t get me started on the infantilisation of using the terms ‘girl-friend’ and ‘boy-friend’ for other adults only if you are sexual with each other – so gross!), makes it a lot harder to say ‘no I don’t want that / I don’t want to do that’ than it should be.
‘I don’t want to’ should always be a good enough reason not to do something! Obviously with some exceptions, where responsibilities have already been taken on, eg parenting (you might not always want to pick up your child from school but it still needs to happen!). But in general social situations, in terms of saying yes or no to things, try practising being polite but honest. If someone asks you to meet up, but you are feeling overwhelmed and overbooked, make sure you say what you mean! Sure, say it nicely, it’s important to leave people feeling good where you can, but don’t straight up lie, then do stuff you don’t want to do, and then resent it. I think it usually comes out in weird ways if you let too much of that build up.
Integrity is certainly not the same as rigidity, or having to know all the answers, or having your ethical code set in stone and not open to growth and change. That is not integrity. In fact, I think an important part of the depth of human integrity is being able to say honestly, “I don’t know,” or “I was wrong about that,” or “I need some time to think about that.” If we are to develop, we must be constantly learning and updating our understanding of the world, and hence our personal moral compass, and our current beliefs and wishes. If everyone stuck rigidly to what they thought was right, without ever considering new ideas, bigots would never rethink their views on the existence of people they believe should be oppressed. Integrity isn’t being stuck in the mud, rigidly glued to an idea – it’s having a backbone about your beliefs and your choices, whilst also having open ears to new ideas, and to other people’s experiences.
Integrity is being clear about what you currently believe to be right, being clear about what you currently do and don’t want to do, and being willing to stand by that. It is also being open to considering change, open to giving a yes or a no to specific changes, and able to express clearly your current intentions and wishes. I think it should probably include a healthy dose of respect for other people too!
Integrity. A few ‘google define’ searches define it as: “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” And “Integrity means following your moral or ethical convictions and doing the right thing in all circumstances, even if no one is watching you. Having integrity means you are true to yourself and would do nothing that demeans or dishonors you.”
It isn’t always easy to keep one’s integrity; especially when there is peer pressure, inner confusion, exhaustion, one’s social conditioning, a manic desire to people-please, new concepts to get your mind around, social media madness etc. But to reflect upon integrity and to act accordingly, is a wonderful thing, and part of the brilliance of being human.
I hope these thoughts about integrity have given you food for thought.
For other opinionated but hopefully helpful and encouraging words, see my ebook of advice and encouragement for new yoga teachers, put together by Jude Murray. Warning! Contains Advice! Words of wisdom for new yoga teachers, by Hannah-Rose Tristram.