Singing Social Inclusion: Towards the Applicability of German Approaches to Community Building in Australian Choral Music

By Benjamin Leske


Germany is a country with a proud musical heritage. Music making in community is Germany’s largest civic activity and there are a vast number of active choirs and choral organisations. Choral singing is valued as a cultural asset and national export. In this article I survey the recent history of choral singing in Germany, a civic movement that is expanding and changing beyond traditional understandings of what it means to be a “choir” and with evolving organisational structures supporting its growth. This article summarises findings of a larger 2014 study undertaken for the Australian German Association (AGA) and the Goethe Institut. It offers a number of suggestions for colleagues, leaders, and policy-makers who work in choral music in Australia, a country with a vibrant choral music scene but with much potential to improve its supporting institutional structures. As a community music research project, it may provide wider context for music therapists with an interest in community music therapy in particular. This article was first published in Sing Out (Vol. 32, No. 2, 2015)[1] and is adapted here to share my experiences and findings beyond Australia’s choral music community.

Keywords: community music, choral music, Germany, Australia, social inclusion

I arrived at the suburban town hall in Tiergarten, Berlin, on a sunny spring afternoon in May, just in time for a celebration. Assorted stalls abuzz with colour and activity, promoted organisations that support people with disabilities and their carers. On the town hall steps a rock band called Handiclapped was setting up shop as a carload of nervous and excited singers arrived. They were members of the Nogat-Singers (as can be seen in Figure 1)[2], a neighbourhood all abilities choir from the Neukölln suburb of Berlin, and were star performers for an event to promote, celebrate and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Their performance was a vibrant and colourful mix of popular German folk songs and Schlager (a German popular music genre). Having joined their dress rehearsal earlier in the week, I was impressed by the choir’s energy and its commitment to fostering a sense of community.

Founded by disability support organisation Lebenshilfe Berlin, the Nogat-Singers rehearses weekly in a locally supported accommodation service, and most members live with intellectual disabilities. The choir receives funding from a social inclusion project grant of the European Union awarded on the basis of its close neighbourhood ties. This made sense to me – a neighbourhood choir that in its little patch of Berlin fosters social inclusion for people with disabilities. Here was a great example of Christopher Small’s (1998) musicking in action and of community music, a term described by Lee Higgins (2012) as music that is (1) of a community, (2) made together in community; and (3) with active facilitation and leadership (p.3). It was an ideal starting point for my study of choral singing in Germany.

The Nogat Singers, Berlin (Neukölln). Photo © The Nogat Singers, 2014.
Photo 1. The Nogat Singers, Berlin (Neukölln). Photo © The Nogat Singers, 2014. Used with permission.

The Nogat Singers is just one of a large number of choirs that rehearse regularly across Germany. Alongside church-based and religious choirs, community choirs (defined loosely as amateur or non-professional choirs) perform in a vast range of venues, from local pubs and municipal halls through to professional stages and theatres. In 2014, there were eight choirs employing full-time salaried singers, including several large radio choirs and smaller chamber choirs. My time in Germany in 2014 as a fellow of the Australian German Association and the Goethe-Institut allowed me to observe choirs of all shapes and sizes and to explore the rich practice of choral singing in Germany today. Inspired, I returned with ideas for our far younger choral movement in Australia. In this article I provide an overview of the choral singing movement in Germany and its recent history. I then outline recent developments in Australian community choral music and suggest ideas and initiatives, drawing from my German experiences, to strengthen Australia’s relatively young choral singing movement.

Choral Music, Community Music, and Music as Therapy in Germany

Support for the arts and amateur music making in Germany has a long history. I recall a passing comment that three historic features defined traditional German village life: a shooting club (Schützenverein) for community defence; a fire brigade (Feuerwehr) for community safety; and a choir (Gesangverein or Liedertafel) or brass band (Kapelle) for community wellbeing! In 1871, 38 territories and free cities united under a common German federation. Most brought with them their own opera houses, concert halls, and musical ensembles that had serviced the historic royal courts. Churches too played a crucial role in preserving musical traditions. One contemporary example of this long-held tradition is the Saint Thomas Boys Choir (Thomanerchor Leipzig) – perhaps the most famous boys’ choir worldwide – that celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2012 (Wydra, 2015). In smaller communities, church musicians often took on additional leadership roles as school music teachers and community choir leaders.

Germany’s historical experiences with music – both negative and positive – have shaped its contemporary community singing culture and even the terminology used. Community musicians – musicians working within a community who undertake musical interventions intended to have extra-musical consequences (Deane & Mullen, 2013, p. 26) – play important roles in Germany’s cultural life. Yet to date there has been no clear agreement as to a suitable translation of “community music” into German, with many scholars preferring to retain the English term. The direct German translation, Geminschaftsmusik, is overshadowed by the mass singing movements and atrocities committed by Germans during the period of the National-Socialist (Nazi) government from 1933 to 1945. Similarly, the Nazi government’s approach to music education, known as Musische Erziehung, manipulated music to suit its own agenda (Kertz-Welzel, 2008; 2013). Numerous German scholars of community music and choral music history in Germany have examined how this period of Germany’s history influences contemporary German attitudes toward music, singing, and cultural practices more broadly (Keden, 2003; Kertz-Welzel, 2005) and determines the limits of “acceptable” choral music making.

The division of Germany into East (German Democratic Republic or GDR) and West (Federal Republic of Germany or FRG) from 1949–1990 generated distinct approaches to music in community. West German educators and policy-makers favoured Theodor Adorno’s approach to music education. Adorno (1970), in a series of speeches and public discussions between 1959–69, argued that after its manipulation during the Nazi period music could not and should never be used to pursue goals of healing or social transformation (Kertz-Welzel, 2005). In its place, Adorno argued for the pursuit of musical excellence and individuality and against collective, community-minded music by amateur music-makers with transformative goals. As a result, music was increasingly seen as the purview of elite musicians and professionals, with teaching and learning focussed on musical excellence at the expense of practices and initiatives that supported community wellbeing. By contrast, community singing in the former East Germany was more widespread and its community wellbeing benefits acknowledged. Yet it was frequently also used to further the socialist state-building objectives of the East German government (Goll & Leuerer, 2004).

Community musicking was also practiced in a therapeutic context within both East and West Germany. While music therapy typically took place in clinical settings, Brynjulf Stige (2002) illustrates the work of three influential music therapy scholars with close ties to social work and social education from both East and West Germany and who take social and political environments into account. Stige describes the intellectual contributions of Christoph Schwabe (GDR), Almut Seidel (FRG), and Isabelle Frohne-Hagemann (FRG) to what is known within English language scholarship as community music therapy (Ansdell, 2002): music therapy practiced in a community, cognisant of and responsive to the social and cultural contexts in which it is practiced, and with a transformative or change goal (Stige, 2002).

Music in Germany Today

The post-war emphasis on the aesthetics of music in Germany helped to preserve and nurture a vital and historic cultural asset. Community musicking today, whether supported by community musicians or therapists, is gaining recognition in Germany for its wellbeing benefits, aided by recent media interest in community choirs and choral singing. In recent decades, opinions across reunified Germany have shifted. In music education in particular there are once again discussions about the place of community music and the potential extra-musical benefits of music in schools, including for community wellbeing (Kertz-Welzel, 2008; 2013).

Culture and the creative arts remain highly valued and comparatively well funded within German society and by all levels of government (McCaughey, 2005). A 2007 federal government report reinforces this view, arguing: “Culture is not simply ornamental; it is the foundation of our society and the platform upon which it grows. The job of politicians is to safeguard and strengthen culture.” [3] (Deutscher Bundestag, 2007). A total of EUR11.2 billion was spent in 2011 to support Germany’s cultural activities, including EUR8 billion from its federal, state and municipal governments, with the remainder from its Christian churches[4] and private funding. Germany’s 16 States (Länder) together contributed more than one third of this total (EUR3.4 billion). The Länder retain powers in educational and cultural matters and a large say in preserving Germany’s many cultural identities. Musical life in Germany today is “noted for its diversity, high quality and geographic density” and the German government takes pride in its reputation as a land of music (German Music Information Centre, 2011, p. ix). In 2011 there were 133 publicly funded symphony and chamber orchestras, 83 music theatres, nearly 500 regular music festivals, and thousands of amateur, semi-professional choruses, orchestras, and ensembles (GMIC, 2011, ix).

It is perhaps not surprising then that community music making is the largest civic movement within Germany (Reimers, 2012, p.1). Choral singing today is an opportunity for many to partake in some of the musical delights and masterpieces of Germany’s rich choral music history. Friedhelm Brusniak (2003, p.69), a leading scholar of German choral singing, suggests choral music and a vast and diverse tapestry of choirs are essential and integrated parts of Germany’s public and private musical life. There are nearly 59,100 associated choirs and choral organisations in Germany, including about 29,900 secular and 37,200 religious organisations. Together, they engage nearly 2.3 million singers regularly (Reimers, 2012, p.2). Formal choral activities do not include the multitude of established and ad hoc choral groups not affiliated with a peak singing organisation. There is a large audience base for choral concerts. A 2004 study estimated about 60 million people attend some 300,000 choral concerts annually in Germany (reported in Reimers, 2012, p.1).

I was interested to learn more about the agencies and organisations who advocated for and supported choral music in Germany. I discovered a perplexing (at times even Kafkaesque) range of overlapping associations, government departments and funding agencies with coordination and advocacy responsibilities. As described above, municipal, state and federal government agencies administer funding for the arts and support different elements of choral music in a similar way to Australia’s federal system. Outside of government, the majority of choirs in Germany belong to a regional, interest-based or religious choral organisation such as the Schwäbische Chorverband (Swabian Choral Association), the Verband Deutscher KonzertChöre (The Association of German Concert Choirs), or to a church association such as the Allgemeinen Cäcilien-Verband (Choral Association of the German Catholic Church). Regional and interest-specific choral associations in turn affiliate with one of two peak choral organisations, and occasionally both: the Federal Association of German Choral Associations or Bundesvereinigung Deutscher Chorverbänder e.V. (BDC); and the German Choral Association or Deutscher Chorverband e.V. (DCV).

The DCV is the world’s largest choral association and represents the vast majority of Germany’s non-religious choral associations, including over 30 state-based and regional associations. DCV designs and oversees a host of innovative programs and schemes for its member choirs and leaders, supported by a paid, full-time staff. DCV publishes Chorzeit, Germany’s monthly national choral music magazine with 35,000 subscribers and on sale in newsagents across the country (DCV, 2014). The BDC counts among its members Germany’s largest choral music employers, the peak Catholic (katholische) and Protestant (evangelische) Church choral organisations, organisations for youth choral music and for Germany’s 500 concert choirs. The Federal President of Germany bestows the Zelter Plakatte to choirs that reach 100 years of age – an important initiative administered by the BDC (2014).

Together, these two umbrella organisations represent the vast majority of German choirs, yet appear at times to be in direct competition with one another for recognition, institutional membership, and funding. When viewed through Germany’s unique historical lens, I suggest this design offers member choral associations multiple perspectives and organisational structures, and fosters a sense of competition for patronage. It avoids too a single, central point of control for choral singing in Germany, a country where mass singing was used to manipulate the population during the Nazi period in particular. I observed several choirs were neither current DCV or BDC members nor intending to join, preferring to avoid the choral bureaucracy altogether.

In 2014, Germany’s choral music culture was in transition. When I talked about my research project to non-choral music enthusiasts (or better said, yet-to-be converted choral music enthusiasts!), many pictured the all-male Liedertafel choir, Germany’s dominant historical choir model. This traditional image of “choir” is rapidly changing. A 2012 New Zealand film/TV documentary about folk singing in Germany, “Sound of Heimat – Deutschland Singt” (Birkenstock & Tengeler, 2011), helped to raise awareness about the diverse types of vocal music in Germany, from choirs and folk groups to hip-hop and cabaret artists. The sheer variety of musical styles and the mobility of singers, who are less limited by their physical location and can seek out choirs according to their musical tastes, has I believe, fundamentally changed Germany’s choral community. Children’s, youth, and women’s choirs are growing while the more traditional choral organisations such as the Liedertafel are in decline. Mixed choirs now outnumber male voice choirs (Arit, 2014) and there has been a boom in jazz and pop genre choirs (AlumniPortal Deutschland 2014; Tip Magazin, 2014). Singing-related talent competitions, television series and films, as popular in Germany as in Australia, have contributed to a sense of momentum in choral musicking.

FDie Rheintöchter, lesbian comedy choir, Cologne. Photo © Magdalena Hutter, 2013.
Photo 2. Die Rheintöchter, lesbian comedy choir, Cologne. Photo © Magdalena Hutter, 2013. Used with permission.

I took particular interest in German community choirs with members who may have experienced social exclusion at some point in their lives. Social exclusion, as it is described in community music therapy, is “a process by which individuals or groups are detached from other people, groups, organizations, or institutions, or more generally excluded from social relationships and participation in activities on various areas of social life” (Stige & Aarø, 2014, pp.106–107). A growing body of literature explores the value of choir singing for addressing social exclusion and for finding a sense of place within a community, recognising the associated benefits for individual and community wellbeing (see for instance: Bailey & Davidson, 2002; 2005; Dingle, Brander, Ballantyne, & Baker, 2012; Faulkner & Davidson, 2006). I observed many choirs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) communities (including Die Rheintöchter, Cologne’s Lesbian Comedy Choir, who are depicted in action in Photo 2), several all-abilities choirs that included people with disabilities, a church-based choir supporting new migrants and refugee communities in Germany, and a choir for people experiencing homelessness. I led a rehearsal of Hard Chor ELLA (see Photo 3), an innovative school-based community choir from Pankow, a suburb of Berlin that was once part of East Germany. In all these choirs, just as I had observed in my own practice in Australia (Leske & Wilson, 2013), it was clear that singing together in a choir fosters a powerful sense of community, purpose and wellbeing.

Hard Chor ELLA, Berlin (Pankow). Spring Concert. Photo © Inés Weinmann, 2013. Choral Music in Australia Today
Figure 3. Hard Chor ELLA, Berlin (Pankow). Spring Concert. Photo © Inés Weinmann, 2013. Used with permission.

Choral Music in Australia Today

As the world’s longest surviving culture, Indigenous Australians used music and singing in their communities for many thousands of years (Davidson, 2008). By contrast, organised choral music in Australia is far younger and until recently largely overlooked Indigenous Australia’s rich musical history. European settlers, who colonised the country, brought primarily Anglo-Irish, and later German, musicking traditions with them. Following the establishment of a penal colony in Sydney in 1788, choral music and the infrastructure to support it extended steadily across the colonies through churches, glee clubs, mechanics institutes, and choral music societies.

Australian choral music further developed in the 20th century with tertiary music education offered in Australian universities, the creation of state music conservatoria, and the establishment of a national radio and television broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) (Campbell, 2003). The ABC supported a number of professional radio choirs in Australia’s largest cities from the 1930s. Sadly, by the 1970s the ABC choirs had disbanded and were eclipsed by Australia’s pre-eminent symphony orchestra movement. With the notable exception of opera, choral music remains primarily an amateur pursuit (Wilmott, 1997). Several small professional singing ensembles (such as The Song Company and The Consort of Melbourne) operate alongside a range of internationally regarded project-based youth and adult choirs (such as Gondwana Voices; The Australian Voices; Ensemble Goumbert; The Australian Chamber Choir; and the Sydney Chamber Choir). A network of larger concert choirs with volunteer membership supports the choral performances of Australia’s professional, state-based symphony orchestras. Several national programs foster choral music in Australia’s schools but there is still much work to be done to ensure equal access to school music education.

In 2016, Australia can claim a vibrant, flexible, and diverse network of community choral groups that attracts singers of all ages, sizes, backgrounds and voice types. An industry survey of Australian community choirs in 2013 estimated there to be more than 1,000 community choirs across the country (Masso, 2013). They include but are not limited to a cappella, barbershop and glee-clubs, church, religious and gospel choirs, all abilities choirs, special interest choirs such as pop choirs and choirs of the LGBTIQ communities, university choirs, and choirs with a social inclusion focus.

Nevertheless, institutional support for choral music outside of formal educational settings is limited. Music Australia (MA) advocates for Australia’s wider music industry, for music education and community music, promoting grants and training opportunities nationally. The Australian National Choral Association (ANCA) was established in 1990 and acts as the peak organisation for Australian choral music. A volunteer national council and part time administrator oversee and support ANCA’s activities, including regular events across its state and territory chapters, and a biennial national choral convention. ANCA is largely funded by member contributions and advertising income from its choral journal. A number of state-based organisations such as Community Music Victoria (CMV) seek specifically to develop community choral and instrumental music.

Recent academic studies have documented the diverse range of Australian community music and choral singing activities already underway (Bartleet, Dunbar-Hall, Letts, & Schippers, 2009; Gridley, Astbury, Sharples, & Aguirre, 2011; Southcott & Joseph, 2013; 2015; Masso, 2013). Alongside these studies, other scholars in Australia and internationally have sought to better understand the boundaries between the work of community musicians and community music therapists (O’Grady & McFerran, 2007), and the role of community music therapists working with choirs (Elefant in Stige, Ansdell, Elefant, & Pavlicevic, 2010).

Ideas to Strengthen Australia Community Choral Music

It is appropriate to consider what Australia might learn from Germany and its rich choral music history if it is to “scale up” its choral music culture and the institutions that nurture it. In Germany, a network of choral associations, backed by government and philanthropic funding, supports a thriving choral music industry with roots in local communities and extending through to its professional choirs. In Australia, at a time of growing media and academic interest in choral singing and its physical health and wellbeing benefits for communities (Clift, 2012; Clift & Hancox, 2010; Davidson, 2008; Stewart & Lonsdale, 2016), there is much potential to improve the structures that support choral music. It might be argued that supporting further growth in Australia’s community choral music movement in particular generates a public health dividend. This would require a shift in the way Australians think about choral music in their communities, specifically, a recognition and valuing of community choral music as both a public health priority and a hobby.

Australia can strengthen its supporting institutions and draw upon a number of innovations and ideas from countries such as Germany. I set out below key suggestions for policy-makers, representative committees, musical and administrative leaders who work with community choirs (a complete list can be found in my report to the AGA):

  • Create a vocational pathway with appropriate professional development and recognition for community choral leaders
  • Establish a national community choir awards scheme, including a “long service” citation for choirs that reach a certain age (similar to Germany’s Zelter Plakatte)
  • Appoint a high profile patron to promote and advance choral music within communities
  • Lighten the reporting load for committees and choral music staff by negotiating an agreement with the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) for a single annual fee that covers all choir arrangement and performance rights across a pre-approved list of songs (similar to an agreement reached between DCV and Germany’s APRA equivalent: www.deutscher-chorverband.de/leistungen/gema/)
  • Create an accreditation program in early childhood education (similar to Germany’s Die Carusos: www.die-carusos.de/) where accredited choir leaders “teach the teachers” to ensure young children receive high quality and pedagogically sound singing experiences from an early age
  • Establish a national professional choir that includes within its mandate significant outreach work to Australian choirs and communities of all ages.

To achieve these suggestions would require those government and other organisations that support choral music in Australia to properly resource our expert national organisations, particularly MA and ANCA, along with state-based institutions such as CMV. I believe the time is right for Australian policy-makers and choral music leaders to begin this conversation, drawing from the lessons and ideas of countries such as Germany. Choral music in Germany, a celebrated and treasured cultural asset, is gradually changing its tune to include people of all abilities and backgrounds and in a way that improves community wellbeing. My time there provided refreshing ideas and valuable lessons for what might be possible for Australia, and inspiration to continue my professional practice and academic research in Australia. Above all, it was a reminder to celebrate both the act and the art of choral music making and the joy it brings to communities in Australia and in Germany.


[1]Sing Out is the journal of the Australian National Choral Association. My thanks to Dr. Alexander Crooke for his insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I acknowledge the generous support of the 2013 Australian German Association/Goethe-Institut Fellowship for this project: http://www.aga.org.au/fellowship/

[2]Written permission to publish all images featured in this article was sought and granted by the choirs and their photographers.

[3]Author’s translation. Original German text: Kultur ist kein Ornament. Sie ist das Fundament, auf dem unsere Gesellschaft steht und auf das sie baut. Es ist Aufgabe der Politik, dieses zu sichern und zu stärken.

[4]German taxpayers pay an extra income tax to the church according to the denomination into which they were baptised. The Federal Government collects these taxes to fund church activities. See http://www.steuer-forum-kirche.de/ for more.


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