Encounter Choir rehearsal © Begegnungschor Berlin
International Choral Scene

Successfull integration through choral singing

Conductor Bastian Holze about working with refugees and Berlin residents in the encounter choir

1. What is behind the idea of founding a choir with singers from Germany and refugees from the world’s conflict areas? What made you sure that people would take on this project and make it successful, when you founded the choir? 

The choir’s initiative emerged from collaboration between the association Leadership e.V. and the Berlin Choir Association. They came up to me and my colleague Michael Betzner-Brandt with the idea of founding this choir.

Regarding the current situation in Germany it’s obvious to provide a possibility for refugees to arrive and feel welcome here. There are many models and tries already, that mostly base on the idea that old Berlin and new Berlin citizens – as we use to say in the encounter choir – come to talk to each other. However, very often there are language barriers to be overcome and personalities hit each other, who would be unable to find an appropriate topic of conversation even without facing a language barrier.

Singing in a choir is a low-threshold service for both sides. The participants are not forced to talk to each other. They experience music together. It serves as a common language for them. After a two hour rehearsal all people involved have experienced the same emotions that unite them as a group. People are happy about the moments they shared and find a common ground even without language.

Nevertheless there’s a relation between the members beyond the scope of an anonymous meeting. The encounter choir operates with a tandem principle meaning that every old Berlin citizen who is interested in singing in the encounter choir has to bring a new Berlin citizen as a tandem partner. This principle also works vice versa, of course. In this way we ensure a balanced ratio of various cultures and also approach to those people who don’t learn about us in the media due to possible language barriers.

2. Last fall the choir debuted on stage – with great success as it is said. What has happened since then?

In the first year of existence the number of choir singers has distinctly increased. Meanwhile we’re rehearsing with up to 80 people – nearly twice as much as in the beginnings. Also the music selection has become more diverse. We’re holding repertoire meetings on a regular basis and let choir singers suggest songs from their cultures. By now we’re singing in diverse languages and styles, which is much fun for all members.

This year we could also observe how much the choir is growing together despite its high number of members. Joint performances and trips (for example to the German Choir Festival in Stuttgart) led to intense friendships and even during summer break the choir met weekly for joint activities.

3. Many of the refugees come from countries without any kind of choral tradition or even with a ban on singing existing. You are a professional and best educated choral conductor and trained to easily figure out off-key notes. How would you rate the choir’s performance and how do you experience the musical work with people from far away?

The musical skills of individual members are not a requirement to enter the encounter choir. For this reason we certainly have different levels of experience in the group. It’s always exciting to unite them. During my 15 years of experience as a choir conductor I have led more homogeny groups yet. So I’m learning much through this choir. For example, I didn’t know before that polyphonic singing doesn’t even exist in the home countries of many of our fled fellow singers. So we had to work on this step first. Some of our new Berlin citizens have a great musical education, but are not familiar with the rhythms of our culture – this is a huge challenge, too.

For me personally it’s still a challenge to listen to the one or other Arabic piece and then write it down as a musical score, because the harmonic structures are very different from those in Western music.

The song lyrics and their pronunciation take up a lot of time during rehearsal. Both the German and the English, Arabic, Kurdish and all other song texts are first prompted by a native speaker and then repeated by the choir one by one. There are a lot of crazy moments developing then, because it either sounds unusual or it is mispronounced and thus possibly means something totally different.

Despite all these challenges I can say that the musical quality of the encounter choir has improved within its first year of existence. Meanwhile we are able to sing a lot of pieces for several voices.

4. Do you face a high fluctuation among the singers? Many of them are living in a permanent fear of deportation respectively they want or have to leave Germany for other reasons. How do you as conductor handle such a situation?

Fluctuation is indeed a great factor in such kind of groups. The 80 members mentioned above were the maximum cast in a rehearsal so far, but it happens once in a while. But there are also rehearsals with roughly 40 or 50 singers only. Further, some refugees have to leave the city or get strict appointments which make it impossible for them to join the choir anymore. But there is a core that has established consisting of new and old Berlin citizens which attends rehearsals regularly. New singers go along with them and learn quickly everything we have already worked out in choir.

It turned out that there’s another helpful instrument for us: We don’t hand out scores as a hard copy but we use a beamer to show the lyrics and scores on the wall. In doing so each new singer has direct access to the material and I can show during rehearsal which part of a song we’re currently practicing.

5. Do musical projects of this kind help to successfully push integration in Germany and other countries forward? What is the function of music with regard to integration in general?

According to my experience I can only give a positive response to this question. Music causes emotions and does not require speaking the same language. Further, music expresses much about culture and thereby you learn much about each other. What is originally foreign becomes suddenly familiar and you can enjoy it.

Music exists in all cultures of the world and helps to express emotions where words are not enough. The permanent setup and reduction of tension in music can be felt by each choir member.

Meanwhile there is also a band belonging to the encounter choir that consists of interested refugees who used to play an instrument in their home countries. When they start jamming after a rehearsal it happens often that choir members start to dance together and teach each other dances and traditions from their homes.

6. What are the next steps you’re planning with the encounter choir?

The first year was tumultuous and we have had great performances together. The choir was on stage of the Chamber Music Hall in the Berliner Philharmonie, was a guest in the Red Town Hall several times, travelled to the German Choir Festival in Stuttgart, sang for the European Commission and performed at the citizens’ fair of the Federal German President in Berlin. We can be sure that many great projects will follow.

I’m very glad about the group’s development to date. Even if the encounter of cultures is the first obvious aspect of this choir, the musical quality is constantly improving – despite the high fluctuation existing. The musical ambitions do not fade into the background and will continue to grow.

7. Does the encounter choir serve as a role model for groups in other cities? What musical projects aiming for integration would you personally like to see?

Yes, we are often asked to advice choir conductors who want to bring similar projects into being. We’re very open to those requests. Me personally, I’m happy if you can make it to inspire people to sing and to eliminate prejudices through it. For this reason the encounter choir will offer a 3-day workshop in December teaching conductors and singers what to consider when they want to found a refugee choir. We share the experiences with the encounter choir and are glad, if this idea bears more than one single choir in Berlin.