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Sing Me In as a call for action

Text: Anna Bobrikova

In today’s globalised world, immigration has become a common phenomenon. People migrate from one country to another for various reasons, including economic, social, political, and environmental factors. While some people may move voluntarily in search of better opportunities, others may be forced to flee their home countries due to conflict or persecution.

Whether compelled by external factors or a voluntary decision, the process of immigration is always a challenging experience, especially for young repatriates. 

Young migrants face numerous challenges as they adapt to their new environment. One of the most significant challenges is the cultural shock that they experience when they encounter a new way of life. Language barriers, discrimination, and social isolation can also make it difficult for them to integrate into their new communities and access basic things like education, healthcare, and new employment opportunities. These challenges can have a significant impact on the mental health and well-being of young migrants, highlighting the need for support services and policies that can help them navigate their new environment.

This is why, in the European Choral Association, we have the Sing Me In project.

Sing Me In was launched in 2015 aiming to support the integration of young migrants into the community through collective singing. It was then completed in 2018. Among the outcomes of this project are several webinars and four handbooks translated into up to 11 languages. 

I felt inspired by this project since I first encountered it in 2019. Back in the day, I was only getting acquainted with the Association, but the existence of projects like Sing Me In showed me the depth of the work Association has been doing. No wonder that in 2022, when the war in Ukraine started, and I was brainstorming on how to contribute to and support the Ukrainian people, Sing Me In came to my mind. With the newly established Youth Committee 2022-2024, we decided to revisit this project. Wise people from the Board encouraged us to gain a broader perspective on the changes that happened on the immigration map of Europe since 2015, and after their approval, the Sing Me In revisited project was launched. 

We studied the immigration statistics, created a list of countries from which we have many refugees in Europe, and compared our list to the countries already mentioned in the Sing Me In 2015-2018 project. As one of the results of the original project was the Repertoire Guide with the songs from the countries of immigrants’ origin, we decided to update this one by collecting songs from the “new” countries on the map. Please stay tuned, we could really use your help, the detailed instruction is at the end of the article! We also intend to draw the attention of the choral community to this project again and encourage choir directors to invite people with immigration backgrounds to their choirs or even start new choirs with a special focus on immigrants in their local communities.

It took me quite some time to realise that my home country is actually on the list, and as I’ve quit my country several years ago with a strong intention not to come back, I myself can participate in this project – not only as a manager but also as a singer. For the sake of experience (and potentially building a powerful case!), but also for my own sake, I joined the Turku Cathedral Oratory Choir. 

Mozart's Requiem at Turku Cathedral. 5.11.2022. Turku Cathedral Oratorio Choir photo archive

Mozart’s Requiem at Turku Cathedral. 5.11.2022. Turku Cathedral Oratorio Choir photo archive

Collective singing is often referred to as the fastest way into music, and church choirs are probably the most popular and accessible option for those looking to get involved in singing. Turku Cathedral was holding an open audition for the singers to take part in a special project: a huge choir was composed of regular Cathedral choir signers and people joining through the audition, and together with a local orchestra they were supposed to perform the Mozart’s Requiem in the Cathedral. Despite the language barrier and being 1 week late for these auditions, I was greeted with an incredible amount of warmth and support. Our wonderful conductor, Anu Åberg, immediately instructed one of my new colleagues to help me deal with the language barrier and generally be “in charge” of me. She introduced me to the choir without mentioning my nationality or stating that I can’t understand something, instead, she said, ‘this is Anna, and she prefers to speak English’. And since that moment, I’ve never felt lost or left aside in this choir.

Turku Cathedral TCYC Choir and Katariina Sallinen attending the Reception of the Turku Archbishop’s Pantry, 1.01.2023. Turku Cathedral TCYC Choir photo archive

It’s been almost half a year now, and I can say without hesitation that this experience was transformative and life-changing for me. All the social benefits of collective singing we’re mentioning so frequently in the European Choral Association, all the advantages of being integrated into the community through singing that were inspiring words in the Sing Me In handbooks – I believe I’ve experienced them all, and they are so much more than just words for me now. 

Let’s see. First of all, I’ve connected with the local culture on a level I’ve never dreamed to achieve. I now know many of the favourite and most common songs of the people, I’ve participated in many traditional events and celebrations that are dear to the hearts of Finns, and I almost feel at home in the Mother Church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Being able to sing along with the audience without having the scores or follow up with the evening service flow contributes significantly to the feeling of belonging and being actively involved, and this is something many immigrants are genuinely missing.

Having a choir in your life adds fifteen to fifty people to your network, a precious gift for someone who has to start building the network from scratch in a new environment. There are suddenly familiar faces in the streets, people who smile at you (a rare thing in the north!), people who are willing to have a chat every now and then, even if the language barrier prevents you from having a meaningful conversation. I’ve been extremely lucky with my choir being endlessly supportive and friendly. There was never a moment in these six months that anyone would refuse to help me with understanding the directions given in Finnish, moreover, countless times different choir members supported me before I could’ve asked for their help. I’ve obtained quite a few friends in the choir, and living in a new country doesn’t feel so lonely anymore. 

Earth Hour concert rehearsal, 25.03.2023. Turku Cathedral Oratorio Choir photo archive

Singing in Finnish undoubtedly supports my language-learning process. Obviously, learning the lyrics of the songs helps to build new connections and associations, and singing improves the ability to remember the words. It also improves my grammar skills: I literally learned the basics of past tenses just from the songs. What is even more important, the choir gives me the motivation to keep learning, even though Finnish is a tricky language that I don’t need that much in my daily life. I see my conductor at every rehearsal switching to English now and then to support me and other immigrants in the choir, I meet my ‘tutor’ who is always ready to interpret all the important things, and I receive random translations and directions from other choir members, and with every effort they make to support me, I feel the urge to meet them halfway and make one more step to finally understanding at least something on my own. 

The list goes on, but I believe that the point I’m trying to make is clear by now: joining a choir can give you everything and more in terms of social integration, not to mention the pure joy of being able to sing again. It is crucial to notice, of course, that not every choir is prepared to accept foreigners, but I am immensely lucky to be a part of the community that incredible Anu Åberg has created. As a manager working on the Sing Me In project, I was naturally interested in her perspective and motivation to go through all the struggles and support the internationals in her choir. The insightful answer she gave me made me admire her even more:

“A migrant in the choir is not a problem at all. I don’t think there is any trouble. Music is the language. Music comes from a heart and it goes to the heart. So where’s the problem?

I believe that the best music can be done only when people like and accept each other. So, it doesn’t matter if the person is a migrant or just ‘different’ (too old, too young, too sick, too whatever), the most important for me is to teach people to understand and accept each other. Music is always my goal, sure, but the choir is also a place to learn one or two things about life.

Anu Åberg, conductor of the Turku Cathedral TCYC Choir and Turku Cathedral Oratorio Choir (amongst other merits), picture from Anu’s personal archive

A choir should be a harm-free area for everybody. A few harm-free hours to escape from the cold world and the only harm is incorrect intonation or something like that is something we all need from time to time, no matter the background.

Also: my choir, my rules. I say the rule is to accept, to have it in your heart. When everybody knows it, it helps people to be oriented on how we should behave with each other. Everything returns to the main thing: music connects people, it gives friends, fun, and understanding and through those things, we build also peace in our tiny worlds.

You know, a migrant is not someone who must be babysat all the time. They will manage with a little help and a friendly smile. And then after some time, when the choir members get over their shyness, they become curious, who is that interesting person, and what their story is? Communication and connections grow naturally.

So, a migrant is a richness. I learn, you learn, we learn.”

Independence Day of Finland celebration, 6.12.2022. Turku Cathedral TCYC Choir photo archive

There’s not much to add here. I look back on the last year I’ve been working on the Sing Me In project and the last six months I’ve been, in a way, participating in the project as a singer, and I can conclude that this project helped me in many different ways. Preparing the new edition of the Sing Me In project was one of the most harmless ways for me to reduce war-related anxiety and contribute somehow to supporting the people. Singing in the Turku Cathedral Oratorio Choir and Turku Cathedral TCYC Choir opened a whole new world for me, and in regards to my integration into the community, I’ve achieved more than in the previous two years of living in this country. I have nothing but the sincerest hope to bring the same support to many other young immigrants across Europe with our Sing Me In revisited project. 

And here’s how you can contribute to our work!

Right now we are finalising the updating of the Repertoire Guide, and for this Guide we need scores. Do you happen to know some simple and common choral pieces from Syria, Morocco, Afghanistan, Venezuela, India, Iraq, Brazil, Pakistan, China, Somalia or Nigeria? Please, please send them to our email youthcommittee@europeanchoralassociation@org! Scores would be perfect, but we will be also happy to receive the links where one can buy your favourite pieces or just the names or videos with the songs being performed. Any contribution, even the smallest one, is welcome! 


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