Multiple songs were cut from Chapel Choir’s Oct. 22 Vespers concert due to singers’ concerns that the pieces might be triggering to some.
The concert, entitled “Finding Strength and Hope,” seeks to balance themes of loss, grief, hope and belief.
A member of the choir contacted Title IX Coordinator Kari Hohn following a rehearsal of the song “Listen,” which addresses themes of sexual violence. Rehearsal of the song elicited concerns from some choir members that the song’s content might be distressing for some.
“While it’s important to have a discussion about the concepts or topics that they wanted to address with the programming, a lot of those, because of their triggering nature, need to be something that students voluntarily participate in,” said Chapel Choir member Sydney Wagner ’21.
That wasn’t necessarily the case with “Listen” and a couple other pieces, leading Wagner and other choir members to express concerns.
“It’s not really being super cognizant of where everyone’s at in healing from trauma,” Wagner said.
Due to these concerns, “Listen” will no longer be performed at the Vespers concert. It will instead return in the spring as an “opt-in” experience for vocalists, a decision made between Chapel Choir members and their conductor, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu.
Hohn said Wondemagegnehu was very receptive when she presented him with the choir member’s concerns.
“I think he was kind of treating me as a consultant to help him think about how he wanted to approach the song, and how he wanted students to engage with it in a way that was thoughtful and sensitive to where everyone was at in the room,” Hohn said.
Wagner said she’s “really happy with Tesfa’s receptiveness to concerns and that things were changed.”
Alekz Thoms ’20, a member of Chapel Choir, wrote the lyrics to “Listen.”
“If somebody is heavily triggered by the topic, it’s not required,” Thoms said. “It’s not going to be part of a big concert anymore.”
The piece was written intentionally to draw attention to those who commit acts of violence such as rape and sexual assault, Thoms said.
“I did not want the onus of the text to focus on the survivor again,” Thoms said. “Putting the onus on the person perpetrating the act is really important, because it is an act perpetrated against somebody, and to focus it so much on the experience is retraumatizing in a lot of ways.”
The choir will work with potential collaborators when the piece is revisited in the spring, such as the Title IX team, the Sexual Assault Resource Network (SARN) and Broadcast Media, Wondemagegnehu said.
Another song, entitled “Lament of a Lost Child,” was also cut from the concert. The song was removed due to its “aggressive” sound and vocalizations that evoked feelings of “sadness and terror,” which did not fit the direction of the concert, Thoms said. Unlike “Listen,” it will not be performed at a later date.
A different song relating to the loss of a child and gun violence will be kept, however, as a result of discussions between the choir and conductor Wondemagegnehu.
Another change to the Vespers concert is the elimination of student devotionals. Instead of asking students to share their own personal stories, the students will get a chance to reflect during instrumental and vocal solo reflections, which is an intentional change from previous years, Wondemagegnehu said.
Sally Olmstead ’20, a Chapel Choir officer, believes the choir has not only been a space where students can come together to make music, but is also a safe space for members to process their feelings regarding the music.
“I think something that I’m really proud of in how we’ve interacted as a group this year is just taking care of each other,” Olmstead said. “If people need to leave the room during rehearsal, we’re prioritizing self-care.”
The program notes, done by Gabriella Holtzman ’21 and Joanna Hancock ’20, will resemble more of a storyline rather than very technical program notes. They will include trigger warnings when appropriate.
Pastor Matthew Marohl will also provide a word of hope in between two of the pieces, which will include a prayer session and a reading of multiple works by poet Langston Hughes.
Despite the cuts to the Vespers concert, Wondemagegnehu said every piece in the text has a moment of hope for people to cling to. This is the real arc of the program, Wondemagegnehu said.
The Vespers concert will be Oct. 22 in Boe Memorial Chapel at 7:30 p.m.
Disclosure: Sydney Wagner and Joanna Hancock, Chapel Choir members mentioned in the article, are the Manitou Messenger’s business manager and copy editor, respectively.