By Cathleen Leitch
Music today is full of catchy lines and motivational lyrics, which is probably why instrumental music has seemingly faded away. Westminster alumna Mollie Stone came to speak at Westminster Choir College last month about the impact that choral music can have on serious issues across the globe.
Stone received her master’s degree in choral conducting and is also a teacher and conductor of the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Starting when she was 16, Stone ventured to South Africa and experienced the ways in which local adult choirs can inspire change, particularly in informing the public about HIV.
“I saw for the first time how people were using music to create social and political change,” Stone said. “I became very interested in studying how people can use music to change their world.”
Because her first trip to South Africa was just after the first Democratic election in 1996, Stone became interested in studying the ways that music was used in the apartheid struggle and began to consider where the cause would go next.
She learned that these choirs were using choral music to spread information and inspire mobilization when the government enacted unfair policies. They also worked on the basic level, providing comfort to those who were struggling.
“I had a hunch that because HIV was such a huge problem that people would start thinking about HIV and AIDS,” Stone said.
Her hunch got her a grant from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that allowed her to travel around South Africa and continue her research by listening to prison, political and all HIV-positive choirs. What she discovered has kept her going back every two to three years.
“Once again they were using music to make change, both in terms of how people perceive HIV and how people treat other people with HIV,” she said.
Stone has experienced firsthand how music is not only powerful to the performer, but how it also has the ability to move the audience.
Now, Stone can teach her music students how to inspire change by coming together as a group and raising their voices in unison for a cause. The best way to utilize African choral music is to use one’s self to express ideals, she said.
“I think that there’s something way more powerful about using your own body to make music rather than an instrument outside of yourself,” Stone said. “Especially for people who are suffering, it gives them a tremendous sense of power to be able to come together with the people around them to create something beautiful.”
What is also important is the way this music can change people’s perceptions of foreign cultures. When she first began researching, the music that she found was nothing like witnessing an actual performance. South African choral music is meant to be a performance art that cannot be justly documented because of its intricacy.
Learning another culture’s music is a way to show respect and honor who they are, she said. Stone strives to teach her students how valuable music is in cultures around the world and in their cultures at home.
These choirs have spread knowledge and power to their fellow citizens, and have used music to do so. Now Stone will take their example to inspire the children of Chicago Children’s Choir to do the same, and will also continue her lifelong journey of learning and supporting South African choral choirs.
“Music is not just an art form; it’s so much more powerful than that,” she said.