Why Community Matters to Me

Why Creating and Cultivating Community Matters to me

We think of community in terms that may or may not be positive.

  • Community theater is often thought of as less than in quality and value than professional theater (NOT TRUE)
  • Community college is where you go when you can’t afford a “real” college (NOT TRUE)
  • A community choir implies that there were no auditions and they just accept anyone, and, again, it’s less than desirable (NOPE)
  • A community center might be considered a place for people to go if they can’t afford a country club or if they’re old and lonely (THAT’S INSULTING)
  • Barack Obama was derided in his first presidential campaign for being a “community organizer,” as if that wasn’t an actual job (and often, community organizers are volunteers, but in many cases, it is a professional, non-profit position that has skills and requirements – but more about that in a bit)

Last night I was interviewed by a student as an assignment for her acting class. She had to talk to someone interesting for 8-10 minutes on a particular topic. I was flattered, and offered several topics that I could blather on talk intelligently about till the cows came home for ten minutes or so. We settled on the idea of the importance of community, and how I’ve developed that idea over the course of my life. And when I finished, I thought, “This is why this matters.” So I thought I’d tell you.

As a child in Milwaukee, my parents were older than everyone else’s parents. And they talked funny. This set me apart from people, and not necessarily in a good way.

My parents were Eastern European, but from very different countries in Eastern Europe.

    • My mother was Estonian and from a Lutheran, urban background. She had a high school education. I don’t know what she did for work after high school. She left Estonia during the second Soviet occupation and fled to Germany (because “that’s the way the boat was going”) at the height of WWII, where she worked in kitchens, and wound up in a displaced persons (DP) camp when the war was over.
    • My dad was Slovenian and from a Catholic, rural background. He made it through sixth grade, as far as I know, and then left school to help his widowed mother on the farm. I believe he did that until he went to war. He was in an Italian prison camp and wound up in the same DP camp as my mother. After they met, he came to the US under the sponsorship of a Montana family and saved up to bring her to join him. They wound up in Milwaukee because there were a lot of Slovenians there and he could find work.

My parents had friends who were Slovenian, Estonian, and German (the German ones were married to Slovenians or Estonians). When we socialized with them, we only socialized with Slovenians OR Estonians. There was never a time that they mingled. They had no American friends except immediate neighbors, with whom we occasionally socialized.

I recall the Estonians being more welcoming of my father than the Slovenians were of my mother. That could just be because my father was more gregarious and social than my mother. The way she presented it was that the Slovenians thought she wasn’t good enough, and by extension, we half-breed children weren’t good enough either. The Estonian friends didn’t have any children my age. The Slovenians did, and I was friendly with one girl throughout most of my childhood and teen years (it helped that she lived a few blocks away, so it wasn’t an inconvenience to my parents for me to hang out with her).

I never felt as though I had a real community of friends until I moved to DC with my first husband. It took my becoming part of Washington Opera for me to find my tribe, and then, when I moved to Baltimore and went to Peabody, my sense of community grew further. (The first husband was not part of this process.) This isn’t to say I liked everyone and everyone liked me, but I had a group of people who respected me and respected my skills and talent, and some of them actually liked me. And vice versa.

Brené Brown said, in a recent podcast,

True belonging is being yourself. Fitting in is being who you think somebody wants you to be

[This was on a podcast I listened to recently, and I don’t remember which one – a version of it is also in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection]

When I returned to Milwaukee in 1996, I thought that I would live my life the way I’d lived it on the East Coast – that I would perform regularly, and find my tribe. Because I had a better understanding of myself, my abilities, and I had learned a lot in the years that had passed. I was chagrined to find that this didn’t happen for me. I didn’t belong and I didn’t fit in because that wasn’t being true to myself.

The original reason for the semi-staged studio showcases (say that fast 3x) I put on while teaching in Milwaukee was that I craved being on stage. But what I found was that it created community among my students. We did mostly ensembles, and I put people together based on how I thought they’d work together, rather than because they already knew each other and could arrange to practice on their own (that would’ve been easier). No, I would tell people, “You’re going to do a duet with X, and she has her lesson on Tuesdays at 5:30. I’d like you to come to one of her lessons, and she’ll come to one of yours, and maybe we’ll try to arrange another time as well. Okay with you? Great!” and it worked.

I have to admit there was one time I picked two girls who I knew for a fact did not like each other. They had gone to school together since kindergarten, and each one thought the other one was a pain in the ass. (Neither one knew the other one felt that way, and they still don’t, unless they read this. And if so — oops.) They were complete opposites, in personality and in voice – one was a very high soprano, the other a very low alto. That latter part was the ostensible reason for putting them together. But really – I wanted them to respect each other.

And I have to say that I got a kick out of their working together. Especially since the song I chose for them was “What is this feeling?” from Wicked, also known as “Loathing.”

It took some time to put it together, and they did brilliantly. Did they become best friends afterwards? No. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to have them work together and respect each other, and that was accomplished.

It meant a lot to me that my students would go see each other in performance, whether that was sitting in the room at solo-ensemble or making the effort to go to a concert or show, and identify themselves as fellow studio members. And it broke my heart when I moved and someone posted on FB that, “I’ll miss Christine, but I’ll really miss being with all of you.”

ZipRecruiter defines a good community organizer as someone who:

cultivates relationships within the community and finds ways to reach populations that are at risk or in need. This includes working with activists and other groups to effect social change. Excellent communication skills are a starting point, but community organizers also need to be passionate about their work and try to connect with others. You should be resourceful in finding information and organized in documenting it. Most jobs also appreciate job seekers with the ability to speak and write in a second language.

So I guess I’m a community organizer, of sorts, my second language being that of music. I’m definitely passionate about my work, I’m resourceful, I work with others, and I hope that I’m reaching a population in need, if not necessarily at risk.

I did not have this sense of community growing up, and if I do anything of worth with people, it is to bring that sense of community to others. And I hope they will pay that forward.

Why Creating and Cultivating Community Matters to me (Yes, this is reused from World Voice Weekend)

If becoming part of a studio community (and beyond) is important to you, there are a few openings beginning in February.
Find out how to work with me in 2022!

Published by Mezzoid Voice Studio

Christine Thomas-O'Meally, a mezzo soprano and voice teacher currently based in the Baltimore-DC area, has performed everything from the motets of J.S. Bach to the melodies of Irving Berlin to the minimalism of Philip Glass. As an opera singer and actress, she has appeared with companies such as Charm City Players, Spotlighters Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Theater of Northern Virginia, Opera North, the Washington Savoyards, In Tandem Theatre, Windfall Theater, The Young Victorian Theater of Baltimore, and Skylight Opera Theatre. She created the role of The Woman in Red in Dominick Argento’s Dream of Valentino in its world premiere with the Washington Opera and Mary Pickersgill in O'er the Ramparts at its world premiere during the Bicentennial of Battle of Baltimore at the Community College of Baltimore County. Other roles include Mrs. Paroo in Music Man, Mother Abbess in Sound of Music, Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Hansel and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel, and many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Her performance as the Housekeeper in Man of La Mancha was honored with a WATCH award nomination. Ms. Thomas-O'Meally received an M.M. in vocal performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She regularly attends master classes and workshops in both performance and vocal pedagogy, and is certified in all three Levels of Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method. Her students have performed on national and international tours of Broadway productions, at prestigious conservatories, and in regional theater throughout the country.

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