Shana Oshiro ’13 MT-BC, (graduate certificate in music therapy), and her quartet, HALO (short for Harmony’s African-American Legacy Organization) are using barbershop music to bring people together through not only performance, but also a new program they’ve established, called Race and #Real Talk.
The program, which operated as a pilot program in fall 2017, officially began in February, with meetings occurring every other week at Centennial Methodist Church in Frederick, Maryland, and culminated its first full workshop cycle with a performance by all participants at All Saints’ Church in Frederick, on June 30.
A Unique Idea Based in Musical Form’s History and Structure
The idea for Race and #Real Talk first emerged several years ago, Oshiro said, after she and her group sang at an international barbershop gathering. That’s when she and her sister “mused together about the parallels between the barbershop community and America’s society at large. While the barbershop style is rooted in the African-American musical tradition, the community remains predominantly white as the result of its exclusionary membership rules in its earliest decades of establishment.
“Similarly, despite the many cultural, economic and intellectual contributions African Americans have made to America’s identity, wealth and scientific advancement — African-Americans remain statistically on the margins of our country’s resources and rights to justice. Intersecting with this parallel, we noted the beauty and aesthetic of the barbershop style is in the cycle of tension and release of the chord progressions, wherein the 7th chords in particular will often be sustained out of time before resolving. We considered the possibility of using this intersection of truths to teach us to find the beauty in the tension of our society’s issues with racism, past and present. We saw that the function of the voice parts in barbershop could serve as a metaphor for aligning our perspectives to create beautiful harmony, even — perhaps especially — when there is tension and discomfort. It was this epiphany of sorts, inspired by our own breakthrough in the barbershop community, that led us to build and lead this program.”
Healing With Singing and Discussion
Race and #Real Talk program sessions incorporated singing and listening to barbershop music with assigned readings, which led to the discussion and exploration of race-related issues, Oshiro said. The results sparked insights, reactions, questions, and sometimes conflict. Healing, however, was the ultimate goal.
In her graduate studies, Oshiro focused on community music therapy and its implications for addressing racism.
“Music therapy as a profession resonated with me for the same reason that vocal performance did: because I desire to manifest and realize my connection to the essence of life and humanity through music,” she said. “It matters to me that this connection can be accomplished and sustained, with a result that is to some extent – though of course never entirely – quantifiable. Race and #RealTalk not only enables me to do this while also singing, but more importantly, I believe it allows others to do the same.”
Bringing People Together
“The Race & #Real Talk performance was really powerful,” said Associate Professor of Music and Director of Graduate Music Therapy Studies Anthony Meadows, Ph.D., MT-BC, FAMI, LPC, who attended the culminating performance. “It brought together a broad range of people – performers and audience – and the way people talked about their own experiences of racism, and their discussions with each other through this workshop program, spoke to me about the serious challenges people face today and the enduring power of music to express and heal.”
“Many people, participants and audience members alike, expressed that the experience was moving and enlightening for them,” Oshiro said of the inaugural culminating performance. “Some had been naive to the facts surrounding the disparities in various statistics across racial divides, while others were confronted with the tension and dissonance within themselves when faced with closer examination of these facts in reading and discussion. The participants, while varied in their comfort and experience with singing, were invested in this aspect of the process because they recognized its cogency in developing their awareness of self and others in difficult conversations. Moreover, they seemed to appreciate how much better the experience got with practice, as opposed to shutting down or avoiding the situation as we often do when the conversations get too uncomfortable,” she said.
“Music has always been used to express social concerns, and this program speaks strongly to widespread concerns about racism that are being discussed at the moment,” Meadows added. “Shana framed her Race & #Real Talk program within the context of these social concerns, bringing together people from a wide variety of backgrounds to explore, discuss and openly embrace the challenges many people of color face as they navigate their communities.”
Building Trust and a Program Set to Grow
People build trust as they make music together. “It is an experience that brings people of different walks in life to a level playing field, as it were, that doesn’t exist in the same way within our current social structures and dynamics,” Oshiro said. “As these experiences continue and progress, the trust and empathy that are built enable us to speak our truths to one another more earnestly, even when they are difficult. And when everyone shows up with a mutual desire to this end, I have seen it accomplished. The experiences we have change how we then show up in the world outside of this ‘musical safe space,’ with deeper understanding of and compassion for ourselves and of others.”
More Race and #Real Talk workshops are on the way. “We are currently in the process of planning our next program which will go through the fall months in Rockville, [Maryland], wherein we hope to collaborate with and involve more people from neighboring communities,” she said. “It is our goal to establish an ongoing chapter to continue this work in our area, which will be the model for chapters we hope to see develop in other parts of the state and country. What we are working to see, some years ahead, is an organization of multiple chapters that offer outreach to other groups within their communities throughout the year, while we all collectively convene annually to engage with one another’s work and learn from each other. We are, of course, still in the infancy stages of developing this vision into reality, but we believe it is possible.”
Oshiro lives in Frederick and performs both as a soloist and with HALO, while also working to build HALO’s Race and #Real Talk programming. Currently spending her days as mother to two (a third is on the way) children, she previously worked in Montgomery County, Maryland, in schools for children and adolescents with disabilities. Learn more at shanaoshiro.com.