Closing the Generational Gap Through Music

How could it be possible to sing without heart? Any musician I am amazed by is a musician who I know has poured their soul into a piece, maybe even when they didn’t feel an initial connection to it. A musician has to find a way for the music to mean something to them. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to sing about something that already had deep meaning for me, something I could pour myself into – our global climate crisis. I am 15 years-old, scared for my world and future, and now not only opening my eyes to this issue, but opening my ears.

I am a member of the Shine Children’s Chorus organization, a nonprofit musical education and performance program for any youth in Portland, Oregon, directed by Lauren Fitzgerald. More specifically, I am in the organization’s oldest group, True North Acapella. In December 2019, we had the opportunity to join forces with the Portland Peace Choir for a “Beauty of the Earth” performance, performing pieces that engage with global climate issues with force and with grace. The Portland Peace Choir is a group comprised of singers of all ages who sing music for a cause – advocating for peace, equality, diversity, and unity.

I was exhilarated at the thought of putting my passion for the climate into music, but I didn’t know going in that the very first rehearsal would bring tears to my eyes. I listened to the Peace Choir sing a gorgeous arrangement written by one of their own members, Janice Leber. As they sang Our House is on Fire, the youth in our choir spoke portions of Greta Thunberg’s speeches. I asked Janice after the event what led her to create something that had so much impact on me. She said, “I was already inspired by Greta Thunberg. The moment I heard that the choir wanted to sing about climate change, I started googling Greta Thunberg. The tune for Our House is On Fire was in my head by the time we got home.” The passion flowed from Janice and into the hearts of the singers as we performed her arrangement.

Our other collaboration that night was I am the Earth, a piece that featured the Peace Choir as the Earth singing to the children, who responded in lines of song. This powerful conversation between generations felt alive, and resonated emotionally as we realized that this was a metaphorical conversation between the Earth and the next generation. The melody was dramatic, then becoming hopeful as the youth sang, “It is our time, we’re in your hands, together we stand, this moment in time we share.”

This idea of coming together is vital to the climate change movement because while youth have the passion and desire to have their voices heard, older generations have the power to enact change. It is important for multiple generations to work together. The women in the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a generational gap between them that caused frictions in how to approach the issue. This led to conflicts within the movement, conflicts that I believe can be prevented with intergenerational partnerships such as ours. Barbara, a member of the Peace Choir, expressed, “It’s so incredibly beautiful to see all you young people here, knowing that you are going to step up and take stewardship of the planet, something we’re trying to do in our generation, which is such a struggle with the people that are such climate deniers. It gives me so much hope knowing that there won’t be so much of that by the time it’s your turn to take over the planet.”

One of the ways to close the generational gap is to find a common interest, such as the arts. The arts, in this case music, offer a way for people of all ages to protest and express care for the cause together. That is the mission of the Peace Choir, which is open to all ages. Jesse Cromer, director of the Peace Choir, explains it this way: “The goal is to come together – all ages, whether you read music or don’t read music – and sing for peace. We’re always looking to push the envelope for social change. If we’re going to come together intergenerationally, we have to come together musically. Children have a certain kind of wisdom, and people who have lived on the earth for longer – whether they’re middle-aged or older – have a different kind of wisdom. When you get all these different kinds of wisdom together, not only do the ideas flow like water, so does the spirit and the joy. We can see things and be open to things that we wouldn’t normally see and be open to.”

The youth in the performance that night were able to see that there are adults who care enough to stand up for the next generation. We were able to get involved in the movement in ways that are familiar to us and that we feel passionate about. In many ways, the performance felt like activism – for one of the songs, we participated from seats in the audience, raising signs that you would normally find at a rally, during the chorus.

Janice told us, “I have a poster up in one of my rooms that says, ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, it’s a hammer with which to shape it.’” This just reflects and amplifies how each piece of art, every person, and every performance, shapes our future.

(All photos by Sadie McRae.)

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Rena Marthaler is a sophomore in high school. She has been singing and playing instruments her entire life. She is the student director for True North Acapella, as well as belonging to another choir and to the two top school ensembles for band. She spends her time getting involved in her community, by volunteering at the Q Center every Saturday, facilitating a queer youth support group with her friend, and picking up any other volunteer opportunities that come her way.

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