50 years ago, almost every village in Germany had its own choir. Increasing consumerism and the rise of the Internet have led to dwindling numbers of hobby singers in past years. But that's changing again.
Once again this year, thousands of fans of the Berlin-Köpenick soccer club 1. FC Union stand in the stadium during the holiday season and sing Christmas carols together. A school choir leads them, making sure they stay in tune, and a strange sense of harmony descends upon the stadium.
Of course the 1. FC Union fans in Berlin-Köpenick aren't a real choir, but they seem to be motivated by the same feeling that inspires plenty of others to sing, wrote German music magazine "Crescendo:" "People of all ages, both sexes and all walks of life stand there together on stage and evoke a sense of community. Those who sing know the feeling - using their individual voices to contribute to a greater good." When a harmony evolves from all those voices singing together, people feel that "choir experience," the magazine wrote.
The more, the merrier
"From folk songs to oratorios, from singing as a hobby to professional performances, from children's choirs to those of seniors - millions of people in Germany have a passion for singing in a choir," wrote musicologist Habakuk Traber several years ago in a study of the German choral scene commissioned by the Goethe Institute. Experts estimate that over three million Germans sing nowadays, most of them in non-professional choirs, but also in professional and semi-professional ones.
Having fun in a group is a prerequisite for singing in a choir. "Singing comes from the heart of society," said Moritz Puschke, managing director of the German Choir Association. It costs nothing, is a completely natural thing to do, and anyone can do it, he noted.
Few people actually study the choral community in Germany, however, so "theories" on the activity are rather subjective. But one empirical study in 2009 by the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg revealed a trait among choral singers that markedly distinguishes them from the rest of the population: almost all have a high level of education; very few have less than a college-preparatory degree. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed are employed; only 2.7 percent said they were unemployed or had never worked.
Yet nowadays, singing in a group is no longer an immediate expression of social and communal life, Traber said. "It has more to do with a personal decision and individual commitment, and there's a certain degree of expectation associated with it," the musicologist said.
The number of children's and youth choirs has grown the most in recent years. Young people consciously choose singing as a hobby, said Puschke. "They want a good choir director, nice places to perform in concerts, vocal training and so on," he said, noting that a choir tends to seek a special twist to its repertory. A song by Prince is as desirable as a work by Monteverdi, he said.
But those who choose to sing beyond the confines of the shower face tough choices. "A large or small choir? Classical, pop, rock, jazz, gospel or world music? And how much time can people invest?" These are the questions people ask themselves before they join a choir, said Heribert Allen, honorary president of the Association of German Concert Choirs.
"Five concerts a year, more than two hours of rehearsals a week and additional events - that adds up to about 145 hours that each singer devotes a year to the activity," Allen observed. Many cultural events offered in Germany would not be possible without this commitment by choral singers.
Based on the numbers of people involved and the amount of time they invest, singing and playing music follow playing games and sports as the top leisure time activities in Germany. "Yet expectations concerning performance continue to rise," Puschke told Deutsche Welle. "Listeners expect professional quality."
And the trend toward singing is continuing, said Puschke - which is a good thing with regard to the age pyramid: "In the past five years, member growth has remained at zero. That's positive," he said. "We are compensating for the numbers of choir members dying off with younger people joining choral groups," he said.
Interestingly, he noted, for urban areas that means that the ethnic mix in the younger choirs is changing as well: "In big cities, much of the younger generation is composed of kids with immigrant backgrounds," Puschke pointed out.