Welcome to the company choir

  • 2006-10-25
  • By Joel Alas

HARMONY: These folk singers may not look like bank employees, but the choir was founded by Hansabank.

TALLINN - At any given song festival, the list of participating choirs is a fairly predictable mix. There are always choirs representing cities or universities, men's or women's groups, children's choirs and specialized ensembles. But further down the list, recognizable names begin to appear, the brand names of companies associated with chocolate bars, beer and banking rather than singing.

These are more than just sponsored choirs. These are company choirs, founded in the lunchrooms and factories of Estonia's biggest corporations by employees seeking to join together in song.
There's the Kalev Chamber Choir, representing the nation's favorite chocolate factory, and the Flora Chamber Choir, drawn from employees of the cleaning and chemical products manufacturer. Hansabank, the biggest banking group in the Baltics, has a Tallinn-based chamber choir, as does the A Le Coq brewery in Tartu.
Several government departments, including the ministry of finance and ministry of agriculture, house ensembles, as well as the central treasury, the Bank of Estonia.

Right-wing political party Res Publica mixes its politics with song through its chamber choir. The state television and radio stations retain large choirs for special occasions.
The continued existence of these company choirs tells much about Estonia, its connection to singing and its clutch on culture in the face of commercial development.

"It's more than just advertising," says Kaie Tanner of the branded bands.
Tanner is the general secretary of the Estonian Choral Association, the peak organization body of singing groups.
"It's well known that Estonians love to sing. Quite a big percentage of Estonians sing in choirs. We have one million people here, and 33,000 are in choirs. Every four years at the song festival, we have 150,000 people there for the celebration."
The Baltic nations are marked by song. They demonstrated their desire for independence by gathering to sing the prohibited national songs, their own special form of non-violent resistance.

In the decades prior to the Singing Revolution, Estonians undertook similar protests each week in the offices and factories in which they worked. By coming together as a choir, they circumvented the laws which banned public demonstrations and political gatherings, and hid their message of discontent within the songsheets they passed around.
"The company choir is something from the Soviet times, because in those days almost all factories and offices had a choir or at least an ensemble," explains Tanner, "It was almost compulsory to join. But it was also popular. After work, people had nothing to do. There was no shopping, you couldn't go abroad, but after work you had to do something. So it became very popular to gather in choirs.

"It was one of the few possibilities for people to meet each other, because other organized meetings were suspicious. But the choir was a legal form of gathering, and it was also a kind of protest. After the required communist songs, we could sing our own songs. Of course, just to meet was some kind of self expression."
After Estonia regained independence, the idea carried over to the newly-formed corporations and private enterprises. In fact, many of the company choirs in existence today formed less than 10 years ago, proving that the tradition has transcended the modern corporate world.

Other company choirs, however, are no longer strictly drawn from employees. Opening membership to outsiders became necessary as the limitations of today's professional working life led to waning participation. Only one closed employee choir remains in existence, the Estonian Railway Chamber Choir.
Hansabank even proudly proclaims that its chamber choir improves the quality of life for employees. In today's fast-paced open Europe employment market, corporations must offer more than a decent salary to attract and retain workers.
The Hansabank Chamber Choir, also known as Studium Vocale, meets every Monday night after work in the cafeteria of its Tallinn headquarters.

"We are dealing with a lot of numbers every day, so this is an enjoyable hobby that doesn't involve numbers," says Piret Naber, a Hansabank loan officer and one of the twenty members of the choir.
When it formed seven years ago, Studium Vocale was strictly employees only. Today it includes other workers, but is still dominated by bank staff. The bank continues to support the choir by providing the rehearsal space and national costumes when it performs abroad. They have sung at corporate functions and the bank's recreational summer days.
It seems finance workers have a penchant for harmonizing tunes, and not just balance sheets. Nearby at the nation's central bank, the Bank of Estonia, employees meet each Wednesday at lunchtime to rehearse their songs. Thanks to support from the bank, the choir can afford to hire a professional conductor.

Choir chairwoman Anna Randvali said the 30 members all benefited from learning under a professional leader.
"Sometimes it is very difficult to find time to rehearse, especially when there are trips away. It's difficult to find free time and our families are usually our priority. But we practice as often as we can," Randvali says.
"I don't think it's unusual at all for a bank to have a choir. Every two years we participate in a festival of central bank choirs. The central banks of France and Germany and other countries also encourage their employees to sing together."
One of the most popular groups in the city is the Kalev Chamber Choir, and its association with the chocolate manufacturer is no doubt a factor when members choose to join. The company sometimes sends boxes of chocolate to members, who are also occasionally asked to help work at the factory filling charity bags.

But Kalev is one company choir with a connection that's almost name only.
"Nowadays, there is only one person left who still works at Kalev," says conductor Erki Meister. "There are fewer companies that have their employees in the choir. Now it's like sponsorship."
Despite this, the company continues to support the group financially, paying a small stipend to cover the costs of organizing the forty members.

The group rehearses each Tuesday night in a large meeting room at the Ministry of Agriculture. Curiously, for a government department, the room is equipped with a grand piano.
The existence of a grand piano in a government building shows how important music and singing once was. And the piano's continued use shows that singing remains a proud tradition in Estonia, even if there's a little less time for a song in the modern corporate world.