Any emotional moments with your chorus?
When a member – who joins thinking she can’t sing – finds her voice.
One woman came up to me a year ago and said she was ready to sing a solo. Simple as that. I never pushed her. She pushed herself. Another member started out as an alto, then moved to mezzo, and then discovered she was a soprano. Who knew?
Any tips on inspiring confidence in a shy singer?
Patience helps inspire confidence. So, I start people where they think they’ll feel comfortable and tell them they can move at any time. No pressure. I try to surround shy singers who lack confidence with strong ones who can sing in their ear, help them along.
How about an exercise you use?
I will sometimes do a zipper song, which only requires a single voice to start a line (like “Somebody sang for me….” “cooked” or “marched”, whatever they want, and the chorus joins in for the rest of the stanza. I’ll look for people who are ready to sing those few words and haven’t done it before.
Do singers ‘step up to the plate’?
There’s no pressure, and usually I can tell because they’ll look me in the eye while I’m searching. Sometimes they nail it, sometimes they don’t, but the simple act of doing it is a real sign of progress and eventually, they learn to match notes. Sometimes people cry when it happens, not just the person singing, because everyone is very supportive of each other and recognizes what an important step it is to find one’s voice. Sometimes we clap.
Sounds like an incredible support system…
It is. People develop friendships. We laugh a lot. We share grief when one of us passes on, and memorialize them in our annual concert. We’ve been together for 22 years; people come and go, but there is a strong core of about 15 singers who have stayed with it all this time. Plus, it’s a proven fact that singing makes people feel good, and those who have been told all their lives to “mouth the words” come to realize what they’ve been missing. It’s a bit like a drug. They keep coming back.
What is something you do in rehearsals that surprises new members?
A song we always close with called “One More Time” (Let’s Get Together One More Time).
As a social justice focused choir, can you tell us about a particular moving performance?
We do one major concert every spring in a lovely auditorium in Manhattan and combine the songs with projected images giving extra life to the messages we sing. One of the most impactful moments we’ve had was when we first sang in concert a song called “Stand Up” which is taken from a speech by Martin Neimoller, a German Protestant minister who stood up to the Nazis and said something like:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
In the song, we sang, “Yes, we will stand up. And we will ask why, and if some day they come for you, there’ll be lots of people standing by your side.” People in the audience stood up. A few at first, and then everybody…it was really emotional. Now, it happens almost every time we do the song, but the first time was the most powerful!
We noticed your guitar. How often do you play?
I always accompany the group with guitar. I have recently been using a conductor, a chorus member who asked for the opportunity, and that is working out well, but I used to do that as well. Sometimes we also use a percussionist and bass/cello player to accompany us.
Can you share about your community involvement?
In addition to our annual concert, we also sing at other events like benefits for the people in Puerto Rico trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, or at senior centers, or the women’s homeless shelter in the Brooklyn neighborhood where most of us live, and sometimes at demonstrations.
An emotional moment you had in a performance?
We had the opportunity to share the stage with some girls from Nigeria who had escaped kidnapping. I’ve personally written several songs about women in Africa standing up for themselves, and we got to sing one of them for the girls, in addition to a group favorite by Labi Siffre called “There’s Something Inside So Strong.” It was an emotional performance all around, and we also got to sing along with them with a recorded track of one of their favorite songs.
A favorite inspirational quote?
Every woman can sing.