Sing out loud
Naperville choral groups bring closet singers out in the open
By Dawn Klingensmith
Singing in the shower just wasn't enough for Winona Patterson.
The 30-year-old Aurora resident had sung in choirs from elementary school through college and had even earned a bachelor's degree in voice performance.
But when her career took a different turn (she's a high-school librarian) and the worries and responsibilities of adulthood grew with each passing year, her opportunities for making music with others faded like the final notes of a weepy love song.
It was high time for an encore. Patterson knew there were talented choral groups for adults, including several area chapters of Sweet Adelines International, an organization of more than 30,000 women performing unaccompanied four-part barbershop harmonies. But Patterson dragged her feet until her husband prodded her to action. He told her, "Quit saying, 'I should join.' Just do it."
Patterson sang with a few Sweet Adelines choruses and then, three months ago, joined the Choral-Aires, a 95-member chapter that frequently qualifies for international competitions. She is loving it: "I think of it as swing choir for big kids."
Founded in 1960 in Naperville, the Choral-Aires chorus now rehearses in Oak Brook and draws members from all over the Chicago area.
Like Patterson, Amanda Wittenborn of Naperville is a Choral-Aires newbie who joined because her past choir experiences had been so positive. "I really missed singing," she said. "I was dying to sing again. I hadn't done it since college."
Nostalgia is a common motivator among members of adult volunteer choral groups. In fact, one local group, the Naperville Men's Glee Club, owes its existence to its founding members' fond memories of collegiate glee clubs. Because Naperville is home to several high-tech corporations, Bonnie Klee Roberts, the club's founder and director, thought it the perfect place to establish a choral group patterned on college choirs.
Among such an educated workforce, she reasoned, many of the men were likely to have participated in college glee clubs. In fact, although the group has grown since 1988 to include singers from all kinds of musical backgrounds, roughly a third of the 45 members have college glee-club experience.
"There's a special combination of music and fellowship that you find in college glee clubs, and our group seeks to emulate that," Roberts said.
Other choral groups convene and rehearse in "a very dry, down-to-business atmosphere with not a lot of chatting," she added. "At our rehearsals, there's a lot of camaraderie and laughter, yet we achieve a very high quality of music within that atmosphere."
Acappellago, a coed a cappella group based in Naperville, also draws singers who have "been involved with volunteer music groups for a good part of their lives," said President Patricia Smith, whose husband, Dennis, directs the group. "Not all have formal training, but most have a heavy music background and a lot of experience under their belts."
Even so, steps are taken in all three choral groups to ensure that a joyful noise, not aural junk, rains down from the risers at their various performances, which, with the exception of some gratis retirement-home and civic appearances, people pay good money to see. Although some groups, such as the Plainfield Area Community Chorus, will take anyone who loves to sing, most hold auditions to make sure prospective members will carry a tune rather than kill it.
Singing a cappella is like "walking a tightrope without a net," said Dennis Smith of Acappellago. "There are no instruments to support you. If someone's out of tune or a section is out of tune, you hear it right away."
Such being the case, prospective members must demonstrate that they can proficiently read music during the audition.
The Choral-Aires value "a good ear" more than sight-reading ability, and because the group's members hate to turn anyone away, the audition process is designed to help serious applicants succeed, said longtime member Pat Smith of Naperville.
Before auditioning, a prospective member is expected to attend four or five rehearsals "to get a feel for what we do and what we're all about," she said.
The three-hour rehearsals can be intimidating.
"We're the most professional-sounding amateur group I've ever seen," Smith said. "People will sit in and listen and think, 'I'm not good enough.' You really have to know what you're doing."
Perhaps so, but the Choral-Aires chorus won't pass on a person who lacks "American Idol" potential, said member Bonnie Fedyski of Wheaton.
"There's a part for just about everyone," she said. "We obviously want good singers, but you don't have to be stellar. We take a lot of average singers. As long as you hit the right notes, you're OK."
An informal voice evaluation takes place before the audition to determine which section — melody, tenor, baritone or bass — the woman belongs in.
She is then assigned an audition song and given a learning tape, along with informal coaching sessions, if desired. The audition consists of pitch-matching exercises and singing with a quartet.
"There are people out there who are tone deaf, and obviously, they wouldn't be an asset to the chorus," she added. "But if you can sing 'Happy Birthday,' there's probably a place for you in (the Sweet Adelines organization). The stronger voices will carry the weaker ones. Music is too important to cut out of people's lives."
It's so important, in fact, that most choral group members pay for the privilege of making music with like-minded individuals. The Choral-Aires, Naperville Men's Glee Club and Acappellago all charge monthly or annual membership dues. Chorus members often are also responsible for purchasing music and costumes.
The Choral-Aires singers have an array of glitzy costumes, along with identical sets of stockings, shoes and stage makeup. The Glee Club men wear tuxedoes. The men and women of Acappellago sport Hawaiian shirts to reflect the group's name, which is a play on archipelago (a group of islands).
With the Choral-Aires, there is the added cost of competition, including entry fees and travel expenses.
Friendly yet fierce competition is "part of what we're all about," said Director Joan Boutilier of Lake Zurich. "We have to compete at least every other year to keep our (Sweet Adelines International) charter. The philosophy is that competing lets us learn from other groups and challenges us to get better."
The Choral-Aires singers compete with a dozen other barbershop choruses at regional competitions each spring in Grand Rapids, Mich. The winner goes on to Sweet Adelines' international competition in the fall. Since 1993, the Choral-Aires chorus has crooned its way to four top-10 finishes at internationals.
Judges evaluate each group's sound, music, expression and showmanship, which includes "unification of makeup, hair and costumes" and rapport with the audience, Boutilier said.
Part of what sets Choral-Aires apart is its choreographed moves, said Pat Smith.
"People think of choral groups as just standing there and singing," she explained. "Well, we don't do that. We move. We emote. Each song is a mini show."
Boutilier echoed Smith's assessment. "We're a combination of singing and theater," she said. "We don't just sing a song to the audience; we sell the song to the audience."
As 20-year member Martha Anderson of Cary put it, "Part of what keeps me coming back is that the ham in me gets satisfied."
All three groups lay claim to some unique feature that keeps members coming back.
In addition to competition, Choral-Aires offers women the chance to sing four-part barbershop harmony, which people generally associate with "old men wearing straw hats," Fedyski said.
Wittenborn, the group's newest inductee, likes the tight harmonies, chord shifts, vocal slides and inflections, and facial expressions associated with barbershop music. "You wouldn't do these kinds of things in a normal chorus," the Darien resident said. "It's not church choir music."
For Acappellago, the unique attribute is "a shared commitment to do something out of the ordinary," said Dennis Smith said.
He and wife Patricia founded the group in 2002 with singers they met through the Downers Grove Choral Society, a community chorus of 60 to 70 singers.
Larger choral groups tend to perform proven crowd pleasers, or "what's considered the war horses of the repertoire," Patricia said.
In their 13 years with the Downers Grove Choral Society, the Smiths had performed some of these tried-and-true songs a number of times, and they and some other singers ceased to be challenged by them.
The new group is smaller, consisting of no more than 25 singers, and its repertoire is full of "pleasant surprises," Patricia said.
"Dennis really likes to select music from composers who are up-and-comers or who don't get a lot of exposure," she said. "He also looks for refreshing arrangements of familiar songs."
The chorus, as reflected by its name, sees itself as an "exotic escape" from the ordinary.
What the Glee Club offers is a sense of fellowship that many of its members haven't felt since college. "It's like a brotherhood," said Roberts, the director.
Bible study and line-dancing groups have formed among members, whose involvement in one another's lives is broad and deep. If a member falls ill or encounters other sorts of difficulties, the Glee Club offers support. When a now-deceased member's cancer had advanced to point that he was in hospice care, he eagerly accepted a visit — and a serenade — from the Glee Club. When he died, member Steve Schroeder, a pastor who lives in Aurora, led the memorial service.
Although every choral group is different, commonalties are apparent across the various organizations. The first is an obvious shared love of singing and performing.
"It's satisfying to sing to an audience," said Pat Smith of the Choral-Aires. "It makes you feel good to look out there and see people smiling and clapping."
But the groups are more than a musical outlet to members.
The Glee Club, for example, "provides a sense of balance in (the men's) lives," Roberts said. "Many of them are at the height of their careers, they're working very hard, they have children still in school. The Glee Club is one of the few things they do that's just for them, but it has far-reaching effects because it augments every other aspect of their lives."
The Glee Club is "analogous to a sports team," said founding member Alan Frye of Naperville. "Everyone is totally focused and strives to work together to achieve the best possible result. When we pull it off, it's very rewarding.
We haven't had problems with someone not pulling his weight."
Nor has the Choral-Aires chorus. "We all understand that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so everyone wants to work hard as individuals and as a group," said Patterson, who relishes the opportunity to show off her vocal skills somewhere other than the shower.
She knows for certain that she's in it for long haul. "Someday," she said, "I'll be an old lady singing barbershop." ·
The Choral-Aires chorus rehearses from 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays at Christ Church, 501 Oak Brook Road in Oak Brook. Rehearsals are always open to interested women and are a prerequisite to a formal audition for membership.
Call (630) 964-0792 or visit www.choral-aires.org for information on rehearsals or membership.
The Naperville Men's Glee Club rehearses from 9:30 to 11 Saturdays at Church of the Brethren, 1020 W. Jefferson Ave. in Naperville. Auditions may be arranged by calling (630) 954-3232 weekdays or (630) 369-3758 evenings and weekends. Interested men are welcome to join the Glee Club for a rehearsal or two before the audition. No special preparation or materials are needed to try out. Visit www.nmgc.org for information.
Membership to Acappellago is by appointment or audition. Open to interested men and women, rehearsals are held for three months prior to each of Acappellago's biannual concerts and will resume in late September at Naperville Congregational Church, 1 Bunting Lane (at the southwest corner of 75th and Washington streets). Call (708) 484-3797, Ext. 2, for arehearsal and audition schedule. General information is posted at www.acappellago.org.
What: Acappellago's spring concert, "An Escape to the Awaking Spring" First show: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 115 Oak St. in North Aurora
Second show: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Naperville Congregational Church, 1 Bunting Lane (at the southwest corner of 75th and Washington streets) in Naperville
How much? $12 ($9 for seniors and students)
Call: (708) 484-3797, Ext. 2.
Copyright ©1999-2006 Winona Patterson.