Raising Voices

W hy should boys have all the fun?

It was a question that rankled Tom Brand as a boy when he sang in the Choir of Men and Boys at Trinity Church on the Green, then later as a boarding student at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, New Jersey. Those experiences, he says, were “transformative.”

Rebecca Rosenbaum was struck with another version of the same question. A serious singer from the age of seven, for a while she harbored the dream of one day becoming the conductor of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Then she found out the job was only open to men.

She wanted to know: Why shouldn’t women have that opportunity?

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In 1993, when he was still a college student, Brand’s question spurred him to action. He founded the Elm City Girls’ Choir, at first a grassroots collection of 16 singers who met in the home of one of the members. Rosenbaum arrived in New Haven a few years later as a graduate student. When she was introduced to Brand and the Elm City Girls’ Choir, she recalls thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is the musical aesthetic I’m looking for, but much more.” She became ECGC’s music director.

It didn’t take long for the program to grow. Maybe it was the universal experience of singing that drew girls to the choir. Maybe it was the community that formed. Maybe it was the idea of “working toward a common goal,” as Brand puts it. Whatever it was, within seven years, Elm City Girls’ Choir had outgrown its original mission, and United Girls’ Choir was created as an umbrella organization to house that original group as well as several others in satellite locations outside New Haven. Today, United Girls’ Choir serves more than 600 girls from 50 towns statewide.

Now in its 25th season, ECGC is United Girls’ Choir’s most advanced division. Practicing with the group is a five-hour-per-week commitment. But it’s not just about singing. ECGC members are also required to serve as student leaders at another United Girls’ Choir rehearsal. The organization, Rosenbaum says, helps build “powerful, confident, strong, assertive, risk-taking young women.”

On a recent Wednesday evening, the ensemble rehearsed two pieces from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Girls sat in a horseshoe around a grand piano piled with loose sheets of music. Rosenbaum stood among them with her music stand, calling out direction as they sang. She quizzed singers on the role of their vocal part in the whole, drilled the placement of accents, then added in dynamics, often speaking in metaphors, so that entrances might be fluorescent strokes of paint on a blank canvas, or dynamics might be “terraced” like a mountain farm.

When the singers’ entrances weren’t as crisp as Rosenbaum wanted, she instructed them to “stand up like a Pop Tart” when it was their turn to sing. The full-body experience continued with a clap on every cutoff. This gave the group an audible understanding of the structure of the whole, as claps alternated and finally met in one big, shared cut-off.

“Want to run the whole movement?” she asked after 20 minutes of detailed work. “All right! Who wants to conduct?” There were no immediate takers, so Rosenbaum closed her eyes and spun, her arm extended like a pointer, until she landed on one girl who, with remarkable confidence, stepped out in front of her peers and seamlessly led the rehearsal forward.

This is what Brand and Rosenbaum mean when they talk about leadership. “Students are given opportunities to play formal leadership roles without consideration for their age,” Brand says. When a girl is ready to lead her peers, she can. Older girls serve as mentors to younger girls. The experience, he says, teaches them to “be on [their] toes, respond to what’s happening, be prepared to respond to the unexpected.”

A Ceremony of Carols, which the choir was rehearsing that night, is a classical piece, but Rosenbaum says the group’s repertoire is “extremely eclectic.” World music, folk songs, sacred music from around the world, pop—it’s all fair game. “All music can be done well and is valid and fun and challenging in different ways. We purposely strive to create an eclectic mix of styles and genres.”

Auditions for the United Girls’ Choirs are on a rolling basis, and tuition is charged on a sliding scale. No girl who has passed the audition has ever been turned away, Brand says. That goes not only for the regular rehearsal and concert schedule but for tours as well. Two years ago ECGC traveled to China; past trips have taken them throughout North America and Europe, with notable performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Walt Disney World.

It’s big thinking that has brought Elm City Girls’ Choir through its first 25 years, and Brand is still thinking big. The Saecula Choir Foundation, an “intergenerational” organization in New Haven supporting still other choral pursuits, has grown out of United Girls’ Choir. Brand’s next dream is to establish a girls’ choir school. So many years after his own choir school experience, there’s still no such school for girls anywhere in America.

Much of the success of the Elm City Girls’ Choir is rooted in Brand’s willingness to entertain what he calls a “big dream.” But it blossoms each time a girl picks up a sheet of music and begins to sing.

Elm City Girls’ Choir
United Choir School – 341 Quinnipiac Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-1244 | info@unitedchoir.com
Website | Concert Schedule

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is The Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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