In Unison

T he Greater New Haven Community Chorus has been singing for 57 years. In all that time, they’ve never faced a year like this one, when singing with others has been labeled one of the most dangerous activities a person can do.

Choral performance is all about being together: listening to the singers around you, blending your voice with theirs and creating something bigger together. On Zoom, the slight delay inherent in transmitting sound from one person’s microphone to another’s speaker makes that impossible. So, like choruses around the globe, GNHCC struggled to find a pandemic model for singing together. Along the way, its members ended up creating much more than music.

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At first, the group of about 100 non-auditioned singers, ranging from those with professional training to those who can’t read music and simply love to sing, gathered on a weekly Zoom call. The idea was “really more to just have the social connection at first,” says Kathleen Johnson, a singer from Wolcott who serves as the GNHCC board’s membership chair. “It was just to keep the chorus alive.” It didn’t take long, though, for members to realize they’d be online for a longer haul. It was too late by then to salvage their spring program, but as nationwide protests surged around racial and social justice, they saw a different opportunity: reenvisioning their organization to better serve the community at large.

Community engagement has long been a part of GNHCC culture, Johnson says. Members served food at the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen before Thursday night rehearsals nearby. The chorus ran food and clothing and furniture drives among the membership for IRIS and other local organizations. Last spring, they launched what they called “Project Diversity” with the idea that “we, as a community organization, needed to be doing more to enhance the diversity and the inclusion and access of our organization,” artistic director Noah Blocker-Glynn says.

The concept wasn’t merely theoretical; the issue of recognizing one another’s preferred pronouns, for example, had already arisen within the ranks. Throughout last spring and summer, Blocker-Glynn says, the chorus spent much of their time together not singing but rather “talking about and exploring… who we are and how we engage with ourselves and the community.”

Singing continued as well. By fall, the chorus was back on track, rehearsing a piece called “This Is Me” from the musical film The Greatest Showman, whose lyrics and upbeat tune aligned with the work they were doing together. In order to make music in a virtual setting, vocalists had to sing alone, recording their voices using a click track and an instrumental recording stripped of vocal parts. Johnson calls the experience “terrifying.” Altogether, she did about 100 takes of different portions of her own part before she was satisfied with the result—a far cry from a live performance, shared with her fellow singers. “You’re just basically doing a solo that [later] comes together with a group… Honestly, there were tears,” she admits.

The experience also underscored the importance of having a conductor. “I had the hardest time [memorizing] the words,” says Laura Hintz, a longtime member from Wallingford and chorus vice president. “I didn’t realize how much I watch Noah, and he’s always singing the words… You had to do the crescendos and the decrescendos and the cutoffs all on your own. Without the [sheet] music.”

Blocker-Glynn was aware of the “terror”; he felt it, too. He encouraged singers to record lots of videos of themselves singing whatever they liked, “just to begin to understand what their voice sounds like and to hear it and to not be afraid of it or criticize it so much.” The final takes—the group was now down to about 60 dedicated members—were painstakingly compiled into a single video by Blocker-Glynn’s brother, Daniel Glynn, a video game music composer. “When the end result came together,” Johnson says, “that was just unbelievable.”

Fueled by their probing conversations and an ultimately satisfying performance, the chorus launched into the current semester with a new focus—”Project Community”—and what Blocker-Glynn calls “putting the network into action.” Since February, they’ve been spending two out of three Zoom rehearsals working on “Draw the Circle Wide,” a piece by composer Mark Miller that again articulates the work the chorus is doing together. Singers follow the score onscreen or on licensed hard copies and sing along with online rehearsal audio, their microphones on mute. Blocker-Glynn jumps in with direction and answers questions as they arise.

Every third week, most of the rehearsal is given over to continuing conversations. One such rehearsal in March began with called out greetings and announcements followed by some breath and vocal warmups led by Blocker-Glynn. The conductor called on several members to choose a physical warmup to share. Then it was time for breakouts in which singers brainstormed ideas for action. Every chorus member now belongs to one of four teams focused on membership, community engagement, audience development and marketing and branding. Ultimately, their ideas and findings will be collected in a proposal to be executed in the fall, Blocker-Glynn says. Unlike earlier days, when a small board dealt with these topics and pretty much followed what Johnson says was a well-worn pattern, in this transitional time everyone has ownership of decision-making.

Newcomers are still welcome to join GNHCC this season. Members generally pay $50 dues per semester to sing, “but that doesn’t come anywhere near our operating costs,” Hintz says. The chorus also relies on income from $15 concert tickets and, most of all, a fundraising push through the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven’s The Great Give event each spring.

Despite posing challenges, the pandemic has also helped the GNHCC reach a few high notes. “What’s really neat about the virtual piece is we have members that were former members that are coming back that live all over the world,” Johnson says. Blocker-Glynn says he’s learned more this year than ever about the chorus he leads. “I think the biggest takeaway from it for me has been that I’ve garnered a glimpse of every individual member versus the whole.” He’s heard their individual voices, yes, but he’s also seen them more clearly as individual people. The result, he says, is “quite beautiful… They are really passionate and really joyful, and they are vulnerable and daring enough to jump in and do it.”

Greater New Haven Community Chorus
(203) 303-4642 | [email protected]

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features members of the Greater New Haven Community Chorus singing “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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