Singing Praises

Practice doesn’t start until 7:30 but by five after seven on Thursday night, the foyer and halls at 311 Temple Street are abuzz with giddy chatter. There’s a communal dish of gumdrops by the sign-in sheet and someone’s carrying in a birthday cake.

Sure, members have arrived early to ensure they’re on time for practice. But it’s also immediately clear, observing the excited hellos and affectionate jokes among friends, that they’ve arrived early because they like it here; because they like each other.

There are about 100 sopranos, altos, tenors and basses that make up the Greater New Haven Community Chorus, a non-auditioned group that is coming up on its 50th anniversary next year. New members are invited to join during a four-week open enrollment period at the beginning of fall and spring. And no matter their reason for joining the group—whether they used to sing in a chorus at school, joined with a parent or friend, or simply wanted to try something completely new—all seem to agree on one point: the Chorus’s social aspect is a huge part of the fun.

“It’s a chance to do something different, something outside the box,” says Jill Savitt, GNHCC member for 30 years and former board president. She remarks that she doesn’t think she’s ever seen a Thursday night sitcom and that that’s a good thing.

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The group, which, in addition to the large chorus includes a smaller chamber group, is made up of people aged 16 to 99 years and from all walks of life, says Savitt, who sings soprano. They plan social events together, and the strong bond between members has yielded many a lasting friendship along with, to any romantic’s delight, a marriage or two.

The vibrant social scene is almost enough to make you forget these people are here for more than the company. After filing into the main room at the Center Church Parish House, performing a few stretches and a round of group shoulder massage (punctuated by running commentary from the crowd and bouts of loud laughter), all faces turn towards creative director Noah Blocker-Glynn.

As he leads them in vocal warm-ups, the change in group demeanor is remarkable. They are at rapt attention as the room is filled with the warm, melodic sound of their voices. It’s time to get to work.

Not that the work can’t be fun, too. The youthful Blocker-Glynn, who is starting his second year in the position, directs with a level of smiling enthusiasm that seems impossible at this hour, this late in the workweek. Even when suggesting that the sopranos sound timid or that the tenor part seems a bit off, he’s smiling—and eliciting smiles in return.

But he’s also making his point. Although anyone of any musical ability can join the Chorus, being part of the group means rising to the challenge and singing to the best of your ability.

“I’m a firm believer that the greatest art is made in the least comfortable situations. I do a lot of pushing the envelope comfort-wise and getting people exposed to music that might be challenging to them,” says Blocker-Glynn. “I think the overall experience is heightened because people take a chance and invest in the quality of making glorious music.”

This is evident as he guides them through their musical selections for the evening with the help of piano accompanist Mark Sullivan, going over—and over—certain notes and phrases to get them just right. They will perform these pieces at their winter concert in December. Glossing over the details is not an option, and no one would want it that way.

This philosophy applies to the business end of the Chorus, as well. A highly active board manages the group, including hiring the director, planning events and keeping finances in check. Members pay $45 in dues per season ($70 per couple), and ticketed concerts and donations also help to bring in funding.

A well-placed intermission during weekly practice allows for announcements concerning general group affairs. They’ve begun discussing their highly anticipated 50th anniversary celebrations next year, including commissioning a choral work from a prominent composer. Lyrics for that piece will be inspired through community photography and poetry competitions.

This mid-practice break also means snacks, coffee and, happily, more time to talk with friends—a welcome moment of refreshment before getting back to work until 10 p.m. They also perform a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” for all the October babies—which explains that cake—and introduce new members, who are greeted with shouts, whistles and raucous applause.

The welcome, like everything about this group, is heartwarming. The newcomers wave to the room; they won’t be strangers for long.

Greater New Haven Community Chorus
(203) 303-GNHC (4642)

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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