Twenty years ago, when Becky Graber founded the Brattleboro Women's Chorus, she imagined having fun with friends.
"I'd been doing story-telling as my bread-and-butter for 200 days a year, mostly on the New Hampshire seacoast," she said. "My daughter was young, and my son was born in 1993, so now I had two small children. I wondered what I could do that would let me be in one place and build relationships with people over the longer term."
Graber noticed there seemed to be a local need for singing opportunities for women.
"My friend Mary Alice Amidon had just stopped leading singing classes for women," she said, "so there was a core group of women I knew who wanted to keep on singing."
Graber was also inspired by two friends who led women's choruses in New Hampshire, Carolyn Parrott in Concord and Joanne Connolly in Portsmouth. Furthermore, having taught music in elementary schools, Graber was most used to working with treble voices.
By the fall of 1996 when Graber first put the word out that she was interested in starting a women's chorus, she wasn't sure what kind of response she would get.
"I thought we might get 20 or 30 people," she said, "and by the following spring, we ended up with about 60. People really liked the idea."
Two decades later, the chorus is everything she hoped and more, both to her and to the women, ages 10 to 90-plus, who join her.
Susan Kunhardt has sung with the chorus for over 15 years.
"This is my soul food," she said. "Becky has such charisma and talent. I've never seen anything like it. There's something about this music — it's so deep. It's like sacred hymns. The words are so touching; they really resonate with me. And there's something about being in a group of over a hundred women, all so different, yet the music brings us all together."
The group's upcoming spring concerts on Mother's Day weekend, May 7 and 8, will be extra special because for the first time, Graber has composed all the music.
"I've always arranged our music," she said, "and I've often written a song, but never have we done a concert like this. I can't remember if it was my idea or if someone else suggested it. Composing has come stronger to me in the past couple of years. Putting together music and words in choral composition means they're wedded in a really nice way."
Music has always been part of Graber's life. She learned to read music at the same time she learned to read words because her mother, an artist, sold World Book Encyclopedias and used World Book's Cyclo-teacher, a home-school, self-paced learning aid, to teach Graber to read notes.
"At my first piano recital at age 6, I played a piece by Mozart and also 'Singing Bird' by Becky Graber," she said.
Graber lets a concert theme emerge as she looks for poems and other compelling bits of writing to set to music.
"All along in Women's Chorus, we've always read poems," she said. "Poems gather around a particular theme. I like that whole process, that emergent thing. It comes out of our (choral) community life. It's part of my artistic expression. Some of these poems I live with a long time as I set them to music. I think they're beautiful words."
Using other people's words for her songs means Graber has to seek copyright permission from the writers. Doing so is often an adventure.
"One woman I tracked down said, 'Oh, yes, please.' Her name is Martha Postlethwaite, and her poem is titled 'Clearing.' It turned out she's from Minnesota; I'm from Minnesota," Graber said.
To use the words of Louise Erdrich in the chorus's two concert performances, however, costs $450, Graber said, but she noted that asking permission "has brought me mostly pleasant connections. A poet from California, Jane Elsdon — I talked to her two weeks ago, and she told me she was in hospice — when I asked to use her poem, 'Winter's Harvest,' she said, "Thank you so much. This is what we poets live for.' I got word that she just died. I'm sorry she won't get to hear the chorus sing the piece."
One of the group's attractions is its policy of inclusiveness.
"I've insisted on it," Graber said. "Any woman who wants to sing is encouraged to join. It's hard to be inclusive and welcoming, but it seems so important to me because singing is so life-giving, so expressive of who you are. With auditions, you're so vulnerable. You either make it or you don't. It's drawing a line, and you're not all together then."
"Becky makes it easy for everyone to be included," said Margaret Barletta. "I had never really sung before. I totally love it."
"There are no auditions," said Muriel Taylor. "Anyone can come. You don't have to have any experience. Many of us don't read music. We learn in the oral tradition. Becky teaches us about how to listen and how to blend."
Graber uses the oral tradition method of teaching music to the chorus members.
"I line it out, and the people listen and repeat," she said. "Dr. Ysaye Barnwell (vocalist with Sweet Honey in the Rock, an African-American women's a cappella ensemble) has been a lot of my inspiration, especially at first. She teaches all by ear, and she teaches history along with the music."
Graber has evolved as a conductor, as well.
"I've learned a lot more about singing and vocal production," she said, "both by studying — taking voice lessons with Kristen Carmichael-Bowers and Jennifer Hansen at the Brattleboro Music Center — and by attending conferences. Also, I have more confidence in what we're doing, which means I don't get thrown by feedback."
According to some of its members, chorus has been life-changing, even life-saving.
"We find deep support for our life experiences," Taylor said. "There's not another place where I feel as fulfilled musically and spiritually. We have over a hundred women singing this spring. People have come back to honor Becky, and they say, 'I can't believe how much I've missed this.'"
Peggy Frehsee agreed, saying, "We're working hard to make this perfect for Becky."
Jennifir Bailes Hart joined the first semester of the chorus in 1996 when she was 25.
"I moved away, I came back, I had kids — lots of life changes," she said. "I came back for the tenth anniversary, and I'm thrilled to be back for the twentieth. It's been amazing to watch Becky grow as an artist and as a leader. The sound she's able to draw from the chorus has become more beautiful over time. The songs are so heart-full and moving and really speak to connection. It's hard to sing them without crying. I feel so happy to be back. This group is such a touchstone for me."
"Becky is helping us find new places in ourselves and our voices," said Nancy Riege.
Bonnie Garrapy credits the chorus with helping to save her life.
"I had been through breast cancer a second time," she said. "I'd had huge life losses and been homeless for five months. I didn't want to go forward. I was down in the pits.
"One day I picked up the paper and saw a notice about singing with the Brattleboro Women's Chorus," Garrapy continued. "I hadn't sung in 40 years, since high school. There was a phone number. I called Becky, and she said there was a rehearsal that night. I had to force myself out of bed to get there. I said to her, 'I don't think I'm good enough.' And she said, 'Oh, yes you are.' I could feel some magic. I've been singing with the chorus for five years, and I've missed only two sessions. When I started five years ago, I was quiet and in the back. Throughout the years I have gotten braver, and now I sing out with pride. Everywhere I go, I praise the Women's Chorus."
The Brattleboro Women's Chorus is a non-profit organization and accepts donations, which are tax-deductible. The chorus has a strong scholarship program; cost shouldn't deter women who want to sing.
On Mother's Day weekend, the Brattleboro Women's Chorus will perform two concerts, the first at Next Stage in Putney on Saturday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. and the next day at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro, Sunday, May 8, at 4 p.m.
Guest musicians include Bill Ballard, alto sax; Connie Green, flute; Lisa McCormick, guitar; Cathy Martin, piano; Jen Rice, marimba.
Tickets for the concert are available at the door, $12 adult, $20 generous, $10 senior and student. Since this is the 20th anniversary concert, however, tickets will probably go fast. For more information about the chorus, visit the website at www.brattleborowomenschorus.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 802-254-8994.
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at email@example.com.