Brattleboro: Women's Chorus celebrates 20 years of harmony

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BRATTLEBORO >> In 1995, Becky Graber moved back to Brattleboro and was seeking a satisfying way to engage with music.

Mary Alice Amidon had recently stopped her work with a chorus for women, and shared her mailing list. Graber sent out a letter inviting interested women to come to a meeting — and the Brattleboro Women' Chorus was born. Twenty years later, Graber is once again inviting area women of all ages to join the group.

"Fifty people came, and by the end of the semester there were 62. I had no idea how many people would come to our first meeting in the basement of Kid's Playce."

Carrie Walker attended that first meeting.

"People were hanging off the walls," she recalled. "I got the letter from Becky, and I was home with my second set of little boys — the youngest was 3 — and I wanted to do something with music but I didn't know how to get back into music that I'd done in high school. Becky taught us 'I Remember, I Believe,' a composition by Bernice Johnson Reagon. I went home and I remember I was jumping up and down, I was so excited, telling my husband about it. That's how it began, and I've been hooked ever since. I haven't missed a session."

The singers don't need to be able to read music, because Graber teaches by ear. Singers learn both the melody and the lyrics not by reading, but by singing — a common approach in Great Britain, according to Graber. She makes CDs of the various parts of the songs to help Chorus members learn their parts.

"Sometimes when I drive around town I can see someone singing in their car and I know what song it is," Walker said.

Walker remembers the group's very first concert — which she missed.

"We had our first concert the first week in December — 60 voices singing rounds and chants, spirituals and freedom songs — and we had terrible weather."

She went home to pick up her younger children, but simply couldn't make it back to town for the concert.

"I tried to get to town — it was ice, and heavy snow, and there were trees down," she recalled. "I cried for three days."

Since then, the fall concert has been scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Muriel Taylor, who is now the president of the Women' board, had been singing for years when she joined the group.

"I've been singing all my life, starting with campfires — my dad was in the Air Force and we traveled, " she recalled. "He knew every song. In college I sang in madrigals and choruses."

When she moved to Brattleboro, she went to a singing workshop sponsored by the Chorus.

"I've never looked back," she said. "It's totally different because it's all learned by ear, through the oral tradition. That was totally new to me. It was difficult at first, learning orally with no music. Since then I've become used to it and I just love it."

The Chorus meets weekly in the fall to prepare for the concert the weekend before Thanksgiving, and forms again in the late winter to prepare a concert for Mother's Day weekend.

"The surprise for me was that this large group of women could come to a performance quality of music, and it's not easy music," Taylor continued. "The other thing I was unprepared for was that feeling from the group — the community of women is so warm. The warmth and camaraderie and feeling of community with a large group of women was something I'd never experienced before, and I'd never want to be without it. It was life-changing for me."

Walker also commented on the community that has formed around the Chorus among the more than 700 women who have been a part of it in the last 20 years.

"Singing with a big group is kind of magical, really. Everything you've come in with in your mind just leaves, and there's a connection," she said. "It fulfills my tribal needs. I've made lifelong friends with people from walks of life I wouldn't normally come across.

She attributes that sense of community to Graber's approach.

"Becky is just a performer; she makes it fun and entertaining," Walker continued. "It all begins with Becky and the whole supportiveness that she puts out that the transfers to everyone. She wants us to do well, but she's not demanding of absolute perfection — we do what we can."

Walker noted that the songs that Graber chooses — many of which she arranges herself — reinforce the connections among the singers.

"The music that Becky brings is really special," she said. "It's meaningful music. They are great songs to live with, so for 10 weeks a year you've got these songs going through your head that are wonderful and meaningful."

Jerelyn Wilson, the guiding spirit behind Amidon's group and a founding board member of the Women's Chorus, agreed.

"They're songs about life," she said. "The other thing about the songs having meaning, and it relates to the community piece, is when something intense happens with somebody, we sing a song to them. We were meeting the week of Sept. 11, and it was a really important place to be that night. It was really hard to be there, but we lit a candle, and it was the steady presence of what we were all thinking about, and it allowed us to sing."

Wilson noted that the Women's Chorus has become a local institution.

"It kept expanding — it was just word-of-mouth," she said. "It filled a real need. There was a buzz around. When new people move to town, it's one of the things I tell people about. The Brattleboro Women's Chorus is a really good example of how in a town like Brattleboro one person's initiative can be the catalyst for something that's really lasting."

The Chorus is registering singers for the fall.

"We're excited about our 20th season," Graber said. "We welcome new people and returning singers. People can go on the website and there's contact info, or they can call me at 802-254-8994 and I can send them either an email or a letter. We start with an open rehearsal on Wednesday, Sept. 2, at All Souls Church from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and a Thursday morning session at Centre Congregational Church from 10 a.m. to noon the next day. Open rehearsal is a chance for people to come and experience Chorus."

The open rehearsals will lead to two practice sessions each week on Wednesday evenings and Thursday mornings; the Thursday practices are new.

"We just added that option this past year," Graber noted. "It's also nice for Wednesday singers who miss a session or who want to reinforce."

The Chorus is open to all women aged 10 and up; there is a special rate for students and families, and over the years there have been a number of mothers and daughters who have sung together.

"One of the mother-daughter pairs was an 85-year-old and a 65-year-old," Taylor said.

To celebrate its 20th anniversary season this fall, the Chorus will perform songs it has sung in the past, and Walker is preparing a CD taken past performances in time for the concert at Thanksgiving.

Walker is grateful that Graber continues to lead the group.

"What she's doing — that people who can't read music can actually sing and have a chance to sing and perform, is such a gift for people," she said.

Maggie Brown Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@sover.net.


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