We’re not exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, nor yet The Manhattan Transfer. But the Bangor Community Chorus, which just closed out its 48th season on a high note, fills a special place in the area’s music culture, and in my heart.
Singing in a choral group is just about brand-new for me. Up until very recently, the last time I did it was in junior high, when I was a member of the youth choir at a church in northern Virginia. The experience left a big impression; right here and now, some 45 years later, I could sing for you all the verses of “The Spacious Firmament,” “Praise Ye the Lord,” “Now April Has Come” or “The Pigtail” without missing a syllable or a note. Just ask me.
My parents and I moved further south at the end of my 8th grade year. It was decades before I sang in a chorus again. Oh, I sang — the latest Monkees songs in the mirror, show tunes in the car and Joni Mitchell’s plaintive melodies in the echoing, tiled stairwell of my college dorm. I sang with my kids when they were little and non-judgemental. I sang in the congregation at church; in fact, that was the main reason I went to church. But as much as I loved music and song, I could never bring myself to join a structured choral group.
Who knows why? Maybe it was because I never learned to read music — a longtime regret. Or because, once or twice, someone in my life made an unkind remark about my voice. Or because I generally didn’t trust that I had what it took to be fabulous — the “excellence” bar was set pretty high in my family, the support for “pretty good” alarmingly low.
It wasn’t until 2012, after my 30-year marriage ended in divorce, that the idea of joining a choral group crept into my thinking. I had taken a new job, moved away from Bangor and relocated to the midcoast. I wanted to meet people and contribute to the cultural life of my new community. I wanted to tap into my dormant creative spirit, have some fun and stop worrying about being fabulous. I wanted to sing.
Eventually, I found my way to the Acadia Choral Society in Ellsworth. They were just beginning rehearsals for a winter holiday program and assured me I was welcome to join, despite my lack of experience. The next Tuesday evening, there I was, nervously shuffling my sheet music and making shy conversation with the other altos. And though the program included Benjamin Britten’s startlingly dissonant “A Ceremony of Carols” and other compositions that challenged me at every note, I managed to learn it well enough to perform it — if not excellently, then adequately — at St. Saviour’s Episcopal Church in Bar Harbor.
I could not have done this, and would not have even tried, without the good-natured persistence of the director, the patient support of my fellow choristers and a recorded disc of all the alto parts, which helped me learn the notes by ear before I learned them by heart. After that initial holiday performance, I sang two more programs in Bar Harbor. Each time, I learned more, relaxed more and enjoyed it more.
When I returned to the Bangor Daily News late last summer, I shopped around a little and settled in with the Bangor Community Chorus, a casual, quirky, inclusive group with deep roots in community theater. No audition is required, just the love of music and song. There are some younger members, but I’d say the average age is pushing 60. The oldest singer, longtime Bangor resident Lloyd George, is 82, and a founding member.
Our talented young director and accompanist, Douglas Beck, cajoles us cheerfully beyond our comfort zones in every direction, whether we’re singing familiar Christmas arrangements, edgy choral pieces or popular tunes. As a result of the hard work and fun we share together, we are consistently pretty good and frequently excellent. We are always looking for new members.
Our most recent program, “All That Jazz,” wrapped up last Saturday and included standards from Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter, a sizzling tango chorus and some terrific instrumentals. In addition to our full-house performance at the First United Methodist Church in Bangor, we sang for the residents at the Sylvia Ross Home, an independent living facility for older folks.
I still lean on the stronger members of the alto section for reassurance that I’m hitting the right notes, but I’m slowly becoming more confident in my own mastery of the music. It helps that I recently started piano lessons — another shock to my aging brain — and can pick out some of the passages on my keyboard at home.
I’m a little sorry that it took me so long to get brave enough to join a choral group. Maybe if I had stayed with it all these years, I’d be fabulous by now. But I would have missed the sweet discovery that it’s almost never too late to set and achieve new goals — and to meet a vibrant community of creative peers in the process.