From Lisa Wood, S1
Early 2018, after a more extended break from singing than I’d hoped or wanted, I searched for an outlet. I came from a family of classically trained musicians but had mostly spent my time in rock bands, band collaborations, and solo projects over the years. I hadn’t sight read music since 8th grade and hoped to find something where I could brush up on that. My mom has sung in choruses since I can remember, I’ve attended her concerts over the years but hadn’t ever considered a chorus for myself. I was always slightly intimidated by the idea, being rusty in my sight reading, not sure if I could sing in that style.
For my mom’s 70th birthday, I learned an aria from a Puccini opera with the help of my voice teacher, and that solidified my want to pursue a classical/choral outlet to push and challenge myself. A Google search of choruses in Portland brought up several, but one stood out. An all-women’s chorus called Aurora, led by Director, Joan Szymko. It intrigued me. I went down the internet rabbit hole, reading about Joan, her accolades, and watching videos of the chorus–they were fantastic. 4-part harmonies, songs with worldly meaning and intention–I could feel that these women were empowered and strengthened by their collective voices and the words they were singing, guided by a fierce and strong woman.
I lived far from Portland at the time, but I reached out anyway. I was curious. I connected with one volunteer who keeps the chorus machine humming, and even in the email, I could hear the enthusiasm and excitement about Aurora, along with the passion of bringing new women into the fold. I wound up not being able to join due to my distance, but as fate would have it, I moved back just a few months later and reconnected with that same volunteer, Kristin. She invited me to a new singer voicing and assured me that this was a non-audition choir where all who can match pitch are welcome. I loved that. And as a part of their mission as a non-profit, they offer a scholarship fund, so it holds no one back from singing based on income. Even better. Not only a chance to sing but a chance to sing in a place where community matters and where women from all backgrounds are welcome.
I showed up for voicing, sang in a few groups, sang in a duo, and then sang with just Joan and the piano. As I’ve learned over the past term, Joan has an incredible ear. She plays, asks you to mimic a melody, sing a few scales and from there decides where you should sing. I landed in the Soprano 1 section. The women I met that day were incredibly kind and helpful. They gave me a badge with my name on it, a packet of music, some Aurora swag, and homemade cookies to welcome me.
The schedule was a weekly commitment, sometimes more, but I was ready. After all, the catalyst for my search was my need to sing regularly. It is cathartic for me in a way that nothing else is. Nothing makes me feel like singing does. As an aside–did you know it is proven that singing is good for your health? It’s true! It reduces stress and anxiety, fires up the right temporal lobe of your brain, increasing creativity, health, and happiness. And in a group? Heartbeats have been known to sync up – a powerful feeling, more significant than any of us alone. I’ve referenced an article at the end of this blog that explains further.
The thing I didn’t expect from Aurora was the community of phenomenal women. I mean, I knew from the day I went to voicing that they were a good group of people, but it was far beyond anything I could have imagined. This is a group of women that picks each other up when they’re down, that reaches out a hand if someone needs help, that sings to each other when they’re hurting or has someone in their life that is–this a group of women that genuinely cares for one another. Some women have sung with Aurora for decades, but there is no sense of “better than” and I never felt like anyone was anything but happy to have the new singers there.
Aurora runs like a well-oiled machine thanks to its volunteers, and that impressed me. Each section has two leaders for you to lean on if you need help, there’s no shortage of support. The concerts we sang in were a success because of those volunteers throughout the term and during the shows. I’d like to recognize that here. It wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Throughout the term, they gave us all the tools we would need to succeed. Break-out sectional practices at people’s houses, an intensive one-off to focus in and solidify the parts, and a 2-day retreat in the woods where the sole focus was to work, sing, and complete the concert run through. It felt like an adult Summer camp, and I loved it. We sang all day, yet when we got back to the house, we weren’t sung out. We sat in the living room singing, sharing wine, stories, laughs, and love.
At the end of the retreat there was an opportunity to share feelings and thoughts, and while I’m not typically one to open up in a group like that (it makes my palms sweaty just thinking about it), I felt compelled to. Life had thrown me a few devastating blows recently, and I’d been struggling to find inner peace and happiness. I honestly hadn’t felt this good in quite some time. Aurora did that. Singing did that. The community embracing me did that. And I wanted to thank them for that.
I felt ready for the concerts, minus a few nerves. I had a solo; it thrilled me, but that was another personal hurdle I was working to clear. Squashing the nerves that take over when I’m singing in front of people. As many of you have probably experienced, nerves can do a job on your voice and breath. I am determined to conquer it, and the support from the 100 women standing behind me was something special. Very different from my prior experiences in bands, this wasn’t about me, it was about us. I felt a responsibility not to let them down. I still trembled a bit, but it is now one solo conquered, and I hope to continue down the path of taking over those nerves and singing out, like I know I can.
We had two concerts over the holidays in beautiful venues; they were sold out and the audience, from all accounts, loved it. I loved it. It was marvelous to see all the hard work we’d put in come together. Singing by yourself is one thing, nailing 15 songs with 100 people is no small task.
It is Joan-her leadership, her knowledge, her songs. It is the volunteers who give their time and efforts to make it work behind the scenes. It is all of these women coming together for a common goal, to sing their hearts out.
I’m hooked, I love this community and feel lucky to be a part of it. We’re kicking off rehearsals for our International Women’s Day concert, followed by Spring term. If you’ve never sung in a chorus, aren’t sure if you want to, I highly recommend giving it a shot. You’re welcome here.
The article referenced in the 5th paragraph: https://upliftconnect.com/neuroscience-of-singing/