Long-Tenured Singers: The Benefits Flow Both Ways
Long-time singers will happily list numerous ways that choral singing enhances their lives. When those singers stay with the same chorus for many years, the benefits flow both ways. We spoke with seven singers who have sung with the same chorus for two or more decades about their experience and its value.
When tenor Jody Golightly joined the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1980 there were a number of singers who had been in the group since its creation in 1964 by the late Roger Wagner. “I found that invaluable to get their perspective on what we were doing,” he says. “Between all the music they had done and all the connections they had made with each other, it was very helpful to me to have this group of people that had been together making music for so long.”
Now Golightly is returning the favor. The Master Chorale has a policy of seating long-time singers next to new singers. “It helps them assimilate a little better,” he says, “and I’m happy to do that.”
The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia also has a voluntary “buddy system” which pairs new singers with established members. Alto Jane Uptegrove, who has been a continuous member since 1995, says that long-time singers members “agree to answer any question, any question at all, that the new singer may have in the first year.” Often these questions have to do with “a chorus culture thing that is going on that they may not understand,” she says. “I can be an ambassador.”
Linda Luke, who has sung alto with the Dedham Choral Society in Dedham, Massachusetts for 30 years, believes that extending that welcome is crucial for the future of her chorus—and all choruses. “As old-time singers we need to make a special effort to nurture the younger singers coming in and invite them into leadership positions,” she says. “Those singers will be our future and every chorus’s future.”
Having a strong cadre of long-tenured singers in a group is also important when there are organizational changes, such as the hiring of a new music director. The Master Chorale has had four music directors, and George Sterne has been around for all of those transitions. With each, he said, came changes and the pruning of voices, which was traumatic for some. “I think it is imperative that you have members of the group that have ties of memory to the past,” he says, “so that traditions that have been around are not forgotten.”
It’s also helpful to a new music director to have a solid core. Mary Hutcherson, 83, joined the Athens Choral Society in its charter year in 1971 and has experienced several music director transitions. “A new conductor needs to be able to look out and recognize faces,” she says. “We veterans—people recognize us and it does provide a little history to the group.”
Singers with experience in a group are less rattled by change—and even are philosophical about it. “If you’re with any organization long enough, there will be changes,” Uptegrove says. It behooves the long-time members to lead the way in being flexible and not holding on to the past, she says. “I like to think that every year the chorus is a ‘new’ instrument,” she says. “You can get into a bad rut if people who have been there a long time walk around as if the way they do it is the law of the land. You don’t want to make the way things have been into a sacrament.”
When the subject of older singers comes up, it is often about how to help them sing better—or how to ease them into other roles in the chorus, if their voices are no longer up to snuff. The singers we talked to were acutely aware that they might not be able to sing forever.
Jones was asked to re-audition for Mendelssohn Club next year, an indication to him that his days of singing may be drawing to a close. “I always thought that I wanted to be the one to say it is time for me to stop, rather than being told,” he says. “So I am struggling with that. Do I wait and do the re-audition or just say it is time?”
Uptegrove says that she notices changes in her voice. “And my hearing is not what it used to be, so I have to pay more attention and work at things a little more,” she says.
Golightly suggests that older singers may need to adjust their expectations. “I don’t sing like I did in my twenties,” he says. “I don’t have the same kind of range and stamina. But I have learned how to pace myself.”
Sterne says that the key for him is balance. “The thing that keeps your voice in the best shape is regularly using it,” he says. “But you always have to watch out to make sure that you are not doing so much that it is actually tiring in a detrimental way.”
Several long-tenured singers had taken voice lessons in recent years to address vocal issues. “I took lessons because I was noticing some breath control issues and knew I needed to be more attentive to that,” Luke says. “I also joined a small a cappella group, which really improved my sight reading skills and my attention to blend.”
A Feel for the Music
On the other hand, long-time singers have a certain feel for the choral repertoire that only comes from years of exposure to it. “What we give up in breath control, we make up for in better understanding of the music,” Luke says. “My voice may not be better, but I am a much better singer. I am more attentive to the dynamics, the phrasing, the meaning. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get.”
Golightly agrees: “Just doing so many varieties of pieces improves your musicianship. Every year you are adding things to the memory bank.” This experience has an impact on the overall group sound, too. “Mature voices contribute to a mature sound,” Jones says. “When I hear a chorus of really young singers, I can tell instantly.”
Long-time singers also have a deep understanding of what wonders can happen when a group of people comes together to serve the music. “Creating something together as a larger group is very fulfilling to everybody’s human nature,” Luke says. “The more people in the group who have done that for longer, I think really contribute to the overall well-being of the group.”
A passion for music doesn’t diminish with age, these singers attest. “I have a list of the great choral works that I have done and the ones I would like to do,” Sterne says. “I don’t want to leave until that second list is done.”
Our Panel of Long-Tenured Singers:
Mary Hutcherson, 83, joined the Athens Choral Society in its charter year in 1971 and has been singing alto with the group ever since. About half of the 90 members are well above 50 years old, she says, “but we’re no slouches!”
Tenor Jody Golightly, 57, joined the Master Chorale in 1980, when the group was doing a lot of touring—“a great way to bond with a choir”—and those relationships have been the most valuable thing, he says.
Phil Jones, 63, joined the Mendelssohn Club in 1979 and since then has missed only two concerts to care for ill family members. “The weekly rehearsals are like a really good workout,” he says.
Linda Luke, 63, has sung alto with the Dedham Choral Society in Dedham, Mass. for 30 years. “I’ve sung with different groups over the years, but this one has become my home,” she says.
George Sterne, 57, joined the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1982 when Roger Wagner was music director and “never left after that. Choral music ignites my soul,” he says.
Jane Uptegrove, 60, joined the Mendelssohn Club in 1983 and after a hiatus while attending school and raising a family, has been a continuous member since 1995. “It’s a real-time activity,” she says. ““There is such a charge with being with a group of people who share that love.”