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Wicker Park Choral Singers

Building community through choral music

Wicker Park Choral Singers is a Chicago-based all-volunteer choir dedicated to building community through choral music. 

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PART SEVEN: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

I took a day off between interviews and headed out a bit later in the day for my next two.  I had a meeting with a chorister whose day job was as school marm, and she had specifically requested that I show up in her classroom at 3:15 sharp.  Not a second sooner or later.  I polished my shoes and straightened up my bowtie and made sure I looked docile enough for a fourth grade classroom.  Didn’t particularly care to get my fingers rapped.  The note next to this miss’s name said “NICE,” but I wasn’t taking any chances. I showed at the appointed time and knocked on the slightly open door.

“Oh my goodness!  Oh goodness come in!”  I pushed the door open and stuck my head inside with a smile.  It faded.  One little boy sat on a stool with a bar of soap in his mouth.  Another was copying out lines on the board.  A third knelt on the ground in a pile of grits, a heavy book on his head.

“Here, come here and have a seat in front of my desk.”  I swept off my hat and cleared my throat and moved as quietly as I could to the chair.  Miss Reihsmann seated herself behind the desk in what I would only describe as a lordly manner and beamed down at me.  I pulled on my collar.

“Soooo….” She crooned.  “So you have questions?”

I had a number of questions by now…I glanced back over my shoulder at the little boy in the corner, poor sap, and then took out my notebook.  “Sure.  I hear you’re in on some of the second and third year activities of the choir, and I uh…I guess I was wondering…”  The little boy on the stool stared me down with desperation.  Get this soap out of my mouth he seemed to say.  Please for the love all things, get it out.

“You were wondering?” she prodded.

“Oh, um,” I stared at my notebook like it might save me.  Could it save me?  “Well, what sort of activities might those have been?”

“Well, let’s see, shall we?”  Miss Reihsmann pulled a calendar out of her desk marked 2009-10 and another 2010-11.  Both were littered with pictures of baked goods.  January was a cinnamon bun.  “So in my first year in choir, we did an absolutely lovely Christmas Rose concert on December 5, 2009.  And in the spring we undertook quite the ambitious little program entitled Dusk til Dawn, on March 27, 2010, with songs picked and handcrafted into sequence precisely in that order.”

“Got it. That order. Ambitious.”

“I also participated in a delectable concert we titled Angels and Demons, in two separate locations, on both July 7th and 10th of 2010.  And I partook in choir extravaganza with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s 65th Anniversary Concert, whilst I missed out on the choir’s opportunity to perform with the ever lovely and gracious Oprah Winfrey on September 14, 2010.”

“Are you...are you giving…” I trailed off, looking back at the words I’d underlined for emphasis.

“A vocabulary lesson?  Well, of course I am, you silly duck, musn’t miss an opportunity to learn.”  She grinned even wider.  “CHILDREN”

They responded with a chorus of “Yes, Miss Reihsmann?”

“What words did you learn just now?”

I was astonished as they all stood at attention and started to list off the vocabulary in exact order.  The little boy with the soap in his mouth pronounced the words a bit oddly as he curled his tongue around the suds, and the boy with the book and the grits hesitated on the final word before guessing at it with a side glance to the kid at the board.

“Billy!”  Miss Reihsmann jumped up from behind the desk.  She leaned directly into my space and glared over my shoulder.  “SPELL that last word.”


“BACK ON THE GRITS BILLY” She seated herself behind the desk and smoothed her skirts.  “You may go,” she told the other two.  They raced out of the classroom.  “And that,” she told me with the same maniacal smile, “is how you teach children to be smart and nice.

“So,” I said, jumping up from my seat.  “I think I’ve got everything...yep.”

“Are you sure? Another question?  We would have had time for one were you not a minute late.”

“A minute late, you don’t say,” I started edging toward the door. “That means I’m a minute late to the next interview!  I really, uh…”  I realized I’d left my hat dangling on the arm of the chair.  I looked from the hat, to Miss Riehsmann, to poor little Billy.  “Have a hat, kid.”

I ran away.



To Be Continued....

PART SIX: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

I made my way out of the banquet hall and hailed a cab. It was early in the day. I had time for another interview, and I was particularly curious about this one. I gave my driver the address, leaned back in my seat, and smiled to myself in amusement. The cab dropped me off a little while later, and I hopped down onto the pavement, greeted by a plethora of garish colors and animal smells. The circus. I laced my way through the cluster, evading an elephant, a few acrobats, and a monkey on a unicycle.

And then I found the tent I was looking for. “Matthew the Magnificent Man of Muscle!!!” There was nowhere to knock, so I just called out from the entrance.

“…Mr. Magnificent?”

“COME IN” said a deep booming voice. Jeez Louise, his voice alone was too big for the tent, how was he supposed to fit the rest of himself in it? I stepped inside.

Matthew stood up to greet me and extended his gigantic hand. “GOOD TO MEET YOU,” he cleared his throat. “Sorry, so used to shouting things. Good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I managed, shaking his hand. “Not about the shouting, about the meeting,” I said nervously. “Sorry, it’s just…you could crush me.”

“So you’re here to talk about choir, eh?” he said, twirling his handlebar moustache.

“Yes,” I said, taking out my notebook. “And, my apologies, but I have to ask. How does a circus guy like you end up in a choir?”

He laughed. “Yeah, that’s a fair question. Well, to be perfectly honest, this is just my side job. I lift weights for fun and join the circus when it comes through town. By day I’m a high school music teacher.”

“You don’t say. I bet your students don’t give you any guff.”

“My rule is, you can’t mouth off to me if I can bench press you…” he paused and raised an eyebrow, waiting for my obvious question.

“Can you bench—”

“Yeah, all of ‘em,” he interrupted proudly.

“That’s only marginally terrifying,” I muttered. “Um, what can you tell me about choir?”

“Well, I joined pretty early on. The choir actually came and sang at my high school in January 2009, which was great. And we did a one year anniversary concert on July 11, 2009, which was…a little odd, you know. One year is not the time to start getting nostalgic.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What can you tell me about being, you know, a big tough guy in a music ensemble?”

He waved his enormous arm in dismissal of my question. “The choir has never been about maintaining the status quo,” he said. “We always aim to break the mold, musically, and the members come from all over the place. It’s not just for professional musicians and geeks.”

“How do you break the mold?”

“Do you know how many languages I’ve sung in…?” he paused and raised an eyebrow again.

“How many lang—”

“Like eighteen.”

“That’s nutty,” I said, suitably impressed. “How else do you break the mold?”

“We just do all sorts of music. Pieces that have movement to them. Pieces that require us to split in half and sing back and forth to each other. Pieces that challenge the audience to think about how intricate and peculiar music can sound, and how that’s really wonderful.”

“What if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged?” I asked.

“Oh, we have great audiences that really appreciate the music Mark picks. Some of their favorite songs are the ones that are a little bit of an experiment or daring.” He laughed his booming laugh. “And we always reward their efforts with crowd pleasers.”


“Eric Whitacre. People love Eric Whitacre. Oh, and spirituals. We usually do a spiritual as an encore. We know what they come to hear. They want to know if Ezekiel saw that wheel…” he paused. The eyebrow.

I fell right into it. “Did he see—”

“Yeah, he totally saw it.”







I thanked Matthew for his time and stepped back out into the sun with two tickets to the circus in my jacket pocket. I glanced down at my list of names. This was getting interesting…

To Be Continued...

PART THREE: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

Mark started to answer his list of questions.  He wanted fulfillment out of life, obviously.  He wanted to be the musician he was capable of being.  He had choral music in his background, a few semesters of conducting classes, positive reinforcement from friends and family as to his musical ability.  And he knew that choir was the best of the art-form that he loved.  For him, choir was the pinnacle. So, he looked into graduate school for choral conducting.  He met all the application requirements sans one—two years of successful conducting experience…

So, then he looked into getting conducting experience.  Again, he met all the application requirements for conducting jobs sans one—he needed a master's degree in conducting…

Mark, being the earnest and forthright “Gentleman” that he is took those requirements at face value, rather than pushing and prodding employers and universities as to the shades of grey surrounding their application processes.  And it’s a good thing he did, because that earnestness led him smack dab to the realization that it was time.  It was time for his own choir.  And freedom.










Mark knew he had a ready and willing friend base he could call on for help.  He also had Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way tucked under his arm.  He finally felt unstuck.  He felt creative.  His mind-frame was right, his limitations were imaginary, and he was full of possibility.  He was so fired up that he only got to step nine of the book (but still recommends the whole thing, FYI).

*   *   *   *   *

“It was then that you met your arch nemesis, right?”  It was a dangerous question and I steeled myself for the possible backlash with a bit more liquid courage.

Mark stared at me for a good long second and then nodded.  “Yeah.  Yeah it was then.”  He picked at a knot in the table.  “Just call him J. Bentley in your article, there, OK?”

“That’s too obvious,” Angela remarked.  “Call him Jack B.”

“But you know, he pushed me.  He challenged me.  He told me I couldn't do this choir thing, and I did.  So, maybe I should thank him.  Send him some flowers in prison or something.”

“Put a file in ‘em?”  I ask.

“Nah, I don’t want to thank him that much.

*   *   *   *   *

So, I came to find out, that Mark started asking around for help.  And the funny thing was that everything magically fell into place—the way things often do when you work up the courage to ask about them for the first time.

The music, for instance:  A quick visit home to the alma mater, an outdated map to the choral music closet, and Mark emerged teeming with scores and covered with spiders.

The rehearsal space:  This was a doozy.  Mark was on a walk in his neighborhood thinking over this particular conundrum when he arrived at the intersection of Hoyne and LeMoyne.  There stood the 125 year old landmark that is Wicker Park Lutheran Church.  The sign out front had a website listed.  It was worth a shot.

That same evening Mark placed a call to Pastor Ruth, introducing himself as the conductor of the Wicker Park Choral Singers (conveniently glossing over the detail that his choir wasn't exactly an ensemble yet).  He explained the situation, and Pastor Ruth invited Mark into her home and chatted him up.  Five minutes of explaining his choir and Ruth had heard enough.  Of course he could use the church...for free.

Pastor Ruth passed away in early 2012.  But Mark—really all of us in Wicker Park Choral Singers—find it difficult to imagine our organization without the partnership of the church, facilitated by the lovely Ruth.  Her generosity was critical in getting the group off the ground.  Because of her and her church we have the privilege of sharing our love of choral music with each other.  Singing in her funeral services brought the gift full circle. Thank you, Pastor Ruth.

The performance venue:  Naturally, Mark looked for a performance venue within the Wicker Park community.  He opened conversation with Doug Wood, who oversees all the gardening that goes on in Wicker Park and helps to set the concerts in the park.  Mark initially thought that the Wicker Park Fieldhouse would be the only available rehearsal space, but with rehearsals covered, he extended his hopes as to the park as a place for performance.  He was not disappointed.  Wood suggested that the choir perform at the intermission of a programmed string quartet.

To be continued....