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

“So that’s what you really like about your project, then?”  I asked.  “That you get to give back?  Engage people?” “Yeah, that’s definitely part of it,” Mark mused.  “But, you know, I also enjoy that at some point, after a few seasons of honing the choir, of honing our musicianship, it was really no longer just my choir.  It became our choir.  And it’s even becoming Chicago’s choir.  It belongs to everyone, even the audience.”

“You’ll have to explain that one.  I mean, I understand that the audience can enjoy the music, that’s fine, but how does the choir belong to them?”

He leaned forward. Angela leaned forward, too.  I hesitated and then joined the conspiracy. “The thing is,” Mark said, “everyone is a choral music fan.  They just don’t know it yet.”

I shook my head and turned another page in my notebook.  “I don’t buy it.”

Mark held up a hand.  “See, every new person we bring into the fold, every person who hears choral music for the first time, or chooses to support the choir, or even just learns something new about how music can sound…they get to hold and cherish and own that moment where we helped them expand their horizons, or where they supported us so we could expand ours.”

I was still suspicious.  “Can you prove it?  Have you seen this ‘ownership’ in action?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Angela said, rising to the challenge.  “Here’s your proof.”  She reached into her purse and pulled out a pamphlet, tossing it down on the table definitively.  “That’s the program for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ concert.”

I flipped it open, and scanned the first few pages as she talked it through.  “For starters, we took this concert right out to the public.  We partnered with Chris Jackson of the Jackson Junge Gallery to stage the event in a non-traditional location.  We hired an amazing caterer, Jason Shiver-Simpson of Stone Root Catering.  We sold tickets, we dressed up in our party best, we talked about art and music. I’m telling you, this was solid ritz.”

“Alright, I can believe that,” I nodded.

“And then the audience ownership,” she said.  “Well, we had a standard rep by then.  We had openers, closers, experimental music, fast and slow pieces.  And we decided to group pieces together by their type, three to a group, and sing little snippets of each piece to the audience as the night progressed.  Four rounds of snippet singing.”

“Why just snippets?  Why not sing the whole song.”

“Well, we wanted to create some mystery,” she shrugged a shoulder.  “And besides, if we sang the whole piece, then we would have just been telling the audience what to listen to.  No, this way, they got to decide which pieces intrigued them, and then vote on the piece they wanted to hear in its entirety.”

“Ohhh, so that’s how the audience…”

“Took ownership of the concert, yes,” finished Angela.  “They picked all the pieces they wanted to hear, and in the meantime, we walked around and mingled and talked about our choir and our music and asked them about their choices, and what about each piece had drawn them in.  And they came up with the most amazing things to say.  People immediately felt connected to the emotionality of a piece, or the pace of it, or the humor in it.  They were anticipatory.  They really, truly hoped they’d win the vote and get their piece on the program.  They owned their decisions.”

“Alright, well, that’s certifiably cool,” I said.  “You’ve convinced me.”

“I don’t think we can argue that the people at the concert were all brand new to choral music,” said Mark in reflection.  “But you know what?  We made you like the choir, didn’t we?”

I raised my eyebrows.  “Oh, well…I suppose in a way, that…”

“Admit it, you’re a choral music fan now.”

I scratched the back of my head.  “Well, I did like the recordings you gave me to listen to…and I did think the members I met were pretty interesting, so…”  I finally relented a smile.  “Yeah, I think I’m a choral music fan.”

Mark clapped his hands together in absolute triumph.  “I knew it!”

Angela’s mink let out a tiny hiccup and slid from the table, drunk as a skunk.  She sighed and picked the mink up off the floor, setting him around her shoulders.  His paws dangled down in blissful oblivion.  “You better be…” she said.

I cleared my throat.  “Well, I have more than enough for the radio installments, now.  The only thing left is to have you both in to the studio to do a bit of recorded interview…which I think…” I flipped open my pocket calendar.  “Yeah, I have you down here for next Tuesday.”

Angela looked at Mark, in cahoots about something or another.  “What…” I asked.  “Tuesday won’t work?”

“It’s not that.  Well, I have one last secret to share with you,” Angela said.  “It might surprise you.”

“After all this?  I doubt it.  But lay it on me.”

“Your boss, Stephanie Malmquist?”

“Yeah…” I said, growing wary.

“She’s in the choir.”

To Be Continued.....

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

By the time I was ready to meet with “The Gentleman” and his “Lady,” again, I had encountered so many different kinds of choir members, my head was spinning.  Singing administrators, consultants, teachers, commodity traders, engineers, architects, MORE lawyers, hell…even a law enforcement official. It was completely fascinating to me.  I mean, Mark had said that his choir was an adoptive family, a community, but I had no idea that so many sorts would come out to audition—that so many people had hidden (or not so hidden) musical talents.  I told him as much over a round of drinks, back at the pub where it all started.

“I know,” he said.  “It’s completely amazing.  I mean, in the first round of auditions, we accepted 50% of the singers, and now we can only let about 10% of auditionees in to the group.  And the people who join us are just great.  They take on extra roles in the choir, they offer experience and expertise, and they really just provide a whole set of musical cornerstones.”

Angela set her hand over Mark’s and gave it a squeeze.  “He’s such an optimist.”

“Well, he has reason to be, I think,” I reviewed my scads of notes.  “Based on the choristers I talked to, the time they put in, the volunteer organizations that help you out…I figured you would have to kiss a lot of rings.  But it looks here as though everyone was just crazy generous.”

“That’s the weird thing about it all,” Mark scratched his head and then gave me an open-handed gesture of complaisance.  “The generosity was far more than I ever expected.  It feels great to be able to pay it forward, you know.”

I called for another round.  “How do you do that?  Pay it forward?”

Mark smiled.  Not a ‘the-guy-who-just-jumped-out-of-the-birthday-cake-plugged-the-right-mobster’ smile. A gen-u-ine grin from ear to ear.  “In any way I can.”

The whiskeys arrived.  I shoved the last sip of my first tumbler over toward Angela’s mink.  It stuck its head inside the glass.

*   *   *   *   *

Mark worked incredibly hard on his choir—paying it forward for their commitment and time and patience.  In conjunction with his day job (which requires 50+ hours of work a week) he quickly discovered that it would take him further hours of time, per song, outside of rehearsal just to be able to stand up in front of the choir and conduct with any sense of confidence.  Panache and go-getter attitude were only going to get him so far.  At some point he had to just go in front of a jury of his peers, some of whom had more conducting experience than him, and try to conduct accurately, mitigate chaos, value everyone’s opinions, overcome feelings of embarrassment, and learn to forgive himself for mistakes.  People dropped out from time to time, and he had to learn to not take it personally.  He had to combat friends at other times, while still maintaining relationships and building self-confidence.

All in all, he had to learn to meet the needs that were central to the choir and then ask other people to pay it forward, too—to add to the growing identity of the choir rather than finding fault with it.  To learn how to help, to fit in, and to advance the goals of the community.

And he had to pay it forward to the audience—to deliver on a solid performance at the end of each concert season in order to thank them for their generosity, support, enthusiasm.

Because, in the end, isn’t it really about them?  The audience?

Of course, the choral experience happens within the choir.  Each of the singers is, or should be, very passionate about their relationship to the music and to each other.  Give and take within the group is necessary because they are not soloists—that’s the whole point.  And they could very easily make music just for themselves.  They don’t have to make music in interaction with an audience for it to be enjoyable to make music.

But the audience makes the experience different.  They deserve to be a part of the music.  If trained singers can lose themselves in the notes and find a place of calm amidst the storms brewing in their heads, then imagine what music does for people who cannot read notes—who cannot make that music on their own when they need it most.  The choir gives a very simple and incredibly meaningful gift to the audience.  They give music.  And music never asks to be regarded as anything other than beautiful, even when, as Mr. Magnificent pointed out, it is difficult and full of atonal chord clusters in some Eastern European dialect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the choir started, the impetus was not the audience.  And now, it very much is.  The choral experience is not just for the choir, it’s for the public at large.  Such a challenge, and such a reward.

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

My next visit was no less nerve-wracking.  It turned out that one of Chicago’s top lawyers moonlighted as a member of the choir.  I’d seen him before outside of the courthouse, but only from afar as I jostled with other reporters in the hopes of a statement.  And here I had a one on one audience.  I wondered momentarily if I could slip in a question about last week’s double homicide, but decided I should probably just stick to my script. I handed over my card to the clerk at the front desk and then headed upstairs under the escort of a guy who would give Mr. Magnificent a run for his money.  Another John at the door to the office plucked my notebook out of my hand and scanned my set of questions.  He nodded without expression and handed it back to me.  He pushed the door open.

Jon Schildt took one look at me, at my notebook and press badge, and spun his chair toward the window.  “No comment.”

I stopped in the middle of a gigantic Persian rug, shaded by a Swarovski chandelier.  “I’m here about the choir,” I said.

“Oh right.”  He swung the chair back toward me.  The lamps from the chandelier caught his suit and sent rays of light pin-wheeling away from his glittering houndstooth.  He pulled a gold pen out of his breast pocket and shoved a piece of paper across the desk.  “Sign that.”  He tossed the pen down.

“What’s this?”  No one had mentioned any contract when I called about the appointment.

“It’s a document stating that you will refer to me only by my alias so as to keep my dreadfully important work from being interrupted by silliness and nonsense and…reporters asking questions about my hobbies…”  He crossed his arms.  “I owed ‘The Gentleman’ a favor, or you wouldn’t even be here.”

I looked up from the contract in wide-eyed astonishment.  “You’re Billy Flynn?”

“Is it that hard to believe?”

“Yeah, ok, alright.”  I added my John Hancock to the contract and took a seat. Schildt seemed to relax a bit once he had my signature under lock and key, and headed over to his liquor cabinet for libations.

“So I have here that you joined at the very beginning of the third season of the choir,” I began the interview.

“I did.” He responded, measuring out the drinks.  “My first concert was ‘Star of Wonder’ performed on December 4th and 5th, 2010.  And then the following spring we sang a concert called ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’  That was on the 9th and 10th of April.”  He brought our glasses over and set one before me.

“Pretty impressive, having all this stuff committed to memory.”  I noted.

“I had a clerk write it up for me.  I just memorized it, like any other self-respecting hotshot.”  He took a sip of scotch.  “Next you’re going to ask me about our ‘Assembling the Masses’ concert on July 9th and 10th of 2011, and ‘Eat Drink and Be Merry’ on December 10th and 11th, same year.”

“Alright, but those are just dates.  I’d like to see someone write out your opinion of these concerts.” I challenged.

“People write my opinions on things all the time.  I read them over breakfast.”  He looked smug.

“Well, I guess you can just give me those written opinions, and I’ll be on my way.”  I snapped my notebook shut.

“Oh, settle down, I’ll tell you something about choir, direct from me to you.”  I slowly opened my notebook, maybe looking a little smug myself.  “Please, I had this planned out from the get-go,” he read my expression. “You, dragging out my heart and soul.”

“That hard to find ‘em, eh?”

“Hilarious. No.  It’s just, you know, I can’t let it getting out that that grand piano over there isn’t just furniture.  I’m a music theory geek, you know that?  I accompany the choir sometimes.  Hell, I even enjoy it.”  He smiled at his piano like it was an old friend.

“So you do actually have fun, here?” I asked.

“Sure.  In fact, as a choir we had this one day of performances,” he sat up in his chair and leaned forward with glee. “So, we started at 7:30 AM singing a segment on the morning news, then we did a noon time concert at 4th Presbyterian on Michigan Avenue, then we caroled the same evening at Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, and THEN we had ourselves a choir Christmas party.  I had to do the whole thing incognito, of course, and it was completely crazy, but that was the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Why don’t you want people to know that?”  I asked.  “Off the record.”

“Well, if it gets out how much I love an audience, people might start to think that I don’t practice law solely out of a genuine sense of human decency.”  He touched his hand to his heart, flashing a couple of rings.

“This is Waterford, right?”  I finished off my scotch and eyed the glass.

“I think we’re done here.”

 

To Be Continued......

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.”

“Um…G-R-A-T”

“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....