The Tacoma Refugee Choir Project, as told by Erin Guinup
As media outlets began increasing our awareness of escalating international conflicts last spring, accounts of the challenges and hardships faced by refugees struck a deep nerve in my heart, and I found myself wondering what I could do to serve and stand in solidarity with people experiencing this kind of suffering. I am not independently wealthy (after all, I am a music teacher), and I did not at the time know any refugees. I recognized that I needed to expand my circle and get more involved… but how?
I thought about volunteering with an organization but had a nagging feeling that there was a better way of using my talents to make an impact. After watching a broadcast at a conference, I ultimately felt inspired to create a refugee choir. This was a daunting idea, as I had no idea how to connect with refugee communities and, despite my long musical career, had never founded a community choir. These doubts and questions almost stopped me from taking the first step.
I contacted Tacoma Community House, a 107-year-old organization that is consistently at the forefront of welcoming people to Tacoma and serving refugees, immigrants and longtime residents through English Language Acquisition (ELA) and citizenship classes, employment assistance and advocacy. We agreed to partner on a pilot project concert for Welcoming Week in September 2016. Welcoming Week is a series of events designed to promote inclusivity and celebrate the invaluable contributions made by immigrants and refugees. We rehearsed for five weeks and performed a three-song set at two events, including a Citizenship Day ceremony at which nearly a hundred new American citizens were sworn in.
The initial pilot project was well received and taught us a lot about the logistical needs of launching a full program in January 2017. We spent the fall building connections with area organizations with similar missions, striving to understand the challenges of those we wished to serve and writing grants for funding.
We finally held our first rehearsal on January 17, 2017 at Tacoma Community College, with 22 people in attendance. The energy in the room was electric and full of hope. The repertoire included “This Little Light of Mine,” “This is My Wish,” “Shine Your Way” and “When You Believe,” and each piece focused on the central theme of shining our light and maintaining hope.
Our greatest challenge so far has been building a widely diverse musical community and reaching out to people through as many avenues as possible. Two evening ESL classes joined us for our second rehearsal and our numbers swelled to almost 80 singers. It was a moving experience for all present to be part of such a large, diverse group singing “Peace on Earth.” At the break, people took selfies together and had vibrant conversations with new friends, appreciating the opportunity to engage in multilingual discussions and meet people with incredibly diverse perspectives and experiences. It was a magical moment that renewed our determination to fulfill our vision. We continue to grow and welcome new members each week.
When we began this project, we had no inkling of the executive order that would come down on January 27, 2017. While this group strives to maintain a non-partisan stance and welcomes members with a variety of political affiliations, national issues have certainly assured us that our effort to create safe, inclusive, and diverse musical spaces is both relevant and necessary.
Our first concerts will be a four-song set on March 4 at the Interfaith Women’s Conference at Curtis High School and a five-song set at a March 16 Choral Concert at 7:30 p.m. with the other Tacoma Community College choirs (Building 2 at TCC). All of our concerts will feature audience sing-alongs in hopes of engaging audience members more deeply in our message.
Moving forward, we plan to focus on increased community engagement. In June, we will collaborate with a local middle school choir, and in November, we will be hosting a highly interactive community sing-along concert.
In this time where fear, helplessness and hopelessness are so pervasive, I have come to believe that our work as musicians is increasingly critical. Musicians are uniquely equipped to build bridges and help people empathize and communicate about complex issues. Music is often said to be the international language, and it has the potential to help us understand one another, stand with each other in times of need, and begin to resolve some of the conflicts facing our world today.
The Estonian Singing Revolution, a nonviolent movement that used non-partisan songs about love and beauty to unite people and ultimately bring about major changes, offers us a model for what the spirit of this group could embody. Perhaps music can start to whittle away at the massive divides that have emerged over time, and in the process make the world a little more compassionate and kind.
The question I am asked most frequently is about why we selected the name Tacoma Refugee Choir Project. The Tacoma Refugee Choir Project is a group of non-auditioned enthusiastic singers from all walks of life. While our name originates from a desire to stand with political refugees specifically, we are also committed to embracing anyone who has been estranged, persecuted, or harmed by various forms of injustice, as well as those who wish to offer support. We are united by a conviction to act out of compassion when encountering the suffering of others and to recognize that unnecessary violence against a few people is the responsibility of all. At this time, many of the choir members are not refugees but those who wish to show solidarity and unity with those who have suffered great atrocities. We continue to reach out to refugee and immigrant communities as our group grows and ultimately hope to have an ensemble that reflects the vast diversity of our community.
Beautiful things happen when we sing. With all the divisiveness in the world today, we could all use a little more unity and hope, and that is ultimately what we wish to accomplish through music with the Tacoma Refugee Choir Project.
For more information about the Tacoma Refugee Choir Project, go to refugeechoir.org.
Reflections from Rebecca Sacks, NW NATSAA Winner
August 25, 2016
What a crazy whirlwind of events! NATSAA 2016 was an experience that I will never forget and that I will treasure for a long time. I suppose my NATSAA adventure starts well before arriving in Chicago at the Marriott Magnificent Mile for the semifinals. Rather, it started just south of Seattle at a different Marriott at 9:15 in the morning for the Regional Preliminaries. Fun fact: this was the only round of the competition for which I did not start with Strauss’ Composer’s Aria because I did not know if I could sing it at 9:15. Granted, I then had to sing it at 9:18 as it was the first piece the judges requested.
From my preliminary round, I advanced to the finals along with two friends from my teacher, Ruth Dobson’s, studio. We were joined by three other spectacular singers from the other preliminary. After another chance to each sing for fifteen minutes, we anxiously awaited the results only to be informed that there had been a tie and three of us would have to sing again. At this point, I remember being so exhausted that I decided to just go out and have as much fun as possible. I suppose it worked as I was named the first place winner and got to advance to the next rounds.
You would think we would now pick up in Chicago, but I must make a detour to Seaside, OR approximately two weeks prior to the competition where I was frolicking with some friends on the beach. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but somehow I heard a pop and ended up on the ground with a rather unpleasant sensation in my left ankle. Yes, I broke my ankle two weeks before I had to fly to Chicago and sing in two competitions (I also sang in the National Student Auditions). Luckily, I had some glitter paint handy and was able to glam up my none-too-fashionable cast.
From the time I landed in Chicago, I was a true bundle of nerves. While the competition administrators and my fellow competitors were all so nice, I was filled with anxiety about how I would do singing from a chair. Luckily, I had practiced from a variety of different seated positions, and I had a wonderful support team with me including NATS Northwest Governor, Nancy Bos; Regional Treasurer, Leischen Moore; Ruth Dobson; Sue McBerry; and my pianist, Evan C. Paul. I was so honored to advance to the finals and have the opportunity to put together my best 15 minutes of music to share with a large contingent of NATS Conference Attendees.
It’s strange, I remember very little of actually competing, but I do remember the support and care that I felt from the NATS members at large, but especially from my “home team” of people from the Northwest Region. It really made the experience for me. So, thank you all for all of you care and support, and I hope to see you all at more music events in the future.
August 18, 2015
I am so looking forward to the conference in 2016. One I can actually get to! The announcement reminds me of the inspiration I took home from the last conference held in Seattle, with its focus on the male voice. After going home, I got together with a friend of mine, Hazel Johnson, with whom I had been giving basic voice and sight-reading skills classes for local choral singers. She is the conducting and piano half and I am the voice-teaching half. I asked her how she would feel about giving a class for men only. She thought that was a great idea, and thus was born Singers in the Rain, a ten to twelve voice chorale for MEN ONLY (no lady tenors) now going into its sixth year of performance here in Port Townsend, Washington. The group, which pays a monthly tuition, meets from September through our annual performance date in May, and includes both an educational component (voice training and and basic sight-singing and ear training) and performance preparation. Skill levels range from no prior training of any kind to those of a member-at-large who is a composer, actor, and theater director and in addition to singing with the group has helped out as a mentor to the tenor and baritone sections. Our highly eclectic choice of pieces give us a unique place among the many singing groups in this artistically very active part of Western Washington where there is an abundance of community singers and many fine directors as well. Gospel, Gilbert & Sullivan, early music, the Beatles, rounds from the King's Singers book, classic pop favorites and country songs, and Mozart have all been featured in our programs. The Leonard Cohen Hallelujah has become a favorite with the singers and audiences as well.
The membership of Singers in the Rain is predominantly senior, like much of our singing population here, but we are welcoming a 16-year-old developing baritone student of mine this fall. Our oldest member is 86, and has suffered loss of memory from a stroke, but is still able to play the piano, read his part, and count. Another new member this fall will be his 40-something grandson, who has a fine bass voice and will be able to partner his grandfather in managing the process of rehearsal.
All my best,
PO Box 669
Port Hadlock, WA 98339
Most days of the week, I have the shortest commute of anyone. I take a single step through the door from my house to my voice studio and am instantly ready to teach.
On Fridays, however, my commute to teach is a bit more unusual. The drive to the airport is about 13 miles and takes 30 minutes. I do my pre-flight inspection, open my hangar doors, and push my yellow 1946 J-3 Cub into the sunshine. I climb into the backseat (required when solo), grab the stick, and fire up the engine. After a brief checklist that includes a run-up to check the magnetos, I take off to the south, accompanied only by the sound of my 100 horsepower Continental.
My Cub knows the way. It's a 40 mile trip through the Willamette Valley, taking about 25-35 minutes. If the weather is warm enough, I fly with the door open. I let my mind wander, pondering the words and concepts that aviation and singing have in common: pitch, power, solo, "round sound", Bernoulli effect, float, lift, low, high, chord, control, airflow, and more.
Independence Airpark is a unique Oregon residential community. Each home has a hangar. The front doors and garages of the homes face the streets, but alternating between those streets are taxiways, like alleys. Hangar doors open from the back of each home onto those taxiways. I think of my parents, who spent 30 years in a similar airpark in Vancouver, Washington.
I land, and taxi my taildragger slowly, carefully down Skylane Taxiway, watching for children playing. Feeling like Mary Poppins, I arrive at my students' house, rev the throttle and whip the tail around 90 degrees before shutting off the engine. The prop stops spinning. I hop out and chock the wheels, using the seatbelt as a gust lock to fasten the stick back. I grab my backpack from the tiny baggage compartment behind my seat, and saunter in through the open hangar door, past whatever is the family's latest aviation project.
Two brothers, aged 10 and 13, go through their customary bantering about which one is going to take his lesson first. They have a grand piano and their home is a lovely rhapsody of airplane parts and double reeds, brass, and keyboard instruments, including a harpsichord. It is not unusual to give a lesson with a propeller sitting atop the piano, or to have to move a model airplane or a real airplane part from the piano bench before we can begin. I feel right at home there, as I grew up with airplane parts on the piano, too.
As I work with the younger brother, recently cast in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, his feature song is "I've Got a Golden Ticket". I chuckle to myself that it seems that I am the one with a "golden ticket." The lessons conclude, I hop on my "bad motor scooter" and fly home, enjoying the view.
Vanessa Jump Nelson is an independent voice teacher and performer with a private studio based in the Bethany area of Portland, Oregon. www.vanessajumpnelson.com
In 2009, Ruth (Needham) Lorente mailed this beautiful prose of her life as an eclectic musician and voice teacher. It is my pleasure to share it with you. Ruth was born in Lynn, MA on May 1st, 1928 and passed away in Mt. Vernon, WA on Oct. 19, 2011. – Nancy Bos
If anyone told me as a young girl in Lynn, MA that someday I would teach anything, I would have rolled over laughing. I hated school, yet hoped to attend college to study music, as my dream was to shake up the operatic world.
My youthful singing zoomed ahead with The Dane Singers, a group of sixty voices who gave a yearly Gilbert & Sullivan offering, and later Naughty Marietta and The Merry Widow as well as fall and spring concerts and occasional appearances in churches. I also joined an oratorio society and sang in the chorus of Verdi's Requiem at 14. My singer father had me take piano lessons to accompany him. He was tough on me and I am grateful. Later I was accepted in the chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society. My professional life began as a church soloist also at age 14 and eventually a part of the largest paid choir in Boston as mezzo soloist.
However, my dream to study music in college was lost; I blew my saved tuition on a marvelous, huge wedding. My wonderful teacher, George Dane, told me to enroll at Berlitz in Boston where I learned conversational German, French, and Italian from natives of those countries. My advice to opera dreamers would be to learn in this manner and be able to sing with proper nuances more than only book learning.
A successful audition, singing my one learned aria for San Carlo Opera, surprisingly led me to the biggest musical choice ever; to join the company singing minors and understudying major roles but leaving my husband of two years, or being true to the pledge made at the altar to keep myself only unto him. Knowing that the company would "own" me, I made the latter decision after much angst and hours of studying opera scores with my dedicated teacher, George Dane, and his equally disappointed opera coach wife, Flora Palumbo.
Then our first son was born and musically I was launched in another direction, learning to organize and direct church youth choirs. We moved to San Francisco when that son was two. My great career seemed to come to a halt until I made the remark that singing is exaggerated speech and the father of my son's friend asked if singing lessons would help him regain the voice he lost due to surgery. An attorney, he was unable to speak in court and was limited to office work. I agreed to try, using the methods my dear voice teacher had given me with no guarantees. In a year, he was able to work in court again and with his son, took piano lessons from me. I also directed church youth groups.
It was the time of Burl Ives and my husband loved this music that I thought was trash. But I studied it at 2 a.m. feedings of our second son in order to stay awake, and suddenly realized this was the musical history of our country's growth. Research at the San Francisco library opened the whole new world of those dedicated to this revelation and thus became a new sharing with these songs, learning to use a mic, and singing in my speaking voice while using the trained voice in church music. Like a snowball, my appearances let to a night club which was the last thing I wanted, but somehow things had gotten out of hand. Saved by the birth of our third son, the night club was out of the question. I did join a theater-in-the-round, doing Kiss Me Kate. It was so successful that it ran thirteen weeks but I had no interest in continuing after that. I attended the San Francisco Opera and Ballet, and saw the musicals with Broadway casts.
We moved north to Napa, CA, and I continued my exposure to the San Francisco performances, which I feel did so very much for my teaching. I did a little in the local theater group, but seriously taught piano and voice, directed youth and adult choirs, and taught classroom music in a Catholic school, continued giving folk music programs, and soloed classical music for local groups. I also worked on public music programs, as I was program chairman for school concerts for Young Audiences where I learned even more about the music world "out there," and was vice-president of the Napa Symphony. I had joined Music Teachers Association of California which offered a program whereby we could earn the equivalent of a B.A. in Music. With my sons going through their teen years into college and the arrival of my elderly parents, I completed this over a nine year period. Of course, I also joined the San Francisco NATS and am ever so grateful for this wonderful organization.
As grandparents, we moved to Anacortes, WA, and traveled in our motor home, which included directing our WBCCI caravan chorus. My husband and I led church services as chaplains in our local unit using my keyboard, and we led music in a retirement home. I joined a local chorus, enjoyed the Seattle Opera, Symphony, and Northwest Ballet. Directing youth and adults again in churches was my joy along with starting new in my private voice studio. I love to teach and share my experience with those who want to sing and would otherwise not be able to do so. To give back what was given to me at this time of life is more than a privilege; it is truly a humbling call to serve. My former experience has allowed me to teach to over age 80.
NATS keeps me up to date. I use materials suggested and keep them all with health notes particularly at hand. To protect this marvelous instrument is of first importance, and to be fresh when it would be so easy (and dull) to fall back on the good old tried and true. We are a long distance from the Seattle area. We give performances involving local youth instrumentalists, and sponsor a charity. Last year's charity was Sing and Play a Kid to Camp and we raised $500, the cost of one campership. One of my students, 12 years old, comes about twenty-five miles, another, in her 20s, comes thirty miles, and another, age 80, comes from an island on the ferry. Believe it or not, the 80-year-old formed a choir in her church about two years ago and sings solo once a month and still sounds good. Her congregation loves her and tells me I am a blessing. That is payment.