Start Your Own Choir

Twenty years ago—January 1996—I sat in a hotel room in New York, talking with my wife on the phone, in complete despair about my professional future. We were attempting to make a life commuting between her university in Virginia, and mine in Chicago—with a four-year old child in the middle. Due to a random collision of events— a blizzard in Virginia, several concerts in Chicago, a week in New York with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers—we had not seen each other in three weeks. This clearly was not working; we would have to make a big decision, and one of us would have to give in, to preserve our marriage and family. My roommate, Harry Keuper, was waving his arms in the background, drawing his finger across his throat, whispering frantically “Don’t make decisions over the phone!”   I finally did get off the phone, and Harry said, “I’ll call Robert” (Harry had access)—and shortly, sure enough, Robert Shaw was on the phone, telling me, “Forget about academic choral music. Start your own choir. That’s what our country needs.” I was wed to the security represented by the fifteen years I had spent conducting choirs and teaching voice on the college level. I could not imagine doing as Mr. Shaw suggested (more like, commanded). I did give up my job and move to Virginia— and proceeded to struggle for five years with an ill-fitting adjunct position, feeling increasingly that my professional life had come to an end. We decided to move back to Chicago—and within one month of our August, 2001, arrival, I had given in to Mr. Shaw’s dictum, and started my own choir. A friend from the Shaw program, Charles Bruffy, conducted a group named “Kansas City Chorale,” and I decided to copy him—and so was born Chicago Chorale.

Chorale rehearsal 515Well, it worked. I wish Mr. Shaw were alive to see it, and to see that someone, at least, had done what he was continually telling us to do. I had never previously thought of myself as an entrepreneur—but it was learn, or die; and I had little choice. I got on the phone, got on email, contacted singers, who contacted other singers; I located a rehearsal space; I scheduled a performance for December; I got some music together; and then held my breath as twenty-four singers arrived for our first rehearsal and began to sing. I had no diagram, no future plans, no specific goals, and I rather hated that I was being forced into this—but we did it, and it worked.

12-4-15 CMAC Christmas Concert Zoe Kaiser-103Five years later, a group of male undergrads from the University of Chicago approached me and asked if I would start a choir for them, too. They didn’t really know what they wanted; they just wanted something that the university did not offer. Well, it was the same thing: find some singers, find a place to rehearse, put some music together, schedule a performance, and again hold my breath as twelve guys straggled in, as unsure of what they were asking, as I was of what I could do for them. And again, it worked. Chicago Men’s A Cappella saw the light of day.

So I celebrate two anniversaries this year: Chorale’s fifteenth, and CMAC’s tenth. Twenty years ago I could not have imagined I, and the choirs I conduct, would be in this place today—I had far different plans and ambitions, back then. But I found myself at a professional impasse, and felt I had no choice but to follow Mr. Shaw’s rather blunt, unhelpful advice. I honor him for giving it: his seeds fell on fertile ground. And I honor the singers and listeners who have supported his vision, and helped it to bear fruit. Both ensembles will celebrate their anniversaries this spring with gala reunion events; I hope you will come and participate, and celebrate the words and vision of a man who spoke so compellingly to me twenty years ago, and continues to speak to us in the choral music profession, from beyond the grave.