The women of the Upper Chesapeake Chorus are far from similar.
Their ages span 50 years, with the youngest members in their 20s and the oldest in their 70s. Their professions include everything from teachers and lawyers to stay-at-home moms and graphic designers. Some had professional singing experience before joining the chorus, while others just liked to sing around the house.
But when this diverse group joins together to sing, chorus members say something magical happens: They create resounding, uplifting and energetic music.
“You get goose bumps from the sound being created together,” says Alice Bingel, 75, of Havre de Grace. “There’s nothing like it. The feeling is awesome.”
For more than 40 years, Harford County-based Upper Chesapeake Chorus has entertained audiences across the region with its barbershop-style, four-part harmony performances.
A chapter of Sweet Adelines International (SAI), one of the world’s largest singing organizations for women, the chorus has also won two regional SAI championships and will attend its second international competition in November.
Led by director Rick Taylor, the women spend hours each week practicing breath and pitch control, new and classic songs, and choreography, as well as reviewing SAI competition criteria. In the process, they say they’ve developed a deep camaraderie.
“If I need anything, I have over 40 women that will be there at a moment’s notice,” says Lacey Moore, 30, of Bel Air. “You cannot find that everywhere … it is rare.”
Upper Chesapeake Chorus formed in 1973 and received its charter from SAI in 1975 under the name of The Mary-Dels, a reflection of its Maryland and Delaware members. The group changed its name to The Merrie-Dells for a few years before becoming the Upper Chesapeake Chorus by 1980.
Beth Rupert, 63, joined the chorus in 1974 as a charter member. She recalls seeing an ad in the local newspaper, encouraging women to join the new chorus.
“I had never heard of Sweet Adelines,” the Bel Air resident says. “But I’ve never looked back in 40 years.”
The chorus has evolved since its early days, growing bigger and better, Rupert says.
It started with 20 members who performed in long patchwork skirts and white blouses. Today, the chorus is 50 voices strong, with most members hailing from Harford and Cecil counties. Current ensembles consist of black pants and jackets with silver accents.
Today’s chorus also has a greater variety of ages and experience levels, members say.
Moore joined the chorus in 2006 at 22 years old.
“Before I joined the chorus, I had not been in a chorus since elementary school,” she says. “I just sang for fun growing up.”
When Moore moved to Harford County, she says she needed a hobby to help her acclimate to her new hometown. After seeing an Upper Chesapeake Chorus flier on a Route 924 lamppost, she decided to give it a try.
Originally from Garrett County, Moore says she never learned about barbershop-style singing during her school music classes.
“I was instantly hooked on the harmony,” she says.
Bingel sang for years with her church choir. But after retiring from a corporate travel agency in 2005, she wanted “something to do to fill some time,” she says.
During an art show in Bel Air, a chorus member invited her to attend a rehearsal. She has been a member ever since, Bingel says.
The chorus “fills a place in my life like nothing else,” she says. “In life, we have many roles: mother, sister, daughter, employee. But Upper Chesapeake Chorus is different. This is just for me, and it is healthy.”
While members say singing in a Sweet Adelines chorus is fun, it also requires significant time and effort.
Every Monday night, members rehearse for three hours at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Aberdeen. Songs range from upbeat tunes like “All My Loving” to slower ones like “Hallelujah.” Choreography accompanies most of the songs. During “All My Loving,” for example, members play air guitar and blow kisses to audience members, while minimal movement during “Hallelujah” makes the song’s delivery more powerful.
Taylor, a longtime barbershop performer who became the group’s first male director in 2007, makes mechanics like breath control, holding notes and singing intervals a priority.
All of the women love to sing, he says. But to be one of the top choruses in the region, they need to constantly challenge themselves.
“I try to work with them on a level just above where the average of the group is,” he says.
That challenge extends through weekly rehearsals, as well as performances and competitions.
During a recent rehearsal, chorus members sang “Time After Time,” a classic ballad and one of their competition songs. As they swayed back and forth with the music, Taylor wanted more from their voices. He wanted the sound to be air driven — not muscle driven, he says.
“Make the sound go out into the parking lot,” he says. “Not with volume though.”
Taylor’s tactics seem to be working. The chorus is the reigning Region 19 SAI chorus champion. In November, the group will compete against more than 30 of the world’s top SAI choruses at the SAI International Convention and Competition in Baltimore.
“We’re so excited that it’s our home territory,” Rupert says.
The chorus also routinely performs during the Bel Air Summer Concert Series, the Bel Air Festival for the Arts and at area churches.
‘Like a sisterhood’
Rehearsals, competitions and performances aside, the most valuable part of the Upper Chesapeake Chorus experience is the camaraderie, members say.
“There’s a great sense of friendship in this chorus,” says Emily Smith, 28, of Abingdon. “You don’t even have to ask for something, and it’s already there for you.”
That support is there in both good times and bad. When Pat Doula underwent open-heart surgery, fellow Upper Chesapeake Chorus members were among the first to visit her in the hospital. When Pat Keen’s sister died, chorus members were there with a loving embrace.
“When someone has a problem, the word goes out,” Rupert says. “And when there’s a baby born, believe me there are 40 grandmothers,” she says.
“It’s always been like a sisterhood,” Rupert adds. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without it.”
What is barbershop singing
Barbershop singing is a cappella (without musical instrumentation) singing with three voices harmonizing to the melody of a fourth voice. Barbershop music is typically performed by all-male or all-female groups, with the emphasis on close, carefully arranged harmony; synchronization of word sounds; and variations of tempo, volume level, diction and phrasing. Source: Brittanica.com