Sometimes it's the lyrics and not the music that set a song apart.
For the Ellicott City-based ShowTime Singers, one of the most challenging musical numbers they've performed was "America the Beautiful" — when they sang it in Mandarin for a Chinese New Year festival a few years ago.
The 47 members of the choral group studied the spoken translation recorded by member Ruihua Tao, who is a native of Beijing and a Columbia resident. Then they put the new words to the patriotic tune in four-part harmony for appreciative immigrants and Chinese-Americans in the audience.
"That concert represents what we're all about," director and co-founder Cathy Johnson said. "We make our audiences happy, and that makes us happy."
The nonprofit volunteer group, which began as a women's chorus in 2003, is looking forward to performing in Williamsburg, Va., in April. And it has appeared at a barbershop society event, a librarians' convention and an armed forces retirement home, along with frequent visits to senior centers and nursing homes in Howard and surrounding counties.
Last week, the singers were rehearsing for the "Celebration of the Flag" concert scheduled this weekend at Fort McHenry, part of Baltimore's Star-Spangled Sailabration.
The weeklong festivities — launched with an international parade of 40 tall ships and naval vessels and featuring an air show and re-enactments culminating Tuesday — commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key's poem, which was later set to music and became the national anthem in 1931.
"They planned an open stage with the harbor as the backdrop for the concert," said Johnson, who started the group with Paula Rehr. Both women are alumna of the Sweet Adelines, an international organization of female barbershop singers. "That concert will end up being one of the biggest things we've ever done," Johnson said.
What the singers, who range in age from 20 to 80, like best about performing is the connection they make with the audience, with whom they often spend 15 to 20 minutes chatting after the concert.
"The people in the chorus have a passion for singing and a passion for giving," said Johnson, a Catonsville resident and retired preschool teacher and wedding florist.
Johnson first performed in public at age 2 when she was coaxed from the sidelines at a Patterson Park concert to perform her rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." She has coached 12 local choruses and more than 30 quartets, and now gives voice lessons.
Johnson describes the group's repertoire — which includes medleys by Irving Berlin, selections from "The Jersey Boys," old standards and patriotic songs — as "a pleasant mix that appeals to a wide variety of audiences."
Vicki Stahly, assistant director of the Ellicott City Senior Center, the site of an annual May concert and the group's rehearsal hall since its inception, said center members love the group and appreciate the variety of its music.
"They make it fun for the audience with their theatrics, and they change it up every year," she said. "They are very genuine and professional, and you can tell they really care about each other."
The group also raises funds for the Linwood Center, an Ellicott City-based facility that provides support for people with autism and related developmental disabilities.
Bill Moss, Linwood's executive director, appreciates the singers' talent and what the group is doing for the center and its clients — so much so that five years ago, he swapped his seat in the audience for a place singing onstage with his wife, Cheryl, and their daughter, Sarah Love, longtime members.
"I don't know if [the directors] have a formal stated mission, but I know they like to bring their music to people who wouldn't otherwise get to hear it, like residents of assisted-living facilities," said Moss, a Clarksville resident who also serves as one of the emcees. "I'm a very busy person, and this is the one thing I do. It just feels really good to give a gift like that to people."
The singers start their weekly two-hour rehearsals with vocal warm-ups and movements, such as synchronized hand-clapping games.
"Nobody's going to laugh at anybody," assistant director Roxanne Powell instructed good-naturedly at a recent rehearsal before asking everyone to "put hands up in patty-cake position."
After a brief smattering of miscues resembling uncoordinated high-fives, the performers nimbly crossed their arms over their bodies to bring opposite palms together with their partners "as a way to coordinate the left and right sides of the brain," Johnson said.
These sessions are especially important because the ShowTime Singers don't use sheet music during shows, she said.
Requirements for membership are relatively few: You don't have to read music (learning CDs are supplied), but you do have to able to carry a tune. Members are encouraged to perform duets or solos but aren't required to do so.
The stress-free environment is one of the group's trademarks, said Rehr, who also serves as a coordinator and assistant director for the group. She recently moved from Gaithersburg to Ellicott City with her husband to end her long commute to the group's Thursday rehearsals and twice-monthly events.
"We've been in other singing groups where competing and winning are everything, and that's not for us," she said. "The ShowTime Singers sing purely for the love of singing, and we are always seeking new members to join us as well as new outlets in which to perform."
Nancy Yee, a pianist and ShowTime Singers fan and volunteer, has seen the group perform numerous times over the past nine years.
"They are in it for the joy of music," she said, "and I absorb the energy in the room and it feels good."
As a fellow musician and behind-the-scenes volunteer, the Columbia resident has an educated perspective on the energy the singers pour into preparing for their performances.
"The spirit of the individuals shows they are having a good time," Yee said, "and leaders make sure participants are where they want to be musically, and where they can be."
Johnson said the camaraderie among the singers is so special that they socialize during their summer break from performing in July and August.
"We like each other," she said. "And we've gotten back more than we've given, and that is truly a precious gift."