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When our voices are raised together: Singing at Portland’s Maybelle Community Center

Maybelle Community Singers will partner with Aurora Chorus, Bravo Youth Choir, and PSU choirs for a free event at First Christian Church this weekend.

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At rehearsal with Maybelle Community Singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.
At rehearsal with Maybelle Community Singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Steve Aman, conductor of the Maybelle Community Singers, writes some musical notes on the rehearsal-room white board and chats with a singer about taking care of a sore throat left over from a recent cold. Choir members greet one another, grab their folders from the bin and settle in, chit chatting about the weather or what they have going on this week. But in a moment it will be time to sing, and for 90 minutes that will be the only thing these community members will think about. They have a concert coming up and they are here to work.

On December 2 at First Christian Church in Portland there is a community choral event: Maybelle will sing; Aurora Chorus members will sing; Bravo Youth Choir will give their public concert debut. This choral event, Believe, is sponsored by Portland State University–whose community chorus members will be joined by the PSU Thorn and Rose Choirs. The event is free and, oh, just so you know, you probably won’t be able to keep from singing, too.

Steve Aman rehearsing Maybelle Community Singers, 2022. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Steve Aman rehearsing Maybelle Community Singers, 2022. Photo by Daryl Browne.

You may have seen the Maybelle Center for Community Singers in early March. They collaborated with the Oregon Chorale, directed by Jason Sabino, in a concert of significance, Of Sound Mind. Their enthusiasm was infectious, their presentation touched the heart. What choral singing means to them was evident in every musical moment. 

Prior to one rehearsal, a cooking class in an adjacent room has just ended and the Maybelle Center is redolent with the spices of chili and tangy tomato – a good olfactory stimulus for the deep breathing needed for good vocal production. Aman does give the choir a full vocal warmup to start each rehearsal; the vocal exercises and body loosening movements help the group focus before he puts them through their paces which he does with a nonchalance disguising his keen attention to detail. The pieces in this concert include a three-part round and some two-part arrangements by Aman, uniquely tailored to the current choir membership. 

Aman–a keyboardist who teaches privately at his own Hi-Note Music Studio and middle school music at St. Rose School–has invited some of his friends to join the group for this concert: Jerome Monaco on guitar, Spencer Finnan on keys. To get to know Aman better, settle back for a few minutes and listen to the magical Ural Thomas and the Rain performing “Smile” (the guy on the keys is Aman).

All about love

The Maybelle Center for Community is on Northwest Sixth Avenue, a little north of Burnside Street. Above the ground-floor offices are the homes of 54 community members in the “Mac Res” – the Macdonald Residence, named after the Portland philanthropist Maybelle Clark Macdonald, whose funding helped make all of this possible. Just down the block at “Mac West” is where 42 more Maybelle friends live. Other members of the Maybelle family live in over thirty residences within downtown Portland, from the riverbank to the 405 freeway.

Of course, you might think that Maybelle exists to help people find a secure and safe home. Sure. But home means a place to belong, not just a dwelling. Maybelle Center for Community exists to disrupt social isolation, offering members a place to participate, learn, share their gifts with others and receive a smile. It’s a place and an invitation to belong.

Jennifer Wyant, Maybelle’s Member Activities Specialist, is hardly able to sit in her chair for rehearsal this past week: she’s making sure everyone has music, coordinating member transport to the upcoming concert venue, making everything accessible for all members. Wyant, an artist herself, ensures that Maybelle friends have opportunities not only in choral arts but visual art, theater art and crafts. Then there are the boardgame days, outings and cooking classes – hence the chili – and so many other activities that invite members to connect. 

Tim, one of the Maybelle Community Singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Tim, one of the Maybelle Community Singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Andre, a member of the choir, says his joy of singing is lifting his voice to God. He usually sits next to Tim, who sings baritone. The questions and clarifications Tim inserts appropriately in the rehearsals show that he’s no novice to choral singing. He enjoys sitting next to Matt Segebartt, Maybelle’s Volunteer and Spiritual Support Coordinator, because Matt happens to be quite a good singer.

The choir has just absolutely nailed the “Love is Love” round from Abbie Betinis’ Justice Choir Songbook and another chorister, Sabrina, remarks that it’s all about love. Does she mean the song or the singing? Tell you what, at this moment she means both. Listen to that piece here:

If music be the food of amateurs….

Maybelle is an amateur chorus and praise to the all singers who proudly take up that mantle. Famed conductor Robert Shaw often reminded folks that the French word amateur came to English from the root word in Latin amor, to love. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never performed with a major orchestra or recorded a CD. Ha! Guess what? They‘ve done both! 

In May of 2018 the Oregon Symphony Orchestra premiered Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form for orchestra, soloists and choir. Maybelle Community Singers sang in that performance and joined in later for the recording. Now, how’s that for some choral cred, people? You can read more about the makings of that oratorio in an ArtsWatch piece here, and you can listen for yourself here:

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Chamber Music Northwest First Baptist Church Portland Oregon

Several current members, like Mary, remember that experience with awe. Mary says she wasn’t welcome in her high school choir because she was “tone deaf.” Yes, just sit and seethe for a moment, then take a cleansing breath. She’s quite gotten over that – her voice is lovely – and now proudly calls Maybelle her community choir–which, she says, is such a wonderful way to connect. But everybody likes to have a performance goal and to have other people hearing their music. And they sure are excited about this upcoming event.

How did this particular concert on December 2 come about? In a recent phone interview, Coty Raven Morris–Assistant Professor of Music Education and Social Justice at PSU–explained the genesis of this concert as a story of common directives, goals and intentions. “Portland State,” she said, “has the ability and resources to connect with other organizations that are also doing work for the houseless and other marginalized communities.”

Morris’ first steps in addressing her given mission were to recognize what there was in the Portland community to build upon, not to start from the ground up. She found the Maybelle Community Singers and has made a strong connection with Aman. She also recognized the powerful impact the Bravo Youth Orchestra program was having on getting music into the hands and hearts of children and families in Portland.

Coty Raven Morris.
Coty Raven Morris.

Morris met with Bravo staff last May and learned that one of their future initiatives was a youth choir. Then, a bit of music magic happened. (Kind of like when you meet someone who sang the same Beethoven 9th you sang in – in Boston – in 1975). A choral director named Joshua Sommerville happened upon a Morris tik-tok video and messaged her. She messaged back and then oh, BTW, he was the new Director of the pilot Bravo Choir in Portland. And now they are working together on this community event – intentions turning to impact (read Brett Campbell’s ArtsWatch profile of Bravo Youth Orchestra here).

Sommerville’s title at Bravo is Director of Performing Arts; the choir, he said in a phone interview with ArtsWatch, is the first step in further expansion of the Bravo Youth Orchestra’s performing arts opportunities. You will meet Sommerville, who just moved to Portland in October, as he leads much of the community singing portion of the Dec. 2 program. Remember, at this event choirs aren’t going to process, perform and retreat. The operative word here–for the singers, the leaders, and the audience–is participate. 

In one of their favorite pieces the Maybelle choir sings the words “we can’t keep from singing.” In word painting technique that would rival Handel, the descant soars. Jackie, a longtime choir member, gives it her all. Choral singers are such lucky musicians: they get the words. 

Jackie, one of the Maybelle Community Singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Jackie, one of the Maybelle Community Singers. Photo by Daryl Browne.

“Let’s sing a song for her”

A statement on Maybelle’s web site reads “When anyone is socially isolated, we miss out on their gifts and talents and opportunities to exchange ideas and perspectives.” Go back. That’s worth another read. Maybelle Center for Community is not just about what folks come to get, but what they come to give. 

If you are a choral musician and you belong to a choir here in Portland’s rich choral culture you understand all of this. You understand the sense of purpose when you take your seat among choral friends, open your folder and create that beautiful music. Each time you do you sing in solidarity with your fellow Portland musicians like those in the Maybelle Community Singers and Aurora and PSU and Bravo. We become one community when our voices are raised together. Come sing with the community at this free choral event.

At the beginning of a recent Maybelle rehearsal a member announced to the group that one of their friends had died. At the shock of that news there was a silence, then there were tears and a few remembrances of a person who mattered to–belonged to–this community. After a while the silence returned because it’s hard to know what else to say.

“Let’s sing a song for her,” someone said quietly.

Maybelle Singers sang.

“Believe,” a community concert, is Friday, December 2, 7:30 pm at First Christian Church, Portland. It is a free event. Masks are still encouraged in indoor singing events.

Connections

Just the right prescription

The “Twelve Reasons for Singing.” No, that is not the title of yet another twisted version of that “partridge in a pear tree” song. It is the title of a fun little article in Psychology Today (2014) which offers twelve benefits to singing–and, more specifically, to the art of choral singing. If you are a singer or choral music fan, what would you put on such a list? Lots of clues in the Maybelle story above. Give it try, and then you can read the whole article here.

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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