Chorus improves women's health, sense of well-being

ADDISON COUNTY — In the act of raising one’s voice in song, people can experience the “powerful, spiritual and joyful” vibes that music offers, Middlebury Union High School chorus teacher Elizabeth LeBeau says. Those benefits are not limited to the youngsters at the high school, but are also enjoyed by adults, such as the women who participate in the Maiden Vermont chorus.

The Addison County group has reached about 50 singers since it was formed in 2004. Director Lindi Bortney said this was a great leap from the initial group of 13 women that sang together in the small room of Court Street Designs, an old hair salon. The women sing at holiday concerts, fundraisers, reunions and other public ceremonies, as well as private functions. The group not only sings but also incorporates choreography into their performances.

On a recent cold January evening about 30 or so of the Maiden Vermont members filed into the Cornwall elementary school to join together for both warmth and song. Many of these women did not have any previous training in singing before they joined Maiden Vermont, but one wouldn’t necessarily suspect that, as their harmonies are tight and their dance moves succinct.

“We want our louds to be beautiful, not in your face-able,” Bortney said to the women standing in front of her. After each run-through of measures, Bortney gives the group or part of the group very specific — but positive — instructions for improvement.

“Music expresses what words can’t,” said Bortney on how singing helps her get in touch with her own feelings, as well as with those of other people. She talked about how she sings along with her warm-up tapes every morning on the drive down the mountain from Ripton.

“I’ve timed it, it takes 22 minutes,” she said.

Ironically, growing up Bortney wasn’t surrounded by music and, in fact, her mother was seemingly tone-deaf; there was never any vocal music playing in the house. Bortney learned to sing on her own by singing along with the radio and watching the pop music TV show “American Bandstand.”

Maiden Vermont didn’t start out with the plan of becoming a 50-women-strong group. According to Bortney, back in 2004 Nancy Wollum — a past member of Maiden Vermont — needed a few people to sing backup for her daughter Emma Wollum at a talent show. After the show Bortney put an ad in the paper asking for mothers and daughters to show up for barbershop singing.

Eventually “it morphed into this: this dream. I didn’t know this was possible,” Bortney said, smiling.

There is more involved than just singing for Bortney, who also needs to assign singing parts to the new members of the chorus. There are four parts in barbershop singing: lead, tenor, baritone and bass. Bortney determines placement depending on what the woman can sing, note-wise.

“People who can go down to a low E-flat, below middle C, are absolutely a bass,” she said. If the woman can sing up to an F, F-sharp, and G then they are assigned to tenor and if they simply like singing melody, they are a lead. Testing for baritones is slightly different. Bortney sings against the women while they sing “do-re-me” and if they want harder things thrown at them, then they have made the cut for baritone.

“Baritones are typically the obsessive-compulsives,” said Bortney, laughing.

The singing that Maiden Vermont does affects more than just their own personal happiness; it also reaches out to the audience members. At the Thursday night rehearsal, after the singing was done, the group sat on the risers and remembered past singing events.

“Mrs. Murkle was the best part of the show,” Maureen Sullivan said of a past performance. “She sat between her two very large sons and we almost didn’t sing ‘I Love You Truly,’ but we did, and during it she took the hand of each of her two sons and sang every word with us.”

The power and happiness that singing holds is poured into whoever allows it into their lives and the effect is mind blowing. Not only have these women improved their voices; they have improved their existences.

“We come for the music and stay for the friendships,” Bortney said.

And this isn’t a director’s bias either. The group split up into their different parts at one point during the practice to focus on their own parts within the voices of the others. The tenors were easy to find, a small group of five standing in a room of the elementary school. They were laughing and singing and they talked a lot about how great the entire group is at supporting and loving each other.

Singing for these women is not a career but a passion. It is that thing that they look forward to every week — every Thursday they want to see those familiar faces at 7 p.m. The group is less about personal growth than it is about learning how to sing with other people and how to sound really good while doing it. Bortney stood in front of the group, directing them to listen to themselves but also to each other to find the perfect blend.

The women in Maiden Vermont clearly enjoy singing, but they also simply enjoy hearing others sing — particular each other.

“I love it,” Bortney said. “I love it when they lose themselves in the music and you can see into them and see how music shows in their body and face. I try to give that as a conductor — the feeling of a song.”

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