Arts & Leisure

Singers come together in weekly ‘Choral Lab’

LOCAL MUSICIAN MOIRA Smiley leads the Western Vermont Choral Lab on Wednesday evenings at Minifactory in Bristol. The group gathers weekly to share their love of choral music and connect with community. After this session ends in mid-July, Smiley hopes to launch another choral group that will get together from October through December. Independent photo/Steve James

If you’ve been to downtown Bristol on a Wednesday night recently, you may have noticed a crowd at Minifactory on Main Street. Upwards of 30 singers gather there weekly to join in community and song, led by singer, composer, lyricist and musician Moira Smiley.

Smiley spoke recently about what inspired her to start this group, known as the Western Vermont Choral Lab.

“My travels around the globe have shown me how inspiring choral gatherings can be and I wanted to share that here,” said Smiley, who grew up in New Haven and now resides in Bristol. “Rehearsals have been nourishing. It’s been a way to deal with all the events that keep coming down the news pike. It’s been bonding and cathartic.”

MOIRA SMILEY IS a singer, composer, lyricist and musician who’s leading the Western Vermont Choral Lab on Wednesdays in Bristol.
Independent photo/Steve James

The group self-selected (no auditions were held) and practices for just one hour. They start with a warm up for their bodies and voices, and then they “dig into the music.” The songs the Western Vermont Choral Lab are learning range from folk tunes, a few originals by Smiley and covers of songs by contemporary artists.

“It’s a committed group of 35 people,” Smiley explained. “We have days where we really push ourselves and other days that are healing days — days when we focus on exercises and games that invite more creative freedom… I want to keep the balance of people singing freely and other times singing in a directed way.”

“I’m so excited to be part of a proper four-part chorus here in my backyard,” said Nate Gusakov, a songwriter and musician from Lincoln. “It’s a treat. A reminder to step out of my daily hubbub… The place that Moira gets us to… it’s like a weekly meditation.”

Another member of the group, Su White, is an early educator who sings daily with young children, has been part of the group Womensing for over 30 years and directed Allegro Children’s Choruses. “Singing is really important for my sense of well being,” she said. “Moira is creating and offering a wonderful opportunity that is a perfect extension of the singing I have done for decades. I hope I can continue to sing and connect with these voices from all over central Vermont. I am learning from her more than just music.”

Sadie Brightman, founder and executive director of Middlebury Community Music Center, is also part of the Western Vermont Choral Lab. MCMC is also Smiley’s fiscal agent for a $2,000 grant the lab received this spring. 

“The goal is to expand the welcome to New Vermonters and families of migrant workers,” Smiley said, explaining her ideas for a future choral group. 

“This was a great opportunity for MCMC to facilitate more expression through music,” added Brightman. “And it makes me excited to work with someone as gifted and talented as Moira to fulfill our mission.

“Singing with the group has been incredible,” Brightman continued. “We’ve all made these adaptations to continue to thrive musically through COVID; but nothing replaces the vibrations of being in the same room with other people singing… There is something so magical about harmonies whirling around in a room.”

Zubin Mistri agrees.

“I love it,” said the Middlebury psychotherapist, who once sang for a professional middle school choir in New Jersey. “It’s just what I was looking for — a place to sing that was welcoming…I had a vague sense of the kind of music Moira sings; she’s brought this nice mix of songs from different parts of the world together. It’s the kind of music I can connect with, and I feel really grateful to be able to sing. It’s really healing — that’s why I’m there.”

For Smiley the choir is also a family affair.

“My mom Susan, brother Ian and sister-in-law Chelsea also sing in the group, and V is often cooking in the background,” said Smiley — nodding to her sibling V, who purchased the former Bristol Cliffs Cafe in December to launch Minifactory, a “coffee, grocery, food and jam manufactory.”

“It is an uplifting and lovely space,” Smiley mused. “And it feels so warm and exciting to be with my family.”

MOIRA SMILEY LEADS members of the Western Vermont Choral Lab in a physical warm up before rehearsal on Wednesday evening. The group will hold a community sing-a-long on Monday, June 11, at 6 p.m., just before the Festival on the Green evening performances begin at 7 p.m.
Independent photo/Steve James

Smiley’s mom agrees. 

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to be taught by my daughter,” Susan Smiley said. “When we bought our farm in New Haven in the ’70s, I remember one day I happened to be driving into town by the Methodist Church and saw a few people gathering. I decided to pull in and see what they were doing… They were going in to learn how to sing shape note music and I joined them that day.”

Susan’s husband, Jerry, joined later and then “all the kids got brought along.”

“What Moira wants is to teach us songs, but we’re not driven to perform at the end process,” Susan continued. “The process and experience of the evening is as important as anything else… It’s a very pleasurable experience for all of us.”

The Western Vermont Choral Lab is planning a community sing-a-long during Festival on the Green, on Monday, June 11, from 6-6:40 p.m., on the hill outside the gazebo on the Middlebury town green before the scheduled performances of Bruce Molsky at 7 p.m. and then Rani Arno & daisy mayhem at 8:30 p.m.

Following this first session, Smiley hopes to start up another choral group in October. “

“I’m really trying to be thoughtful about really welcoming people,” she said. “With this grant, I hope to employ guest song leaders; those who know the songs from traditions that some New Vermonters are familiar with… Participating in music is a naturally welcoming place. There are a lot of really strong divisions of hate, and I feel like we have to do what we can to come together.”

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