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Choir Members Find Community in Northwoods Singers

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If you love to sing with others, where do you go? Church choir perhaps? What if you want to sing more challenging music, or nonreligious music? For some people living throughout the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the U.P., the answer is the Northwoods Singers.

It’s a snowy evening, and about 40 choir members ranging in age from their 40s to 80s are waming up in the Congregational church in Eagle River for their last regular rehearsal of the season. Northwoods Singers co-founder Norma Yaeger said it’s quite a commitment for some of the members to make the drive.

“We’ve drawn people from as far away as Minocqua, Watersmeet, Iron River," she says. "We had Rhinelander people singing with us for a while.”

Eleven women carpool from Iron River, over an hour each way. The choir practices weekly for about 14 weeks before their holiday and spring concerts. I asked what keeps people coming back.

"It has to be the music and the conductor," says Yaeger.  "It has to be the quality of the entire effort."

"I absolutely love it," says singer Barbara Wilkinson.  "We just kind of gel together."

"My wife sings with me," says Gary Ebert, "so it’s an opportunity to share something that we love."

Sudy Ferry Watson describes, "I guess it’s just learning something so…joyful and so…difficult also. Even practicing is a delight even though it’s hard and Pam is so…what’s the word…specific, about every note."

The singers head in for what will be a three hour rehearsal, led by their director Dr. Pamalyn Lee.

The Northwoods Singers as we know it almost didn’t happen. It began in 2003 with about a dozen people who loved to sing, but they needed a new leader. They knew Pam Lee lived locally and has a doctorate in vocal performance and pedagogy, but there was one problem.

“We had no money," says co-founder Jim Reiels. "We had more courage than money. And so we took her to breakfast and said, uh, Pam, we’d love to have you direct us, and so the agreement was, the very first concert, that Christmas concert, whatever we got in the collection plate, she could have it.”

They got about $300. Not much at all, given the work. It’s been a wonderful experience, says Lee, who said she went with her heart when she took the position. The choir kept singing, and they did A LOT of fundraising to cover their costs. The music alone costs up to $4000 a year. This Christmas, there are 85 ads from community businesses in their program—quite a range of support. But the work’s not over.

To listen to rehearsal is a lesson in singing. Lee leads them through dynamics, tempo, and enunciation in a call-and-answer style. Standards are high, but they laugh a lot. Tenor Sudy Ferry Watson remembers one technique Lee used to help her.

"She had me lie down on the floor," she explains. "When you’re lying down I guess it’s easy to learn to breathe right."

Music for This year’s concert ranges from Renaissance-era to contemporary works, songs from Venezuala and Ireland, and one based on a poem by Emily Bronte. Introducing the Northwoods to a range of music is part of the goal. Another is spreading that music to kids. Five years ago, Lee formed the Northwoods Youth Choir to fill at need after the Conserve School restructured. Treasurer Ursuala Charaf explains,

"We had about 4-5 kids in our youth choir," she says, "and this year we have 15 high school and middle school students. And they are wonderful, these kids."

The students live and rehearse in Iron River, Michigan, where there is no choral program in the schools. The Northwoods Singers have started offering scholarships to cover the students’ music costs, and private singing lessons for some of the older students. This year, the group officially adopted the Youth Choir into the Northwoods Singers. They will join the Northwoods Singers at two of the three performances scheduled over the next two weeks.

The Northwoods Singers are performing Thursday night in Iron River, Sunday in Eagle River and Three Lakes on Thursday, December 18.

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