The choral rehearsal begins like any other: singers gather, and their excited, friendly chatter gradually settles down as the director guides the singers through breathing, stretching, and vocal warm-ups. The focus and the concentration grow as the women pay attention to balance and blend, tuning and tempos.
The rehearsal space contains nearly 50 women, swaying and listening to each other as one, and achieving every choral director's ideal: not one of them has her head in her music.
The Rochester Women's Community Chorus, under its artistic director Kristy Houston, is meeting for its customary Tuesday evening rehearsal and preparing for its 40th anniversary concert, which will take place June 2. The music is melodic, inspiring, and fun. But much more than music is being made here. The RWCC 40th anniversary concert will also include some of the group's history — and the RWCC's long history reflects some gradual but significant changes in society.
Deborah Wachspress, a recently retired music teacher, did not found the group, but her leadership shaped RWCC into what it is today. The organization had its informal beginning in 1979 as the Rochester Womyn's Community Chorus.
"The original mission," Wachspress says, "was to use music to espouse feminism. The songs were composed by women. The lyrics used gender-neutral pronouns. The group was anti-patriarchal. All decisions, including musical ones, were decided by consensus."
That group disbanded in 1984, but Wachspress revived it, with some fundamental changes, in the fall of 1985. She renamed it "Women's Community Chorus" and began choosing the music herself, before establishing a music selection committee. The group has always been a non-auditioned chorus.
"I attended music school with Nick Williams, the founder of the Rochester Gay Men's Chorus. In fact, RGMC provided us with our first opportunity to perform, in December 1985 at Downtown United Presbyterian Church." At that concert, the RWCC consisted of just five women. Since that modest beginning, the group has given concerts twice a year, for 33 years and counting.
"It was never officially a lesbian chorus," Wachspress says. "It was a community chorus for women. Externally, LGBT politics didn't really play a role. Internally, there were always varied viewpoints about how political we should be, what organizations we should perform for, and where we should sing."
Kristy Houston calls her predecessor "a master at the 'community' part of 'community chorus.'" Under Wachspress and Houston, RWCC has performed at women's coffeehouses; college campuses; political rallies; exchange concerts with other women's choruses; national festivals; and benefit concerts for, among many others, Foodlink, Willow Domestic Violence Center, ArtPeace, Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, and Water for South Sudan.
The RWCC has also served as an extended family for its members. "We provided comfort, food, and music for the family of a singer who took her own life," Wachspress says. "We sang around deathbeds and at funerals for too many of our members. Women made lifelong friends, and some met lifetime partners. Women dealing with trauma, mental health issues, or physical issues felt safe. Women who were transitioning could come and sing a lower part if necessary. Women 'came out' to family members because of our nurturing environment."
RWCC's informality is ideal for women balancing family lives and careers who also want to take part in musical and social activities. One of those women was Kristy Houston, who joined the chorus in 2006.
"I was new to Rochester and to New York State," she says, "and RWCC was a musical opportunity and a welcoming community. I saw so many women who wear many hats — jobs of every sort, caretakers for various generations of their family, community leaders — spending their precious free time coming together with others to create beautiful music."
Houston teaches instrumental music at The Harley School. "Leading RWCC has allowed me to indulge my love of choral music in a way I don't get to during the day," she says. "I have always told my students that Rochester has a wealth of opportunities for people to fill their soul with music, in whatever kind of group fits them.
"We're bucking the trend for community choral music organizations," she adds. "The average age of our singers is definitely below the national average. I attribute that to the emphasis on social connections, as well as the diversity of our musical repertoire."
Houston calls the RWCC 40th anniversary concert "our greatest hits." It will be a sampler of the group's repertoire, whose focus has remained consistent: messages of hope, acceptance, and inclusion that struck a chord in 1980's America and are needed even more today.
That repertoire also includes world music, favorite songs by writers like Holly Near, and the group's signature song, a commissioned piece by Elizabeth Alexander called "What's Keeping You from Singing?"
"One of my favorite pieces from this concert," Houston says, "is Fred Small's 'Everything Possible,' a lullaby sung to a child. It includes the lyric: 'You can be anybody you want to be, you can love whomever you will. You can travel any country where your heart leads, and know I will love you still.'"