Sing, Sing, Sing

Originally published by Frederick Magazine, September 2018  // by Matthew M. Robb

Choral Arts Society of Frederick Celebrates 75 Seasons of Song

Some join to meet interesting new people. Others join because singing is their passion. Me? I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sing the James Bond theme song in a concert setting — wearing cool shades and having a blast.

As the Choral Arts Society of Frederick kicks off its 75th season, the community choir finds itself in fine voice and looking ahead to a full calendar. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Lynn Staininger, the choir is staging three vastly different concerts this year — featuring musical selections every bit as diverse as the group’s membership.

My involvement with the Choral Arts Society began in a fairly typical fashion. A longtime shower singer, I heard the choir in concert and was hooked. Nationwide, of course, choirs are enjoying a surge in popularity, with some 32 million adults singing in an estimated 270,000 choirs, according to Chorus America.

It’s no secret that it’s fun to sing with others. Researchers describe group singing as chicken soup for the soul, boosting our feel-good hormones (namely serotonin and oxytocin) while lowing the stress hormone cortisol. The result is reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, and social isolation– and a joy that brings a sparkle to our lives.

Consider Jordan Garvey. A former choir member at Hood College, the Frederick resident sought to continue singing after graduation, believing it was important to her quality of life. “Put me in a crowd of people I don’t know and I kind of shut down,” she says. “I’m anxious. But CASF almost immediately felt like the right place to be. After four years, it feels more like a family than a choir.”

Leila Ashkeboussi identifies with Garvey’s search for a new musical home. When the lifelong singer was residing in Washington, D.C., she knew singing in a choir “was something I needed in my life, yet I couldn’t find a group that felt right. There’s a lot of competition in D.C. to get into any choir that is auditioned.” When the attorney relocated to Mount Airy, she chanced upon CASF in concert, loved what she heard, and never looked back.

This season, the organization’s diamond anniversary, finds the group looking back and looking ahead. The choir traces its roots to 1943.

Though little is remembered of its formation, the group likely entertained local families on the home front during World War II. Over the years, the group waxed and waned, as it acquired and cast off a succession of names: The Monday Morning Musical, The Community Singers, and The Frederick Singers.

Marcia Walker, 75—CASF’s senior—recalls a vastly different group when she joined as a soprano 46 years ago. During that year, 1972, the choir had just 10 singers. When Staininger took the helm in 2004, the choral group barely had a pulse. Overnight, she began casting the net widely for additional voices (men were particularly in short supply) and added muscle to the group’s repertoire.

Today the choir numbers more than 60 singers, from young students at Frederick Community College to retirees drawn from the community. The mix of young and old gives the group its signature bounce and cerebral vibe. “Now that I’m old and living in a retirement community, I like to get out and interact with younger people. It’s really fun, plus the challenge of singing as an alto now keeps me on my toes,” Walker says.

Gearing up for the 15th season, Staininger continues to push the artistic envelope. More than respected by the choir’s members, she is beloved—and the warm feelings are returned. Two years ago, the CASF board of directors spearheaded a hush-hush campaign to recognize her artistic excellence, culminating in Staininger being honored by the Maryland Music Educators Association as an Outstanding Music Educator of Maryland for 2017.  Describing it as the highest honor or her career, Staininger recalls of first receiving the news,“ I could not have been more gobsmacked.”

In concerts past, CASF has tackled some challenging compositions including Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Haydn’s Requiem, yet also breath-taking gems from Appalachia, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, the Baltics and Africa. Last May, for its end-of-the-season celebration, the group entertained audiences with the theme songs from Star Wars, Mission Impossible and James Bond. In April 2019, the choir will join the Howard Burns Big Band in a swinging salute to veterans of World War II, featuring toe-tapping hits from the Great American Songbook.

“Singing in different languages strengthens your tongue and ears and broadens your mind and experience,” Staininger says. “And let’s give credit where credit is due. We shouldn’t sing Bach in English if we don’t have to. And singing Russian and Latvian pieces is more moving in the original language. The thing is, the group trusts me, so even when they wonder why I chose a piece or think it’s not making sense in rehearsal, by the time of our concert, it really works.”

Valerie Wittkamper cites another benefit of membership, “As a director of my church choir, I don’t often get to appreciate the opportunity to just be one of the group without having to do all the planning and decision making.” Recalling singing The Star-Spangled Banner with CASF at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial on the Fourth of July, she says, “The experience sent chills down my spine.”

Brenna Hill, a member of the choir since 2005 who currently chairs CASF’s board of directors, says, “I get home from rehearsal and I am exhilarated and exhausted at the same time, yet it never feels like hard work.”An immunologist by day, Hill adds, “Lynn knows how to tap into so many different genres and styles. She’s got a great vision.”

In recent years, Staininger’s passion has propelled CASF to acclaimed performances in Dublin, Vienna, and Paris. “During our visit in the ruins of a 1,000-year-old monastery in Ireland,” Ashkeboussi recalls, “we spontaneously started singing Amazing Grace. It was such a moment of joy, stillness, and power.”

Meghan Tomlin smiles in agreement: “I get goosebumps when we hit a high point and our voices are just … perfection. I’ve had moments where I’ve gotten teary-eyed from the swell of emotion. There is absolutely nothing like performing with this group.”

Dave Holland, a baritone, echoes their sentiments. “I think of our group as talented amateurs. Musically, it’s confidence- and character-builder. If we make mistakes in rehearsal, it’s fine, because we’re all going to get there.” Like all CASF members, Holland had to audition to join the group. Many people stress out in anticipation of an unpleasant experience, only to be put at ease by Staininger’s calming, nurturing manner.

Tomlin puts things into perspective, noting, “CASF has brought out the best in me during the good times and bad times by giving me an outlet to sing my heart out with people who enjoy making beautiful music together.”

For those interested in singing with CASF, Hill suggests attending a concert. “If you enjoy what you are hearing, Lynn is very approachable. Some people join having never read music in their lives. Sometimes you just have to take the leap.”

For more information about the Choral Arts Society of Frederick, go to casof.org/about. To learn more about auditioning, contact Lynn Staininger at [email protected]