Singing Sisterhood

Director Jackie Stilger holds the Kalamazoo Community Chorale’s mascot, Nun Fanget, that is present at the choir’s often-boisterous rehearsals.
Chorale offers a place for women who want to sing

Professional training is not a requirement for the all-female, no-audition-required group of singers called the Kalamazoo Community Chorale, but a sense of humor may be.

At a banquet the day after the group’s April 24 spring concert, which is one of two big concerts the choir presents each year, the incoming KCC president will inherit a giant Buddha statue that has red toenails and wears a T-shirt that reads, “I’ve got an attitude.”

And while the chorale focuses on preparing for its two seasonal concerts each year, its real purpose is to offer a place for any woman who wants to sing, regardless of experience or training.

“It’s not an auditioned group, and they stand very firmly by that,” says Jackie Stilger, KCC’s current director, now in her fourth year in the position.

The chorale rehearses every Monday night from 7–9 p.m. in the choir room at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, 922 W. Maple St., working on pieces to be performed in concerts at the end of each “semester.” The group’s rehearsals are lively, active affairs that begin with activities like jumping jacks, conga-line neck massages, vocalizations paired with calisthenics and lots and lots of jokes.

At a recent KCC rehearsal, a second alto with short, spikey hair welcomed a newcomer, apologizing for the jocular atmosphere. “We love ourselves,” she jested. Another second alto, 85-year-old Mary Cordier, warned, “Join us with caution.”

Because nothing but their love of music is very serious with these group members, the Buddha statue is named Nun Fanget. Of its origins, KCC archivist Lee Dial, a KCC member for 38 years, explains, “The year they started the Buddha tradition, we sang a whole bunch of songs in foreign languages: German, Latin, Greek. ‘Nun Fanget’ (from a four-part a cappella tune written by Hans Leo Hassler) was one of the phrases in one of those songs, and it stuck.”

According to Dial, the singing group was founded in 1934 as an offshoot of the Kalamazoo Public Schools, sponsored by the Parent Teacher Organization and chartered under a national group called Mother Singers that provided music for coordinated choir concerts across the country. In the 1970s, the chorale became an official part of Kalamazoo Public Schools’ community learning initiatives, akin to night classes, and the gender-specific name Mother Singers was deemed inappropriate for affiliation with public education. Although it remained a women-only group, the members chose the name Kalamazoo Community Chorale in 1977. (Incidentally, if a male can reach the high notes, chorale members say, he would be allowed to join.)

The chorale is no longer affiliated with KPS and has been a nonprofit since June 2008. Before Stilger, seven other directors served. The longest serving was Jan Berghorst, who directed the group for 38 years.

“I’ve sung with three directors,” says Carole Locey, an elegant woman in her mid-70s who lives in Scotts. “When I came in 1991, Jan worked to give us a sense of togetherness. We’ve all had life-altering events go on, and we’re really there for each other. The greatest gift I’ve given myself is to be part of the chorale.”

As much as performing, the women look forward to seeing each other every week. Currently the group has 52 members, ranging in age from late teens to late 80s, including four WMU music interns per year — one per vocal section — made possible by an ongoing grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation. Chorale members travel from as far as White Pigeon and Decatur to rehearse and perform, and the group sings in places as diverse as Barnes & Noble and Bronson Park.

In addition to giving biannual concerts, KCC has sung in a USO show at the Civic Auditorium and has performed The Nutcracker several times with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. The group starts rehearsing in January for its April concert, takes the summer off, and reconvenes in September to rehearse for its holiday concert in December.

Stilger chooses what the chorale sings, both secular and sacred pieces, keeping in mind the abilities of the singers. Stilger likes to choose a piece or two per concert that will push the singers vocally and rhythmically.

“It’s a big balancing act,” she says. “There are pieces the singers are going to get immediately and dig in and love. There are others that, when I say in rehearsal to take out that music, everyone in the room will groan.”

“One thing I enjoy about Jackie (Stilger) is she does challenge us,” says Judy Hagey, a 63-year-old administrative assistant for the city of Portage and the KCC board president. “And she brings in interesting things for our concerts. If you’re a person who comes and listens to us, there’s something different for you every time.”

Cordier agrees. “With Jackie, we’ve done body percussion,” she says, drumming on her chest with her hands to demonstrate.

Cordier has been a member of KCC for more than 45 years. When asked the question, “How long have you been in the chorale?” she responds that the answer has more to do with the question: “How long can you sing?”

“Some people need to drop out when they’re 50,” she says. “They can no longer produce the sound or think they can’t. And then there are at least three of us who are past 80, and we’re still hanging in there.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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