Among the thriving artistic culture here in Quechee and the greater Upper Valley, and the many talented people who live here, there is a notably rich presence of choral singing, which is supported by a growing network of interested artists, as well as the Choral Arts Foundation of the Upper Valley (CAFUV).
The Choral Arts Foundation, like most non-profits, aims to support and uplift the community it serves – and in this case, that means promoting choral singing in the Upper Valley.
The CAFUV mission statement emphasizes providing “inspiration and support to those who sing, those who direct, and those who listen.” With these three main categories in mind, the Foundation works specifically to support the 20 or so community choirs throughout the Upper Valley that don’t normally receive internal funding. Support is shown in multiple ways, including small grants, providing community programs for choral singers and directors, and promoting local choral events to listeners.
“We try to say yes when we get a grant proposal because if somebody’s asking, they’re trying to do something that’s meaningful, but at the same time, our role is supportive in many different ways,” says Jo Shute, current president on the board of CAFUV.
Small grants go a long way in “[making] it possible for a chorus to do a program that they particularly want to do,” says Shute. “$1000 to $2000 can make a big difference for a chorus.”
A Quechee resident and former CAFUV board member, Helen Clark, has witnessed the impact of these grants firsthand.
Clark got involved on the board of the Choral Arts Foundation around 2015, when
she was also a member of the Handel Society of Dartmouth College – a choral arts group founded in 1807 –and a member of Wrensong, a Woodstock-based Renaissance Acapella group. Clark co-founded Wrensong with her husband, Dave Clark, and the group will be performing this holiday season at the Quechee Library on December 21.
“We were invited to submit for grants to help with things that small groups need, such as buying music,” Clark says. “You have to make sure you have properly licensed music if you’re going to use it to sing and practice, so [CAFUV] helps support musicians in ways you wouldn’t expect.”
One recent CAFUV grant supported the creation of a “music library” at the Upper Valley Music Center. “Think of it like any other library: you can search the catalogue; So, every choir doesn’t have to buy music that already exists in the Upper Valley that they can borrow,” Shute says. The Choral Arts Foundation provided a grant for the project to pay for the software, some hardware, and a part-time librarian. “It makes the idea of ‘we’re all here, let’s share’ come to life,” Shute adds.
The Choral Arts Foundation is able to provide grant funding to area choirs through an annual appeal fundraiser and an investment fund. Sometimes CAFUV initiates grants in response to unusual circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020.
During the pandemic, the Choral Arts Foundation invented a unique program called the “Driveway Choir System,” which enabled the choral arts to continue in the Upper Valley in a time of uncertainty.
“Imagine a parking lot and a director (outside or inside) and some form of keyboard that provides accompaniment – if that’s called for in the music. Through a radio channel, you have a microphone that you’re singing into and headphones where you hear the whole thing, and it’s in real-time with no lag,” Shute says. “It was totally wild.”
Many choirs took advantage of this creative resource, and some choirs, like the Handel Society of Dartmouth College, spent months rehearsing a piece using the Driveway Choir System that they later performed on stage once pandemic-related restrictions were lifted. “It was a way to keep [people] together and keep things going,” Clark says.
“We made it available to all of the choirs, and they could come on their regular rehearsal night to a specific place where we had it all set up,” Shute adds.
For this particular project, CAFUV acquired special funding to support purchasing the equipment for the Driveway Choir System, in the form of a generous donation from the Byrne Foundation. “Once groups started to feel more comfortable coming together masked and distanced… we initiated what we called ‘COVID relief grants’,” she adds. “We sent checks to all of the participating choruses which they could use to buy masks (like N95s when those weren’t easy to get), or they could use it for some other purpose that was an unusual expense due to COVID-19.”
Another CAFUV project – the “Summer Sings” series – also aims at bringing members of the choral arts together.
It’s “a way for singers to come back at the end of the summer(summers are quiet for most choruses.) It’s a way to fill that gap but also prepare for the coming season with their own chorus,” Shute says. “We bring out local directors and they pick repertoire.”
With nearly 100 participants at Summer Sings events this past summer, the now three-year-old CAFUV tradition continues to grow.
Outside of programs like these, the Choral Arts Foundation is a reliable resource for information on existing choruses in the Upper Valley. On their website, choralartsuv.org, prospective choral members can search for choirs to join. “We’ve got a pretty good listing [of choruses],” Shute says. “If people move to the area and they want to sing, they can find lots of information.” CAFUV could also be a resource for those looking to start a new community choir. With a network of choral connections, the Foundation often helps connect directors with singers and vice versa.
CAFUV also works with local directors to offer professional development programming for certain types of choral music. “Sometimes there’s an interest in a particular type of singing – like body percussion,” Shute explains. “We would create a workshop and we bring in a clinician to run the workshop in that particular area of interest.”
In support of listeners, the Choral Arts Foundation helps to publicize local concerts through a triannual newsletter. “We are really trying to make sure that the word gets out to a broader group,” Shute says. “Every chorus has its own publicity, but we’re building a community of people who particularly are interested in this type of music,” Shute adds. “We try to make sure that every group that wants to be publicized is a part of that.”
And though Clark no longer sings herself, she attends every Handel Society concert to continue to show support for the choral arts as a listener.
“Even since I left CAFUV, the choral community has grown so much around here,” she says. “I’m pleased that there’s a group of people that’s so dedicated to this music. It’s just wonderful that it’s respected and has so much support in the Upper Valley.”
As for the choral arts community as a whole, the Upper Valley is a “choral hotspot,” according to the observations of Shute. “There are a few places around the country that are just alive with choral singing, and the Upper Valley is one of those,” she says. “We’re small, but if you looked at the number of singers per capita or something, (it’s not really a statistic), we have a lot. We’re fortunate in the Upper Valley that choral singing is such a joyful thing for those who do it and those who hear it.”