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Guest Blog Post: Helene Whitson on The Joys of Singing

March 23, 2012

Helene Whitson is a sometime guest on VoiceBox, my weekly public radio and podcast series about the art of the human voice and the best of the vocal music scene. A choral wonk par excellence, Helene is the founder of the San Francisco Lyric Chorus and the San Francisco Bay Area Choral Archive. She's one of the most knowledgeable people on the field of choral music I know. And one of the sweetest. Craig Hella Johnson, the artistic director of Conspirare (a top-notch professional choral ensemble based in Austin), whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person while I was in town last week for the South by Southwest Festival, asked me to introduce him to Helene after I told him about her. Helene sent Craig and I such a vivid description of what sparked -- and continues to spark -- her as a singer and lover of choral music, that I asked her if I could publish her words on my blog. She said yes. So here they are...

I'm one of the worst kinds of people--a late-in-life convert.  I didn't know anything about choral music until graduate school (I received my Library Masters' degree at UC Berkeley), when one of my classmates said, "We have to do SOMETHING (and if you went to Library School, you'd understand WHY you had to do something--anything--that wasn't Library School related).  Let's sing!"  I said, "Sing?  I may have hummed a tune in the shower, but that's the extent of it."  I've always been an instrumentalist--piano, violin, recorder) and I didn't know anything about singing.  I had piano lessons, and a class or two in music appreciation in college, but that was it.

But, UC had an non-auditioned student singing group, and we both joined.  I could read music, and the hardest thing of all was trying to figure out how to make the pitches coming out of me match the notes on the page.  I did get the hang of it after a while, and here we are 47 years later.  Bill (my hubby and co-choral archive conspirator in crime) came along with the non-auditioned student group, so I learned about choral music and got someone to help pay the rents and mortgages at the same time.

Choral music is a passion, I must say.  How could one NOT be converted?  I obviously had some sort of genetic weakness for choral music, because no matter how hard I try, I can't give it up.  I improved a little when local sheet music stores went out of business, so that I couldn't go down and spend my wad, but then I discovered the internet, and all was lost.  It's the same with recordings.

Bill and I started collecting recordings and scores probably in the late 1960s, early 1970s.  We joined our first formal singing group in 1968.  We started our own group in 1970.  We've sung in a number of groups since.  In the early 1980s, I started collecting clippings and programs and what recordings we could get from local choruses.  I was an archivist in my real life (Special Collections Librarian/Archivist and Founding Curator of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archives at San Francisco State), so collecting things is just part of my nature.  Documentation is what archivists do.   But then, we just started collecting all kinds of choral music--just to have.  I often would buy things that I hoped one or another of my choral directors might do--especially when the music was unknown.

I don't know if you know John Poole, who is one of the emeritus Music Directors of the BBC Singers, among other things.  He is an incredible choral conductor.  He recently was teaching at Indiana.  One of the choruses with which we were singing had a workshop with him in the early 1980s, and Bill and I were so taken with his teaching that I really wanted to bring him back and let others have the opportunity of working with him.   My sister and I tried to locate local choruses so we could invite singers to take an extension class workshop with John at San Francisco State, but I didn't get enough registrants, so the class was cancelled.  That was the genesis of the San Francisco Bay Area Chorus Directory.  Since we'd had such a hard time trying to find choruses, we thought we could create a directory, which we did over the years.  The  last edition--the 4th--was published in 1999.  We've done an online edition, but haven't had time to tweak it a lot, so haven't changed our choral archive webpage.  We'll get there.  The Lyric Chorus is a full time job, as I know everyone who works with a chorus knows.  But, we've bought a house that we're remodeling, and hopefully, the choral archive will in be a usable space in the near future, instead of in lots of boxes and piles in our little cottage.

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