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Elyse Langer-Smith'06MED sings with Rock Voices, an untraditional community choir

Healing Aloud

Tapping into the power of song

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Dusk has fallen over Northampton, Massachusetts, and dozens of folks from various parts of town are gathering together in the Arts Trust building to sing. But this is no ordinary choir. If you asked, most of these people would tell you they’re not “real” singers—most of them can’t read music, and some haven’t sung anywhere but their shower for years. And when the music starts, it’s not Handel or Bach. It’s not even Sinatra or Gershwin. It’s The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, and No Doubt. The choir director, Tony Lechner ’93, ’97 MM, sees you and waves you in. You know the words, so you may as well pull up a chair and join in. Lucky you—you’ve found yourself at a Rock Voices rehearsal.

At University of Massachusetts Amherst, Lechner was a dutiful music major. He studied opera and jazz. He started up an a cappella group (the “Acafellas”—get it?) and led a jazz vocal choir. He plowed through music theory classes and, of course, he practiced, practiced, practiced. But when the weekend came, Lechner screamed his head off singing rock music. “On Monday, my voice teacher would say, ‘Tony, what are you doing with your voice?’” Tony laughs. But you had to cut the guy a break. He always loved music—all music. “Wayne Abercrombie, the distinguished choral director at UMass, told me you need to focus on fewer things and do them better,” Lechner remembers. “But I was a teenager and I wanted to play in my rock band!”

We heal others if we sound good

One thing Lechner thought he didn’t want to do was be a teacher. But after getting his bachelor of fine arts, he stayed on at UMass for his master’s degree, and remained in the area to pursue a career as…a music teacher. “Lo and behold,” he admits, “I enjoyed it.” He loved the kids—loved working with them and watching them develop. But after a few years of teaching, he started up a jazz choir in his off hours—“a little part-time job for fun,” he says. Then something occurred to him: “Everyone likes to sing with the radio, right?” So, 20 years after his professors admonished him for screaming on the weekends, Lechner put an ad in the local paper to see if anyone else might be interested in singing rock music with him. And with that ad, Rock Voices was born.

Fifty people showed up for the first rehearsal. “I was blown away,” Lechner says. “People were lined up down the stairs and out into the parking lot. It finally hit me, people really want to do this!” Part of the appeal might have been that Lechner made the choir as accessible as possible—no one had to audition. But Lechner also thinks that rock is the great equalizer. “It’s the music of the people.”

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For a little while, Lechner tried to keep up with it all—teaching kids as his day job, then directing both the jazz choir and Rock Voices at night. But eventually Abercrombie’s words floated back to Lechner. “I saw the potential of the rock choir spreading,” Lechner says. And so, he decided to focus on fewer things and do them well. He let go of the jazz choir and then, after some serious discussions with his wife, Sara, he let go of his teaching job too. “We had a newborn baby and a one-and-a-half-year-old, so it was a scary time, but that’s how much we believed in Rock Voices,” he says. “We envisioned it getting bigger.”

Getting bigger meant starting up in other cities, which is where the UMass music department comes in yet again. Lechner reached out to two of his old pals from UMass who he had stayed in touch with—Mark Barstow ’92, who was an original member of Lechner’s singing group the Acafellas; and Nate Altimari, who sang in a jazz choir that Lechner directed.

Altimari had been working full time in a recording studio specializing in voiceover work in Albany, New York, and Barstow had left his church choir job in Portland, Oregon, after a life-changing bout with brain cancer. Both had small children and little free time. In other words, it didn’t make any sense for either one of them to take on something like Rock Voices.

But both did, eventually. And both are as passionate about it as Lechner. “It’s not just about the music,” says Altimari. “Anyone who sings in one of these choirs would tell you that the community, the social side of being in a group like ours, is on par with—if not rivaling—the musicality.” Altimari has watched people strike up friendships, begin relationships, and form dinner and karaoke groups. “The unifying factor is that these are all people who love to sing, but didn’t have the opportunity.” Barstow, having led multiple church choirs, understands very well why choral singing is so meaningful. “It’s about community,” he agrees. “People who don’t necessarily think of themselves as singers can come and sing.” Anyone who might find themselves singing in the shower or in the car now has a place to do that singing with others—and with others is the point. “Right now, in our country, we need community and joy anywhere we can get it.”

As of today, people can find this particular joy and community in 16 different locations, and feelers are out for yet more locations. It turns out that Lechner’s hunch was correct—Rock Voices is catching on, and he thinks he knows why. “Everyone can sing, and everyone loves to sing,” he says simply. “But they think, ‘I can’t read music, I don’t belong.’ What I wanted to do with this choir was create a place where people belonged.” That dovetails with Rock Voice’s official mission statement: “Healing ourselves and others through song.” Lechner believes in it wholeheartedly. “We heal others if we sound good, and we do events for charities all the time,” he points out, “but we also heal ourselves. It started for me as a fun extra thing to do and it’s turned into a movement that I never imagined in my wildest dreams. It makes me feel good about what I’m doing, too. It’s not just a job. It’s changing things for people.”

What is it about singing as a group?

Human beings have long understood intuitively that singing feels good, and singing along with other human beings feels…well, really good. Research has begun to uncover exactly why.

It’s the ultimate icebreaker. It can be hard to get to know total strangers, but when you’re trying to harmonize with them, inhibitions have a way of melting. Recent research suggests that this holds true no matter how large the group is.

It produces happy brain chemicals. Many studies have shown that singing releases endorphins as well as serotonin and oxytocin—hormones that help produce feelings of joy and well-being. It’s actually been shown to lower levels of anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

If there’s no Rock Voices choir in your neck of the woods (yet), consider seeking out other group-singing opportunities. Some secular choirs are audition-only, but many church choirs are open to all. Or consider starting up your own singing group. It’s good clean fun—and good for you!