When I raised my hand to be the director of the Emandal Chorale in January of ’96, I had no idea what I was getting into. We had just sung four songs for the Mormon Church’s Christmas celebration, working for two months under Ellen Drell to prepare. Then in January we met again. Ellen said she had no interest in directing further. Was anyone else interested? My hand tentatively crept up—sold! To the first and only bidder.
We settled in at the Environmental Center, with a piano but no pianist. Different members brought in some sheet music. Ruthi and Avraham had a wealth of Hebrew choral music. We had a few rounds. And we had choral music written for SATB and piano.
The rounds, and the Hebrew music, were doable. We experimented with just eliminating the piano part in songs, and found that it worked OK. Within a year, we were an acappella choir. For the first five years or so, we were a group of twelve to fifteen hardy souls, who met every week for fun. We sang at various community events, and we became a known part of our community.
We became a “peace choir” early on, by selecting songs that had a message of peace, or simply changing words to reflect our desire for peace. We discovered South African music early also, and changed words to fit our own presence in the world.
In ’96, acappella music was a fringe thing that took place in college campuses. We had no contact with what was going on there, and so we took our own path. Once we started eliminating piano parts, we felt freer to alter other things, to make songs our own. We started changing words here and there. Then I hit upon the idea of blending poetry and music, often classical pieces that I fitted with new words.
In ’98 I took my first plunge, and arranged a piece for Christmas that was a mélange of fragments of familiar Christmas tunes. “Christmas is Coming” was an audience hit, and it inspired me to dream further. I started arranging songs I knew and loved. By the early 2000’s, I was arranging more and more, and composing my own music.
More singers finally found us, and joined. We grew out of the tiny Environmental Center eventually, and moved over to the Charter School, then the Methodist Church, and finally the Center for the Arts, where we currently practice. (From the original dozen, we are now sixty singers and counting.)
We were now a community chorus, open to all, with a message of peace and justice. I knew that there had to be more choirs like ours, somewhere. And then an article in “Yes” magazine was given to me, which talked about a growing movement of community choirs in the Pacific Northwest. Its epicenter was the Seattle Folklife Festival, and the person who knew most about it was Val Rogers, director of the Eugene Peace Choir.
The Seattle Folklife Festival is a huge, three-day extravaganza of every conceivable kind of folk music and dance. One of its events is called Community Choir Conspiracy, with community choirs from Oregon, Washington, and BC. When I went for the first time, I recognized who we were. And I knew that we were a folk choir, not a classical choir, with all the freedom of expression that goes with it.
I made contact with Val, and she encouraged me to come to Seattle with the Emandal Chorale. But Seattle didn’t want us—we were not part of the Pacific Northwest. Still, the connection had been made. When Val announced a song contest, sponsored by the Eugene Peace Choir, for best original four-part choral piece, I entered “When You Come Back,” a song I wrote, about returning soldiers and how we can support them. It was the co-winner, and I came up to Eugene to help teach the song to the Peace Choir. They recorded it, and sent it in care packages to soldiers in Iraq.
Some time later, the new Rogue Valley Peace Choir was formed in Ashland. Emandal Chorale traveled to Ashland to perform in their inaugural season, in 2003. This was the first of four trips to Ashland, always as a path of connection to other choirs, and always a reflection of how we have grown. We are a part of our community, grown organically from it, yet we are also a part of something larger, something that inspires people everywhere to sing and be heard.



copyright © 2013-2017 Don Willis