January 12th, 2015
Midcoast Community Chorus of Rockport, Maine was founded on the belief that everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard and that powerful things happen when we sing together in community. The group’s founder and artistic director Mimi Bornstein talks about the impact of that vision in the community.
When did you discover choral music?
I was musically precocious as a kid, and was on track to become a concert pianist. But being in a practice room all by myself was not what I wanted to do. I also sang in choirs and had a great high school choral director, Bernie LaDue, in Westchester County, New York.
I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into music as a profession. So I got a dual bachelor’s degree in music and education from Syracuse University. My first job in 1989 was in a middle school in a fairly blue-collar area on the north shore of Boston. When I got there, there were only 11 kids in the chorus, and at the time, arts programs were getting cut left and right. To get kids interested, I took my music budget and ordered pizza. A hundred kids showed up. I did something high energy and was very enthusiastic and hip, and some 50 kids stayed. It grew from there. That age group is fabulous to work with once you get them on your side.
What was your big take-away from that experience?
I had the kids for just six weeks, five days a week, so I felt my job was to get them excited about music so they would go elsewhere and learn more. I was more interested in how they felt about music than what they knew about it. So with every class we made a covenant that we would make a safe place for everyone to explore music together.
How did you make it a safe place?
I have always said that every voice matters, is important, and deserves to be heard. I believe that when a group of people gets together, you create a tapestry of sound. And every thread is important in a tapestry. If everybody else’s thread is orange and yours is green, so be it. You add color.
You have to define what success is for your group. For me, with a middle school group, success was that everyone participated and nobody got teased. I didn’t make the rules. Sometimes we would take two or three class periods to figure out what the rules would be for the class. I would give some direction and make suggestions, but the kids had ownership. They came up with the rules, and they would hold each other accountable to them.
That sense of safety is important for adults as well, isn’t it? So many people have had negative experiences with singing.
Yes. I worked as choral director at the First Universalist Church for 14 years, and when I first came, people were reluctant to sing. I would often ask, “Why do you think the first person sang the first song? It wasn’t about a performance. It was to express something that could not be expressed any other way.” So we may need to take singing out of the performance mode, and think about what we are doing. In a worship service, we are doing it because it is a time to breathe together, to “con-spire” together.
Midcoast Community Chorus grew out of your work with the church. Can you tell us how that came to be?
At that church we did benefit concerts for organizations the church wanted to support. One year we opened the church choir to anyone in the community who wanted to come, and we did Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) as a benefit for a local organization that was doing good environmental work. I expected 70 singers and 140 showed up. We changed to a bigger venue, our concert costs doubled, and I was praying that we would have something to give at the end. It became this local phenomenon, and we sold out and gave away $10,000.
A couple of years later, we partnered with our local food pantry for a concert. This time we did more education. At every rehearsal, singers would bring a food item, and we would share statistics about how many people came to the pantry that week, how much food they gave away, etc. We made it real. The concert sold out, we raised $12,000, which was matched, and we gave away over 2,000 pounds of food.
When I resigned that church job, people wondered if we could keep doing these community chorus benefit concerts. I sent an email out to everyone who had ever sung with me, and about 40 people came to that first meeting. Out of that group we formed the board of what became the Midcoast Community Chorus. In 2007 we became a 501-c-3 nonprofit. Every year we do benefit concerts, and since 2007 we have given away $65,000.
Midcoast Community Chorus’ mission statement is “Singing as a community for the community.” How is that lived out?
I believe music actually heals us. When we sing a song like “We Shall Overcome” with an open heart and a clear intention, we literally change who we are on a cellular level. And when we sing it with other people, it is that much more magnified. So if you can take that energy and bring it into a choral setting, really amazing things happen.
We were doing a benefit concert for New Hope for Women, an organization that works with domestic violence. Every week as we were rehearsing this music we were educating our singers about the work New Hope for Women does in our community. Because of that concert I know of one woman who got out of a situation that was dangerous for her. There may have been more. We also raised $10,000 for the organization, but for me the most important thing was that one woman who changed her life.
Your main chorus of 140 is unauditioned. Is that challenging?
When you are in a room you have two elements: people and music. In an auditioned setting, the music comes first, and the people second. The most important thing is making the music as beautiful as it possibly can be. In a non-auditioned setting, people come first, and the music is second. It’s not that I don’t try for professionalism. It’s just that how people feel is more important in that setting. If I make it too much about perfection, I am reopening all of those wounds. I have highly trained singers in my chorus now, and even they need to hear that their voice matters.
When we started, it took me six weeks to teach the group “We Shall Overcome.” It was drill, drill, drill. We are now seven years old as a chorus, and we have evolved to a group that sings Moses Hogan pieces. Do we sing everything perfectly? Not everything. But we have gotten to the point where we are really a pretty good chorus, and that has developed over time.
We have 14, two-hour rehearsals to put on a concert and singers with a wide range of literacy skills - from those who don’t read a note of music to professionally trained musicians. So how do we deal with the fact that we have beginners, and we need to be welcoming because that is our mission? Within a rehearsal, I teach both with music and without music. We have online rehearsal tracks for people to learn the music.
Recently, we started a small auditioned group. It was a scary thing to do because we are all about being welcoming and making sure people felt safe. But through education with the singers, we explained that this was organic and expected growth. I also introduced music literacy classes and voice classes, so that anybody who wanted to gain more skills could do so, and then if they wanted to, they could audition for the smaller group.
My work has been about giving people voice and helping people find their voice. I realized that not giving people the opportunity to learn how to read music if they want to was not being fair to them. It was not giving them their full voice. So we now have our big chorus, an auditioned chorale of 60 voices, and a children’s chorus for ages 6-10. We are about to launch a youth chorus for ages 11 and up, and I hope to add another small auditioned group of about 20 singers.
Your concerts are generally sold out. Why are you so wildly popular in the community?
I think people are thirsting to hear songs of hope and peace and transformation. They are thirsty to feel included, to have a voice, to say something that actually matters, and to make a difference. We do mostly contemporary and world music at our concerts. I try to take the audience on a journey through these songs. And I ask my singers to find their own connection to the music, so that when they are up there on stage, they are telling their stories. I think that is something that people in the audience really connect to. It brings the music to life.
Also, at every concert we have at least two community sings. We either teach the songs from the stage, or it is a call and response, or I have soloists in the chorus and everybody else in the chorus and the audience sings the refrain. From the stage, I talk about the transformational power of music. I ask them to think about all the power we are moving by singing together.
I work my chorus really hard. When we put on a concert where we have worked on it from both a technical and emotional perspective, and then you get to give a check of $10,000 to a food pantry, it feels really good. It has had an impact on our community.
How has being a member of Chorus America been helpful to you?
What I love about Chorus America is the inclusivity of all kinds of choirs. The conferences really address what choruses do. People like Ysaye Barnwell, Nick Page, Cathy Roma, and others come and talk about how we can engage with our community. I was excited to hear all the ideas people had. I love seeing all of it, and really celebrating the choral arts.
You have been consulting with choral organizations about how to more effectively engage their communities. Tell us about what you are doing?
I think that the model of bringing people together to both find and give voice is replicable. We are so segregated—by technology, by differences, by being busy—so when we can come together with a purpose and give back to our community, that is a model that works. It doesn’t have to be a 140-voice choir. It could be a 25-voice choir that does a Sunday afternoon concert for the food pantry. Everybody brings some canned food and maybe there is a list that people can take home and put on the fridge of the food that is needed that winter. It is very doable.