Meet A Member: Gretchen Upholt, New York Choral Society
From chorus manager to member of a board of managers, Gretchen Upholt has a lot of choral and nonprofit experience. It all comes into play in her work with the New York Choral Society.
Upholt came to New York and started singing with the Society after a five-year choral singing drought, eager to return to her passion after a stint living abroad. Once a chorus manager by trade with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, her arts management brain was also thirsty for stimulation.
At the Society, a board of managers essentially functions as the organization’s staff. “I was really fascinated because I came from Choral Arts where we had a staff of 7-10 people to manage a very similar chorus. Because of my professional history, I was interested in how volunteers manage the whole thing,” Upholt explained. “Every once in a while, the president who manages that board announces at rehearsals that meetings are open – anyone who is interested should come.
“So I went to a meeting and sat there quietly, just listening. They were talking about the best way to take attendance, and I opened my big mouth, and said, ‘Well here’s how we did it [at Choral Arts].’ And they said, ‘What?! You used to work for a chorus?’ And the rest is history.”
Upholt now works as a nonprofit consultant for Fiscal Management Associates, and contributes her expertise to the board of managers’ strategic planning committee. She sat down – after returning from a 10-day Alaska trip that morning at 6am, no less – to chat over the phone with CEO Catherine Dehoney for our monthly Meet A Member feature.
Q: How did you get hooked on singing in a chorus?
A: I started singing in choirs in third grade. My first auditioned choir was in sixth grade. I don’t how I figured out that it was what I loved to do, but I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I sang straight through until I moved abroad in 2008, and then I just stopped for five years because I couldn’t really find any place to sing abroad. So when I moved back to New York three years ago, I looked for a choir to sing with before I even looked for an apartment. I was like, I have to sing again – I can’t not do this anymore.
Q: How long have you been with the New York Choral Society?
A: I actually started the same season [artistic director] David Hayes did, so I’m also going into my fourth season.
Q: How is your board structured?
A: I’m on the board of managers. We have a dual board structure – it’s different than other board structures you may be used to. We have a board of trustees – which is our governing board – and a board of managers. The board of managers serves essentially in the role of volunteer staff.
Q: What is your role on the board?
A: I’ve served on that board of managers for two years and on the strategic planning committee this summer. Strategic planning is not officially a role as a member of the board of managers, but when I agreed [to take this on], I asked to step back from doing any other kind of work on that board. That’s been the focus of my work recently.
Q: What kind of repertoire do you sing?
A: The word I like to use is balance. I think David has interest in pushing us in more, newer interesting directions perhaps than we’ve been in the past. It’s not all necessarily a focus on new works. He’s definitely interested in new works, but he’s also interested in new ways of presenting. He’s committed to continuing to do some of the older repertoire. He’s got a lot of interesting ideas – he’s pushing us artistically and also in terms of repertoire.
|Meet A Member Snapshot
|Role: Singer; Member, Board of Managers
Chorus: New York Choral Society
Location: New York, New York
Years with Organization: 4
Number of Singers: 175
Repertoire: A mix of classical masterpieces and new works. "The word I like to use is balance."
Chorus America Member Since: 2005-07 via Choral Arts Society of Washington; 2011-present via New York Choral Society
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus today?
A: I think change management is hard and it’s inevitable whenever you have a leadership change. It’s going well, but it’s the biggest challenge. We’re still finding our place, as David goes into the fourth season, as who the New York Choral Society is under a new director.
Q: What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?
A: We are doing a new thing that we are calling “Christmas Around New York.” David’s committed to the idea that we’re the New York Choral Society; we’re not the Manhattan Choral Society, and getting us out to other boroughs and out around New York to engage with other audiences than just those that see us at Carnegie Hall. One of the first things we’re doing around that is the Christmas Around New York program. We’re taking about half the chorus to smaller venues in different boroughs, and the goal is over the course of a few years to hit all five boroughs.
The reality is most of our members aren’t necessarily living in Manhattan, most of members live either in the outer boroughs or even in New Jersey or Connecticut or all around New York. We all represent these different places – it’s great that we can bring it back to those communities.
Q: Tell us about one big success in your chorus that you’re really proud of.
A: We sang the Mendelssohn St. Paul oratorio last January at Carnegie Hall. If you asked almost anyone associated with the chorus, there was something about that performance. The performance came together in a certain way – it was the best performance since David had taken over. We hadn’t done much high fugal repertoire in quite a while. There wasn’t anything special about the piece – in that same season we did a much more “unique” concert – but there was something about the Mendelssohn that stayed with me and I think stayed with a lot of people.
Q: Why did you decide to join Chorus America?
A: The short version is the resources. I’ve done a number of the webinars, and we’ve been using the Chorus Leadership Guide, we’ve used that to help us with our strategic plan. The resources you provide are so helpful especially for choruses in a transition.
But also I have to say, this summer in Boston was my very first Chorus America Conference, but I immediately felt the family feel that you all talk about. I got to see people that I hadn’t seen in years and don’t really get to see anymore. I hadn’t even really thought about that part of it – I was just excited to go to Conference to learn a lot. I appreciate that community feel as well.
As an organization, we’re pretty new to Chorus America. David really encouraged us. He sent an email to all the board strongly encouraging as many people as possible to attend the Conference. We’re in this period of change, and he wanted to give us the opportunity to see how other organizations are going things.
Q: What experiences and lessons have you gained working professionally – inside and outside of the arts world – that have been valuable in your board service?
A: I’m lucky that my professional history right now is very well aligned with what our chorus needs. The chorus management history is one thing – from the beginning, I was able to give a just little bit of inight into another way of doing things. Now, my current experience doing nonprofit consulting and training has been really helpful. I love nonprofit capacity building – it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I love that I get to do it for all different types of nonprofits all over the country – but there’s something about being able to apply those skills to an organization that I have a real connection with.
It’s a challenge in some ways too. The way I would act with a client can’t be the same way that I act with an organization that I’m a part of. I don’t have the same role. It’s been a good challenge to take my professional skills and also temper that and make sure that I’m part of a team that’s doing this strategic planning.
Q: What advice would you have for someone looking to get more involved in the management or board of their chorus – particularly young professionals?
A: I think there’s advice on two sides. For the people who are already running choruses, sometimes there’s an assumption that the volunteers will come, but in my experience, people really like being asked. So for those trying to get young people involved in their choruses, I would say you have to go out and ask them, you have to do a little bit of work and make them feel like you need them or want them to contribute in some way.
But on the other side of it, I would say to those wanting to contribute and waiting to be asked, you shouldn’t wait to be asked! Ask if you can show up to a meeting. If you’re interested in being a governing board member, ask someone what it’s about, or if you’re interested in volunteering. Even at Choral Arts, we had a big staff but still had a huge volunteer corps. Think about what your strengths are, think about what your interests are, and don’t be afraid. I was – I didn’t want to seem like I was overstepping or conceited or something because I was so new to the chorus. But don’t be afraid.
Q: When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?
A: Between my job and my extra commitment to the chorus, that keeps me pretty busy. I like being outdoors, hiking, camping. I don’t get to do it as much as I would like being in New York. When I lived in DC I had a car and I could just hop in and get out of the city. But here you have to rent one—it somehow just feels harder here. But I just spent 10 days in Alaska, so I got plenty of outdoors for a while.