Richmond Men’s Chorus Brings Music To the River City
It’s Saturday morning and the Richmond Culture Expo is in full swing. The diverse crowd mills about the massive open space of the Richmond Convention Center, but one group stands out. Clad in teal polos, cowboy hats, and bandanas, the Richmond Men’s Chorus marches toward the stage to perform.
It’s still a few minutes till show time, and while there aren’t many folks standing around the stage yet, by the time the all-male choir begins to sing, there isn’t an ear in the room that isn’t tuned into the harmonic melodies that flow from the amplified speakers.
The Richmond Men’s Chorus, 13 years strong, kills it. Between vocal solos and choreographed dance moves, the applause at the end of the set is well deserved.
Flash back to the Monday night before that Saturday morning. I’m wandering through the Imperial Plaza looking for Tim Gillham, RMC’s conductor. I’m lost in the retirement facility’s many towers, but an elderly woman points me in the right direction. I cross a glass-enclosed catwalk and hear the faint sound of voices. I turn a corner and the sound gets louder. It’s a rendition of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and I realize I’ve found what I’m looking for. Rehearsals are in full swing, so I sit quietly in the back.
“It gives me purpose in my life, and its something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” says Martin McFadden, a bass 2 vocalist with thick rimmed glasses and a salt and pepper beard. He’s part of the RMC’s marketing department, and singing has always been a part of his life. “It’s something that grounds me,” he says.
McFadden is sitting with me, Rick Poole, Paul Blacker, and Gillham, at a card table in the now nearly empty Imperial Plaza Activity room. I was wowed by their practice performance and was excited to pick their brains about the art of choir singing that they all enjoy so much.
Blacker dancing in the middle
“It is gay friendly and and gay supported, and that helps.” said Blacker, who sings tenor 2, which puts him in the middle of the musical range – “not super high, and not super low.” He’s been singing with RMC for the last three years. He sang in high school and college, and has always considered himself musical, playing guitar and piano. After a number of years without a committed group to sing with, however, he found RMC and has been enjoying it ever since. ”It was a big part of my life that had been missing.”
Across the card table from Blacker sits Rick Poole. Poole joined RMC about nine years ago ”through the grace of God and dear friends.” Poole had been diagnosed with HIV in the late 80′s, and before long was stricken with full blown AIDS. He admits he didn’t think he was going to make it this far in life. “But God has a plan for you,” says Poole. He was introduced to the chorus and since joining, it’s given him a renewed purpose in life. “This is the best thing I’ve done in my 40′s so far.”
Poole, like Blacker, sings tenor 2. He sang in high school and in college, but once his diagnoses came through, he admitted that his life took a dark turn. “I checked out [mentally] and prepared to check out [physically],” he said. “But it didn’t happen. These guys have been life boats and an opportunity to grow in a way I hadn’t thought possible… They are my peer group, they are the people I turn to when I need advice, when I need to grow. The opportunities these guys have given me are something I would have never thought about, living in my little cocoon.”
This sense of family, camaraderie, and realizing who you can count on is strong with many of the members. Blacker, who came out in his 30′s, knows many of the members share his story. “The fact that there’s adult men, straight or gay, that accept you, and you can share your talents, it doesn’t really get much better than that.”
Thats right, the Richmond Men’s Chorus is not Richmond’s Gay Men’s Chorus. Gillham admits that’s a luxury some of the choruses in larger cities can afford, but in a town with a smaller gay population like Richmond, they welcome any men interested in joining.
Gillham remembered when one straight member approached him after a night at rehearsal. The new member nervously approached the conductor and asked him, ‘do you have to be gay to be in the chorus?’” ”I thought he was gonna say “it’s not my thing’,” said Gillham with a laugh. “I said, ‘No, but we do have a number of gay members.’” The new member sighed with relief and said, “Oh good. I’m straight, but y’all are so much fun!” ”We’ve pretty much always had someone who was straight in the chorus,” said Gillham.
With 13 seasons under their belt, there have been many moments that stick out as benchmarks for the Richmond Men’s Chorus. Gillham spoke most excitedly of a recent trip to the GALA in Denver. The national event brings choirs from around the country to sing and show off their talents. It was the first time RMC had made the trip, and though nerves were high, Gillham said the event was a wild success, so much so that they ended up making a bit of a reputation.
“We had a time limit of 25 minutes to sing, and we got many standing ovations through out our performance. When we got our second standing ovation, the audience wouldn’t get quiet. I thought this was great, but management was gonna turn the lights on and the mics off at the end of that time limit. So I had to wave the audience to quiet down and it was funny, but we became known as the ‘Choir That Made Us Be Quiet.’ It was a great memory to have.”
As for new members, RMC is fairly open to new recruits. They accept new singers three times a year, at the beginning of rehearsals for each new production. “All you need is a pulse,” said Gillham jokingly. Gillham said if you can match pitch, and you are interested, you would probably make it just fine. They teach new members how to read music, and they match them up with more experienced singers to help along the way. The relationships members gain often go beyond participation in normal RMC activities. “We want everyone to do well, and we really are a family. We vacation together, we see each other outside of rehearsal. It’s not just a “hi” once a week for 2 hours. You make life-long friends here.”
There is a fairly great level of diversity among members – beyond the few straight men involved. Singers range in age from 20 to 60, and its those differences that really help broaden the group’s horizons.
McFadden, who has only missed one performance in RMC’s 13 years, said it was the musical excellence that really kept him coming back. And it’s obvious, beyond the talent, that the friendships made within the group have lasting implications. McFadden, whose family is all back in Michigan, summed it up best. ”I don’t have any family here, except for my partner, so these guys are my family.”
Please contact the Director at email@example.comDecember 30, 2014
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