Finding Voice

The Frederick Chorale Fine-Tunes its Future Under New Leadership

By Sara Gavin | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.15.14 – In the Studio, Lifestyles, Music

Doug Cox: Director of the 40-Voice Frederick Chorale

On a Sunday evening inside the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Braddock Heights, the sanctuary is filled with the collective effort of 40 voices striving to blend together into a distinct and harmonious sound. The results are mixed. “You’re not loving the vowel,” director Doug Cox admonishes after silencing the group with a closed fist. “You have to love the vowel.”

This is rehearsal night—a revered night—for members of the Frederick Chorale. First formed in 1977, the Chorale has built a long-standing reputation of providing high-quality show choir performances for the Frederick County community. While its mission has remained unchanged during the last 37 years, the group has recently started to fine-tune its identity under new leadership. Two years ago, Nancy Roblin, Chorale founder and director, announced plans to step down after 35 years at the helm. Following an intensive search process, the Chorale selected Cox as her successor.

Now in his second season, Cox—an accomplished singer and conductor who spent much of his professional career as a vocalist with the Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band—says he’s starting to find the rhythm of his new role.

“I just love working with this caliber of singers,” he says. “They have, I think, a strong sense of themselves in terms of their musical brand and they feel a really strong responsibility about that. And I really dig that.”

Yet Cox isn’t content to stay with the status quo where the Chorale is concerned. Members describe him as a “perfectionist” who is always pushing them to perform at their highest level. “I think the audience can tell,” says Melodie Charles, a 13-year Chorale member who also serves as the group’s president. “I think they can hear that the sound is more exact, more unified, that everybody is producing the same tone. I don’t mean to say anything about what we were before because I think we were really good, but we’re better now.”

Cox is also committed to mixing up the Chorale’s performances, which previously featured mostly classical and traditional numbers, to include all different types and genres of music. “It’s like a diet, your musical diet. It has to have variety so in any given concert there will be a varied palette.”

Serious Tone

Convincing the Chorale to put in the work to achieve perfection isn’t something Cox needs to worry about. This is not a group for the casual music fan or novice vocalist. Each member has to go through a rigorous audition process in order to be accepted and is expected to put in time throughout the week to study and practice the musical numbers in advance of Sunday rehearsals. But you won’t hear a note of complaint about the requirements to belong to this ensemble, only songs of praise for the payoffs it brings in return.

“Singing speaks to something in my soul,” says Charles. “Hearing music is one thing but being lucky enough to get to make it is such a privilege … and when you can hear it all coming together, it just transports you.”

Seventy-five-year-old Tom Pryor is one of the Chorale’s original members and says it’s simply a love of music and fellowship that has kept him committed for so long. He’s established lifelong friendships through the Chorale, meeting his wife Connie through the group. “She was short and I was short so we both sang in the front row,” he says. In fact, the Pryors are one of eight marriages the Frederick Chorale can take credit for bringing together. “And we haven’t broken any up,” adds Pryor.

But his voice takes a serious tenor when he says he wishes he could find a young baritone to replace him. “I’m getting too old. If anything’s going to kill the Chorale, it’s the loss of people who like to sing.”

Concern over recruiting newer, younger voices is common within the ranks. Danielle Grace, who is in her early 40s and one of the youngest members in the group, says performing in the Chorale fulfilled a “yearning” for a musical connection she hadn’t had since graduating from college as a music major. “I’ve had lots of music experiences in the past 20 years, but I have not been challenged the way I was that first season,” says the stay-at-home mom and piano teacher who joined the Chorale two years ago.

“It was wonderful to be challenged and stretched because that means growth and development.”

Grace says she knows there are more musicians in the Frederick area who would benefit from singing with them in the same way she has. “They should come, they should audition and they’ll see, wow, what a joy it is.”

Once invited to join, members say it’s not only the love of music that keeps them coming back year after year, but a camaraderie that quickly feels like family. They have sung at weddings and funerals for other Chorale members, and even serenaded one of their own as she succumbed to her battle with cancer. “The singing is magnificent, but the love is, too,” says Charles.

New Focus

This season, the Frederick Chorale is hoping to channel more of that love back into the local and regional communities with a renewed commitment to collaboration and outreach. Last fall, for example, the Chorale partnered with the predominantly African American Asbury United Methodist Church to present a two-day Gospel Music Workshop and Concert. The group’s Christmas concert was a collaboration with Bethesda-based hand bell choir Capital Carillon, and in March, the Chorale performed with the Mount St. Mary’s University Chorale.

Their next performance, called “Maryland Connections,” will highlight the work of composers, living or deceased, who currently reside or once lived in Maryland. “These talented musicians are as diverse as the population of the state itself, and each delivers a personal viewpoint in their art that is unique to them,” says Cox. “We want our audience to know about these gifted people who are connected with our state.”

The Maryland Connections concert will be presented on Saturday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 4, at 3 p.m. in the sanctuary of the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ at 15 W. Church St. (For more information on performances and tickets, visit www.frederickchorale.org.)

Cox and the rest of the Chorale are hopeful this new approach to engaging communities will not only attract more people to take advantage of their performances, but keep them relevant moving towards the future.

“More people in the community who love listening to music need to come to these concerts because we do all this work, we provide such a high-quality product and that is an area that seems to be diminishing in our culture is attendance of live performance,” says Grace. “And they are missing out.”