If you are an early morning riser, and have heard the birds as they begin their singing for the day, you know polyphony.
One voice, than many; a singular melody entwined with others that rises and repeats, falls and swells again; collective strength equaling more than the tally of singular songs.
Rachel Ries, a singer/songwriter known professionally as Her Crooked Heart, travels the country touting her own clear voice. As she writes and collaborates, Rachel has also developed a keen ear to the songs of others.
“For most of my adult life I have recorded and performed,” Rachel says, “and it’s satisfying, terrifying, full of ego.” She keeps a sharp focus on her individual sound, yet a concurrent theme has emerged: “One thing I keep coming across in my touring is people say they miss singing in a choir.”
That message, confessional and pointing to a larger need, planted itself in Rachel’s mind and played as if on a loop. In quiet moments, that voice needled her - annoyingly, uninvited - while she meditated, “I am a troublemaker when I meditate,” she concedes. That voice said: Start a community chorus.
A self-described procrastinator, Rachel felt called, but postponed launching anything resembling a chorus. “I had a stigma in my head of what a community choir was, and that vibe didn’t fit me,” she says.
Rachel then played a show with musician Jenny Ritter in Vancouver and was inspired. “Jenny runs a community choir! She arranges the music and all their shows are fundraisers for local organizations. My head was blown.”
Rachel took her own leap while she was performing at the Fitzgerald Theater in November of 2017. She had the stage, she was feeling good about her set and the words just came out. She announced that she was starting a community chorus in the Twin Cities, her new home base. “I don’t know why I finally decided to jump. I guess I was ready.”
Arriving at a name for the chorus helped. “Kith + Kin just popped into my head. I love the alliteration of it. It perfectly captured what I wanted to create: family, extended family, a community of singers where there wasn’t one before.”
Kith + Kin has become, in their inaugural year, what Rachel calls “a strange mix of tenderhearted folks.” And as for family, the South Dakota native says, “well, my brother and sister are in the choir, so for me it IS family.”
There are some gifted professional musicians in the group as well. For them, performing in the choir is less stressful than their everyday (late night) jobs. “There isn’t the ego,” Rachel offers, “singing here is relief.” And everybody else? “There are a whole bunch of people in the choir who haven’t sung since high school.”
Rachel says some of the singers confess fear before joining. “They tell me, ‘I don’t think I’m good enough, I’m terrified.’ Something about singing as an adult is a trigger for them. It brings them back to high school, back to feeling awkward or unlovable. So I hand-hold a lot at first, and tell them, ‘No one is more terrified than me.’”
Choir members connect with each other through singing, but Rachel thinks they also connect to something deeper. “For me it is about harmony and co-creation. That’s how I’m wired. It is great to return to that instinct. Voices are the original instrument. Nothing is more primal, more intimate than our voices.”
Kith + Kin practices Monday nights at The Warming House at 40th and Bryant, a space “with a bike shop downstairs and a rehearsal space above.” They charge a fee to attend their season’s final show and proceeds are given to a charity chosen by the chorus. Rachel estimates they had a steady 35 singers this year and raised over $2100 for Capi, a nonprofit that provides services locally to immigrants and refugees. To defray the costs of music and space rental, and to pay herself for her time and music arrangement, Rachel is considering charging a membership fee to join the chorus.
Why are people drawn to a community chorus?
“We are bonded around the original instrument. Singing is a unifier; we don’t have to agree with each other outside of this room. All we have to do is create together and be kind.”
Rachel describes the process of becoming a community chorus, one voice at a time: “One woman was new the community – bright, shy – and she came to us needing something. Sometimes there is hardship or darkness, and then the light of the chorus. We started as a room full of awkward strangers and now we are a beautiful partnership.”
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photo credits: Tracy Nordstrom and Kith + Kin Chorus