Women in Harmony chorus taps into the power of music

“There’s something about doing music that touches your soul,” says the Rev. Jill Saxby of Cape Elizabeth.

She’s one of 60 members of Women in Harmony, a social justice chorus that taps into the power of music to inspire societal change.

“Singing with this group feeds into a lot of work I’ve done with political advocacy and social justice work with the faith community,” says Saxby, a second soprano. “After a long day of talk, talk, talk, I come to rehearsal and just sing about it—justice, equality, community—and fill back up. We all need a little cup of water once in a while.”

The Women in Harmony chorus rehearses at the Allen Avenue UU Church in Portland. The chorus was started 25 years ago. Photo by Dylan Verner

Led by director Catherine Beller-McKenna and accompanist Deana Gurney, Women in Harmony rehearses one night a week in Portland for just over two hours and performs several times a year in southern Maine.

“There’s a uniqueness about what we do with our dual focus on musical excellence and singing for social justice,” says Beller-McKenna, who has led the group for 19 of its 25 years. “The philosophy is two-sided: to build a community within the chorus that is diverse and empowering by giving them a voice, and our work in the community.”

During an annual retreat in September, the singers dig deep into learning the next season’s music—ranging from classical to folk and ethnic to pop and blues—and getting to know each other better. Over the past season—which had the theme “Songs of Resistance”—the waiting list to join grew to 25 women. Performing pieces like “No More Silence,” “Against All Odds” and “Common Woman,” the chorus has a loyal following of liberal music lovers.

“What we’re seeing is that music can change the world,” Saxby says. “I get the feeling that many people in our audiences are people who feel refreshed and inspired by our music. They tend to be people who are out there working for a better world. Women in Harmony is a purposefully welcoming community. It’s gay, straight, older, younger, partnered, not partnered, professional musicians and people who don’t even read music. It’s part of the ethos of the group that all are welcome here.”

Women in Harmony member Andrea Wenger sings during a rehearsal. Women in Harmony is a social justice chorus that rehearses in Portland and performs songs about justice, equality and community around southern Maine. Photo by Dylan Verner

Anne Perron of Poland had a deep fear of singing in public and didn’t even realize she had talent when she came in for a voice check on a dare 11 years ago. Now she’s even in the Outreach Ensemble, a subgroup that performs at special events. Soprano Angela Foss joined a year after Perron, and eventually their friendship blossomed into something more. The whole chorus came to their wedding, singing “One Voice” by The Wailin’ Jennys.

“A lot of the women in the chorus have said that the sense of community is as important to them as the singing,” says Sue Butler, a first alto from Windham who has been a member for 21 years. “But, at the same time, we have grown so much musically over the years. We started with two-part simple songs and now we do poly-rhythms, foreign languages and multiple key changes. Some of it is really complex music.”

Earlier this summer, 36 members of Women in Harmony went to the Sister Singers Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the five-day gathering of feminist women’s choruses, Women in Harmony performed songs of resistance and joined in a mass chorus 300 women strong.

Photo by Dylan Verner

“Singing fills me with joy, particularly singing with other women who have a similar stance,” says Lisa Derman, a second soprano from Cape Elizabeth. “Some of my favorite moments are the time in our concerts when we invite the audience to sing along. There’s something about a community singing together that unites people. When we sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ at our last concert, you could feel it in the audience.”

“Singing with a group of women is so, so empowering and energizing,” says Kate York, a board member and first soprano from Falmouth. “Everyone should take care of themselves and do what makes them happy, and music does that for me.”

For more information, on Women in Harmony, go to wihmaine.org.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough whose enthusiasm for singing exceeds her aptitude.

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