UW News

February 25, 2010

The power of song: UW Women’s Choir, St. Mark’s Women’s Choir team for concert to help homeless March 8

Homeful is not a word, but perhaps it should be. It is the title of a concert that the UW Women’s Choir is performing March 8 in collaboration with the St. Mark’s Women’s Choir. The women — 120 strong — will be singing about home in a benefit for the homeless — specifically, for Noel House, an emergency shelter for homeless women.

The two choirs will sing How I Know My Home, by Veljo Tormis; Angel, by Sarah McLachlan; Poor Little Sailor Boy, a traditional tune; and Still I Rise, with lyrics by Maya Angelou. But there will be more than just songs on the program.

Each of the 100 women in the UW Women’s Choir — about half students and half faculty/staff — was asked to share a 30-second reflection about why home is important and what it evoked for her. All the reflections were recorded, and those recordings, arranged by Sylvia DeTar, will be playing when the audience enters St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, where the concert will take place.

Choir member Carly Thornburg’s contribution, for example, was a song, You Are My Sunshine, which her mother used to sing to her when she was a child. “It reminds me of being a little kid and being surrounded by family and being tucked in at night by my mother,” Thornburg said.

Women’s Choir Director and UW doctoral candidate Jean-Marie Kent said she asked choir members to record their contributions in their native languages, so the “soundscape” includes untranslated segments in Dutch, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and French, among other languages.

“It’s actually a really powerful experience to hear someone talk about home, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying,” Kent said. “There’s a different lilt to their voice and a different tone they take.”

The concert, which is co-sponsored by the St. Mark’s Homeless Advocacy Initiative, will also include a reception after the program at which issues of homelessness will be discussed. Whole Foods Market, Roosevelt Square and Whole Foods Market, Westlake Avenue, have donated pastries and coffee.

Seeds for the concert were planted a year ago, Kent said, when the UW Women’s Choir first performed with the St. Mark’s Women’s Choir. Performers voted on which charity should receive the money they collected, and Noel House was chosen. Although the shelter got $2,000 from the concert, Kent was troubled. While they were performing their songs, the Tent City gathering of homeless people was camped in the St. Mark’s parking lot. They did not attend the concert, and their presence delayed concert-goers, who had to find other places to park.

“I asked myself, ‘How is it that we’re doing something for homeless people but we have such a separation from them?'” Kent said.

She, her co-conductor Megan Huckabay and St. Mark’s choir director Brian Fairbanks began having a conversation about what they could do this year to change that. That’s when they came up with the idea for a concert on the theme of home, and they decided to bring the women of Noel House into the action. A busload of them will be attending the concert, and a few will be speaking to the audience, talking about how they ended up homeless and what that experience is like.

Choir members have already gotten to know a little about homelessness, as Kent asked them to spend time volunteering at Noel House or another shelter. Thornburg, who did some work at the U District shelter ROOTS (Rising Out of The Shadows), said, “Something I took from my shelter experience is that homeless people are just ordinary people who are having a bad time. A lot of times we turn away and don’t want to face them, but really, they’re just people with their own stories.”

At one point Kent asked the volunteer coordinator of Noel House what the choir might do as a group to help them, and was surprised to hear her request: Make valentines for the women at the shelter.

“I thought we’d be painting a room or changing beds or doing laundry,” Kent said. “But the volunteer coordinator’s reaction was that so many of these women have been rejected by society for whatever reason and they feel like they don’t have a face, that no one ever calls them by name anymore. So she asked that on Valentine’s Day they know that they are being specially remembered by the women in Women’s Choir.”

The choir then got together and created handmade valentines, which they delivered to the shelter.

Choir member Jayme Lynch said that she had been volunteering for eight years, but this project was different. “It was the sense that these women have nothing and are completely forgotten about. We had the power to make them not feel that way for once, we could change their entire day by spending time on something that most of us would consider a small gesture.”

Kent hopes that the concert will inspire members of the audience to want to do something to combat homelessness. “Music has an ability, because it’s abstract, to reach people in a way that’s not necessarily directive or commanding,” she said. “It’s just an opening of generosity and of the spirit.”

Both she and Thornburg said this is the first time they have participated in a musical performance that is connected to social justice. “Just standing in a room with 100 women and singing is very powerful, and to take that power and use it for a higher purpose is really great,” Thornburg said.

Kent is happy with the choir’s efforts thus far, but she still thinks there’s something missing. She’d like to bring music to the women at the shelter. “Maybe we could lead them in a singalong,” she said.

The concert will be at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 8, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. Admission is by donation, with all proceeds going to Noel House.

And by the way, March 8 is International Women’s Day.