Rock Voices sings out in Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — Think you need to be a trained vocalist to sing in a chorus? Well, when it comes to Rock Voices, fuhgeddaboudit. This community chorus sings just for the fun of it.

Rock Voices' ensembles rehearse once a week in four-month sessions in the spring, fall and winter. Each session culminates in a concert for the public. And if you just want to attend rehearsals and not be part of the concert, that's OK with Rock Voices founder and executive/creative director Tony Lechner, a 49-year-old composer, arranger, performer and middle- and high school English teacher in the Pioneer Valley who began Rock Voices in the spring of 2012.

It's not called "America's community rock chorus" for nothing. There are chapters of this everyday-people ensemble throughout Massachusetts — Hadley, Northampton, Framingham, Auburn, Bedford; in Albany and Saratoga, N.Y.; Brattleboro, Vt.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Syosset on New York's Long Island; Keene and Nashua in New Hampshire; West Hartford, Conn.; then stretching west to Buffalo N.Y. and beyond to Portland, Ore.

On Friday night, Rock Voices' brand new Pittsfield chapter joins the list with its debut concert at Berkshire Museum under the direction of 38-year-old instrumentalist, vocalist and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts vocal music instructor, Joshua Birns-Sprague, a North Adams native.

The concert will feature songs by Stevie Nicks, Elton John, Gwen Stefani, Brian Wilson, and Billy Joel, among others. The 50-voice chorus will be backed by a professional four-piece rock band — keyboard, drums, bass, guitar. It's a feature of all Rock Voices concerts; a shot at the rock concert experience, Lechner says.

Unlike more formal choral groups, you don't have to be able to read music to be part of Rock Voices. Lechner chooses songs the average shower-singer or car-singer is likely to know. He records individualized rehearsal tracks a singer can download or listen to on a CD player and learn just by singing along.

In a telephone interview, Lechner said he got the idea for Rock Voices one day while he was driving. He had been running a jazz choir in Hadley — the Valley Jazz Choir — which brought together people interested in singing jazz, just for fun.

"I began thinking 'why not do the same with rock music?'" Lechner said.

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Rock Voices made its debut in Hadley, then expanded to Northampton and Brattleboro in Vermont.

Lechner selects the music, based on the suggestions of the choral members. "Each singer," Lechner explained, "is asked to suggest one song only." Lechner makes the final selections from those suggestions.

Singers — who are asked to pay $19 per rehearsal — are not hard to find. There is no audition process. "They can actually show up over the course of the first several weeks and try it out before committing," Lechner said.

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"Many are people who just love to sing in the shower or car," Lechner said.

"I can't tell you how many have come up to us and say they used to sing years ago — 30, 40 years — and have been away from it all that time. This is an opportunity for them to jump right back into singing publicly without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious."

Music directors are chosen by audition. Lechner wants music directors who are "musically literate; who can wrangle a group of adults, and, above all (have) a good sense of humor and enormous patience. They are working with everyday people. Ultimately, this is all about fun. Rehearsals have to be fun. That's really what this is all about."

Some prospective music directors approach Lechner. Some are approached by Lechner, based on recommendations. Birns-Sprague heard about Rock Voices through a friend, Nate Altimari, who leads the Albany and Saratoga Rock Voices. Birns-Sprague was introduced to Lechner at last January's concert in Northampton. They began discussing forming a Pittsfield-based group.

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In a separate phone interview, Birns-Sprague said he was overwhelmed by the Northampton concert. "I didn't know what to expect. There were about 200 voices [on the Academy of Music stage]. It was so powerful hearing them all, especially when they sang 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough.'"

Only 14 singers in the nascent Pittsfield group are from the Berkshires. The remainder have come in from neighboring areas. He's hopeful the number of Berkshires-based singers will grow over time.

Birns-Sirague said he's been having fun over this inaugural session. He particularly appreciates the accessibility.

"With a lot of choral ensembles. when you sign up, you are committed to performing in a concert. Here," Birns-Sprague said, "you can opt out of the concert and come to rehearsals only."

Brins-Sprague says he is eagerly anticipating the next four-month session, which begins 7 p.m. Feb. 4 at First United Methodist Church, 56 Fenn St. He said he has particularly enjoyed the sense of "bringing everything together. Because they've never experienced anything like this, several people expressed concern during rehearsals whether things would come together. We had our first rehearsal with the band last night and it really did bring everything together the way we all hoped."

Lechner continues to be amazed at the collateral benefits of singing in Rock Voices. "They not only sing together, they become a social community; go out together; do things in and for the larger community," he said.

"It's more rewarding than I ever imagined when we began."


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