Valley Rock

Two women in a small New England town who have lost their spark find unexpected new life with a group of strangers, ranging from twentysomethings to senior citizens, who sing rock n roll, choir-style.

Elise Linscott


Nine-year-old Julie Smith was nervous as she stood on stage for her solo. Looking into the audience, the eyes of her classmates, teachers, and parents stared back. The piano started playing. It was her time to shine.

But when Julie opened her mouth to sing, no sound came out. The piano continued while her music teacher mouthed the words to her, trying to ground her, playing through the entire song as Julie stood, frozen and crying.

“I could feel the energy of the room come toward me; it terrified me,” she later recalled.

For Julie, the name of the song couldn’t have been more appropriate–or more mortifying: “Silent Night.” She was traumatized.

Later, on top of her own embarrassment, Julie was bullied at home by her parents, whom she refers to as “the people who raised her.” They made fun of her, laughed at her, and never let her live it down. The shame of that failure stayed with her, following her as a haunting memory that she carried like baggage.

Life went on. She retained her love for music. But she vowed never to sing in front of an audience again, resigning herself instead to singing in the shower, the only safe space where she could belt out her favorite songs — mostly rock hits she’d heard on the radio — without fear of judgment.

In the winter of 2012, Julie, who’d just turned 50, was a stressed-out executive in small-town Western Massachusetts, regularly working 70-hour weeks while playing the role of COO for a company whose business she’d helped grow. By this point, Julie’s hair was grey, sometimes streaked with teal, and her eyes communicated amusement or displeasure with a single glance.

In the workplace, she had found her niche. She excelled at organizing, planning, and landing executive search deals for the company. Her days were full — usually due to long hours at work — but they were without a lot of joy. She felt something was missing. Something fun, creative, that could help her connect with other people; she was an introvert who considered herself an opportunistic extrovert.

“I was successful, but I didn’t feel as though I was successful internally,” she says. “I felt something was missing.”

When one of Julie’s friends cut out an ad from the local newspaper and sent it to her, Julie felt an inkling of hope. “I’d wanted to sing rock, but nothing like that existed,” she recalls. “The ad seemed like it was written just for me.” Excitement stirred as she contemplated its contents, pondering whether she would have the courage to explore unfamiliar territory. At the same time, the language was so welcoming, she felt she had no reason to be afraid.

During that same winter, Karyn Boutin, then 24 and a transplant from Owings, Maryland, was working at a job she hated, coordinating staff in an organization with high turnover. Karyn, a strikingly beautiful woman whose dazzling smile exuded confidence, moved to Western Massachusetts two and a half years earlier with her fiancé, who worked a different shift than her. When Karyn wasn’t working, she was mostly alone. Since the move, she hadn’t made many friends outside of work. Naturally shy, she had a hard time making new, lasting connections.

Winter brings bitter cold to New England. The days are short and dark, and the snow can be unforgiving of travel plans and trips outdoors as most folks keep to the warmth of their homes. The Pioneer Valley, comprising Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties, is a scenic region interspersed with forests, valleys, and farmlands crisscrossed by the Connecticut River. Its skyline looks out at the Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom Ranges, dotted with centuries-old church steeples and college campuses, including Smith and Amherst colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A nearly two-hour drive from Boston, it often feels bucolic and quiet, sprinkled with lively restaurants, cafes, and galleries, small cities and students.

Tired of semi-solitude, Karyn started looking for more dance classes in the area beyond the ballroom classes she’d been taking in the hopes of gaining a creative outlet and a sense of community, but that turned out lacking; she wanted something new and exciting, in a space where she could really connect with others.

While browsing online for Argentine tango classes, a series of clicks landed her on the same announcement Julie had pored over: a new group welcoming untrained and amateur singers “who love to sing in the shower” was going to be holding its first rehearsal session, without any auditions to get in. You just had to show up.

Tony Lechner went back and forth with his wife Sara for months. Should I, or shouldn’t I? And if not now, when?

Tony’s boyish features, his bright blue eyes and brown hair swept to the side, cast a warm, welcoming demeanor. Teaching at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public Middle and High Schools, he was respected by his students and fellow faculty. I was one of his students in the late 2000s, and some of my fondest memories were in his choir classes, where we learned to sing songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables and a capella songs like “Rachel” by The Idea of North, a song about loss that made me tear up.

Tony was an avid fan of rock music: In his classes, he also taught us songs by artists like Bonnie Raitt and Fleetwood Mac. He had formed an award-winning student acapella group — Five Alone — which he led to state and national competitions. “Music feeds the soul like very little else can,” he’d later tell the local paper, the Springfield Republican. “It is a universal language.”

When he left PVPA in 2010, he started teaching music at Stoneleigh-Burnham, a school in Greenfield, as well as at Hartsbrook School in Hadley. He also offered private lessons at the Northampton Community Music Center.

Tony and Sara had a newborn baby and a one-and-a-half-year-old child at home. To say he was busy was an understatement. But after years of teaching, he wanted more. Something accessible to adults of all ages in the community who loved to sing, too. “The secret is everyone can sing,” Tony said. “People want a place to belong, and they want to be able to sing…and [the choir] felt more personal. They all want to be there.”

Preteens and teens could be enthusiastic, but were just as often distracted and spread thin. Plus, there were parents to deal with, and students still had to be in school and focus on homework, too — they couldn’t devote their full attention to the choir in the same way adults in a rock choir might.

“It’s neat for people to be able to show up and know that this is a safe place to explore …and there’s a need for people to connect,” Tony said of his new idea.

The pull of forming a unique choir for adults who wanted to sing rock music had been on his mind for years. He’d led a handful of adult singers in a jazz choir during their rehearsals, which ran one night a week; but jazz is tough even for seasoned performers. It’s hardly accessible to the general public. For most singers, it just didn’t work. He hadn’t stopped reaching for something more. “Rock music seems to speak to people — people can get into rock,” Tony reflects. “It was accessible; anyone can sing this, and it really brings people together.” And winter was the perfect time to give people something to get excited about and an excuse to socialize, Tony thought. Sara agreed.

“He was working several jobs, gone some days from before the sun came up until after it went back down, and we were still barely making ends meet — it just wasn’t sustainable,” Sara recalled. “One night we both had the same brainstorm — what about a rock choir?”

It wasn’t about money (they weren’t talking about a tech startup, after all). But if he was excited about a project, others might be too, and that meant the potential for some growth. That had appeal in itself. Tony was not afraid of putting in the effort. “I learned early on what a hard worker [Tony] is,” Sara says of her husband.

But diluting Tony’s time and energy would come with risks. It would be tough to start a new group from scratch. It would be even tougher for the group to catch on, and he could end up jumping overboard without a life preserver. The Pioneer Valley was still recovering from the recession in 2012. Jobs were hard to come by — not just those in performing arts, but across the regional industries.Then again, that question loomed: if not now, when?

Tony contacted the weekly Valley Advocate newspaper and took out the ad calling for a meetup to form a rock choir. The idea still seemed so out of reach that he didn’t tell his colleagues or friends what he was up to.

“I found this new exciting thing I wanted to try,” he recalled, which pushed him to take it on despite the inherent risks of any new venture.

Scoping out options, he settled on the basement of a building that was the former PVPA high school building, on a busy road in the town of Hadley, where he’d taught before the school expanded and moved to a quiet hill next to a golf course in nearby South Hadley. He waited with anticipation for the Thursday night in February.

Back at their kitchen table, Tony and Sara were still hesitant, since moving forward with the rock choir meant adding one more job onto the heap — more hours of work for Tony, and more solo parenting time for Sara. That was complicated by the fact that Sara had fairly significant postpartum anxiety and depression. “It was a really, really hard time for many reasons,” she said.

As he drove to the building for the meetup, Tony was eager and nervous, wondering if anyone would be there. By the number of cars around Tony’s where he parked, he thought there must be a competing event nearby. He rounded the corner of the poorly lit brick building. The sight awaiting him was more uplifting than he could have imagined: 50 people stood in line, in the cold, waiting to be let in.

Tony felt a smile cross his face as he unlocked the doors, greeting everyone as they walked past.

Julie Smith, so profoundly shy about singing in front of people, grabbed a song list from Tony and made a beeline for a spot in the back-left corner of the room. The atmosphere of the place was underwhelming, moldy and freezing cold with paint peeling off the walls under the fluorescent lights. She was nervous, but promised herself she would sing, if only quietly.

Leila Rollins-Cohen, then 26 and a former student of Tony’s at PVPA, took a spot next to Julie. Leila ran an after-school program at a nearby Chinese immersion charter school, but she felt directionless and lacking social groups outside work after having recently recovered from a year-long battle with mono.

Leila also tended to be shy — singing in a group would be completely out of character for her — and she hoped to blend into the voices in the rest of the choir.

“It was weird to be back, and I didn’t have the fondest memories of my time there. It was a familiar setting for an unfamiliar situation,” Leila recalled. But she appreciated Julie’s quiet presence next to her.

Karyn Boutin took a spot in the front row. She had been hoping this would be an opportunity to find like-minded people in her new community in a low-key setting. But still she felt out of place, surrounded by strangers in the rundown facility.

Also present that night was a colleague of Tony’s from the school, Eileen Spira, who worked in administration and career counseling and who had also seen the newspaper ad. As Eileen looked around the room, she saw people from all walks of life.

No one knew quite what to expect as Tony took his place at the front of the room, scanning the eclectic crowd. Other than Leila and his ex-colleague, he didn’t know a soul. He introduced himself, welcoming the group to join in.

That session became a chance to introduce themselves. The next week, in the choir’s first real rehearsal, Tony was glad to see most everyone had returned. In the dingy basement, he led warm-ups on a keyboard followed by upbeat songs that included “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, “Africa” by Toto and “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye.

As the first rehearsal session kicked into gear, Julie realized she wasn’t nervous. In fact, she was having fun. She found herself moving her feet to the music, tapping her toes and bopping her head. And smiling.

Tony found there were similarities between the kids he taught in schools and the newly formed choir, too. “People in a room like to talk,” he says. “Adults are just like kids that way…and for a lot of adults in the choir, it’s their only social time of the week” outside family and work commitments.

Karyn and Leila found that they, too, were overcoming their nerves and enjoying themselves. Karyn slowly started to come out of her shell to connect with the other choir members, from teachers and therapists to corporate types and retirees. Age gaps, gender, and other differences vanished while they shared the energy that flowed from Tony all throughout that room.

While the music continued and the singing grew louder, the choir started to relax into a comfortable groove. And Julie realized, to her contentment, that the focus was never really on her — that her voice could be part of something bigger, greater than herself. “It was infectious, and magical,” she recalls. And she felt swaddled by the grandeur of the sound, the co-creation of their voices in unison. Grown-ups don’t often get to have this much fun, she thought to herself.

Julie knew that the choir was something she wanted — no, needed — to make time for. So did Karyn. Each week, Karyn found herself sitting next to the same people at rehearsal. Her feelings of isolation faded into the background. Finally, she found a community where she felt she belonged, and she wasn’t the only one.

There was joy in the room and in the hearts of the members when they sang together. Julie and her new friends started joking that Thursdays, rehearsal days, were the new Fridays, a chance to let loose and be themselves in a supportive space.

“Whenever you bring a larger group together, there will, of course, be some people who get along better than others but there was never animosity,” Karyn says. “The choir is a nurturing place and we have always tried to support each other regardless of age, sexual orientation, or politics.”

“One of the foundational tenets of [the group] is the requirement that all members, at all times, leave their politics, religion, and any controversial views at the door,” Julie says. “We are not supposed to engage in any conversations about these topics, in order to make the rehearsal a safe space for all. It really works! We are there to sing, nothing more or less, and it keeps us focused on ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others — ourselves as part of a whole.”

Still, being part of the burgeoning Valley Rock Choir was hardly a cakewalk. Some people realized they could not manage the time commitment; others were looking for more of a challenge. A dozen or so dropped out over the following weeks. Not skipping a beat, Tony had decided to throw the group from the fire of rehearsals into the frying pan — a performance. Tony scheduled the debut for May. That gave the 37-person choir about three months to prepare. But Tony could see the excitement growing in the group, even in those who had never sung in front of an audience before.

“The energy was so amazing,” Tony recalls.

Taking part in the group had started to change the members. “I noticed myself feeling happier overall in my day-to-day life,” Julie says.

Tony could see the passion, the light in his singers’ eyes as they greeted each other and stayed after rehearsal to have potluck dinners. And the small group size meant everyone got to know each other. Julie, as well as other volunteers, even offered to assist in logistics, taking on tasks like printing packets of music.

The tuition fees he collected had been relatively meager, leading him to question if it was really feasible. The stress of working multiple day jobs at the schools while balancing the jazz group he led and this new rock choir wore on him. The hours mounted and so did bills he had to pay. Still, he had not been able to shake a far-flung possibility, a chance to see where this rock choir could really go if he dedicated himself to it. If he managed to pull together a show that would be successful with the public, he could show others how serious he was about growing the choir and seeing it through to its full potential.

Tony knew something would have to give if he was going to give the rock choir his all — and he could see how much people needed that choir.

As the spring progressed and the choir’s inaugural performance drew closer, Tony began to plan a few solos for that first foray. Anyone who wanted to try out could stay after rehearsal during audition week in April. He encouraged the whole group to stay after in order to watch the prospective performers, even if they did not plan on auditioning, to support each other and to test those auditioning on their ability to sing in front of an audience. Soloists would have to be able to take the pressure, despite their nerves, before Tony could award them a coveted slot. Plus, with the benefits of his ongoing coaching, they’d have to be able to carry a tune and tempo.

When Julie first heard about the auditions, she thought, I’d never be able to do that. She was still freaked out about singing in public, and carried her deep childhood wound. Karyn, though nervous, decided she had to give it a shot. From the song list, she set her sights on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which she would belt out while behind the wheel of her car, and “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas, the lyrics of which she already knew pretty well. She practiced the songs at home and, at least in her ears, they went perfectly.

On the night of the auditions, Karyn’s jitters took hold. She trembled as she waited for her turn. Her confidence dwindled as she listened to the other singers auditioning before her. They were incredible; some of them flawless.

When Karyn’s turn came, she raised her hand and stood up, hugged her friends and took her spot next to Tony, who was waiting by the piano in front of the group. She readied herself and began to sing.

There’s a fire

starting in my heart…

She tried to silence the inner critic that compared herself to the other people, other voices.

…reaching a fever pitch,

and it’s bringing me out the dark.

Her audition had a hiccup, or two, flashing by in a blur. There was no way to mask the huge difference between singing fearlessly in the car and sharing that experience with an auditorium of people. “It was nerve-racking,” she recalls.

Meanwhile, Julie surprised herself — as well as those who knew her deep-seated fears that went back to her parents’ treatment of her. She decided on the spot that she would audition. She especially liked one of the songs slated for a solo, a classic from the early 1970s. She moved closer to the front of the stage. “It was an out of body experience,” she said. “I just stepped up and did it.” Years earlier, she had learned this approach worked well for her; when she had to give big presentations for work, her boss would tell her just minutes before she had to go on stage, so she wouldn’t have time to get nervous and psych herself out, she said. She applied that same strategy to her audition.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone

I can see all obstacles in my way…

Weeks passed, leaving everyone in suspense. Tony mulled his choices, considering vocal tone and resonance, matching prospective singers to the different songs in his head. Stakes ran high for the performance — even higher than he had yet led on to his group. For Tony to keep the choir going, he needed to prove it could mean enough to the public to attract them. He wasn’t after any pot of gold, but in order to win sufficient support he needed the community to see their neighbors and friends shine with confidence and enthusiasm. It wasn’t about finding technically perfect singers, it was about showcasing what singing was really about, deep emotions openly shared with each other.

Karyn, Julie, and the rest of the group would show up for rehearsals, waiting with anticipation. When the results were finally posted, both Julie and Karyn were ecstatic to see their names on that list.

When the reality settled in, Julie was in disbelief. She received the solo part in one of the songs she had auditioned for — “I Can See Clearly Now” — while Karyn would handle solo sections in both the Adele and Kansas songs for which she’d auditioned. Julie felt triumphant.

But for Julie, snagging a spot meant facing her anxiety of performing in front of a live audience again — in a room full of loved ones and strangers alike — recreating her nine-year-old self’s ill-fated showdown with “Silent Night” that had robbed her of part of her self-esteem for all these years.

As for Karyn, a performance background in college theater drove her to strive for perfectionism. She’d have to let her guard down enough to be vulnerable and open to the possibility of letting the group support and build her up. Tony gave her crucial advice: If she were enjoying singing, the audience would enjoy it, too.

Over the last few months, Tony had watched them bloom from musical newcomers into a real, cohesive choir; a group that was passionate and eager to sing and share their love of music. His mandate was simple: get everybody involved, everybody having fun, everybody learning something, as he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette leading up to the big day.

Although he had been teaching for years at the performing arts high school, there were already plenty of music offerings there. And he knew the Stonleigh-Burnham and Hartsbrook schools, where he had most recently taught, could carry on without him. He had made his mark, and he had seen the impact music could have in allowing people to express themselves. His mission now was to extend that beyond school-aged children and young people to the adults who too often lived in a musical desert.

In the new choir, he found a group with a powerful sense of belonging. It gave people meaning, and the ability to pour their hearts into something creative, where they could also volunteer and help out if they wanted to, as many did. But something had to change.

Most adults lived a life deprived of the power and happiness that making music together could bring. People from all walks of life, who don’t always have an easy avenue into beginner-friendly, inclusive spaces to sing without judgement, needed this group that was quickly becoming a second family. He needed to give it his full attention, despite his fears about being able to make ends meet. As far as he and his wife were concerned, diving into the groundbreaking, rockin’ choir was now or never.

“I think people will always need music,” Karyn said. “The normal highs and lows of everyday life can leave people needing music for relief and expression.”

The decision Tony was about to make marked a big risk for personal finances. Making a living as a musician in the Pioneer Valley is tough. Many area professionals work for the local colleges or schools in some capacity, and while there are several local bands and performance venues, their relatively small size means most performers have other jobs or make ends meet by teaching private lessons.

The weeks before the all-important performance would prove whether or not the project was sustainable, Tony talked with local newspaper editor Kathleen Mellen, which gave him a chance for him to stop and reflect and to convince the paper’s readers to give the choir a chance. “Each rehearsal gets better and better. It’s like those memes you see on the Internet: Passion. What the world needs. What people will pay you for. If they all meet, that’s supposed to be bliss. The other day I thought, ‘Hey, what I’m doing fits all those things.’” The day of the choir’s performance, Tony walked into Stoneleigh-Burnham, where he spent most of his time teaching, and asked to speak with his boss. He delivered the news: he was quitting teaching and making the rock choir his full-time gig. He felt a wave of relief wash over him.

“It was one of those moments of great risk where we leapt and trusted that we would land on solid ground,” Sara said.

“It was one of those really scary movie moments, like a Jerry Maguire kind of thing,” Tony added.

The rock choir was now his calling, his destiny.

May 12, 2012, the rock choir packed themselves into the First Church of Northampton, a small but lively city well-known for its arts and music scene.

Karyn’s family drove to Massachusetts for the first time since her move two-and-a-half years earlier. They parked downtown near the church, as did more than 100 others for the nearly sold-out show. She could feel the pressure mounting, along with her desire to deliver a perfect performance.

“My mom and sister drove up from Maryland and my aunt came up from Connecticut,” Karyn said. “It had been years since they heard me sing in a concert environment so I wanted to be at my best.”

As it turned out, the rest of the community was just as excited to hear their neighbors and coworkers. Tony had recruited a live band to accompany their performance. And he had another surprise up his sleeve. While the choir stood backstage, he told them: “Guess what you guys: I just quit my job today!”

Karyn, and most of the rest of the choir, gasped. For most of them, the pressure to perform at their best just shot through the roof. They did not want to disappoint Tony, to push this young father into a precarious financial spot, or to ruin the group’s prospects for a future.

Julie, who had already broken through so many personal barriers just to be there, had a different reaction: Wow, he really believes in us! She thought to herself. He really thinks we can do this!

She believed in them, too. Tony had a vision, and he’d taken a leap of faith, which reaffirmed the confidence she’d been building. Passion. We’ve got this! She thought. She was still nervous, but gung-ho to get on stage.

As the group took their places, crammed in next to each other on risers that were too small, they listened for their notes from the band and readied for the start.

The band began playing. As soon as the choir started singing, the audience cheered, to the choir’s surprise. Karyn smiled to herself. But she still had to nail her solos, overcoming a drive for perfectionism, and prove to herself she did not have to go back to an isolated life, devoid of the artistic expression she most craved.

Karyn’s solo in “Rolling in the Deep” came first. She crooned that song just like she did in traffic on I-91: She’d always felt a connection to the resilience and power in Adele’s music.

In contrast, she’d always liked “Carry on My Wayward Son,” without feeling any particular emotional connection to it. Her solo in that song came at the climax of the song. She poured her all into it, singing such lyrics as, “don’t you cry no more.” It wasn’t until that moment that she realized the sadness, the depth of the lyrics and the loss embedded in its meaning, and how she could transmit those feelings to a room of people. And it announced that singing would be part of her life from this point on, that chance for expression she long didn’t know she needed.

“The audience ate it up,” she recalls. “There’s just so much energy with a group that large, and with a live band in front of you… it’s fun.”

When Julie’s turn came, her nerves could have shut her down. A repeat of “Silent Night” could have begun right then and there. But she felt lifted by the love and support of her new friends.

This time, when she opened her mouth to sing, her voice was there. And it came out beautifully.

She could feel the baggage she’d been carrying from her past disintegrating: She’d reclaimed and gotten her voice back. She’d found a way to express herself to other people, through the support of those people.

After her solo, Julie was immensely proud. She felt as tall as a mountain.

The energy was infectious, and the audience loved the show almost as much as the choir members did.

When the news trickled out that Tony had quit his job, everyone from his former colleagues at the school to his friends and members of the rock choir, knew how seriously he was taking his new role as director. And with the electrifying performance, the word about the unusual rock choir rocketed across the region.

But Tony was going into debt. If the choir couldn’t maintain its momentum, Tony knew it would likely cease to exist.

Riding the success of the first season of the choir, attendance grew and more members joined going into the second season, which ran through the summer. Tony picked a theme he knew would be popular — The Beatles — and recruited some of his former colleagues to help out, including local celebrity Mitch Chakour, who throughout his career performed on stage alongside friends and successful musicians like Joe Cocker. As the choir neared its two-year anniversary, Tony reflected on what the members had achieved. “I am continually amazed at the passion, power, and harmony of this group,” he said at the time. “Members of the group frequently tell me it has changed their lives.”

Still, the first year was rough, financially, for Tony. “We needed to expand to continue to be a viable business,” he says.

That fall, the rock choir added its second group in Brattleboro, Vermont, with just five people. But more continued to join in each subsequent season. Tony and the growing Rock Choir members also started a group in West Springfield, Massachusetts, which later moved down to West Hartford, Connecticut, and more people joined.

During the second season of the Pioneer Valley Rock Choir that summer, the group sang on the radio station WHMP to promote the upcoming Beatles-themed concert. Leila and Julie continued their budding friendship, and today, the two are still close, texting often and checking in to support each other and cheer each other on in their successes, both inside and outside the realm of the choir.

Julie and Karyn continued to audition for and land solos as they grew into more confident, accomplished performers. Even when one’s inner critic took over — like when Julie listened to the recording of that first show, noting where she’d hit a flat note or where her timing was off — she learned acceptance. Julie felt herself improve with each subsequent performance.

Karyn did, too, later taking on solos in songs like the beloved and notoriously difficult “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which she knocked out of the park during the choir’s Queen-themed season. It wasn’t one of her favorite songs before that season, but she was swept into the complexity and the range of Queen’s music, while Tony helped her work on her technique, including breath control. And after that solo, she had an unexpected reaction: She started sobbing, feeling the emotions behind the words. “I actually think I’ve gotten a lot more confident as a solo singer between performing in concerts and being built up by everyone in the choir saying, ‘You did great!’” Karyn says. “We try to keep everything really positive.”

The choir helped Karyn in more ways than just singing. The friends she made have had her back, from supporting and encouraging her to go to graduate school to starting a new career. “When my father passed away, they were all super supportive if I needed to talk about it,” she said. “I got married, changed careers, went back to school. I haven’t been able to do every single season because I was getting my master’s, but they’ve still been there for me. And as a group we made this lifelong pact: we’re going to help to continue this choir and provide that outlet the community needs.”

Today, Leila runs the main office of an elementary school, and says singing remains a part of her life. Although she has not participated in every season of the choir, she says she is thankful for the friendships and the joy singing brought her, and which have carried her through the years up to the present.

Julie later joined the choir in a more formal role: Tony hired her as volunteer coordinator. “That first year was kind of like the Wild West,” Tony says. “The people that showed up were like pioneers, because they were trying to spread this thing that didn’t exist.” To this day, Julie still works for the choir, which in its current iteration has more than 15 subgroups across the Eastern United States and is now known as Rock Voices. During the Covid-19 pandemic, performances shifted to virtual platforms so the groups could still see each other, practice, and maintain a community presence. This is Tony’s full-time job, and although it took three years to become profitable, he said he wouldn’t have traded the experience of starting the choir from the ground up for anything.

Sara felt the rejuvenating effects for herself and saw them in others. “We are so grateful… the community of it, the healing that comes from singing in harmony with others — was the greatest and most beautiful surprise. To be able to bring such joy into other people’s lives is a gift.”

For Julie, there was never a question of if the choir would continue: it had to, and she planned to see it through. She knew, at last, she had found her tribe.

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ELISE LINSCOTT is a journalist, community newspaper editor and nonfiction writer. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, Cosmopolitan, the Seattle Times and Nantucket Magazine, among other publications.

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Elise Linscott

Essayist, narrative nonfiction writer, journalist. Music and art enthusiast.