Chemical engineer Wendell Keith came to Cedar Rapids for a job interview nearly 30 years ago at the Duane Arnold Energy Center and left that day with an offer in hand and an invitation to attend a Harmony Hawks rehearsal.
“I had not ever been to Cedar Rapids before when I came for my job interview,” says Keith, now 56, of Cedar Rapids.
He spied a music note on the interviewer’s bulletin board. Turns out, she sang with the local chapter of Sweet Adelines, a women’s barbershop chorus. Keith told her he had sung barbershop back in his hometown of Hammond, Ind., part of the Chicago metro area.
So before he even moved here, he had found a way to advance his career and his love of choral singing.
Since then, he spent about 12 years with the Harmony Hawks, then the past 15 years with another local barbershop organization, Twenty-First Century Vocals. He’s also been singing with Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale for 25 years, then simultaneously with Chorale Midwest the past 11 years or so. He’s held leadership positions with all those organizations, performed with their various small groups and in their Orchestra Iowa gigs, and has taken voice lessons with two teachers.
While Keith is perhaps more plugged in than the average Corridor chorister, he is among hundreds of adults finding musical outlets through auditioned community choirs and bands in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area.
By day, he says he “makes electricity” at the Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo. On evenings and weekends, it’s “the love of music and really enjoying bringing that to people’s lives” that keeps him juggling rehearsals with three groups, their performances and voice lessons.
“It’s a great way to spend your time,” he says. “For me, it’s a great enjoyment that sometimes can be great elation. It’s just a lot of fun to do.”
He’s never added up the cost of participating in all those groups, with dues and related expenses such as voice lessons. “It’s certainly nothing compared to the enjoyment I get out of it,” he says.
The best fringe benefit, however, was meeting and marrying Rebecca Farmer, who also sings with Concert Chorale and Chorale Midwest.
Some of Keith’s fellow performers are music educators wanting to step out of the classroom and onto a stage. Others are doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, retirees, students and media types — like this reporter, who has sung with the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, Jazz Inc., a combined choir with the Chamber Singers of Iowa City, Cedar Rapids Symphony (now Orchestra Iowa), four Follies and 15 Theatre Cedar Rapids musicals and is currently a member of Chorale Midwest and the Marion Community Band.
“(Performers) really do come from all walks of life,” says John Hayden, 43, of Blairstown. Director of choral activities at Benton Community High School in Van Horne, he’s also directed the Harmony Hawks for most of the past 20 years. The award-winning a cappella ensemble, organized in 1949 and chartered a year later, is celebrating 75 years of the Barbershop Harmony Society in America.
“Ninety percent of our members who walked through our door as guests have had somewhat significant musical experience, whether with high school, college or church choirs. Once in a while we’ll get an organist — we get a lot of guys with instrumental backgrounds who are really good music readers. And sometimes we get guys who can’t read music at all,” but learn by hearing the notes.
He says the most prevalent reason he hears from new members is that they’re looking for “a creative and emotional outlet somewhere in their life.”
“A lot of them have jobs that don’t allow them much creativity or much expression,” Hayden says. “Their jobs are pretty cut and dried. They come to us for that weekly release of emotional involvement. They just really like to sing. We hope we’re giving them a quality product so when they leave, the feel filled up.”
He gets filled up, as well, even though his life is already filled up with family and school activities.
“Certain things are hard to get out of your blood,” he says. “There’s another real big piece of the puzzle — guys really enjoy the brotherhood and the bonding. It’s not always easy for men to find places to connect and have friends that have a common interest. ...
“For me, too, I love the music. It’s kind of infectious and it’s kind of in my blood. I’ve been doing it since I was 16 years old,” Hayden says. “I also just get energized. ... As a high school choral director, you find yourself having to motivate kids all the time. As the director of a community group, they are so motivated from the minute they walk in the door that they’re almost the ones motivating me.”
Concerts are popping up all over this spring and summer. Some area groups also travel to competitions, like the men’s and women’s barbershop ensembles and the Eastern Iowa Brass Band. Others travel to exotic locales, like the Marion Community Band, invited to the Austrian National Band Festival in 1988 and the World’s Fair in Seville, Spain, in 1992. Chorale Midwest, which will be touring and performing in the British Isles in June, also sent members to sing in Russia in 2000 and Hawaii in 2011.
Volunteer community bands are alive and well across Eastern Iowa, too, continuing an Iowa tradition that reaches back to the 1800s. In the early 1920s, the Iowa Legislature even passed the Iowa Band Law, allowing communities to levy a tax to support municipal bands. Karl King celebrated that ruling by writing the “Iowa Band Law March” in 1923.
Iowa’s love of community bands hit Broadway in 1957, 1980 and 2000 with 76 trombones blazing through Meredith Willson’s iconic Tony-winner, “The Music Man.” The 1962 film adaptation was nominated for five Academy Awards and won for best musical score. A 2003 television adaptation grabbed five Emmy nominations.
Further proving the music doesn’t stop after high school and college, instrumentalists ages 55 and older can toot their own horns in New Horizons Bands in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Even though all these groups use volunteer musicians, Orchestra Iowa calls on various community and college vocal groups for pops and symphonic concerts.
Such pairings provide the orchestra with “a convergence of two missions,” says music director Timothy Hankewich, 45, of Cedar Rapids. “One is outreach and partnerships with other organizations throughout the community. The other component is making great art.
Each chorus has “unique strengths that you can use in different contexts,” he says. “For example, the Harmony Hawks were perfect in our patriotic program during the summer. (Luther College’s) Nordic Choir was perfect for the ‘St. John’s Passion,’ which required an extreme attention to detail. Concert Chorale and Coe College were perfect for Brucemore, and we’re going to be collaborating with Concert Chorale soon.”
Hankewich, who trained as an opera conductor, has stepped off the podium and into the spotlight, as well, in past Follies productions or piano performances.
“I enjoy being a ham,” he says, “and at the same time, I spend most of my days coaching other musicians on how to play and perform. There comes a time when you have to practice what you preach or you lose credibility. ... It’s a totally different skill.”
Here’s a look at some of the Corridor’s volunteer music ensembles for adults
CEDAR RAPIDS CONCERT CHORALE: Auditioned mixed choir, founded in 1959, up to 100 voices; Tuesday night rehearsals, three to five concerts per year, special events, director Fred Kiser. Upcoming concert: “Pictures at an Exhibition,” 5 p.m. dinner, 7 p.m. concert May 19, First Lutheran Church, Cedar Rapids, $6 to $14 at (319) 365-8221, email@example.com or crchorale.org
CEDAR SOUNDS CHORUS: Sweet Adelines women’s barbershop chorus, 20 voices, shows, special events, competitions; Tuesday night rehearsals, Cedar Rapids, director Marilyn Fairchild; Cedarsoundssingers.org
CHAMBER SINGERS OF IOWA CITY: Auditioned mixed choir, formed in 1970, about 50 voices; Monday night rehearsals, three major concerts per year, director David Puderbaugh. Upcoming concert: Haydn’s “The Seasons,” 3 p.m. May 19, Iowa City High School, $5 to $17 at door, (319) 535-0150 or icchambersingers.org
CHORALE MIDWEST: Auditioned mixed choir, founded in 1996, about 75 voices; Sunday night rehearsals, Cedar Rapids, two to three major concerts per year, special events, director Bradley Barrett. Upcoming concert: “A Spring Celebration … Then and Now,” 3:30 p.m. April 28, 7:30 p.m. April 29, St. Wenceslaus Church, Cedar Rapids, $12, Choralemidwest.org
HARMONY HAWKS: Men’s barbershop ensemble, organized in 1949, chartered in 1950, more than 60 voices; Thursday night rehearsals, two major concerts per year, special events, competitions, director John Hayden. Upcoming concert: “Spectrum of Harmony,” 7:30 p.m. April 26, featuring international men’s championship quartet Vocal Spectrum, Concert Hall at College Community, Cedar Rapids, $5 to $20, 1-(866) 967-8167 or Harmonyhawks.org/spring-show
METRO MIX CHORUS: Sweet Adelines women’s barbershop, Iowa City, formed in 1964; Monday night rehearsals, director Beverly Hamilton. Shows, competitions, Metromixchorus.org
OLD CAPITOL CHORUS: Men’s barbershop, Iowa City, chartered 1963, about 30 voices, Thursday night rehearsals, concerts and competitions, director Chad Knipfer. Upcoming events: April 25 Guest Night, May 2 Cookie Festival, Oldcapitolchorus.com
THE QUIRE: LGBT/allies mixed chorus, Iowa City, formed in 1995; Sunday night rehearsals, two major concerts, special events, director Peter Grau. Upcoming concert: 7 p.m. May 11, details TBA; Thequire.org
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY VOCALS: Men’s barbershop, Cedar Rapids, Thursday night rehearsals, details firstname.lastname@example.org
EASTERN IOWA BRASS BAND: British style brass band, Mount Vernon, formed in 1985, 35 members; Thursday night rehearsals, three subscription concerts, competitions, festivals, conductor Kate Wohlman. Upcoming concerts: 7 p.m. April 20, First Church of the Open Bible, Cedar Rapids, with Chicago Staff Band; Subscription Series finale, 7:30 p.m. April 27, Mount Vernon Middle School auditorium, $4 and $10, Easterniowabrassband.com
IOWA CITY COMMUNITY BAND: Concert band, high school through retirees, formed 1982, summer concerts in Iowa City area, winter holiday concert at the Englert Theatre; Saturday morning rehearsals, conductor Rob Medd; iccband.org
MARION COMMUNITY BAND: All-ages concert and jazz bands, Marion, formed in 1982; two concerts, conductor David Law; concert band rehearsals, Tuesday nights, May 28 to June 18; jazz band rehearsals, Thursday nights, May 30 to June 20. Upcoming concerts: 7 p.m. June 11 and 25, Marion Square Park, free; Marioncommunitybands.us
NEWS HORIZONS BAND/CEDAR RAPIDS: Concert band for ages 55 and older, Tuesday morning rehearsals, Coe College, director Alan Lawrence; details (319) 399-8521, email@example.com or Public.coe.edu/~wcarson/newhorizon.htmNEW HORIZONS BAND/IOWA CITY: Concert band for ages 55 and older, rehearses twice a week at Iowa City Senior Center; details (319) 335-3026, firstname.lastname@example.org or Uiowa.edu/homepage/resources/listings/n/New_horz_comm_band.html