Kickapoo Valley Young Friends Choir

Hanna: The Kickapoo Valley Young Friends Choir was started during a now-annual First-day school fundraiser for a school in El Salvador. We decided to sell Singing Valentines. Later, Joan, our coordinator, brought together the young Friends who were interested and put together a larger repertoire for the Valentines.

Joan: In the fall of 2003 we started the First-day school year with meeting for business for the first time. Kickapoo Valley Meeting has been experimental and never completely satisfied with how to provide religious education for a small group with a wide age range. It seemed to make sense to encourage the kids to be more involved in the decision making. Their Singing Valentines raised money for scholarships for San Ignacio School in El Salvador Yearly Meeting, with which Northern Yearly Meeting has a sister yearly meeting relationship. That year the choir sang "Magic Penny" more times than any of the kids cared to, but they did decide to do the Singing Valentines again next year.

I brought in a collection of camp song books looking for love songs that kids might like to sing. A song they chose was one for which I had learned a slightly different tune than what was written, but they weren’t satisfied with either and made up and agreed on their own version. I was impressed by that—and by how good they sounded singing together. I realized they had just taken their first steps in becoming a choir. I remembered that my own experiences singing in choirs as a kid were a significant piece of my becoming a Quaker. The joyful experience of the breath of God through my body, and breathing together and listening with the group, have been among the more tangible experiences of touching God. We don’t know how to share the central Quaker experience with our kids. They don’t sit in meeting for worship much. They don’t share our adult lives much. Talking about experience is not the same as sharing it.

Perhaps in a "Quaker process" choir, I thought, the kids could share that experience of meeting God. I proposed this to them, and they were for it. We’re continuing to work out what that means.

Alisha: I have really enjoyed being part of the choir! It consists of the three Chakoian sisters, Kelsey, and me. Joan, our teacher, prefers to be called the coordinator, which I think is quite comical. It is challenging at times, but we all work really hard, listen to each other, and blend quite well. The members of the choir are close like family, and I think we are welcoming and flexible.

I like the fact that we can pick what we want to sing, and sometimes those choices can be as crazy as bloody Irish ballads. If a song doesn’t have an alto part, Joan is kind enough to create one with her excellent skill at harmony. She can also transpose music so that it is more in our comfort range.

I enjoy it when our choir sings at the Farmer’s Market during the summer to raise funds. Last summer we raised money for the Heifer Project by singing and by selling homemade jam. So we also get to use our sales and cooking abilities.

Our choir makes decisions based on consensus, meaning that we listen to everyone’s ideas and seek to compromise. I had to get used to this style of decision making because I am used to voting, but I think it works out fairly well.

May: My experience in the choir has been fun as well as aggravating. I’m proud to be in the choir, though I don’t always completely agree with decisions. Mostly the choir is run by consensus and this does slow us down when making decisions, but it is most effective for us as a Quaker choir. I have plenty of fun singing with my sisters and friends. And I like the songs we sing; usually they’re fairly easy to learn—the difficult part is making them sound interesting.

Hanna: The small size of our group makes us flexible. We can arrange the music so that both the sopranos and the altos are satisfied, and it does not take much time to get a song together enough to see if we like it. The style we use comes from our Singing Valentines. We tend to sing a cappella, both because we mostly travel with our music, and because we enjoy singing that way. We use music from the Friends Hymnal, Rise Up Singing, sheet music from a store, and music we heard on the radio. We enjoy humorous songs and have a lot of fun picking songs to offer as Singing Valentines; but we also sing serious music. For the Viroqua area Caroling of the Choirs, a multi-church performance, we sang "Christmas in the Trenches" by John McCutcheon. We have also brought carols to nursing homes.

Joan: So what is a "Quaker process choir"? It’s a choir in which listening is more important than technique. A choir in which all decisions are made by consensus—what we sing, in what key, what words, what tempo, how it’s arranged, what parts where, what notes, and so on. We don’t sing the music as it is written, but as we hear it. I may do more of the initial arranging since I have a few decades more experience, but they rearrange what I write or suggest. I am not a choir director; I see my role more as that of a clerk of meeting. Listening is my most important job—an active listening that draws the group together.

The choir has become part of the meeting’s outreach to the larger community in a variety of ways. The kids like raising money for worthy causes; we include kids whose parents have tenuous connections to Quakers; and at the Caroling of the Choirs, we sang "Silent Night" in four languages.

The kids have taken this vision and played with it, with success and continuing struggle as well as fun. Consensus decision making is not easy; they’re working on it. Singing together by listening rather than as directed is a challenge. They do it well and want more difficult work. I hear joy in their voices together and I shake and cry.

Hanna: There is a balance in the group that is fine if we have one new member who integrates well and has the necessary skill; but we can be easily overwhelmed. At one point we took in six new members at once, and the balance was lost. From that experience came the idea of a preparatory choir, with standards to be met before new members can rehearse and perform with the choir.

May: For a few months the choir was more than doubled. It went from 5 to 11 or 12 people. Most of the newer kids were new to singing in a choir, and unused to listening to the people around them. It was an aggravating time for all involved. The older choir members felt that we were being held back. Often we were exasperated by the lack of experience of many of the newer members and their inability to sit still.

The newer members probably felt overwhelmed, too. They started in January, after the holidays, and they didn’t have time to adjust before we did Singing Valentines in February. After that, many of the newer kids decided to drop out. That’s when the idea of a pre-choir came up, to give beginners experience, and a chance at being accepted.

Joan: One new member at a time we can manage; but with six or seven we didn’t do so well. Everyone was frustrated. So we’re planning to try a preparatory choir, for new members to get enough experience to be prepared to come into the older group.

Hanna: A part of having such a small choir is being able to goof around and tease each other without it getting out of control. It can feel like a bunch of siblings—actually, my two sisters are in the choir.

Zoe: It’s sort of fun, and we even have fun being bored. We just sort of play around. I like most of the songs that we sing, and I think that Joan is a good coordinator.

Kelsey: Of all the choirs I have been a part of, I enjoy this the most. I like choosing nearly all of the songs we sing. We can hear everyone’s voice in the group, and harmonize and blend by listening to each other breathe. I am glad it is not a very large group, because with more people the listening and blending became harder.

Hanna: Recently we officially became recognized by the meeting as the choir, rather than simply part of the First-day school program.