International champion chorus keeps at it via Zoom

  • Musical director Jim Arns and the Northbrook-based Melodeers chorus are pictured at their most recent Sweet Adelines International competition in New Orleans in 2019, where the reigning American champions placed third overall.

    Musical director Jim Arns and the Northbrook-based Melodeers chorus are pictured at their most recent Sweet Adelines International competition in New Orleans in 2019, where the reigning American champions placed third overall. COURTESY OF JON READ PHOTOGRAPHY

  • They'd love to meet in person, but since April 2020 60 to 70 of the award-winning Melodeers chorus have conducted their weekly rehearsals over Zoom.

    They'd love to meet in person, but since April 2020 60 to 70 of the award-winning Melodeers chorus have conducted their weekly rehearsals over Zoom. COURTESY OF RENEE PORZEL

 
 
Updated 2/10/2021 10:17 PM

They're still out there, finding that golden tone, singing on Zoom, each of them muted but together.

Right now it's all the Melodeers -- a seven-time international champion women's a cappella chorus based in Northbrook -- can do.

 

"We're just trying to keep the community going," said Melodeers creative director Renée Porzel.

Melodeers, which turned 60 years old in 2020, is a member of Sweet Adelines International. Based in the tradition of barbershop harmony and founded in 1945 by the wives of male singers who wanted to do their own thing, Tulsa-based Sweet Adelines is a women's singing organization with nearly 21,000 members who participate in around 500 choruses and 1,000 quartets worldwide.

Under Jim Arns' direction and Porzel's choreography the Melodeers are the reigning United States champion and 2019 third-place international chorus. The first Sweet Adelines international chorus to have won seven gold medals, over the years they've won gold in Baltimore, Honolulu, Houston, Orlando, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and their first in 1994 in Reno, Nevada.

No competition was held in 2020, only a virtual convention in which the Melodeers was among the acts to have contributed a performance. The 75th International Convention & Competition is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 11-16 in St. Louis.

Melodeers membership director Gwen Wolken of Northbrook said the group currently has 105 members ranging from 22-year-old Emma to 80-year-old Julie. A variety of professions is represented, from accountant to, yes, a rocket scientist who works for NASA remotely from Chicago. Among their numbers are seven "Queens of Harmony" -- winners of Sweet Adelines' international quartet contest.

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Members mainly come from Illinois, but also hail from Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Wolken said a woman from Toledo, Ohio, was auditioning to join.

"We are one of the best in the world," Wolken said, "but we take new people all the time."

In good times they'll come to rehearse for three hours every Wednesday at Christian Heritage Academy in Northfield. They'll car pool from as far away as downstate Springfield; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Appleton, Wisconsin.

These times, of course, haven't been great. Due to the coronavirus, the Melodeers haven't met in person since March 11, 2020. They quickly pivoted to Zoom rehearsals on April 1.

"I think the thing that is interesting is that the dedication remains so high, and we have 60, 70 people Zooming in every week," said Porzel, an arranger who is currently a judge of visual communication in international competition, and a former Sweet Adelines international board president.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's really healthy for all of us. Everybody's been so isolated that it's been wonderful to have that weekly rehearsal," she said.

A transition team is working on when the group can get together, but with so many members, Porzel said there's not a location that would support it under current COVID mitigations.

"We have nothing on the horizon until COVID is under control," said Jeanette Butler of Arlington Heights.

The Zoom rehearsals include an overall check-in, vocal education, physical warmups and singing the current repertoire remotely to Porzel's musical accompaniment, though chorus members mute themselves due to the delay in transmission.

They've had holiday parties and guest nights, including one coming up March 10, Wolken said. Guests interested in attending these remote rehearsals may email her at membership@melodeers.org.

"It's really fun to sing with a chorus like the Melodeers because they really want to sing the best," said Butler, part of a chorus in San Jose, California, before moving to Arlington Heights and joining the Melodeers.

"We have a lot of fun when we get together. Zoom is fun, but it's much more fun when we can sing together," she said.

Making harmony is "the whole heart of us," Butler said.

"You can see the joy in the videos when we sing. That's not fake," she said.

It's hoped that soon the Melodeers will be able to gather, unmuted.

"The thing about a cappella music is that it's a blend of our voices," Porzel said. "It's the thing that really draws us in and keeps us in as members for so long. It's very visceral."

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