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From The Beach Boys to Hanson, Buffalo rock chorus promotes inclusivity for music learners

Nick Lippa

A chorus in Amherst is putting on rock concerts multiple times a year as part of a nationally growing group. Rock Voices currently has choirs ranging from Vermont to Oregon and offers people who both can and can't read music the chance to sing. A Buffalo chapter of Rock Voices started earlier last year.

From The Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin to Fleetwood Mac to Hanson, Rock Voices puts together diverse programs of rock and pop music for singers from every musical background.

“I sang in a rock band 50 years ago [in] 1968,” said Carol Goldstein of Williamsville.

“You don’t have to be good. You don’t even need to know how to read music. I still don’t know how to read this. I just sing the words,” said Nathan Krusz of West Falls. “Didn’t really know what I was getting myself in to. I haven’t done chorus or choir, I think since middle school, actually.”

Tony Lechner started Rock Voices in Hadley, Massachusetts, a tiny farm town surrounded by several colleges, about seven years ago.

“It started just as a thing I just wanted to do for fun,” Lechner said. “My wife and I were thinking about if adults would want to come together and sign popular music together once a week in a choir format.”

At the time, Lechner was directing a jazz choir and teaching full time at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School.

“We had a two-year-old a new baby and life was pretty chaotic and I thought, you know, let’s try this. I took an ad out in the paper and 50 people showed up. [It] kind of blew me away,” Lechner said. “Then I realized, wow, this sounds like something people want and maybe something even people need in their lives.”

Lechner noticed many of them were not trained singers.

“They really are as diverse a background as you can imagine. Some people who have sung a lot, some people who have never sung before,” said Lechner. “It’s one of the neat things about a group like this. It kind of accepts everybody. There’s no auditions. It’s just show up and try it.”

Lechner quit his teaching job after the first season of Rock Voices. He said he immediately saw the potential for the choir to grow.

“I guess you can get burned out, right? Doing something for too long? I don’t think I was necessarily burned out but I thought I was ready for a change,” he said. “The choir was new and exciting and I thought, I’m going to give it a try. The people just seemed to love it so much. And I was having so much fun. I thought, I’m going to change it up, make a job change.”

Less than a decade later, Rock Voices now has 16 groups across America.

“I figured, well, if I’m going to quit my day job, I need to do a little more of this,” Lechner said. “So I quickly started one in Brattleboro, Vermont and one in West Springfield, Massachusetts.”

From there, more people started asking about it. Every year Lechner would add one or two more choirs and started hiring other directors to work in different locations.

“It’s kind of traveling by word of mouth,” he said. “People hear about this and say, ‘I think I’d like to sing that.’ And then they write me and say, ‘Hey do you have one around here?’ And sometimes we do and if we don’t we will work on it. Now we are getting requests from around the country to start choirs in different areas. So we are taking a look at how we are going to do that.”

There is a monetary cost which is used to pay the music directors and the live rock band, local professionals that perform with the choir at their concerts. Because accessibility is a concern, the groups also offer scholarships.

Lechner arranges the music for each choir, who perform the same repertoire. Groups practice for about three months before performing with a live rock band.

“It’s a rock show. The band rocks out,” Lechner said. “The singers are mic’d so you can hear them. And it makes people feel like rock stars for a night which I guess is kind of a bucket list item for a lot of people.”

The Buffalo group started last February and is slowly growing. Wendy Meetze, who was originally singing with the Buffalo Gateway Chorus, directs the group.

“She’s a real dynamo. And I guess she really gets people going and excited about the group,” Lechner said.

“She’s really good at what she does. She has tons of energy,” said Krusz. “She concentrates on someone’s strength. And builds that up and tries to get them over the hump of their weaknesses.”

“She’s energetic. She’s upbeat. She’s never negative. She always focuses on the positive and she creates an atmosphere where it’s safe to learn the music and making mistakes is okay,” said Grand Island resident Megan Boggs.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Meetze warming the group up with facial exercises

Meetze was approached by Nate Altimari, who directs the Albany choir, to potentially take the job.

“They were looking for somebody to start a chorus, a choir, in Buffalo. I heard of all the details and I thought, this sounds really good,” Meetze exclaimed. “[It was] really up my alley as my background is in a capella, but is also in jazz and pop and rock.”

The group, which rehearses Thursday nights at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Seneca, has reached about 40 in size. With word of mouth and decent retention rates, that number is expected to grow, as it has in other cities. The largest chorus in the organization has 250 members.

“That’s my goal,” Meetze laughed. “And I think this area has the talent for it. It’s just an unknown commodity right now. And I expect it to be a while before we get up to the 250 range, but that’s a goal.”

Meetze has experience in several differents art-related fields. She went for a theater degree at Virginia Tech and did some professional theater before getting a residency at the music theater of Williamsburg. She then taught for a few years in Maryland before getting into arts management and directing Community Theater.

“I have been in a wide variety of choirs. From being competitive oriented, singing just a few songs over and over again until they’re perfect. From that to a musical theater crew, which is really focused on multiple things other than singing. Then you got the church choirs that are singing for the love it. And this is a combination,” Meetze said. “The more you sing these songs, the more you come together as a group and the people that didn’t think they could do it, this is an open door policy. Everybody welcomes you with open arms.”

“People are like, ‘Well I’ve been told I can’t sing. I’m not good.’ I don’t want to hear it,” Meetze laughed. “If you feel like just listening, then just come and listen. It’s still music therapy. If you just want to do the rehearsals and you don’t want to do the performance because you get scared, just do the rehearsals. That’s fine too. It’s your time to use as you see fit. Along the way we learn some great songs and I do try to impart some musical knowledge so people know how to do things properly. It’s not all just Kumbaya, but it’s more a combination of let’s learn this together, let’s conquer this together.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

The people have been a highlight for Krusz, who is now an administrator for the group.

“It’s not even really about the concert at the end. That’s like our bonus,” Krusz said. “That’s the way I look at it. I think coming every week and watching people progress like myself getting better and then hearing other people get better or getting to hear other people that are really good already and they are refining more and more. I think that’s more important to me. There might be other people that are just here working on themselves, but I like how everyone is coming together. And everyone is getting better and everyone is helping each other out.”

Caitlin Glinski of Cheektowaga hasn’t been a part of a choir since third grade. She said she has been hooked since her first rehearsal, which she came to because of a friend.

“I have always been interested in singing. For 25 years I was told I had a bad voice. Then I kind of came out of my shell and people started saying that I had a better voice and that’s when Sarah said, ‘Join the choir! Join the choir!’ It was really her pushing me,” Glinski said. “Everyone’s so welcoming. Everyone’s so supportive. I just jumped right in. I learned what notes were and I learned scales. Wendy and my friend Sarah have been terrific teachers. I even want to buy a keyboard now,” she laughed.

Grand Island resident Megan Boggs calls Rock Voices a second home.

“The people that I met here have become instantaneous friends,” she said. “They’re amazing people. And we go out afterward. Sometimes in the summer and we hang out and go to movies and do things outside of choir.”

Boggs sang in choir in high school and did solo competitions, but last year was her first time singing a solo in public.

“I did a solo last season during the Motown and I’ve never done a solo open in public with anyone, anywhere. And I was nervous, but Wendy got me through it,” Boggs said. “And I was able to overcome my fear and sing in front of people at a concert with the band, which was awesome.”

She has been a part of church choirs, but values being able to sing the material Rock Voices has to offer.

“We have older people here too, but they don’t act like a classical choir. Classical choirs act more refined, but they are not as fun. This is a fun choir to be in.”

Lechner acknowledges there are certain barriers some choirs have, especially when preparing classical music. There’s an emphasis on being able to read music and it can be much more difficult to sing.

“The music that they are going to sing, it’s the soundtrack of their lives. It’s the music they grew up with. It’s the radio hits. They don’t have to learn Mozart and sing in a foreign language. They already know the words. They already know the melody. They already know how the song goes. And we give them recordings. I sing the part so that they can learn it by ear. They don’t even need to read music,” Lechner said. “I often joke with them if it’s a choir, it’s a choir that breaks the rules. That’s what it is. It’s rock and roll, so that’s in keeping with our image.”

For Lechner, that’s the goal of Rock Voices—make it as accessible as possible.

“Everybody can sing. And most people sing much better than they think they do. We’re all so self-conscious. Making this accessible to everybody takes away one of those layers of inhibitions that people feel when they don’t want to join a choir.”

Meetz said it’s going to take a while to grow this choir in the Buffalo region, but if it goes well, she would love to see potentially Rochester or Niagara Falls become a part of Rock Voices.

“Some directors in this organization direct more than one choir. But until this choir is over 100 people, I’m not going to do anything differently,” Meetz said.

Rock Voices Buffalo performs Saturday night at St. John Lutheran Church at 7 p.m. The spring season will start up around the end of January.

“End of January start looking around for the ads for Rock Voices spring and you can just show up. Just show up and start singing. That’s all you have to do,” Meetz said. “There’s no prerequisites, [like] you have to learn the songs in advance. We give you the binder. You sit in your section and you start singing.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO