Preaching to the Choir: Thetford Choral School Helps Singers Find Their Voice

  • Patricia Norton conducts her joint First and Choir classes in a round at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. Norton's Juneberry Chorale aims to create a comfortable musical foundation for new singers in the First Class and refine that knowledge and skill to performance level in the Choir Class. The two groups gather between classes to sing severals songs together each week.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Patricia Norton conducts her joint First and Choir classes in a round at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. Norton's Juneberry Chorale aims to create a comfortable musical foundation for new singers in the First Class and refine that knowledge and skill to performance level in the Choir Class. The two groups gather between classes to sing severals songs together each week.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Members of Juneberry Choral's First Class orient themselves with the sheet music of Patricia Norton's "Carry My Heart" before singing at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Members of Juneberry Choral's First Class orient themselves with the sheet music of Patricia Norton's "Carry My Heart" before singing at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Patricia Norton is the director and founder of Juneberry Choral Singing School, teaching four classes of her ten week singing program teaching all ages to gain a comfort level while singing as part of a group. Norton also directs Thetford's First Congregational Church choir and composes music.  Wednesday, February 20, 2014. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Patricia Norton is the director and founder of Juneberry Choral Singing School, teaching four classes of her ten week singing program teaching all ages to gain a comfort level while singing as part of a group. Norton also directs Thetford's First Congregational Church choir and composes music. Wednesday, February 20, 2014.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Richard Neugass, of Norwich, left, Liora Alschuler, of Thetford, middle, and Susan Leveret, of Thetford, right, sight read a song in Juneberry Choral's First Class at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. The singers learn to read music while matching pitch and singing in several different languages. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Richard Neugass, of Norwich, left, Liora Alschuler, of Thetford, middle, and Susan Leveret, of Thetford, right, sight read a song in Juneberry Choral's First Class at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. The singers learn to read music while matching pitch and singing in several different languages. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Patricia Norton conducts her joint First and Choir classes in a round at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. Norton's Juneberry Chorale aims to create a comfortable musical foundation for new singers in the First Class and refine that knowledge and skill to performance level in the Choir Class. The two groups gather between classes to sing severals songs together each week.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Members of Juneberry Choral's First Class orient themselves with the sheet music of Patricia Norton's "Carry My Heart" before singing at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Patricia Norton is the director and founder of Juneberry Choral Singing School, teaching four classes of her ten week singing program teaching all ages to gain a comfort level while singing as part of a group. Norton also directs Thetford's First Congregational Church choir and composes music.  Wednesday, February 20, 2014. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Richard Neugass, of Norwich, left, Liora Alschuler, of Thetford, middle, and Susan Leveret, of Thetford, right, sight read a song in Juneberry Choral's First Class at Thetford Elementary School Wednesday, February 20, 2014. The singers learn to read music while matching pitch and singing in several different languages. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

For a few minutes, the singers sang in a three-note language. There were 12 of them, and they moved about a room in the First Congregational Church of Thetford, communicating in the key of D.

They made a series of “muh” sounds, singing either just the bass root note, or the higher third and the even-higher fifth, creating a chord whose sound ebbed through the room as they walked around it.

The root note singers looked for each other, as did the third and the fifths, talking (muh-ing) to each other, pointing and whispering their note into others’ ears. They eventually found each other and separated into singing clusters, all the scattered notes finally grouped together.

“That took us,” said Patricia Norton, from the front of the room, glancing at her watch, “a while.”

There were chuckles. It was a warm-up, after all, and the first time the Choir Class of the Juneberry Music Choral Singing School had attempted it.

As the students found their chairs, Norton spelled out the exercise’s purpose. It’s to help the singers stay on a single pitch as other pitches surround them, to know where they are within a chord, to keep their voices consistent by listening to others.

Norton’s been teaching this class, as well as a separate one for first-time singers, since the fall of 2012. The Choir Class is made up of a group of amateur vocalists, most of whom have sung in church choirs, but most of whom didn’t get much instruction on the mechanics of vocal performance.

After the class, several of the students gathered near the church exit, putting on their coats.

“I’ve just learned from choral directors,” said Priscilla Vincent, of Norwich. “I’ve never worked on breathing — are you kidding me?”

“She’s extended my range,” said Kathy Larson, of Lyme Center, noting that prior to her Juneberry classes she sung alto. “I’m a soprano, obviously.”

“You sure are,” Vincent replied. “You’re higher than I am.”

Norton, who directs the Thetford church’s choir, fashioned the program for those who wanted to sing but felt intimidated by it, or joined choirs without a firm grasp of the basics of singing in a group, and were shuffled away from the front.

It came from a personal place.

“I was the one told not to sing, to stand in the back,” Norton said.

She grew playing piano, and became an accompanist for vocalists through college. She played the organ at a Lyme church before moving into singing herself.

In the years leading up to 2009, Norton went through a debilitating period of depression. As she recovered, she realized she wanted to do something with her musical abilities, and thought of the people who wanted to sing, but were simply afraid to be beginners.

Juneberry began to take shape.

Norton offers four classes, two on Monday and two on Wednesday, in approximately 10-week-long “semesters.” The current semester has about 54 students, she said, spread across the four classes. The final 15 minutes of the Choir Class, on both Monday and Wednesday, overlap with the first 15 minutes of the beginner-heavy First Class. As one group winds down, the other group warms up.

On a recent Monday, Norton arranged members of the two classes in an arc shape. She began to coach them through Hava Nashira, a three-part round. The first attempt was satisfactory, but something was missing.

“I want you to think about caramel,” Norton told the class. “I want you to think about warm, soft caramel.”

The next attempt, the class bit into it.

Norton, 47, plans to expand Juneberry in the coming months. She’s already hired a director of operations for the growing LLC, and wants to start a White River Junction-area class to complement Juneberry’s Thetford focus. She hopes to establish a more advanced performance group made of students culled from the current classes — the groups now don’t have a final recital.

The performance group, she said, would put on “very short, focused concerts,” about 20 minutes each and revolving around a theme. Perhaps the group could go to the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich to sing songs with a science feel, Norton said, or visit a library for a book-themed show.

The current semester ends in mid-March, and a new semester will begin at the end of the month. At the Monday class, after the muh-ing exercise, Norton divided the Choir Class into its individual parts to try and build a song from the bottom up.

The basses started, with an unchanging rhythm to moor the piece. The sole tenor came in. Then the altos. Sopranos.

The song began to build, but the pieces soon began to wobble, and the song fell out of time. Norton, standing in front of her keyboard at the front of the room, continued conducting, willing everyone to stay on time. The song would sound fantastic, she said afterward, once all the voices unified around her.

Jon Wolper can be reached jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.