For the Gresham Community Choir, it's a friends and family affair as the group celebrates its 15th year
On a rainy, chilly Monday evening in December, about 60 people gather in the music room at Clear Creek Middle School. It's nearing the end of weekly rehearsal for the Gresham Community Choir, which means it's solo time.
For the last hour and a half of a rollicking practice, there has been laughter, ribbing, jingle bells, a visit from Santa Claus and even the tiny soprano howl of a pet Chihuahua.
The group, which has grown from 12 to 70 members since 1992 under the direction of Annette Steele, is preparing for its annual holiday concert at Reynolds High School's Lasher Performing Arts Center.
Steele takes a seat front and center and the chatter dies down.
Francis Doo of Gresham, who normally sings bass and plays his ukulele with the group, shuffles over to the piano in his flip flops and Hawaiian shirt.
'The first time I sang a solo for this choir, I was so nervous,' he says. 'Annette knows what I went through. I was sitting there waiting to come up, and I almost hyperventilated, I pitted out, I was a mess.'
After this confession, he laughs and shoves his hands in his shorts pockets. The pianist begins playing, and Doo closes his eyes.
In a deep baritone vibrato, he begins to sing. 'O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior's birth.'
Three verses later, the song ends and there is a moment of rapt silence before his fellow choral members erupt in applause. Doo smiles shyly and takes his seat.
The little choir that could
Steele, a 1977 Gresham High School graduate, has been the heartbeat of the choir from the beginning. A self-described 'choir and drama geek' in high school, the wife and mother of two has loved music all her life.
She was looking for a community choir to join in 1992 and couldn't find one, so she started her own. It has been through quite an evolution in the past 15 years. It started as a class through Mt. Hood Community College's continuing education program. Twelve people signed up, and most of those original members still are with the choir.
Yearly increases in tuition led Steele to try becoming a part of the parks and recreation department. She also tried being a non-profit with a board, but there were too many cooks in the kitchen. She finally settled on paying for a license and running the choir as a small business.
Today the choir meets for two terms a year, gives a spring and a winter concert and sings at The Grotto every December. In lieu of admission, the choir collects canned food and non-perishables at the door.
Over the years, it has given more than 38,000 pounds of food to various groups, including Loaves and Fishes, Snow-CAP and St. Vincent de Paul. This year, the food will be given to Esther's Pantry in Southeast Portland, a non-profit that helps those living with AIDS.
Steele, 47, of Gresham, also has a full-time job as a receptionist for City Sanitary. Luckily, she says, her boss' wife is a choir member, and the business is flexible with her hours.
It's not always easy, she says, juggling practices, arranging for bus transport, buying the music and keeping the choir's finances in order. The choir has struggled with community support as well.
'It would be a dream to pack the house on Monday,' she says.
But Steele, who says the choir is 'like therapy,' calls it a labor of love.
'We're friends,' she says. 'We're like family. I love music, and I love these people. I can't imagine not doing this.'
The group is a tight one, supporting each other through the deaths of spouses, heart attacks and surgeries and rejoicing with each other through birthdays, anniversaries and births.
Choir members range in age from 15 to 89 and come from all walks of life. Some travel from as far as Welches and Beaverton to attend choir practice every Monday night, but the majority are from East County. There are mothers and daughters, husbands and wives and best friends.
And it's always exciting when a man joins the choir.
'That's the big excitement of the year,' Steele says, laughing. 'We always need men to fill out our tenor and bass sections. We have several women singing those parts, so every time we get a man, there's a stir.'
'A wonderful Christmas time'
Chrisler Hodge retired to Gresham two years ago from California with his wife. He met a Gresham Community Choir member at his athletic club and decided to give it a try.
He had sung in professional groups in California and says he could have joined any number of choirs in the Portland area. He joined the Gresham Community Choir, he says, because of its accepting feel.
'I walked in here, and there was just this feeling of commonality,' Hodge says. 'They were accepting me as a person. Here, I'm just a part of the human race.'
Hodge says he also appreciates Steele's relaxed directing style.
Indeed, Steele does not hold auditions. Members are not required to read music. Many of its members were involved in high school or college choirs when they were younger. But there are no requirements. If you want to be in the choir, you can be.
In performances, members don't wear robes. They don't walk onto the stage in neat rows. Sometimes a married couple in the choir dances the waltz.
This Monday, a choir member's husband will dress as Santa Claus and enlist the audience for some caroling.
Amy Jordens, 30, an alto, says the group fills her need for relaxation, fun and decompression. The new mother has a 1-year-old daughter and says this is the one night every week she gets to herself. She attends the practices with her mother, soprano Mary Ann Jordens.
'It's neat, because we have this wide ability range, and yet we always manage to put on this great show,' says Jordens, who lives in Northeast Portland.
As the choir sings Paul McCartney's 'A Wonderful Christmas Time,' members sway, smile, shake jingle bells and belt it out:
'Ding, dong, ding, dong
The mood is right
The spirit's up
We're here tonight
And that's enough.'
Steele says sometimes she doesn't know whether she keeps the choir going or they keep her going.
'This group means so much to these people,' she says. 'You would not believe how dedicated they are to this. I consider it a ministry.'
If you go
What: The Gresham Community Choir's annual 'Celebrating the Seasons' concert.
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18.
Where: The Hudson Lasher Performing Arts Center, at Reynolds High School, 1698 S.W. Cherry Park Road, Troutdale.
Details: Come join the choir for an hour of music and audience caroling. There will be a special guest appearance by Santa Claus and Bella, the Christmas Chihuahua.
Admission: Canned foods and non-perishables, which will be collected at the door.
For more information: Call Director Annette Steele at 503-465-0997.
Grotto performance: The Gresham Community Choir also will sing at The Grotto, at Northeast 85th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, at 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17.