Jen Courtney had pretty much resigned herself to the fact that if she ever got married it would be to someone who knew nothing about singing or the sacred music she loves. "I had this other separate life that my boyfriends didn't know anything about or understand or particularly value," she recalls.
Then she met Tom Keyse. At a church choir party the two found out that both of their fathers were Episcopal priests. "That was an instant connection," Jen recalls. But what drew them closer was singing together in the Denver-based St. Martin's Chamber Choir, a 22-voice professional ensemble that performs art and sacred music.
"What's incredible with Tom is that not only does he understand it [singing and performing], he experiences it." Tom and Jen got married a year later in a wedding full of the sacred music they had known and loved while singing in church choirs growing up.
"We had Durufle's 'Ubi Caritas,' which I had sung in the children's chorus as a kid," says Jen. "And there's a picture of me walking down the aisle after the service singing Hyfrydol's 'Love Divine All Loves Excelling' from memory."
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
Choruses don't often bill themselves as prime spots to find true love. But perhaps they should. Some two-thirds of singers in a recent survey said they socialize with fellow singers outside of practice time, and close to 40 percent said they had dated a fellow chorus member.
And why not? While choral singing is not unlike any other interest that two people have in common, chorus couples are quick to point out that the attraction is much more than "Oh, you like choral music? So do I."
For chorus couples, the shared experience of performing seems to add up to a deep sense of knowing and being known.
"I couldn't imagine going through life with someone who did not understand something about public performance," says Norman Schwab, who began dating his future wife, Maria, when they both sang with the New York Choral Society. "I've often said that I could just rehearse all year, I enjoy it that much. But the performing, the concert—that's a completely different rush."
Accompanist Rachel Kramer strongly agrees. She met her partner, MaryLynn Barber, an alto, while performing together in the Cincinnati woman's choir MUSE. "It's amazing to do the musicmaking together," says Rachel. "There's that emotional part of it—the connection through the music, through our relationship—that's where it all started."
"You make a magical thing happen together," MaryLynn agrees. "And then if there is a CD, you can listen to it again and relive all the emotion connected with that."
For chorus couples, the shared experience of performing seems to add up to a deep sense of knowing and being known. "Your interest in the arts and music sort of determines who you are," says Mark Beasom, who met his wife, Samela, while singing with the Roger Wagner Chorale (now the Los Angeles Master Chorale). "It's nice that you don't have to explain that."
The Allure of a Tour
So if the chorus connection is ripe with possibilities, how do you make contact with that cute second soprano or well-dressed baritone across the way? Several couples had to travel thousands of miles away from home to solve that distance problem and allow the sparks to fly.
Alto Krista VanSciver joined the Marietta Master Chorale in February 2003 at the urging of her best friend from high school, Susan Webb. Bryan Williams, a bass, joined a few months later. "I didn't know him," says Krista. "You know, you go to rehearsals and there's not a lot of time for socializing."
But that didn't stop Susan from striking up a conversation at a break and eliciting that Bryan was available.
That summer, the Chorale went on tour to Germany, where there were more opportunities for Krista and Bryan to interact (with Susan's help). By the end of the 10-day tour the two were strolling arm-in-arm through the German towns where the Chorale was performing Mozart's Coronation Mass—a work they both love. In Dresden, Bryan presented Krista with a poem laying bare his feelings. In September 2004 the two got married in the gazebo on the square in Marietta, the same gazebo that appears in the Chorale's logo.
Norman and Maria Schwab have a similar story. In the mid-1990s, Norman joined The Festival Singers, a small a cappella choir in New York City, little knowing that its director would become his wife. The two also sang together in the New York Choral Society and on a 1998 summer tour of the Czech Republic and Greece "the sparks flew," as Maria describes it.
"You're spending 79 hours a day together," Maria says with a laugh. "You try to get away from each other, but it's hard."
When she heard Norman singing a solo from the musical Guys and Dolls, Maria was captivated. "It was like wow, he's good. I like the way he puts himself out there," she recalls. Back home the two negotiated the ups and downs of a long-distance relationship—she lived in Brooklyn, he on the opposite end of Long Island in Southampton-before getting married in April of 1999.
Music as Organizing Principle
For many singing couples, the choral group is not just the place that brought them together, but a family that holds them.
For many chorus couples, singing becomes the grand organizing principle in their lives. For the Beasoms, singing is not an avocation, but the way they both make a living. "All of our jobs are together," says Samela. "Church jobs, the chorus, the opera chorus, other small touring groups, summer festivals. We're one of those lucky couples that are together all day long."
To make it work, it was essential that they and their whole family got on board with what can be a challenging schedule of rehearsals and performances.
For Jen and Tom, their commitment to music has meant long, grueling recording sessions (St. Martin's has made 10 CDs in its 13-year history) as well as a five-concert season. In 1998, Jen participated in the first of three sessions, but had to bow out of the second. She had a good excuse. She was giving birth to their first child.
At the hospital the next day, the choir's music director turned to Tom and asked, "You'll be at the recording session tonight, right?"
"I let him go," Jen says with a laugh. "Everything we've done as a couple has been scheduled around our St. Martin's schedule. When I was pregnant with our second child, I had to come off bed rest to sing a concert. I think our kids have gotten a lot of musical exposure in utero."
Like the Beasoms, the fact that Jen and Tom do their music together makes a huge difference in how they manage their lives. "If only half of the couple were doing as much singing as we do, says Jen, "it would be a lot more stressful. Even though we're not together, we're together. We're having the same experience and it really feeds our relationship."
A Home Filled with Song
For many singing couples, the choral group is not just the place that brought them together, but a family that holds them. Alan Rothenberg joined the Arbel Chorale, a small Jewish choir in Philadelphia that performs sacred and secular music mostly by Israeli composers, with the hope that he might meet his bashert—Hebrew for your "intended" marriage partner. A close-knit religious community, though not connected with a synagogue, the Chorale often went out for meals together after rehearsals or performances.
One such group dinner turned into a party of two—Alan and alto Enid Krasner. The two found out they shared not only a love of Jewish choral music but of old movies. On one of their first dates, they saw the Mel Brooks classic The Producers, which may explain why they danced to "Springtime for Hitler" at their wedding party in 1999.
As a wedding present, Arbel members gave Alan and Enid money to commission an artist to design their ketubah—a Hebrew marriage contract. "There's an amalgamation of Jewish and musical symbolism in the artwork," says Rothenberg. "The English text we wrote ourselves and it talks about having a home filled with song and laughter."
Their home recently welcomed Leah, Alan's daughter from a previous marriage, who also sings with the Arbel Chorale. "It's not just about our relationship, Enid's and mine, but about our whole household," says Alan. "A lot of our life centers around this choir. I am tied to this group, socially and emotionally. I have this bond, not just because all my friends sing in it, but because this is the group that brought me my bashert."