In Two-Part Harmony: Chorus Couples

Choristers make beautiful music together—sometimes as couples! Some 58 percent of choristers we polled said they socialize with fellow choristers outside of rehearsals and performances, and 37 percent said they had dated members of the chorus in which they sing. Choruses can be a great place to meet friends, and even a potential mate.

When Swarthmore College in Philadelphia began advertising itself as the “Quaker Matchbox”—that is, a great place to find your future mate—Steve Barsky got an idea. The Mendelssohn Club, the symphonic chorus in which Barsky has sung since 1972, had produced at least four marriages, including his own to Becky Test in 1988, and a couple of other long-term committed relationships. He told the chorus board, only half in jest, “You know, we need to start advertising in the singles newspapers.”

Alhough the board didn’t go for the idea, Barsky clearly was onto something. Chorus America’s 2003 chorus impact study (America’s Performing Art: A Study of Choruses, Choral Singers, and Their Impact) confirmed what most choristers know from experience—that choruses are great places to make friends and enrich one’s social connections. Some 58 percent of choristers polled agreed strongly that they socialize with fellow choristers outside of rehearsals and performances, and 37 percent said they had dated members of the chorus in which they sing.

“There are all kinds of neat and attractive people walking around in choruses,” says Barsky. “Yes, we make great music and it’s great fun, but you can also find somebody to match up with, and that’s an important function.”

Music’s Magic

In many ways, choral singing is not unlike any other interest that two people have in common. It’s something you do together, even if across a crowded rehearsal room. It gives you something to talk about at the dinner table. But as several chorus couples were quick to point out, it’s far more than “Oh, you like choral music? So do I.”

“I couldn’t imagine going through life with someone who did not understand the experience of public performance,” says Norman Schwab, who began dating his wife Maria when they both sang with the New York Choral Society in the mid-1990s. “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 women’s choir MUSE. “It’s amazing to do the music-making 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 recording, you can listen to it again and relive all the emotion connected with that.”

For Jen Courtney-Keyse and Tom Keyse, at least part of the magic is how music interweaves with the religious tradition they share. In 1993, at a party of their 70-member church choir, they 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.

Jen recalls that she had often felt odd dating men who knew nothing about singing or the sacred music she loves. “I was kind of resigned to the fact that if I got married it would probably be to someone who didn’t go to church,” she says, “and that I would have this other separate life that he didn’t know anything about or understand or particularly value. What’s incredible with Tom is that not only does he understand it, he experiences it.”

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 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, too. 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. The Krasners also share a rather offbeat sense of humor.

“Your interest in the arts and music sort of determines who you are,” says Mark Beasom. “It’s nice that you don’t have to explain that.”

As a wedding present, Chorale members gave them 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 Alan. “We wrote the English text ourselves and it talks about having a home filled with song and laughter.”

Their home welcomed Leah, Alan’s 23-year-old 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.”

“He Just Gets It”

For chorus couples, the shared experience of performing adds 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.”

For the Beasoms, singing is the great organizing principle in their lives—and the way they both make a living. “All of our jobs are together,” says Samela. “Church job, the Chorale, 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 their whole family got on board with what can be a challenging schedule of rehearsals and performances.

For Jen and Tom Keyse, their commitment to music has meant long, grueling recording sessions— St. Martin’s Chamber Choir has made 10 CDs in its 13-year history—as well as a five-concert performance season. In 1998, Jen participated in the first of three sessions for their Christmas CD, 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, Tim Krueger, 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. 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. We’re having the same experience and it really feeds our relationship.”

Scott England and Kelly Marzett met in 1998 at a rehearsal of the Heartland Men’s Chorus in Kansas City. Together for eight and one-half years, they sing in both the full Chorus and in smaller ensembles—Scott, the lowest bass and Kelly a high tenor. “Our ranges hardly overlap at all,” says Scott.

The importance of performing together was driven home when they both had to miss a concert because of scheduling problems. “The Chorus is such a big part of both of our lives,” says Scott. “We were listening to the concert and I said to Kelly, ‘I just can’t stand this. I can’t be out here in the audience. I’ve got to be up there on the stage.’”

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 attractive baritone across the room? For several couples, they had to travel thousands of miles away from home to allow the sparks to fly.

The Beasoms met on the bus in 1983 during a North American tour. The two began dating after that, but it took another national tour and an international tour in 1986 to seal the deal. “I proposed on the plane coming back from Japan,” Mark recalls. “What was I thinking?”

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.”

“I proposed on the plane coming back from Japan,” Mark Beasom recalls. “What was I thinking?”

That didn’t stop Susan from striking up a conversation at a break and discovering that Bryan was divorced—and available. That summer, the Chorale went on tour to Germany, and Susan innocently invited Bryan to the room she was sharing with Krista. “Then I sat back and watched the pot,” says Susan, “stirring when necessary, of course.”

Little stirring was needed, as it turned out. 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, which was later published in a Georgia literary magazine. In September 2004 they got married in the gazebo on the square in Marietta, the same gazebo that is the basis of the Chorale’s logo.

“We just fell madly in love,” Krista says with some surprise, as she had sworn off ever marrying again, after an ill-fated first marriage. “There’s something about being in Europe, away from your regular life that allows you to suspend reality a bit and play up the romance factor.”

In addition to their music connection, the two discovered that they both had a list of things they always wanted to do. “Since we’ve been married we have both gotten our scuba diving licenses,” says Krista. “And we’ve both become private pilots.”

In the mid-1990s, Norman Schwab joined The Festival Singers, a small a cappella choir in New York, 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 Schwab 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, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”—well, something rocked hers.

“It was like, ‘Wow, he’s good.’ I liked the way he put himself out there,” Maria 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.

Fred Leise and Michael E. Jackson, one of the first gay couples to find each other through the burgeoning gay choral movement in the early 1980s, also developed their relationship across the miles. Fred had joined the New York Gay Men’s Chorus and Michael the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago. They met in 1981 at the first conference of managers and music directors of gay and lesbian choruses, a precursor to what later became GALA Choruses.

“At the opening reception, I was looking for the two people from Portland who were going to be staying with me during the conference,” Michael recalls. “I came across a group that included Fred, but my opening gambits got me nowhere, so I moved on. But Fred sought me out,” Michael continues. “He liked it that I was wearing a three-piece suit…and long story short, I had three houseguests that night. By the end of the weekend, we knew we wanted to take a shot at knowing each other better.”

In February 1982, the two sang together for the first time in a joint concert of the Chicago and New York choruses at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Music—both as something they love and as a force for social justice and inclusivity—continues to bind them together.

Musical Weddings and Harmonious Family Lives

One advantage of marrying a fellow chorister is that you have lots of musical options for your wedding. Most of the couples we talked to had their own choruses provide music for the ceremony. A few tapped musical family members and friends to compose or arrange music for them. Some got the students they teach into the act. In all cases, their wedding music was anything but standard fare.

Proceeding Samela Beasom down the aisle were several of her young dance students. Her father, Donald Aird, a prominent San Francisco-based composer, wrote instrumental pieces for brass and violin. Roger Wagner conducted a small group of singers from the Chorale in a movement from Dominick Argento’s evocative and challenging, I Hate and I Love.

Ginny and Ken Bitting met some 26 years ago while singing together in the Chorus of Westerly, a large, multi-generational choir in Westerly, Rhode Island. They planned no choral music for their wedding service—“It was a simple affair,” says Ginny. But as the bridal party made the short walk through the village of Mystic, Connecticut to the church, members of the Chorus spontaneously serenaded the couple—with, of all things, mountain walking songs. At the reception, wedding guests participated in a spirited contra dance. The Bittings got the idea from an earlier “get to know new members” event that the Chorus of Westerly had sponsored.

Norman and Maria Schwab’s wedding also was awash in music. The highlight was kids from the choir Maria leads at Manhattan Public School 183 performing Randall Thompson’s Alleluia.

The Arbel Chorale sang at Alan Rothenberg and Enid Krasner’s wedding, including Psalm settings arranged by the group’s former music director. One of the pieces was a setting of sacred Hebrew text in early Baroque style by Salmone Rossi, a 17 th-century Italian Jewish composer who was a contemporary of Claudio Monteverdi.

For each of these couples, music is not only the glue in their relationship, but the main theme of their family and social lives.

Mark and Jen Keyse dipped into the music they had known and loved in their church choir. “We had Durufle’s Ubi Caritas et Amor, which I had sung in the children’s chorus as a kid,” says Jen. “There’s a picture of me walking down the aisle after the service singing Hyfrydol’s Love Divine All Loves Excelling from memory.”

For each of these couples, music is not only the glue in their relationship, but the main theme of their family and social lives. Most of them came from families of professional musicians or amateurs who instinctively knew the importance of music, and now they are passing that passion on to the next generation.

Ken Bitting was encouraged in a musical direction by his aunt, a prominent choral conductor in California where he grew up. He started off at age eight playing the accordion, later switching to clarinet before joining a college glee club. Ginny Bitting attended a musical boarding school in Europe and then majored in music education in college. Not surprisingly, at age eight, their daughter Adrienne joined her dad in the Chorus of Westerly.

Adrienne’s first choral experience was the Brahms Requiem. “I remember the day she figured out how to read music,” Ginny recalls. “We were in the car and she said, ‘I get it. The sound of the music matches the notes that march up and down the staff.’ You could see it in her eyes. That was an exciting moment.” Next year Adrienne is off to college, majoring in classical voice.

Like Ken Bitting, Maria Schwab started her musical life playing the accordion—then the trumpet and piano—before finding her way to a college chorus. Norman Schwab grew up with a single parent who patched together a living as a composer and performer. He started singing in college choirs and after moving to Southampton in the early 1990s, began looking around for a chorus to join.

The Schwab’s two children seem to have the music gene, too—seven-week-old Luisa sings loudly and “at a very high pitch,” says her father. Five-year-old John is already showing signs of being a great section leader in his school choir. “I watch him standing right in the middle in the back, where I’ve always stood since eighth grade,” says Norman. “You can see when a couple of kids around him starting singing the wrong verse, how he looks around and corrects them. He’s a little too bossy for it to work right, but he’ll get that down.”

Jen Courtney-Keyse began singing in church choirs in second grade. The Keyses’ eight-year old son, Will, got an even earlier start, joining the church choir as a kindergartener. “Singing is central in our relationship with the children,” Jen says. Before meals, the whole family sings the Johnny Appleseed grace, followed by an “Amen,” sung as loudly as possible. The family also participates in “Music Together,” an early childhood music program for kids and their parents.

For the Beasom children, Andrea, 19, and Deanna, 16, a life in the arts has been inescapable—though their parents say they tried to push other interests. In fact, because of their parents’ hectic performance schedules, both children were home schooled. Now each is considering classical dance as a career.

This article is adapted from the The Voice, Spring 2007.