Singing at Shelters

At Foutain House

Fountain House is a community center in the West Forties dedicated to the recovery of men and women with mental illness. Run by members and staff, it provides employment, housing, education, and wellness programs. Members can also hang out in the elegant town-house to play chess, learn a craft, or eat. In the past we sang upstairs in the cafeteria, but tonight we were in the parlor on the ground floor, with couches, armchairs, a baby grand piano, and bottles of water put out for us on a table

After our usual warmups—vocalizing and trying out bits of songs to synchronize guitar, mandolin, and ukulele—one of the early-bird audience members called out, “You sound beautiful.” Then, in the few minutes before the start of the concert, some of us walked through the audience giving out pamphlets to people who asked about auditions and the fundraiser. There was an old-home-week kind feeling: one woman knew Lenore and Bill from her church; another woman knew Anthony from YAI; and a man asked whether I was Marv’s sister (it turns out he had once come to a POHC rehearsal).

We opened with “Siyhamba”—no surprise there—but this time it was “Siyhamba” with a twist. When we finished it, a woman in the back asked whether we ever tried to sing both languages at once. So Rene had half of us sing Zulu while the other half sung English, and it sounded pretty good. “You’re hired!” we told her.

They liked the whole concert and really did look at the singalong sheets, because when it came time for “This Little Light of Mine,” they said the same thing our last audience said: “It’s not on the sheet.” No matter, they sang it anyway.

After the concert, at Wilfred’s request, we posed for a group picture, taken the old fashioned way, by a photographer not in the picture (Anthony’s mom and his coach). Then another picture, this one a selfie by Brian—if a selfie can have 20 people in it. The audience watched the photo shoot, too. When it was over, as we were walking out, many told us how much they enjoyed the concert. “Come back,” one said, and another called, “God bless you all.”

-Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert

At Clyde Burton House

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 Sixteen performers, and twelve audience members in a very small room. Chamber music. Up close and personal.

Clyde Burton House, at the end of Alphabet City (between C-D, but feels more like Z when you’re walking there), has 33 SRO units of supportive, permanent housing for formerly homeless seniors or seniors with mental health issues. (A senior is someone over 55.) It’s one of the facilities run by the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), and our own Soprano Olga does volunteer work there. The crafts her seniors made were hanging on the bulletin board.

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We warmed up by running through several numbers, mainly so the various stringed instruments (Rene’s, Brian’s, Marv’s) could coordinate. A few audience members were already seated during this time, and we explained that they would be hearing these songs again. One of the men said that was fine: “Y’all good at what you do, from what I heard.” One of the women sang along with “Pieces of the World,” even though there was no way she could have heard the song before. After Carrie introduced the choir, when we officially started with “Siyahamba,” she sang along with that, too. 

 These men and women joined in enthusiastically on the singalongs, and the ones who didn’t sing had smiles on their faces. Wilfred was the Jack of all soloists, doing both “Lonesome Road” and “Let There Be Peace On Earth.” And Rene livened the show by explaining things about his instruments, especially the wooden sticks he was using during “Siyahamba” instead of drums—though the song was Zulu, he said, from Africa, and the sticks were from Mexico, they went well together. Rene also told them that this wasn’t the whole choir, and they wanted to know when we were going to come back with the rest. (There’s no way we could all fit in that room.)

One of the woman who was singing along with gusto told me after the performance that her mother was a music teacher, and she was a singer. She asked whether we were performing anywhere that she could come to. I told her about the fundraiser at Baruch and gave her a pamphlet. She doesn’t have a computer but uses the ones at the public library and said she was going to check for when our auditions were “now that things are settling down.”

When I got home, before writing this, I looked at the BRC and clicked on a video called “Grace’s Story” (see below for link). It turned out to be the story of the woman who was singing “Siyahamba” and “Pieces of the World.” The subtitle of the video is “Every Homeless Person Has a Story. This is Grace’s.” It’s not often that we get to know the personal histories of the people we sing for. It adds another dimension to what we do.

-Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert

At a Domestic Violence Shelter

We performed at a Barrier Free Living domestic violence shelter. Due to high security around the shelter, no photos were taken at this outreach. It was two days before Thanksgiving and it was easy to miss the location—in fact, Gary and I almost walked past it at first. We met Rene and a small group of choir members inside. We displayed our IDs at the front desk and made our way to the room downstairs where we would rehearse and leave our belongings. We actually equaled over 20 singers at this outreach which is quite impressive considering it was arranged on such short notice. We did our vocal warm-up, rehearsed some of our repertoire and began to make our way upstairs.

Wonderful photos of residents lined the hallway—really candid shots which were so real and beautiful at the same time--photos that I would later find out were actually taken by the CEO, Paul Feuerstein. As I walked into the dining room where we would be performing, a young girl perhaps twelve-years-old held the door open for me and told me with a warm, welcoming smile that I looked pretty. We lined up according to our respective sections and we knew it was going to be a tight fit, but that was ok

There was a homey feel about the room. There were 17 tables with Thanksgiving-themed tablecloths with arrangements of pumpkins and gourds. Smells of the Thanksgiving meal filled the air. A fellow choir member noted to me that the smells were making her hungry. There were more than 100 people in attendance mostly women and children with a small number of men.

We launched into our signature opening, Siyahamba. The sounds of welcome continued with the lovely sounds created by us on Wanemo. Pocarekare Ana sounded so pretty in the dining room. One of this season’s new songs, Chiribim, introduced and performed beautifully by Leslie was a big hit with the children. The audience was having fun. There was such an excitement, particularly from the young people. But then again pretty early on, it became obvious that we had a fan club at this outreach. The wide smiles, clapping and singing along were priceless and very touching. You would not know the distress or the trauma that our audience have experienced, but only feel the joy of our audience—women, children, and a few men all in the moment.

During Down by the Riverside, we ran out into the audience to shake hands and there was such warmth I felt. Kudos to Dave and Marv for fine musical accompaniment throughout. Dave was going to perform the solo in James Taylor’s That Lonesome Road but couldn’t find his glasses. There was a mad dash to find his glasses and when it was apparent they wouldn’t turn up, Nancy stepped in with a lovely solo. Nancy and Gary partnered up for the Carole King classic, You’ve Got A Friend. Ruth pointed out that Give Us Hope was an anthem for our children because children are our future.

The outreach ended with a warm thank-you from the CEO, a generous man who expressed his appreciation for our visit and we were greeted with warm, enthusiastic applause. We made our way downstairs to get our coats and spoke to the director before we left. It was her third Thanksgiving party that day and her energy and her passion for the mission of empowerment is undeniable. We left the outreach on an absolute high.

 

There would be no photos of this outreach. But I know this was one of the best outreach concerts I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of. I also know the images are indelible in the minds of all who took part—exuberant souls and those wonderful, smiling children. This is what Thanksgiving is all about—the ability to experience joy in the moment, the triumph of spirit and true gratitude against all odds.

-Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert

At the Xavier Mission

It was our first time singing at Xavier Mission. It was also my first time seeing a soup kitchen. To be honest, I had prepared myself for a slightly shabby place and was quite impressed by how pretty the soup kitchen hall was. It had a beautiful closed cloister style architecture going for it (ok, I probably got that all wrong) and could seat more than 200 people. Later Soprano Evelyn, who had organized today’s outreach, told me that the soup kitchen hall also served as her son’s school cafeteria. It was all run by the Church of St Francis Xavier.

We started our vocal warm ups in a little lobby at the entrance of the hall and then went on stage to perform. There was more than a 100 people seated, all busy working their way through their meal, not really noticing us. I had the disconcerting feeling that they had big problems to worry about and had no time for a bunch of people who sang for a bit and went back to their cushy lives. But then people started forming a line to be served right in front of us. As each of them passed by, our singing made them turn to us and smile. There were claps of encouragement, in different parts of the hall, from people who had finished eating.

We debuted Charlie Chaplin's Smile and we sounded beautiful. I was concentrating on my notation to make sure I got the part down perfectly and then I looked up and saw a man, sitting right in front, in tears. It was difficult not to get choked up myself watching him so I had to stop singing and look away before I could resume. Luckily there were enough and more sopranos ! Alto Carrie, says that he came up to her after the concert and told her he enjoyed the show and thanked us all for coming with a "Bless you”. And that makes singing with Peace of Heart, the joy that it is.

-Peace of Heart Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert

At The Park Avenue Armory ,Women's Shelter

One of the shelter residents was outside having a smoke when I arrived. I told her we were singing at 7:00 and invited her to come. “Is this a religious choir?” she asked. I said no. “That’s good!” she said.

Then down the wet (from the rain) steps to the basement, where I found everyone else.  We showed our picture IDs to the guard, got our security stickers, and took the elevator to the fourth floor. There we warmed up in a spacious room with high ceilings while the residents ate in the dining room next door.  At 7:10, they came into the room we were in to sit at round tables and along the back and side. We began with Siyahamba – what else? – and I looked around for my resident but didn’t see her.  A few people were recording us on their phones, and a few were swaying to the rhythm, when I saw her walk in, just as we got to “We are marching in the light of God.” I was afraid she would leave.  She didn’t.

We ran the gamut, from peppy, rhythmic songs to contemplative ones, like Bright Morning Star.  This was a receptive, appreciative audience.  They liked it when individual choir members stepped forward, introduced themselves by name, and gave a little background about the next song. They even said hello back, 12-step program style. They liked Rene’s demonstration of his instruments – his guitar-ukulele hybrid, which he explained was called a guitalele, and his plain ukulele. And when we did Paz y Libertad, someone shouted something to him in Spanish and he answered in Spanish (sorry I can’t translate, but I heard the word Mexico).  They loved the way we stepped out of our group formation to stand among them for the three-part sing-along of Rock-a-My-Soul.  For the middle part—So high, So low, So wide—we did a pantomime, and they started to do the pantomime, too, as well as sing the part. “Nice!” someone shouted when it was over.

It’s wonderful when we see that the audience is involved, no matter on what level. The woman I saw smoking outside didn’t sing during any of the singalongs, but she turned to the pages in the handout and followed the words.  And while most of the women were enthusiastic and responsive when we went into the audience to “shake hands around the world” as part of Down by the Riverside, a woman I approached in back didn’t move or smile when I offered her my hand. I was about to retreat when she tentatively extended hand, and we brushed fingers.

We had done eight numbers and just started to wrap up by telling them that our last one would be Let There Be Peace On Earth, when a woman looked at the singalong handouts we had placed on every table and said, “What about If I Had a Hammer?” So we did that one, too—with Marv on guitar—then closed with Let There Be Peace  “Amen,” someone said when we finished, and another said “That was very sweet.”

We will probably never know each woman’s individual story and how she came to be at the armory shelter.  But we do know that we made a difference to them tonight.

-Peace of Heart Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert.

At The Park Slope Women’s Shelter

According to CAMBA’s website, the Park Slope Women’s Shelter “enables mentally-ill and often substance-abusing women to stabilize their condition and move toward permanent and/or supported housing.” They’re located in the Park Slope Armory.  We entered through double doors so massive they wouldn’t have been out of place in a medieval castle, then mounted an imposing symmetrical staircase to our warm-up room.  The acoustics there were great; Rene said he could record in it.The acoustics weren’t as good in the large dining room we performed in, but that hardly mattered.  This was the most responsive adult group we have ever sung for, rivaling the YAI kids in their enthusiasm. Our first number was—you guessed it—Siyahamba.  One or two women caught on and sang it with us.  Others swayed in their seats, as they did for the next two numbers, also lively: Oseh Shalom and This Land is Your Land.  Then an abrupt mood change with Oy Es Dia De Placer, and the room became more peaceful.

Little did Larry know when he introduced Wanemo that there was a native Nigerian in the audience.

“What language is it in?” she asked.

“Igbo,” Deb said.

“OK,” the woman said.  “Let’s see.”

We told her that it was only one word, and we would ask her at the end of the song whether it sounded right.  When we finished, we received her verdict: “That was correct.”

We followed Imagine and Peace Salaam Shalom with Rock-a My Soul, with Rene saying, “Let’s put you to work now,” and dividing them into three groups.  They LOVED it and truly rocked that hall, sounding as good as, if not better than, we did. Wilfred gave a touching introduction to Waltz of the Flowers that ended in early holiday greetings and wishes for a good year. He got a round of applause. Then I introduced Give Us Hope, telling them it was written after 9/11 with the message that what children needed most was hope.  “Amen,” a woman in the back called out.

By far the most amazing song of the evening was Aquarius.  Wilfred brought the house down with his adlib in the Let The Sun Shine In part.  There was one woman in the first row who had been paying attention during the entire concert, but with a long and serious face.  Until Wilfred’s “business,” as Rene called it.  All at once she was smiling widely, eyes shining.

We closed with Let There Be Peace On Earth, and when we took a bow, we got a standing ovation.

As a fitting end to the evening, ten or twelve of us, Rene included, took the F train back toward Manhattan, and, in high spirits, we honored the subway car with a reprise of Siyahamba.

 

- Peace of Heart Choir Singer

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn’t take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you’ll join us at a future concert.

At Kings Hotel, a Hurricane Sandy Shelter

Performing at a Hurricane Sandy shelter. Several weeks ago, just as we were all re-emerging from our homes after the Superstorm Sandy, one of the earliest members of the Peace of Heart Choir suggested that an additional outreach performance should be added in support of the hurricane recovery effort. Our schedule was already more than full, but the idea was so wonderfully in concert with our original Choir mission post-9/11 that it was clearly worth pursuing. Three weeks, and about two dozen phone calls later, after an attempt to sing at the Park Slope Armory storm shelter was foiled by its closure, we gathered at the Kings Hotel, deep in the heart of East New York, on a breezy Saturday afternoon, just two days after Thanksgiving.

The Kings Hotel sits on a lonely industrial stretch of Atlantic Avenue, deep in the heart of Brooklyn. An elevated portion of the avenue runs overhead down the middle of the street. It's a plain brick building, next to what looked like a recycling center for collected cans and bottles. Julia, a very polished blond volunteer at the shelter, greeted us in the lobby with her small dog.

We headed downstairs, through a maze of small rooms in the basement being used as social areas where people could sit, talk, play cards, and read. A dozen or more smokers congregated outside on the side of the building. The dining hall in the basement was a simple but decent-sized room. We cleared out the center of the room for the choir, so we were surrounded by chairs and tables on three sides.

During the early part of the warm-up, there were a few minutes of trepidation for Alto Pearl and Soprano Cheryl as they were the only people in their sections. But in the end, we had a full complement of about a dozen singers, with every part covered. We sang for perhaps 30 older folks. Clearly, they'd been through a lot the last few weeks and were tired. Many were wearing their coats. These were mostly residents from Belle Harbor Manor and one or two other assisted living facilities in the Rockaways, who'd been moved to the Kings Hotel when the Armory was closed.

We began with Siyahamba, which is undoubtedly one of the best opening numbers we've done. It welcomes the audience wonderfully, and catches their attention.René got the whole audience trained up to join us as we sang backup on Little Bitty Pretty One, which was fantastic. So glad we simplified the arrangement. It's a great sing-along opportunity, and Tenor Alex did a nice job on the solo. The audience was clearly appreciative, but fairly quietly throughout, applauding each song, but not getting overly excited. Still, as at most Peace of Heart Choir performances, there were a few people who were clearly more touched by the music than others. One older women, with no visible teeth, was singing along and smiling through most of the show.

Afterwards, she complimented Cheryl on her voice. She was there with her friend. She'd lost her walker, her clothes, and almost everything else in the flood, and didn't even know what was left behind to salvage at this point. But she was happy to be alive and well, and had truly enjoyed the concert. Another Kings Hotel resident, a middle-aged man wearing a beret and several layers of clothes, began singing and dancing along for a song or two. Before the show, he had been combing through his music for things he might join us on. Looked like he had a lot of Sinatra-era classics. He said he was performing with his group there on Sunday.

A black man with large glasses, who'd been sitting very quietly as we talked with others after the show, asked when we might see them again, and hoped that we could at least make it out to The Rockaways to sing for them again. At this point, I don't think they're sure if the facility they were living in will reopen, or when. But we'll check, and perhaps try to make the trek out there in a coming season.

After the performance we met Caron, a shelter volunteer who'd helped set up the show. She'd come straight from a bar mitzvah in Park Slope, but caught most of our performance. She was so happy we'd made it. Apparently when this group was at the Park Slope Armory they had a virtual parade of performers coming through. But few have made the trek to East New York. Overall, a lovely performance. We offered our sympathy, our music and the solace it can provide, and offered of ourselves.

- Peace of Heart Tenor

It has become a tradition for a member of POHC to do a post-concert write-up. It started when our Sign-up Coordinator began emailing her summaries to the other members in order to entice newer members to sign-up to sing at community concerts held early in the season. It didn't take long for Concert Write-ups to become greatly anticipated amongst our members, so we share them here in hopes that you'll join us at a future concert.