They are doctors, teachers, bus drivers and homemakers — some married, some single, some old, some young. They are diverse, but they are unified — and they sing in harmony. They are Womansong, Asheville’s oldest and largest women’s community chorus.
The group was established in 1986 by Linda Metzner, a local teacher and composer, as a place for women to support each other through song. Debbie Nordeen, the group’s current director, asserts that the mission is still the same.
“The chorus is dedicated to providing a place for women’s emotional, creative and spiritual nourishment, healing and support; celebrating the unity, diversity and empowerment of women through musical expression; [and] serving the community and promoting social change,” she says.
Seems like a tall order for a volunteer group that’s never held auditions and accepts all women ages 16 and up who can carry a tune. But Nordeen and long-time member Jayne Caldwell testify to the group’s power.
“I have been a member for 15 years,” Caldwell boasts. “I have performed on so many levels, from playing musical instruments to tap-dancing. … No other theater in town can do this for me, as well as give me the acceptance and support I get from Womansong.”
But how does the group manage to balance its supportive environment with the talent and hard work that must accompany professional-level performances? Nordeen admits that the group’s characteristic openness also presents certain challenges.
“One of the joys of Womansong is that those who would never have the gumption to audition for a choir can have the fulfilling experience of singing,” she says. But she maintains that this openness does not mean a lack of musicianship. As Caldwell asserts, Nordeen demonstrates that she could “teach a rock to sing.” Because many of the women do not read music and some have never sung harmony before joining the chorus, Nordeen and Sue Ford, assistant director, find alternative methods of teaching music. Many of the singers learn by hearing, so they drill the music many times during rehearsals. Like most choruses, they also work on vocal blend, phrasing, intonation, and other aspects of music that lead to a pleasing choral sound.
However, Nordeen emphasizes that music is not the group’s sole focus. “We are not professional singers … we do this for love,” she says, suggesting that Womansong is not merely a chorus, but rather a village of women joined together by love for the music, for each other, and for the community.
Womansong is a self-proclaimed microcosm of women. According to Nordeen, you can tell how diverse the group is just by looking at them. She explains that the women transcend their differences by singing, attesting that “there is nothing more unifying than song.” So, naturally, the unity lies in the songs, many of which come from the ethnic traditions represented by the women who sing them: Native American, Hebrew, Romanian, African and European traits can all be found in the group’s selections. Nordeen suggests that this is a celebration of differences, quoting lyrics from one of the group’s songs: “We’re all more the same than we are different.”
But, if Womansong is the microcosm it claims, there can’t always be harmony. Nordeen admits that conflicts occasionally arise, but says they are settled by the group’s governing board, the Wise Women Council, and handled with open, frank, and loving discussions.
In an effort to create social change, as their mission states, Womansong has formed the New Start Fund, which, Caldwell explains, “provides assistance for women who are in transition and making a new beginning.” All of their concerts are free, but donations are encouraged (proceeds benefit the chorus and the fund).
“Womansong’s efforts,” Caldwell states, “are founded in the common spirit of women working and singing together.”