Editor’s note: The author of this story is a member of the Wild Asheville Community Chorus.
Local vocalist Judith Sides describes her first experience attending a concert of the Wild Asheville Community Chorus as “jolly, approachable and unfettered.” Sides had long sung in other area choirs but saw WACC’s offering as unique.
Suzannah Park and Nathan Morrison started the chorus in 2008 in a West Asheville living room. What began with 10 friends has grown, over the decade, to an official registration of 102 singers. The total size of the group usually looks more like 70-90, says Park, who now leads the chorus on her own. Upcoming WACC performances take place Thursday, Nov. 15; Saturday, Nov. 17; and Sunday, Nov. 18, at Black Mountain and Asheville locations.
The original name of the group was the West Asheville Community Chorus, but “West” was swapped out after rehearsals shifted downtown and singers began coming from farther away, such as Black Mountain, Arden and Hendersonville. “Wild” was a good fit for the collective.
Connection is at the heart of all that goes on at WACC. “When you sing with a big group of people, your heartbeat syncs up; it’s harder to feel separate,” says Park, who grew up singing and performing Appalachian, British Isles and old-time songs with her family. “The community and the singing, they do go together. They’re integral to the sound.”
The camaraderie extends beyond the chorus: “I do think there’s a real positive kind of connection with the audience during the performances,” says WACC singer Cathy Holt. “They’re laughing, they’re engaged, they’re up on their feet in some cases.”
WACC is nondenominational and performs both sacred and secular songs. The group celebrates community singing in a range of languages and styles — from American shape-note songs to music from South Africa, the Republic of Georgia and the Balkans. “The musical repertoire that I share with WACC is based on the relationships that I have with people who I’ve learned these songs from,” notes Park, who has traveled widely as a vocalist and teaching artist. “I have yet to teach any WACC songs that are outside of my personal connection.”
Among the unique aspects of WACC are that auditions and sight-reading skills are not required. Though the music is in several different languages and can be complex, Park teaches mostly by ear. “It just makes it more accessible,” says singer Madeline Wadley. “You don’t have to have any sort of musical background to take part in it and enjoy it.”
She continues, “So many choirs are well-rehearsed and polished. I think that Suzannah’s emphasis on it just being a fun experience for the joy of the music … that’s why people keep coming back.”
“There are no wrong notes, only variations,” Park reminds singers during rehearsal. This has become one of the choir’s mottos. Another is “sing your heart out.” And, counterintuitive as it may seem, the encouragement to dare to be wrong adds to the musical harmony of the group.
Holt, who has been singing with WACC for more than five years, believes Park’s charisma is key to the group’s powerful sound. “Her ability to get everybody to relax and feel comfortable and sing without self-consciousness and not worry too much about right notes — I think that’s just amazing.”
One thing that is strongly encouraged — and will become mandatory for singers starting in 2019 — is carpooling to and from rehearsal. “If you can’t actively carpool for this, you have to explain and promise and show us how you’re carpooling somewhere else in your week,” says Park, who is also program director for Community Roots, an Asheville-based nonprofit dedicated to helping communities protect the planet and dismantle corporate rule. Park sees 80 cars driving each week to and from rehearsal as unconscionable from an environmental standpoint.
The car-pooling directive is also, she says, a way to poke fun at the individualistic nature of American culture. “Why not spend a small amount of your life in company with other humans?” Park challenges singers.
Wadley thinks car pooling forces singers to create community. “It’s easy to just come in and sing and then leave, and you don’t realy have to interact with anyone else other than who’s sitting right next to you,” she says. “This way, you’re having to actually interact with people. And even if that’s something that takes you out of your comfort zone, I think it’s an important aspect of this specific choir.”
In addition to blending voices and encouraging ride shares, WACC fosters community through potluck dinners and an end-of-season Georgian-style toasting feast called a “supra.” Members share food from the countries represented in that season’s repertoire and offer personal reflections, poetry and song.
Whenever someone is toasting, the meal stops. “The range is just incredible,” says Park, “when you create the container for people to share themselves.”
WHAT: Wild Asheville Community Chorus, suzannahpark.com
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church, 424 W. State St., Black Mountain
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 17, 7 p.m., location TBA, see website for details
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 18, 4 p.m. at Kenilworth Presbyterian Church, 123 Kenilworth Road. All concerts are by $5-$10 sliding-scale donation at the door. Kids are admitted for free.