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Director drives 500 miles to watch her choir grow
by Laura Vanderkam for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 26, 2003

Susan Medley, director of the Central City Chorus (CCC), has a long commute to rehearsals on Thursday nights. Five hundred miles to be exact.

Six months after her day job at Carnegie Hall was eliminated, Medley decided to move home to Ohio to save money. But she and assistant director Alex Gregory still drive across Pennsylvania and New Jersey every Thursday to be at the Church of St. John the Baptist, on 31st street near Penn Station, on time for 7:30 rehearsals. "It's not so hard," Medley says. "In the morning, I'm all psyched to get in the car and come."

CCC, like many choirs, has arrived at a critical moment in its history. When Medley became the director three years ago, the choir had dwindled to about 15 souls. Membership has grown every year since, and now stands at 60 voices. The choir's Board of Directors was thrilled with this rapid expansion, but no one knew quite how to direct it. Medley became convinced of the importance of strategic planning through her involvement in Chorus America. So starting during Spring 2003 under the direction of assistant director Gregory, and continuing during Medley's sudden sabbatical this past summer, the board devised a strategic plan to achieve their ambitious vision: launching this entirely amateur group into the top tier of volunteer New York City choruses in the next few years. The plan has many concrete steps that any choir can implement. And this new focus on quality has excited the membership so much that after rehearsal, says Medley, "I can never go to sleep right away."

The first goal in Central City Chorus's strategic plan is to improve the musicianship of the chorus. "We don't want to lose what type of chorus we are -- that we're made up of volunteers from all walks of life," says Medley. "But we do want to do this at the top level we can achieve." In the past, auditions were informal; new recruits sang a few scales for the director at the first rehearsal break. This year, all returning and new members auditioned formally at a scheduled time before the first rehearsal. Over the next few years, Medley plans to increase the requirements for new members, and increase the choir's overall quality as a result. New musical section leaders keep all director's notes current and attendance leaders keep members accountable for rehearsals.

The second goal is to increase the choir's reputation and audience in the New York City area. One of CCC's biggest steps toward this is to commission new music. The choir secured funding to commission a work for harp and chorus by New York composer James Bassi. CCC will perform the work's world premiere in Spring 2004. In the past, CCC's audience has been made up primarily of members' friends and families. This year an Audience Development committee is charged with finding new people to fill the Church of St. John the Baptist's pews, and to increase the average attendance per concert by 20% each year.

CCC has also created a long-term financial plan, a new organizational structure to promote the musical goals of the choir and hopes, through these quality improvement initiatives, to nurture a sense of community and responsibility within the chorus. Many members already gather at the Molly Wee Pub at 30th and 8th after rehearsals -- and intrigued the waitresses so much that they came to last year's concert. Other events, such as a carol-sing at a local hospice and singing for church masses, help to make this such a warm-hearted group that Medley and Gregory take turns driving and sleeping every week on their way to the east coast. They make sure to be there in time for everyone's favorite part of warm-up: a conga-line style shoulder-rub.

"You guys are worth it," Medley says of the choir, before sleeping at a friend's house and driving the 400 miles home the next day.

Central City Chorus will perform its December concert, "Jubilate Deo," on Sunday, December 7 at 7:30 PM at the Church of St. John the Baptist, 210 West 31st Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues). Tickets are $20 at the door, $15 for students/seniors. For more information, call 212-330-7293 or e-mail centralcitychorus@hotmail.com.

Laura Vanderkam is a New York City-based freelance writer. She reports and writes on a variety of topics including education, college life, workforce politics, current events and women's issues. This is her first article for Vocal Area Network.

Content Contact: Laura Vanderkam.
Revision Date: November 26, 2003.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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