by Elaine Null
I was a charter member of the Hillsdale Arts Chorale, starting with my audition with Howard Rizner in the Hillsdale High School choir room, where he taught and conducted the high school choirs for 20 years. I found myself there after Doug and Sandy Spike, co-founders of the Arts Chorale, told me about the upcoming auditions for a new choral group that was being formed, and they thought I should join. I'd been singing for many years in school and at churches, as well as weddings and funerals. Doug had played organ accompaniment for me on a few occasions and felt that my voice would be a good fit for this new group.
I passed the audition and was assigned a place in the alto section of the choir in the fall of 1973. I'd always thought of myself as a soprano, but this was a good fit for my voice. I believe there were 26 of us in that first choir, and rehearsals were held in the Hillsdale High School Choir Room. Many in the group had sung for Howard in school, so they were familiar with his conducting and his expectations. It was a whole new experience for me, and one that I'll treasure as long as I live. We also had access to the Hillsdale High School music library that was located in Howard's office. It was a real benefit to utilize that music resource, and it limited our expenses in purchasing music to just a few pieces that year.
The Chorale met for regular rehearsals one night per week for about 2.5 hours, starting with taking attendance and moving right into warm-ups. Everyone was expected to be at rehearsal on time with their music and a #2 pencil (with an eraser) to mark the music with breath marks, emphasize diction and ending consonants, as well as dynamic markings and tempos. That pencil became a constant companion as I would mark my music in great detail to meet the demands that Howard made in rehearsals, leading up to a performance that met his expectations.
Our first concert was held at the Sauk Theater in Jonesville, and since we didn't have uniform dresses, he gave his opinion on what should be worn and the ladies of the Chorale were asked to bring in their chosen dresses to see if they met with his approval. The first concert was in the spring of 1974, and I was pregnant with our second child. That fact limited my choice of attire to a floor length solid color maternity dress, which seemed to take him by surprise. "You're going to wear that?" he asked. "Yes," I replied. "It's the only formal maternity dress that I have." He relented and said it would be acceptable. I don't think he'd made the connection of my being visibly pregnant at rehearsals and my still being pregnant for the concert!
Over the years, we had so many wonderful singing experiences. I had the privilege of studying voice in private lessons at Howard's home - quite often on Monday mornings, before the regular Arts Chorale rehearsals on Monday evenings. My warmups and workouts were usually an indication of what rehearsal that night would be like for the Chorale. I always joked that he tried out his plans for the Chorale's evening rehearsal on me during my lessons. That "one on one" time with Howard was a treasure, and he became familiar with my wit and sense of humor. As an example, on one of our Chorale trips to sing at the Hope Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, one of the pieces on our program was "Deep Peace" by John Rutter. Howard was a real stickler when it came to diction, and this song was especially challenging because the "p" at the end of 'Deep' was followed immediately with the "P" at the beginning of the word 'Peace'. He would rant as we rehearsed that he wanted to hear both "P's", and it was a real challenge to meet his expectations of being able to hear all the "p's" throughout the song. When the day came and we arrived in Holland at the church ready to rehearse for our performance, I placed a small can of peas on his music stand and told him we had all the "peas." It lightened the mood and the performance went very well, with every "p" in its proper place - and I got away with it because of our special one-on-one time in those private voice lessons.
My time in the Arts Chorale included serving in various positions on the Board of Directors. I spent a lot of time doing publicity for our concerts. I submitted radio "spots" for broadcast on radio station WCSR and wrote articles describing our concert programs for the Hillsdale Daily News, as well as placing display ads in the paper for each concert. Janet Lee, Lifestyles editor for the Daily News, was my contact there, and she was a big supporter of the Arts Chorale. She included my articles in her space in the newspaper and she attended all the concerts. Then she would write and publish a review during the week following each concert.
Over the years, it was necessary to change venues for rehearsals. After leaving Hillsdale High School, rehearsals and the Arts Chorale music library moved to the Hillsdale Presbyterian Church, which resulted in an entirely different sounding atmosphere in which to rehearse. After a few years, another move was made and the Chorale was rehearsing in St. Paul's Lutheran Church. Of course, performances were also held in several other churches, as well as Davis Auditorium, and at Hillsdale College.
An indispensable and very important component of the Hillsdale Arts Chorale was the support given by the Friends of the Arts Chorale, a group of "friends" who shared their time and talents in assisting with season ticket sales and providing refreshments for after the concert receptions.
The Arts Chorale began selling subscription season tickets to their concerts early in their history. Usually a concert season included four concerts, with the final concert of the season being a Pops Concert with contemporary music on the program, oftentimes with guest performers, along with solos by Chorale members, and an Ice Cream Social to go along with the music. It was great fun, and really brought out a lot of personality from the Chorale membership. After the first few years of the Ice Cream Social Pops Concerts, a Pops Dinner Concert was added to the mix, with a formal dinner held at Hillsdale College on Saturday night that was blended with small groups and soloists performing, and then the Chorale ensemble singing to finish out the evening. The next day would find the Chorale in the Pops Concert Ice Cream Social mode. The weekend was a very popular addition to the Hillsdale Arts Chorale repertoire.
In 2005, I had to resign my place in the Hillsdale Arts Chorale after 32 years. I was experiencing vocal difficulties and on further medical examination, found that I had scar tissue on my vocal cords, a result of vocal nodes that had ruptured. It was the biggest disappointment I'd ever had to face. Singing would no longer be a part of my life, but I'm still able to enjoy the incredible music of the Hillsdale Arts Chorale from the audience.