Inclusive Twin Cities Women's Choir Creates Music, Community

by Delma Francis

The temperature hovers around -5 at 7 p.m. on a recent Wednesday night. The streets in the area of 39th and Chicago in South Minneapolis are deserted — until you reach Calvary Lutheran Church. There the lot is full, and cars spill out onto the street. Women hurry, with purpose, into a basement room — where they leave their cares behind for the next two hours. 

"One and a two and a here we go." With conductor Mary Bussman's exuberant direction, the Twin Cities Women's Choir launches into song. Formed by Bussman in 1997, the 140-member choir may be one of the Twin Cities' best-kept secrets. (You can get in on it Saturday night, when the choir performs in St. Paul).

Their musical excellence is astounding, especially considering no one has to audition to join. The name of the game here is inclusion.

"It's in our mission statement," said Bussman. "We're open to all women." And what if someone comes in with a voice like nails on a chalkboard? "I'd just say, 'Honey, you need some lessons. When you can carry a tune, come back,' " Bussman said with a grin. 

Harmonies are deep, rich
But it's obvious these women all have talent and a love for music. As they launch into a rousing version of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," the harmonies are deep and rich, like a luscious chocolate layer cake. 

"This is a close community of women," said Pat Teiken, executive director. Though they represent a variety of demographics — they're ages 20s to late 60s, straight and gay, well-to-do and struggling, native daughters and immigrants — they are one with the music.

Kari Malek, a stay-at-home mom with an MBA in marketing, moved to the Twin Cities 2½ years ago and was having a difficult time finding her niche. As a mother of two small children, she joined some moms' groups, but still felt unfulfilled. "The tie that bound us was that we are mothers," said Malek, 38, of South Minneapolis. "That is not my only identity. I was missing the 'me' part." Malek, a 2nd alto, found it in the choir a year and a half ago. 

'Something bigger than yourself'
"When all the parts come together and you're making this beautiful sound, it's wonderful. You're part of something bigger than yourself."

And there are events that almost defy description. "One of our members, Jeanne Stodola, is a nun. When she celebrated her (50-year) Jubilee, we formed a circle around her and sang to her," Malek said. "The magic, energy and love were palpable. It was so powerful and overwhelming."

But there's a fair share of rehearsal levity, too, as Sue Harris recounts. "During sectional rehearsals we think up jokes to play on Mary [Bussman]. "We were singing this really serious song," when Bussman did a double-take, realizing all the singers had blackened one of their front teeth. 

And then there was the line in the spiritual, "Elijah Rock," that refers to the bosom of Abraham. As the women sang that line, they pelted Bussman with bras. "Choir is better than therapy," said Harris, 55, an assistant Washington County attorney. "With budget cuts at work and people worried about their jobs, it's a heavy burden for me. But when I get into that choir room with all these beautiful women, it's like I don't have a care in the world." 

Erica Mauter, 30, of Eden Prairie, is in her third year with the choir. "I went to a concert with a friend and was blown away," said the engineer at a pharmaceutical manufacturer who sings 2nd alto. "I went online to find out more and when I saw it was non-auditioned, I said, 'No way!' " 

Choir as community
Mauter, a transplant from Detroit, always thought the Twin Cities would be just a stopping-off place and that she'd eventually move to the West Coast. "Now I feel grounded. I have a community, something that would make me stay here," she said. 

"I'm quite sure I'm the oldest [member]," said Jeanne Stodola, 69, of the Sisters of St. Joseph. A five-year member, Stodola, a 2nd soprano, jokes the choir "has kept me out of a lot of trouble." 

A retired elementary-school music teacher from St. Paul, Stodola finds the choir's collaboration with children's groups and other choirs and arts organizations "very rewarding for me. And I just love the idea of voices blending together, with your body as the instrument. Our rehearsals are very joyful. On cold nights when I drive across the great divide to Minneapolis when I just want to hibernate, I return home so much more alive. I never regret it."

The Twin Cities Women's Choir will present "Let the Good Times Roll" in concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Central Presbyterian Church, 500 Cedar St., St. Paul. Special guests, the Brass Messengers. Tickets, available at the door, are $20 or $17 for seniors and students.