People need music in their lives, Tony Lechner will tell you, and sometimes listening just isn't enough.
Rock Voices, a community rock chorus that has enjoyed tremendous success in Northampton, Massachusetts, Brattleboro, Vermont and West Hartford, Connecticut over the last five years, is coming to the Capital Region.
Creator Tony Lechner came up with the idea of getting large groups of average people together to sing rock n' roll, and he's hoping the concept will take root in the Capital Region. On Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., at the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Delmar, aspiring vocalists are invited to join forces and help launch a local choir. It isn't an audition. No experience is necessary.
"I have no idea how many people will show up," said Lechner, a middle school and high school music teacher in the Northampton area for 17 years before retiring five years ago to concentrate on Rock Voices. "I ran an ad in the newspaper five years ago in Northampton and 50 people showed up. It was so successful we started groups in West Hartford and Brattleboro. Along with the Albany group, we're also starting a choir in Keene, New Hampshire. It's become so popular I can't control it."
While Lechner runs the Northampton and Brattleboro groups, he has hired other individuals to direct the West Hartford and Keene choruses. In Albany, Nathan Altimari will be the man in charge. The two men met back in 1996 when Altimari was a student at UMASS-Amherst and Lechner was earning his masters in jazz composition. Both men have performed with a cappella groups.
"We've collaborated before on a cappella performances, and we've been talking about doing something like this when he was ready to expand," said Altimari, who moved to the Capital Region nine years ago and works for White Lake Music and Post, a recording studio in Albany. "We're both married and raising families and my schedule never allowed for it. He would ask me almost yearly, and now my schedule allows it."
Altimari is hopeful of attracting at least 25 to 30 people on Tuesday night.
"I'm a little bit nervous because this is something of an unknown," he said. "We'll see what happens. What's nice about our group is that we have zero audition requirements. We welcome everybody, even people who perceive themselves as not being good enough. I'm optimistic we'll have a pretty good turnout. Tony's had a great response from people in Northampton, Brattleboro and West Hartford."
Lechner has nearly 200 people who participate in his Northampton group. West Hartford has a group of around 75 singers and Brattleboro numbers around 50.
"Typically we get together once a week for 12 weeks and then perform a few concerts," said Lechner. "In Northampton the group is so large we're having trouble finding a stage big enough for us. We've been doing multiple concerts and giving people turns to perform. We sold out the Academy of Music at UMASS, which has 800 seats, a couple of times."
Julie Smith, who lives in Hadley, across the Connecticut River from Northampton, was one of Lechner's first pupils.
"I was looking for a choir to join, and I didn't want to sing any gospels, folk or other music," she said. "I wanted to do rock n' roll. I saw this tiny add in the newspaper and I went without a moment of hesitation. It turned out to be very easy. It was perfect for me."
It was Smith's first foray into performing in any kind of music group.
"You can take risks if you want to, or you can kind of blend in with the crowd," said Smith, 56. "In both cases, you have support of the entire group. It's a great way to bring people together, and we feel like we're healing ourselves and others through the music."
Lechner says he has encountered very few people who have no singing talent at all.
"I can get the group sounding pretty good that first night, and that's important because if people think they don't sound good they probably won't come back," said Lechner. "A lot of people come in thinking they're not going to be able to do this or that. Once they start singing it's amazing. People are never as bad as they think they are, and only rarely do I find someone who has a pitch issue. I work with them. I do my best. If you don't sound that good, then you blend in. No one will hear you."
People who become members do have costs. If after the first night you like what you experienced, you take home a Rock Voices folder filled with various songs and pay a $50 fee. The entire spring season just beginning — 12 weeks — has a total fee of $260.
"We looked at the costs and broke it down, and it's very comparable to any kind of group lesson, maybe dance lessons or art lessons," said Lechner. "It was something like $17 a lesson. People love it because it's another night out, you make new friends, get reunited with old friends. I've seen this wonderful community develop in front of my eyes over the last five years. People tell me how their therapists are recommending this to other patients. For a lot of these people, it is life-changing."