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New York City Labor Chorus gets better with age

Mostly senior-age members take singing to a higher level under a new leader, but it's getting harder to find labor activists, much less ones who can carry a tune.

December 19, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

Vogel was one of about 40 people who showed up for the chorus' first audition in September 1991. Nobody was turned away. That was the norm for years, pushing the chorus membership to about 75. Now, between the lack of open spots and the more discriminating selection process, it's not as easy to get in even though there are far fewer candidates trying out.

This year, five of the 15 aspiring singers made the cut, which presents Ballard with one of the hardest parts of her job: rejecting people.

"It's a really horrible phone conversation, and because they're older than me, it's like I'm breaking a grandmother's heart," said Ballard, who teaches music at New York's so-called "Fame" school — the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School — in addition to conducting the chorus.

She and the accompanist, keyboardist Dennis Nelson, are the only paid members of the chorus, which depends on donations, money raised through CD sales and performances, and the singers' own money to cover travel and other expenses.

Ballard, who grew up in Kentucky listening to pop and country-western music, had to get used to bossing around her elders after she was hired as the new conductor following the death of its longtime leader, Geoffrey Fairweather.

"My grandmother is 90, and I can't imagine having to get onto her about something she's not doing correctly," said Ballard, who during a recent rehearsal reminded singers to raise their hands if they had questions, and to keep quiet as she sang for them lines that needed work.

"I know I sound like a schoolteacher, but I am," Ballard said unapologetically. "Any time you're going to come together and sing, you should sing well. Or else, why sing?"

The approach has paid off, say chorus members.

"She's taken us to a level we've never been before," said Denise Jones, 49, one of the youngest singers.

For all their differences — the singers range in age from about 40 to 80-plus and are a potpourri of races and ethnic backgrounds — they share an upbringing that exposed them from childhood to music, activism or both.

Ricky Eisenberg, 69, spent decades scaling New York's high-rises, installing sheetrock, laying floors and, on occasion, watching colleagues fall to their deaths or get hit by tumbling metal beams or concrete. Eisenberg's grandfather was an activist in unions; his grandfather's brother died on a picket line after being hit in the head with a tire iron by someone trying to break up a strike.

"Construction is a dangerous job, but it's better than it used to be," said Eisenberg, who joined the chorus 18 years ago.

"When you come in after a day's work and you're really beat and worn out, and maybe a little depressed, and you get together and sing … everything feels a lot better," said Eisenberg, who worries that today's economic ills don't leave younger workers time for such things as they take on second jobs or freelance to make ends meet.

"I think the struggle just to live has gotten rougher than it used to be," he said. "Even if we had less money in the '50s, we had more job security."

Jones, who also sings with the AllStarz James Brown Tribute Band and who has sung background for Gladys Knight, joined the chorus 19 years ago. Now, Jones is a regular soloist. When she belted out "Rockin' Solidarity" at a recent fundraising event, the crowd that had been sipping fine wine and bidding on objets d'art fell silent and watched in fascination as Jones and the chorus — including one singer in a wheelchair, another leaning on a walker and several with canes — drowned out their cocktail chatter.

Capturing that sound requires more than voices. Ballard and Jones said the placement of different singers, whose voices range from shower-quality to professionally trained, is key to making the finished product work. So is the energy.

"It's less about how you sound and more about how you're trying to get your message across," said Jones, who works for the city. "There are some who don't sing as well as others, but we encourage everyone. The chorus is more than just a chorus — it's a family."

Just how long the songs will go on is anyone's guess. One person who isn't worried is Ballard, who credits Occupy Wall Street with raising awareness of labor issues. Younger people used to walk past the chorus during its public performances in places like Central Park or skyscraper lobbies.

"Very few young people would stop and listen to us, but now they do," said Ballard, who's confident that interest will spur a new generation to sing. "They'll be the next people who carry the torch."

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