A Chorus of Strangers Shares in the Fun
By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 26, 2007; Page WE31
It's sure not your granddaddy's singalong. If you expect to get entrapped in an endless version of "Row, row, row your boat" in three-part canon, think again.Late on a chilly Sunday afternoon, a bare music room in Bethesda reverberates as a heated chorus sings "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the 1961 hit that gained new life with the playground set when Disney put it into "The Lion King." Kai Elwood-Dieu, 7, and sister Maya, 5, of Bethesda sit near their parents, Holly and Martin, bouncing to the astonishing vocal percussion contributed by Dave Baumgartner, a member of the Laurel-based a cappella group Almost Recess. They sing along, joining in the communal harmony with their mom and dad and about 60 other song lovers. Almost Recess, which has been in residence this season at the Music Center at Strathmore, returns April 15 for an encore Family Sing program following last month's success.
The group had kids and adults bopping, swaying and harmonizing together for 90 minutes, including multi-vocal parts and rhythms of "The Way You Make Me Feel" from the Michael Jackson songbook.This Sunday a singalong with two performers from Nada Brahma plans to be a cross-cultural, multiethnic experience, one that might even include a dance step or two. "Anytime you get a group of strangers together singing," said Adam Brower, Almost Recess's song leader and tenor, "it's just great." And that's the point, said Betty Scott, who introduced family singalongs to Strathmore to bring together school-age kids, their parents, grandparents and anyone else who has a yen for singing and little opportunity to do so save for stray moments in the shower.
"You can't go wrong when you sing together," said Scott, an effervescent woman who taught vocal music in Prince George's County schools for 35 years before heading the Strathmore educational music programs for children and adults. "There's a certain innate joy in singing together. And I also think there's a bit of a performer in everybody, even if they don't want a solo spot, but they want that chance to sing and create music together." That certainly was the case with Zachary Frank, an eighth-grader from Alexandria, who enjoys singing with his synagogue's teen choir, HaZamir. "I sing alto and tenor," said Zachary, 13. "And I think it's really fun to see how other performers, professionals, do it." He was ready to get back to the singalong with his choir director, Elisheva Dienstfrey, to try out Almost Recess's show-stopping techniques, particularly Baumgartner's jaw-dropping skills. A Picasso of vocal percussion, Baumgartner can sound like drum kits, cymbals, congas and other banged instruments using only his voice.
"There's something unique about the communal singing experience that you don't have when you sing by yourself," observed Dienstfrey, who had brought along 15 eighth- through 12th-graders from the joint Agudas Achim and Beth El Hebrew synagogues' teen a cappella group. "You have a sense of joining together to communicate something in a way that you can't do on your own. Singing in groups gives us that opportunity to come together as a community for a common cause." Tim Gregory of Nada Brahma agreed. "You're feeling a moment of connectedness," he said about communal singing, particularly when it brings together children and adults. On Sunday, Gregory plans on taking kids and parents on a vocal trip around the world. "We'll definitely do some native American chants, some that are typically used during round dances or social dances," he said. "We'll also do community songs from Africa, for sure, because I spend a lot of time in East Africa, Kenya. Then we'll probably do something in Swahili and something from Zimbabwe in the Shona language." Not knowing the words, or even the language they'll be sung in, Gregory said, won't be a problem. He and his partner, Tracey Eldridge, will have song sheets and translations. He also plans to teach wordless melodies and harmonies -- what he calls vocables -- not unlike the syllables in the chorus of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
"I want people to come and learn to harmonize with each other," said program creator Scott.And that's exactly what three generations of the Waugh family were enjoying with Almost Recess. From Rockville grandfather Doug Waugh, 72, to granddaughter Lauren, 8, the whole family discovered new voices and new ways to harmonize. Scott added: "I want people to really get that joy of creating harmony in the singing. A lot of people don't normally have an opportunity to do that nowadays." Dienstfrey agreed: "Something you have with singing that you don't necessarily have with other activities is that sense that you can come up with harmonies and things that you can make what you're doing even more beautiful."Julianna Solomon, an 8-year-old second-grader from Potomac, found her own beauty. In her quiet voice she said, simply, "When I sing it makes me happy and it's a lot of fun."
FAMILY SING SERIES Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Tim Gregory and Tracey Eldridge of Nada Brahma, Sunday; Almost Recess, April 15. 4-5:30. $5 per person. Call for reservations: 301-581-5100.