Striking a Communal Chord

For the Syracuse Community Choir, "diversity" is more than a PR buzzword. It is the core value that resonates within each singer.

By Nina Elias

Syracuse Community Choir

A man carefully enters the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society Church and makes his way to the piano as singing commences. He sits down and places his fingers gently on the keys. His eyes stay still and he faces forward, but he never looks down at his hands.

Karen Mihalyi, 58, who is running the show, announces the song, and sings a bar or two. The pianist, 55-year-old Sukosh Fearon, catches on with gospel fervor and assumes a sweet smile. He is not reading music or following Mihalyi’s song-leading gestures, but stays right in line. He’s had more than 20 years’ practice. Fearon is blind, and a well-respected member of the Syracuse Community Choir (SCC).

The SCC, led by Mihalyi, is an unconventional choir that expresses messages of peace and social justice through music. As it nears its 25th year, the choir remains dedicated to building a community of singers open to everyone. The SCC – which welcomes all races, genders, sexual orientations, and physical and mental abilities – is the contemporary example of a social model inspired by Mihalyi’s life-changing visit to Nicaragua in the 1980s. And while even the most diverse groups can’t always keep it politically correct, Mihalyi and her choir aim to bring feelings of peace, community, and cooperation through their music.

Fearon is a close friend of Mihalyi and a long-time choir member on temporary hiatus. But he clearly remains a part of Mihalyi’s extended family of singers and he revels in its oddity. “It’s a very unusual group of people you see together,” he said. “The people forgotten by society…everybody has value and is respected in the choir.”

Mihalyi gives Fearon a warm hug as tears well up in the eyes of choir members and friends – a pretty standard occurrence at SCC concerts. No one is immune to the emotional experience the choir brings with its Arabic lullabies, authentic civil-rights-movement pieces, and international protest songs.

“I wanted to create an organization that included everybody,” Mihalyi said. “The kind of world that I wanted, that I believed in, would be one where everyone was considered important. And doing it together is a statement both for people viewing us and for those going through the process.”

Verse 1: Inspiration Back in Mihalyi’s college days in the early 1970s, she couldn’t be found tanning on the quad. The then-social work and psychology major at Syracuse University was passionately involved in the Vietnam peace movement and women’s issues while taking the occasional music class. Fed up with United States policy, Mihalyi dropped out of SU and spent two years in Europe looking for a more peaceful, agreeable life. Still unsatisfied, Mihalyi finished her degree at SU and travelled to Nicaragua in 1984 on a three-week philanthropic trip, only to find herself in the middle of a revolution.

Nicaragua’s lower class had overthrown the Samoza dictatorship just five years prior to Mihalyi’s visit. By the time Mihalyi arrived, she was witnessing the beginning of a new lifestyle that was centered around universal art and expression.

“It was a pretty remarkable thing they were trying to do,” she said. “They used the arts to create a paradigm that said art should be available to all people; that everybody can participate in it.”

The Nicaraguans she met created a community with strong connections to each other and their country through increased literacy and education, which became a platform for expression. “It was an example of art supporting fundamental change,” she said. “People were learning to read and write…for the first time, they were owning land, growing food, creating art.”

With her eyes opened to the flaws of her homeland, Mihalyi returned to the U.S. three weeks later, inspired to mimic this Nicaraguan model. She finally found a way she could create social change and began her plan of attack.

Chorus: An Inclusive Community Mihalyi thought a community choir would be the ideal forum to apply her new ideas, but she knew it wouldn’t be easy. “Less and less people actually sing in their daily lives,” she said. “In many cultures, they sing all the time. [Americans today] don’t think they can sing. They think they should be listening rather than doing it. Singing as a community is [activity] rather than passivity.”

Mihalyi believes social change requires a collective effort, so she involves the choir in community outreach. The SCC collaborates with other organizations that share its values, such as the Onondaga Nation and the Syracuse Peace Council, in co-sponsored concerts, where they sing songs in tune with their co-sponsors’ missions.

Unlike many traditional choirs, the SCC holds no religious affiliation. Mihalyi’s personal beliefs are grounded in the Earth. And while she doesn’t represent the beliefs of the entire choir, evocations of Mother Earth and Brother Son shine through during their solstice concerts.

“I believe the things that we do are sacred,” she said. “That which has to do with the earth and peace and connection with the mysterious and the unknown; all that is found in every religion.”

Most importantly, Mihalyi knew her choir should be all-inclusive. And since its inception, Mihalyi’s group has evolved from a nearly all-white women’s choir to one that includes a blend of singers and non-singers alike from various backgrounds. A self-proclaimed “bad director, but fantastic songleader,” Mihalyi does not hold auditions for the choir. Rather, she accepts members based on love for peace and music – not musicianship, range, or even past experience.

Pam Walker, 53, came to the SCC 20 years ago without much musical knowledge. Now, the single mother sits in the audience at the May Memorial as her adopted daughter, Mary Rosa, 8, sings shyly on stage with two other girls about her age.

“I’m not real musical, but the peace and justice part attracted me,” Walker said as she watched Mary Rosa with pride. “The choir is my community. They spend time with my daughter, and now her community is the choir. “It takes a village to raise a child, and the choir is part of our village.”

Just a few rows in front of Walker sits Ronnie Paxson, 64, one of several mentally handicapped members in the SCC. He leads a fulfilling life – with the choir at the forefront – reveling in the unwavering support of his nine nieces and nephews and Mihalyi.

“Singing is a wonderful thing,” he said. “It makes me equal.”

Coda: A Growing Voice Mihalyi, who works as a therapist during the day, seemingly never tires in her endless pursuit of diversity. Despite representing different abilities, ethnicities, and backgrounds, Mihalyi still believes the choir could encompass even more of the community. Whether she is introducing a new Arabic song, building up the teen choir, or reaching out to yet another fringe group, her work is never done. She’s always looking forward.

Even the most open-minded and receptive groups hit snags as they progress into more inclusive territory. Lessons in appropriate language, like the dispute over the removal of the word “God” in a Native American song, and treatment of others, like how to assist Paxson and other disabled members, are a part of the choir’s rehearsal repertoire.

As a proud Republican, Fearon might not agree with everything the choir stands for, but he firmly believes in the social and musical community Mihalyi has created for him despite his disability. “Blind people aren’t marketable,” Fearon said. “But the choir is a place where no matter [your] aptitude, when you come in the door, you’re equal. It’s a reassuring place.”

With a new political administration comes a new movement for Mihalyi and her choir to take into account. “Art and music have always been needed in times of stress and change,” Mihalyi said. “Just look at the civil rights movement and the labor struggle.” She’s adjusting her choir’s repertoire to meet the pressures brought on by the credit crisis. As the choir feels the effects of the recession, Mihalyi thinks everyone will need to “organize and support each other in communities.”

But that’s nothing new for them.

The choir moves right along with the times, providing solace not only for itself, but for the unique community it has fostered through art and music.

“We’ll be singing for hope and to remind each other of our humanity,” she said. “The choir will be there.”