For 40 Twin Cities women, a DIY labor of musical love

By Sarah Peters, Arts Orbit
November 25, 2012
Originally published on Twin Cities Daily Planet

It is a Monday night at the Van Cleve Park Rec Center in Minneapolis. A group of about 25 women are gathered in one of the center’s brightly lit rooms and are chatting and laughing as they move folding chairs into a circle. At five past seven, one of these women speaks up to calm the chatter and launches into a series of announcements: recordings of the new song are on the website; please sign up to help with Give to the Max day; please vote online for the logo contest; remember to RSVP for the next gig on the Facebook work page, etc. Once the housekeeping is kept, another women pounds out a few notes on the piano and the group starts to sing. The weekly rehearsal of the Prairie Fire Lady Choir (PFLC) begins.

PFLC is a Twin Cities-based singing group open to ladies of all levels of musical skill. Some of us work with music professionally, some of us sing in bands, some of us have had formal choral training, and some of us don’t read music. I, for one, haven’t sung in a choir since seventh grade, and I only vaguely remember the basics of the treble clef.

When my friend Molly Balcom Raleigh—a PFLC founding member—convinced me to go to the choir’s auditions last spring, I was hesitant. Junior high was a long time ago, and there is a big difference between crooning along to the radio and singing on pitch a cappella. “This choir is for you!” she enthusiastically exclaimed. As it turns out, this choir is for me, and a lot of ladies like me: women who love to belt it out at karaoke or wail along to bluesy folk in the car, but who also desire the experience of singing with other people.

PFLC started in 2010 when a handful of creative, musically-inclined women started singing together. Soon they were invited to entertain passengers aboard the Mississippi Megalops cruise during the inaugural Northern Spark Festival. They polished up their songs, put on red and orange dresses, sang their hearts out, charmed the audience, and went on to book several gigs that summer and fall. In the winter of 2011 the group of core volunteers who steer the choir’s consensus decision-making process opted to hold open auditions. When rehearsals started in April of this year the group tripled in size.

As we come to the close of our second season, we have over 40 active members. By day (and night) we work as stay-at-home moms, scientists, health-care providers, teachers, artists, researchers, social workers, graphic designers, academics, writers, program administrators, therapists, and servers. We gather once a week to rehearse a repertoire of tunes that includes original songs and covers of pop music arranged for singers with tenor voices up to high soprano.

We choose these songs by voting. Any choir member can pitch any song—love ballad, sea shanty, 80s rock hit, choral classic, whatever suits her fancy. After listening to each song and a plea for its inclusion, the group employs an efficient post-it note electoral system to rank the choices. Whoever pitches a winning song becomes the ”song champion” and is responsible for finding or making an arrangement and for providing an artistic vision for how the music should sound when sung by the choir. If the newly-appointed song champion doesn’t know how to do these things, someone helps her. If a lady is singing a solo for the first time, someone steps in and provides guidance. PFLC isn’t only about making a space where women with melodic talents can express themselves, it’s about creating an environment where any lady can acquire the musical skills she perhaps didn’t even know she wanted. We’re all learning how to sing, how to listen, how to keep time, how to blend, and how to say with compassion, ”Someone in the soprano section is singing the wrong part!”

What I’ve learned over the past eight months of singing with these ladies is that PFLC is not just a choir. It is a practice of leadership, democratic communication, group decision-making, conflict resolution, and DIY skill-share all at once. We even built our own risers!

On Tuesday night, November 27, PFLC take the stage at the Cedar Cultural Center for our season-end concert. We’ll be joined by musical friends Aby Wolf—who penned the arrangement of “September Gurls” by Big Star that we sing; Niki Becker, choir member and Twin Cities folk songstress; Roe Family Singers, who’ll strum along as we sing a four-part arrangement of Paul Westerberg’s “Can’t Hardly Wait”; and the Como Ave Jug Band, featuring choir member Claudia Holt, who’ll send us into the night dancing. Join us!

Read about the Prairie Fire Lady Choir’s participation in the River City Revue and Bike & Bite.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.
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