David LaChance: My night as a Benning-Tone

A monthly chorus offers the opportunity to sing, with no commitment needed

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BENNINGTON — Something had gone wrong. While part of the chorus charged ahead, merrily following the sheet music from one measure to the next, the rest of the singers had plunged into the second verse. We were quite literally not on the same page, and the discord brought us to a quick stop, and a few embarrassed laughs.

What I and the rest of our renegade minority had done was miss the repeat sign entirely. If we'd been paying better attention to those two little dots, we would have known that, at that point, we were to go back a few measures to another pair of dots, where the second verse was waiting to be sung. With our mistake pointed out to us we began again, this time getting it right.

The song for the evening was "Our House" — not the one about the very, very, very fine house, but the one by the English ska and pop band Madness. We were, for the evening, a community chorus called the Benning-Tones, and under the direction of Matt Edwards, we were to learn the song piece by piece in three parts, all leading up to our one and only performance at the end of the evening.

This was the third meeting of the Benning-Tones, a group Edwards organized in November. The idea, inspired by a similar initiative in Toronto called Choir! Choir! Choir!, was to open the doors of Oldcastle Theater for one evening for anyone who wanted to come out and sing. As the former member of an established chorus, I'd thought many times about checking out the Benning-Tones, but let the first two performances — the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" — pass me by.

This time, I walked through the doors, paid my $10 admission, and went to the bar for my complimentary drink, a bottle of beer. I mingled with my fellow choristers — some acquaintances, mostly strangers — for a few minutes before Edwards ushered us into the theater, and had us sort ourselves by part — soprano, alto and baritone.

Before our warmups, Edwards explained our goals for the night. We were not expected to be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We were going to learn a song that, by the end of the night, would sound good. We were not to worry about wrong notes; we were to feel free to ask for help when needed. Novices were encouraged to follow the lead of the more experienced among us. When Edwards asked the Benning-Tones newbies to identify ourselves, I was surprised to see about half the group of 30 or so join me in raising their hands.

Though I had not sung in a chorus in more than a decade — something I had in common with some of the other singers, I later learned — any anxiety I had brought with me disappeared. Edwards, on piano, worked with us, going over the more difficult parts, giving us tips for navigating tricky transitions, offering encouragement.

Part of the joy of the Benning-Tones, I discovered, is its one-and-done nature. We were going to sing this song at the end of the night, period. There were not months to be spent perfecting this passage or that, nothing to practice at home. And by having to be ready, we were ready. "Our House" might have had better performances on other stages and in other studios, but we made it through, start to finish, and with smiles on our faces.

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Several days later, Edwards, over a cup of coffee at the Tap House, explained that he had had a pop-up chorus in mind for a while. "I really love this town, and so how can I make the town better?" he said. "I'm not loaded, but I'm good at leading choirs and playing music." Singing "can be like a form of therapy for folks. You're concentrating so much on the music that you can't think about anything else. It's a mental break from whatever is stressing you," he said.

He's hoping that the chorus will help the Oldcastle Theatre, too, not just by dedicating the $10 admission to the building's roof fund, but by creating a sense of ownership and belonging. "If you get people in the theater who wouldn't normally come, then they'll maybe come see more plays, which are really quite good," he said.

Edwards writes the arrangements for the Benning-Tones. There are several reasons for that; one is that he wants the music to be interesting enough for an experienced singer, while not too daunting for a newcomer. He can also make the song more small-d democratic; every singer, whether alto, soprano or baritone, gets to sing "the fun part," the melody, at one point or another. From one month to the next, he has no idea who will show up — and so he writes arrangements "in a friendly key, in friendly ranges," and mitigates the challenges.

Who should consider being a Benning-Tone? "The people I would really love to reach are the people who can't get out regularly, and need to get out," he said. "So young parents, that would be great. Get the babysitter and come for a night. People who couldn't be part of a regular group, who just need something that's very casual, and when they can come they can come, and when they can't, they can't." What about people who think they can't sing? "For the most part, anybody can sing," Edwards said. "Because when you're speaking, you're singing."

The Benning-Tones meet on the last Tuesday of the month, and will continue at least through the spring. The next performance will be on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at Oldcastle, when the theme will be Mardi Gras, a celebration that Edwards, who was born just outside of New Orleans, knows well.

I asked Edwards one more question, about belonging: Are we members of the Benning-Tones only for the two hours we're in the theater, or is there something more permanent about it? "Once you're in," he replied with a smile, "you can claim it forever."

So maybe the headline should be, "My life as a Benning-Tone."

David LaChance is the news editor of the Bennington Banner.


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