By Mike Costanza
For those singing a cappella, just the sound of the notes can stir up emotions.
“It actually gives me shivers and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” said 77-year-old Sharron Gilbert.
Gilbert is one of the founders of Rochester Rhapsody, the women’s chorus that has entertained audiences in and around the Rochester area with their music since 1996. The award-winning chorus is a member of Harmony, Incorporated, a nonprofit international a cappella singing organization for women.
In the a cappella style of singing, the voice is the only instrument.
Rochester Rhapsody’s 35 members sing a cappella in the close, four-part harmonies that epitomize barbershop music. When a song is sung properly in that style, the harmonies weave together into a beautiful whole. The chorus performs pop songs from the 1930s up to the present, along with holiday tunes and other selections. Its members range in age from 30 to over 70.
Sue Melvin, Rochester Rhapsody’s 62-year-old musical director, is a second-generation barbershop singer — her father sang in that style for more than 50 years. She joined The Little Shavers, an a cappella chorus for children that was based in Rochester, when she was just 8.
“It was my first experience with four-part harmony,” the retired bank vice president said.
The young girl immediately became addicted to that style of singing.
“It’s very interesting, both for audiences and for singers,” the Rochester resident said. “It’s a great challenge to add to your musicianship.”
Melvin appears to have met that challenge well.
In addition to singing with Rochester Rhapsody and helping lead the chorus, the married grandmother is a member of two quartets, the Renegades and Off-the-Cuff, and has competed internationally. She has also coached as many as 10 a cappella groups at one time, and taught vocal performance throughout New York state and in Canada. Melvin brings that focus upon education to Rochester Rhapsody.
“Education is probably our primary focus,” Melvin said. “We focus on helping people to become the best singers and performers that they can be.”
Shirley Flint values the educational opportunities that Rochester Rhapsody offers, and the chance to sing four-part harmony as part of a group.
“It is difficult to do it right,” the Greece resident said. “That’s kind of the beauty of a chorus, because if everybody’s singing accurately, it’s also easier to sing accurately. It works both ways.”
Flint, who turns 75 year of age in December, was a member of two a cappella choruses before she stopped singing to take care of her young children. Since she joined Rochester Rhapsody in 2007, she has taken a seat on its music team, which helps guide the chorus, and come to lead its bass section.
“The four-part harmony just makes my heart sing,” Flint said.
Membership in the chorus has also brought her together with people whom she now calls friends.
“I have been in [it] for 16 years because of the people in it,” said the retired editor of legal publications.
When the Dee Davis joined Rochester Rhapsody in August, 2022, she had to get used to a whole different way of using her voice. The 68-year-old sang in groups from elementary school through college, but always with musical accompaniment.
“Here, we have to depend on ourselves and each other,” said Davis, who is one of the chorus’s lead singers. “We can’t just default to whatever the orchestra is doing.”
Davis has also had to memorize the songs she sings with Rochester Rhapsody — the chorus performs without sheet music. One song she particularly enjoys singing is “A Million Dreams” from the movie “The Greatest Showman,” the 2017 movie about the legendary PT Barnum. In one scene of the biographical musical, a young Barnum sings of his aspirations.
“He’s just so confident that he’s going to do this thing that nobody’s ever done with circuses, which he actually does,” Davis said. “It’s a beautiful song.”
Davis, who is a professional American Sign Language interpreter, usually translates one of the songs that Rochester Rhapsody performs for its audiences during the Christmas season into sign language.
“Quite a few people have come up and said ‘How do I learn that? How do I join the group?’” Davis said. “They’re just enamored of the whole thing.”
As a young girl, Gilbert used to sing with her parents, who could harmonize.
“When we would go on Sunday afternoons for a ride, it was always accompanied with a little harmony, singing “You Are My Sunshine” or songs like that,” she said. “I was really fortunate to start learning harmony when I was very young.”
Gilbert first sang a cappella in Dansville, while around a campfire with her Girl Scout troop. She sang in her junior high and high school choruses. Upon graduating she enlisted in the US Air Force, though she didn’t stop entertaining people with her voice.
“I sang in a folk group while I was in the Air Force,” Gilbert said.
Four years later, she returned to civilian life and entered Alfred University, where she was a voice and instrumental major. Gilbert took a job with what is now Excellus BlueCross BlueShield upon graduating from college, and soon became a corporate trainer for the firm. The demanding position initially left her unable to pursue her love of singing.
“I can get addicted to music, and forget to do anything else, like eat or sleep,” she said.
Gilbert was eventually able to find the time and energy to sing in a chorus again. In addition to co-founding Rochester Rhapsody, she has served as the chorus’ president and vice president of membership. She retired from Excellus in 2006.
Among all the songs in Rochester Rhapsody’s repertoire, Gilbert particularly enjoys singing those from the 1950s through the 1970s.
“The do-wop songs were particularly easy to harmonize with, because they only used three or four different chords,” she said. “We have one that we’re just learning, ‘Come Go With Me.’” The song was a 1957 hit for the Del-Vikings, a do-wop group.
It’s a kind of wonder that Rochester Rhapsody is able to harmonize at all. The chorus was unable to practice in person after COVID-19 hit the area.
“We met over Zoom for over two years,” Melvin said. “Singing does not work over Zoom.”
Melvin gave vocal lessons to individual members of the chorus remotely, brought in guest educators to work with them and took other measures to keep the chorus together and interested.
“We did virtual choirs. That’s where people submit individual tracks and we put them all together electronically and make a video and audio,” she said. “It’s a technical nightmare.”
When the pandemic waned, the chorus gathered in a member’s back yard to sing together again for the first in two years.
“There were a lot of tears at that first rehearsal,” Melvin said. “Tears of joy.”
Rochester Rhapsody now rehearses in-person once a week, performs more than 20 times a year and competes in national and international choral competitions. Those efforts have netted the chorus three awards in Harmony Incorporated Area 3 competitions. The group is casting about for new members.
“If you can carry a tune and sing your part with three other people, you can do this.” Melvin said.