Whether you love to sing in public or are shy about singing in front of others, Homer’s Kenai Peninsula Community Chorus invites community members to join the group. Led by music educator, bass-baritone and Homer High School Choir Director Kyle Schneider, the chorus gathers weekly to sing and make music as an ensemble.
Historically, the chorus came together with specific programs or projects in mind, providing music at events around town, including Pier One Theatre productions, but the goal these days is simply to bring people together, even if they have no prior experience singing, and to encourage camaraderie through song.
“I am a true believer in making a joyful noise and that we are all endowed with a voice that is meant to be shared,” Schneider shared. “This chorus comes together for the sole purpose of singing. There is no other purpose, no end point, or performances planned. We sing to sing.”
Working with the individual voice in front of him, Schneider is committed to helping others grow their voices.
“Community bands and chorus are built to serve people who have had experience performing in ensembles and usually tends to be people who have played instruments when younger, sang in their church choir and are now looking to sing outside of an academic or religious setting,” he said. “Members of this chorus include those with those backgrounds for sure, and also those who have never sung or sung in a group setting before.”
The project-based community chorus group got its start singing as part of Handel’s “Messiah” for a Pier One Theatre production in the mid 1980s, according to Laura Norton who manages the chorus and is with Pier One. At that time, participant numbers varied from 50 to 200 individuals.
“Connecting people from all walks of life and all ages is what makes us a strong community and singing together does that,” Norton shared. “Mary Epperson had the vision, instigating the initial creation of the chorus. There is nothing like the joy one experiences making music in an ensemble.”
Currently in the spring semester, which runs through April, Schneider said that throughout the winter months there is a core group of around 30 individuals who gather regularly. That number increases when the snowbirds return and the group takes the summer off.
“We have teens to octogenarians in the chorus,” Schneider shared. “Both men and women participate, sometimes couples. Some people walk through the doors with a long history of singing, excited to participate and for others, they have never sung in public and are nervous and hesitant. We have a place for anyone who wants to sing, or to stop by, check it out, and see if it might be a good fit.”
Community member Roy Wilson is 76 years old and his only background in singing is that he sings around his house. Raised in a family that didn’t sing, Wilson started going to the chorus with his wife in early February after she encouraged him to try it out.
“My wife thought I could contribute to the chorus,” Wilson shared. “Every time I go, I’m completely frightened because some of the people are just fabulous, but I enjoy it and I hope that one day I can make a contribution. I don’t think I do right now. Right now I pretty much suck, but I’m doing my best and I’ll keep going back until I get it.”
Others, like Jessica Hahn who had never sung in public, joined the chorus in January simply because she loves music.
“It’s wonderful to sing as a group,” she shared. “The greatest challenge for me was not knowing how to read music, but I’m learning on the go.”
Marcia Kuszmaul sang in choirs in high school and had not sung in a group since then. She joined the chorus with a desire to sing alongside others.
“I’ve wanted to be in choir again because my experience of singing together with people was so positive,” she said. “When I saw the announcement that anyone could join in, I knew immediately that I wanted to participate for the love of singing, and singing with other people. Kyle is very encouraging and supportive of all of us.”
A Homer resident for the past 11 years, Schneider was raised in Chicago, a third-generation Polish American who grew up going to Tuesday afternoon polka dances with his grandmother, watching Lawrence Welk on television, and hearing polka music in his childhood home. He was a band kid all through grade school and high school, playing clarinet and at the end of high school he got involved in theater and singing through his local church.
Schneider got his first taste for teaching through Boy Scouts while working summer camps in high school, then through peer-to-peer mentoring in his high school theater program.
“I was a band kid because I had two band directors that told me I had the skills to be good at band, so I kept going,” he shared. “In junior high, a teacher told me I had a really nice voice and that I should try singing. A high school theater director told me I had a talent for being in front of people and speaking and sharing my experiences with others. These individuals encouraged and challenged me as a growing artist. They also encouraged and mentored me as a budding teacher. That’s what I’ve wanted to inspire in others.”
With a music degree from Illinois State University, Schneider spent time student teaching and filling in for others. During an educator’s job fair in Illinois, he met recruiters from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Drawn to the mountain landscape, he applied for a position in Seward and when hired, packed up his apartment, spent one last summer working in New Mexico, and moved to Seward.
In Seward, Schneider was tasked with building the struggling music program.
“My first goal was to get a general music program going in the elementary grades, a choir program in the high school, and fill in the rest as we went along,” he shared.
Four years later, he had not only created a full-fledged music program at the school, from pre-school to high school, he also started a community band and a community chorus.
In 2012, when former longtime Homer High School choir director Mark Robinson announced his retirement at the end of the school year, Schneider interviewed and within a three-week period was offered the job. He finished the school year in Seward, packed up his apartment, and moved to Homer to take the lead on the high school choir and reinvigorate the chorus, whose participation had declined in prior years.
Schneider shared how important the chorus is to community members he interacts with, from teens who have been isolated from peers and family members during the pandemic to seniors whose only social interaction in any given week is coming together to sing.
“We have members who have not been back in an ensemble since 2020 and they tell me that to be able to reconnect after all this time is incredibly valuable,” he said.
During the pandemic, Schneider faced the challenge of helping his singers understand dynamic contrast changes in how loud or soft they were singing while masked. Taking his lead from the American Choral Directors Association, he worked hard to create ways for his students to safely sing. Today, mask requirements at the high school have been lifted, and members can wear a mask, or not, to the chorus.
With the belief that everyone has a voice and should use his or her voice, Schneider wants to keep making music with as many people as he can, for as long as he can.
“Always, music is being made and it doesn’t matter your age, experience level or socioeconomic status, if you have a song in your heart and you wish to share it. That’s what the choir and chorus is here for,” he said. “The joy of singing should be shared as a community. Whoever wants to come to our community chorus is a part of our chorus.”
The Kenai Peninsula Community Chorus meets on Tuesdays, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Homer High School Mariner Theater. Anyone interested in joining in can visit pieronetheatre.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.