Community choir creates sound of Gresham
On a dark, stormy fall evening in Gresham the gloomy atmosphere is pierced by the joyous ringing of music.
After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Gresham Community Choir is back together singing and celebrating its milestone 30th anniversary. There is a palpable energy inside the Gresham United Methodist Church, where the group rehearses weekly for its upcoming December holiday concert, thanks in large part to their dynamic director Annette Steele, who has been helming the choir since the beginning.
"Annette is this group," said Martha Manske, a member for 13 years. "She loves it as much as the rest of us."
"Annette is a very caring person," said Dwain Munyan. "This is a joyous place to come together."
"There are other choirs and groups where it is so strict; here we just have fun," said Erica Daniels.
Steele spurs the choir with an infectious energy, always quick with a smile or compliment. The group has been described as a club, social gathering, family — all bound by a shared love of music.
"Monday nights are like group therapy," Steele said.
The Gresham Community Choir is celebrating its 30th year of making music, though it is a bit of a misnomer. The choir features people of all ages and backgrounds from across the region. There are singers from as far away as Rock Creek and Oregon City, Sandy, all of the cities in East Multnomah County, as well as unincorporated communities in the Gorge.
It is all non-audition group, meaning anyone can join regardless of their skill level. The members range in age from 12-years-old to their late 90s.
"It is wonderful seeing the families that join together," Steele said. "Parents, children, husbands and wives, sisters, cousins, friends, coworkers, neighbors — we have it all."
They meet in two annual sessions — the fall, which runs September through December, and the spring, March through June. Rehearsals are Monday evenings, and both sessions are punctuated by a concert. The performances are held at the Reynolds High School Performing Arts Theater in Troutdale. In lieu of admission, the audience is asked to bring a canned good or non-perishable item to donate to a local nonprofit organization. It total, the choir has collected more than 89,000 pounds of non-perishable items over the years.
The Spring Show has fun selections — Broadway tunes, country, pop, gospel, television theme songs. This coming Winter Show has both secular and non-secular holiday music. There will also be audience Christmas caroling, and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus.
"When I look out at the audience and see some of the same familiar faces with each performance, I can't tell you how wonderful that makes me feel," Steele said. "I feel very blessed."
Making their own music
Steele grew up singing in Gresham, falling in love with music as a first grader taking piano lessons from the nuns at St. Henry's Catholic School.
The nuns would often reprimand the precocious future director for putting her own "spin" on the music.
"I have a vivid memory of once playing a piece by Clementi, and Sister sternly said, 'Annette, the music wasn't written that way,'" Steele said. "I answered, 'I know, but it should have been.'"
"I've loved music all my life," she added.
Steele was asked to direct the newly formed choir in 1992 as a continuing education class at Mt. Hood Community College, where it remained for 11 years, until the cost to attend rose above what seniors could comfortably afford. Not wanting to prevent members from expressing themselves musically, Steele set off on her own.
"I decided to take the choir to the streets," she said. "We have been going stronger ever since."
Once people visit one of the rehearsals, they tend to stick around. Sometimes for decades.
"I saw an article in the Outlook newspaper about this community choir," Daniels said. "I went and Annette wouldn't let me leave."
Daniels joined two weeks before she celebrated her 20th birthday. She is still singing solos, including in the upcoming concert, 27 years later. She also brings along her two furry companions, her dogs, who only sometimes howl along to the music.
Munyan first joined the group with his late wife as they audited the class at Mt. Hood. After she passed, he eventually remarried someone he had met in the choir.
"You talk with people, follow their lives, and then we sing all kinds of songs," Munyan said. "You don't have to take a test, or even be able to read music."
It is more than just singing. There is lots of laughter and smiles during rehearsals, with people sharing life updates. There are also group outings, picnics, and caroling at nursing homes.
There was a moment when Steele, tired after two decades and facing some health issues, tried to step away into retirement. When she first began the group three decades ago, she was a young mother with kids at home. Now she is a grandma to three little boys.
That departure only lasted half a term.
"I walked right back in," she said with a laugh. "This group is part of my life. I can't imagine not being here."
The two years during the pandemic were difficult. It wasn't safe for the group to gather and sing, so they went on indefinite break. Some of the members died from COVID. They reconvened, once deemed safe by health authorities, and sang with masks.
Before the pandemic the choir had about 80 members. Now there are about 35, all of whom are striving for that return to normalcy.
"I truly am invested in each and every member; I want to give them a great experience every practice and concert," Steele said. "I look at us as a big family. Their support for me and the choir (has been) very overwhelming."
That support has kept Steele going with a smile on her face.
"My husband would like me to have an end date for all of this, but as long as they want to sing, I'll direct," she said.
See them live!
What: A Holiday Concert by the Gresham Community Choir
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4,
Where: Reynolds High School's Performing Arts Center, 1698 S.W. Cherry Park Road.
Cost: Free admission with canned good donation.
Lend your voice
Interested in joining the Gresham Community Choir?
Practice: 6 p.m. Mondays at Gresham United Methodist Church, 620 NW Eighth St.
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