Island Hills Chorus makes hearts sing
It seems right that "Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love)" is one of the staples of the Island Hills Chorus' repertoire, especially when the singers get to the line "haven't a worry, haven't a care." It's a lyric that pretty much sums up the attitudes of these vocalists when they get together every Thursday night in Hauppauge to engage in barbershop melodies and camaraderie.
"I sang alto in the chorus in high school, but after I got married, I didn't sing for a long time," says Betty Banach of Glen Cove, who, at 90, is the group's oldest member. "In my 40s, I felt like I needed something else in my life. And then I found this group. It was a thrill to be able to sing at another time in my life. I started and never stopped."
And it's not just the music that makes her happy to trek about 30 miles each way to practice. "Nothing has given me more joy than belonging to this chorus of such wonderful women," she says. "When I lost my husband, they were my backup."
It's that harmony of music and friendships that has kept the group going all these decades. And 2014 is turning into an especially golden year for the Island Hills Chorus chapter of the Sweet Adelines International. Not only will the group celebrate its 50th anniversary in July, but it's been in demand for numerous local performances, including a gig at Half Hollow Hills Community Library in Dix Hills tomorrow (see box) with its show "New York, New York: A Musical Journey."
And don't be surprised if the singers also show up on your TV screen: They're waiting to hear from the producers of NBC's "America's Got Talent" about their recent audition for the show.
A winning team
The ladies of Island Hills have been no strangers to competition ever since the group started in 1964. Rehearsals are devoted to preparing for both regional competitions and, if they advance, the Sweet Adelines' International Convention and Competition held every fall -- this year it's scheduled for Baltimore. In fact, in 1978 Island Hills Chorus became the only group of the five from Nassau and Suffolk to ever win the International title, a feat made more amazing because the group lost its musical director while preparing for the event.
"Our director was very high-strung. . . . He hollered, and one night he just walked out, and we weren't going to take him back," Banach recalls.
The group rehearsed its two songs, "Strike Up the Band" and "Something About a Soldier," after the assistant director came to the rescue -- and grabbed the top honors. "When they announced Island Hills had won, it was bedlam," Banach recalls. "It was the most exciting and wonderful experience of my life."
The current director, Tom Brucia, seems to have struck a chord with these four-part harmony singers, with whom he's worked for the past two years. Not that the lone male among roughly 50 women doesn't occasionally sound like a drill sergeant. During a recent rehearsal, in the middle of "Fit as a Fiddle," he abruptly stopped them when their harmonies fell flat. "There's an aspect of tough love to this," jokes Brucia, 53, a financial planner from Bellmore. "I haven't crossed the line, so they tell me, but I do some motivational 'live-speak.' "
In addition to helping the Adelines sound pitch-perfect, Brucia has the loudest voice on the music committee when it comes to selecting songs. "It has to be something I think is good for the chorus and something I can direct," he says.
Brucia, who also sings with the Long Island Harmonizers, a 40-member chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, says working with the Island Hills songsters has been inspiring. "More often than not, there are nights when I come in dragging my rear end to rehearsal, and by the time rehearsal's over, I feel uplifted," he says. "There's enjoyment on both sides."
Island Hills got talent
In addition to vying for the top spot in this year's competitions, Island Hills is hoping to qualify for the next season of NBC's "America's Got Talent" after trying out in Manhattan in November.
"There was a group of Sweet Adelines on 'Britain's Got Talent' a few years ago that did very well," says team coordinator Felicia Redfield. "The casting agents for 'America's Got Talent' went to various websites in the New York City area and found ours."
After the casting agents looked at some performance videos, the group was asked to try out. The day of the audition, they performed "Over the Rainbow." In 90 seconds, they wowed producer Nigel Caaro, who then asked, "What do you have that will surprise us?" Redfield recalls.
Redfield was quick to answer. The group had rehearsed a blending (these days it's called a "mashup") of Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are," Katy Perry's "Firework" and the Black Eyed Peas' "I Got a Feeling." She was told to send a video of the mashup to the "AGT" casting agent for a shot at a second audition. At press time, chorus members were awaiting word about whether they've been selected to come back.
Aaron Rubinstein, a production assistant for the show, said he couldn't comment on the status of the audition.
A younger crowd
Adding current music fits in with the group's mission to recruit younger women into the musical sisterhood, an objective that's been made a little easier thanks to social media. Bernita James, 26, of Huntington Station, for instance, found the chorus listed online among Long Island Meetup Groups
(long-island.meetup.com), and decided to observe one of the rehearsals before trying out.
"I used to sing in choirs and feel a cappella is coming to the fore with shows like 'The Sing Off' " on NBC, she says.
The Bruno Mars-Katy Perry-Black Eyed Peas mashup, kicking off the recent rehearsal, seems to be a hit with her. "I like that they do some newer songs. It was really fun to watch," says James.
Among the "babies" of the group is Bonnie Cassar, 42, of Oakdale, who joined two years ago. Cassar, whose father had a band and whose husband is a guitarist, hadn't done a lot of singing but wanted to challenge herself.
"For my tryout, I thought I was going to pass out. I felt very unprepared. For the actual tryout, I had to sing with the quartet," she says. "I was very, very nervous, but everyone was so nice and supportive."
That support comes in many forms, including working with potential members to help the newbies prepare for tryouts. In fact, being able to read music isn't even a requirement.
"If you can carry a tune, you can try out," Redfield says. "In order to audition, you have to learn songs which are something familiar and not too long."
Auditions are with a quartet, with each person singing tenor, lead, baritone or bass in front of a music team, Redfield says. "If somebody can't carry a part or hold their own, we will work with them."
The group also performs throughout the community -- at libraries and nursing homes, for example -- and provides music lessons to women in the community.
Madeline Nelson, 67, a former teacher from Oakdale who's involved in recruiting members, says being with the chorus the past 25 years has helped her stay young.
"As you're aging, you want to do something out of your comfort zone where you have to memorize and make your brain work differently."
And, like so many members, she treasures the friends she's made, especially the singers in her quartet.
"It's been the same four of us for 24 years," she says. "When something tragic happens, you've got a whole sisterhood you can count on to support you. It's like we say, you come for a night, and stay for a lifetime."
HEAR THEM SING
What: Island Hills Chorus presents “New York, New York: A Musical Journey”
When and where: Jan. 26 at 2 p.m., Half Hollow Hills Community Library, 55 Vanderbilt Pkwy., Dix Hills
Info: Free. For details call 631-421-4530 or go to hhhlibrary.org.
IF YOU WANT TO JOIN
Think you’ve got the pipes to join the Sweet Adelines? If so, the Island Hills Chorus branch is looking for new members.
Team coordinator Felicia Redfield recommends sitting in on a few rehearsals before trying out. At the tryout, you learn a song and perform it as part of a quartet.
Monthly dues are $30 and members help pay for their own costumes and makeup, which Redfield says are minimal since Island Hills subsidizes some of these costs. For competitions, members pay for their hotel and travel expenses.
The group meets Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building, 370 Motor Pkwy., Hauppauge. For more info, go to islandhillschorus.com.