Chorus Connection turned 10 years old this month. And as these moments do, the milestone has me thinking a lot about the past.
A few years ago, my parents asked me to go through the piles of childhood stuff sitting around my old room. It was a bit like digging up one of those time capsules. Buried in my closet, desk drawers, and boxes were countless tokens of my youth. There were years worth of handwritten lecture notes, dozens of Beanie Babies, the 100+ books (mostly fantasy and sci-fi) I used to read under the covers till 2AM, thousands of Pokemon and Magic the Gathering cards, and assorted other gems. Embedded in the mix, I discovered my 8th grade yearbook.
I’m not generally the nostalgic type, but an excuse to procrastinate while cleaning my room? Sign me up! (Some things never change.) I thumbed through the pages and was fascinated by the pictures of old friends, reminders of once-hysterical inside jokes, and hints of the tiny human I used to be. Also fascinating: the yearbook-y things you read once at graduation, laugh about, and then never think about for the rest of your life. Things like superlatives (“Most likely to…”). Or (humorous) career predictions! Most of those were ridiculous and absurd, but I literally gasped out loud when I read mine: “Singing Scientist.” I mean, it’s a little off, but if you tweak that to Singing Engineer, that is a shockingly accurate description of a career path I could never have imagined, and yet stumbled into just over a decade later.
7th grade me, far left, in “The Golden Guys”
Even back in middle school, I was (and still am!) a big ol’ nerd. And I was (and still am!) totally in love with the joys of choral singing. Those passions wove through my life throughout my schooling and into adulthood. And when I moved to NYC in 2011 to work at a tech consulting firm, I also joined the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus. Then in 2013, in a twist of fate, those once-disparate parts of my life began to intertwine.
Chorus Connection’s origin story is long (and not the point of this post), but the very short version is that, as a singer, I was personally frustrated with systems our chorus had in place and felt like I might be able to build something to make my own life better. With the help of a more experienced and business-savvy friend, I reached out to a number of choruses, and asked staff and other leaders if they’d be willing to answer some questions. Nearly everyone I asked was extraordinarily generous with their time and expertise, and those initial conversations led to Version 1 of Chorus Connection. And then, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus made the remarkable choice to actually use the darn thing - followed shortly by the NYC Master Chorale. It only dawned on me later how lucky we were to have two such well-respected organizations take a chance on us.
The next 7 years were an exciting blur. The Chorus Connection family grew to include choruses around the country, and then the world. Our team expanded to include 6 of the most passionate and wonderful choir nerds I’ve ever met. The platform itself evolved in our effort to solve more and more of the day-to-day problems faced by choirs.
And then: COVID-19. Spring 2020 was one of the most heart-wrenching periods of both my personal and professional life. On Tuesday, March 10, NYCGMC’s leadership decided to postpone our March concert till the fall (how optimistic that seems in retrospect). We were less than 2 weeks out. The city rapidly shut down in the subsequent weeks, and I barely left my apartment for nearly 2 months. By mid-April, hundreds of people were dying every day from COVID in NYC alone. Emergency rooms were overwhelmed. Ambulance sirens became a constant aural backdrop. I imagine many of you experienced something similar at some point in 2020. And to top it all off, news about the COVID deaths in Washington state’s Skagit Valley Chorale dropped like a bomb on the choral world at the end of March. There was an agonizing pain in discovering that one of the greatest sources of joy in many of our lives was also amongst the most dangerous things you could do in the face of this horrible new disease.
With so much chaos, fear, and uncertainty, Chorus Connection (like many of you, I imagine) was forced to make devastating staffing decisions, and spent months trying to figure out how to stay relevant at a time when the whole world (not to mention the choral world) was upside down. Layoffs, especially on a small team, can massively impact what you’re able to accomplish. And as such, they require deliberate choices about where to focus. As we so dramatically discovered, when there are no good options available, you have to reset your expectations and search for the least terrible ones.
For us, we decided to focus on two areas: 1) support our existing customers, and 2) help choral folks find information they would need to navigate the pandemic. Brian Griffin led the charge on the former, brainstorming with customers how to use our tools in new and creative ways as they worked to overhaul old processes for a new digital-only world (you can’t collect cash at rehearsal if there is no in-person rehearsal!). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that PPP loans and other pandemic relief funding not only served as vital lifelines for us and so many choruses, but also gave us the flexibility to provide extra financial support for the choruses most devastated by the pandemic.
The second area took on a life of its own. Tori Cook, and subsequently Michael Hughes and Jen Rogers, have done an extraordinary job of bringing together health-related information from government sources, sharing best practices and innovative ideas from all of you (drive-in choirs! fundraising tactics!), weaving in the national conversation around racial justice to discuss how we can make our organizations more welcoming and equitable (special thanks to Alexander Lloyd Blake, Shana Oshiro, and Dr. Derrick Fox for their hard work and wisdom), and even throwing in a bit of humor. Their work, in conjunction with guest writers, interviewees, and those of you who responded to our surveys, definitely struck a chord. As an example, the blog Virtual Learning: Taking Your Choir Rehearsals Online from March 17, 2020 has been seen over 116,000 times. And as a result of the above resources, the NY Times even referenced us not once but twice as part of their pandemic-related coverage!
Although the world has likely been changed forever, fortunately, the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us. Choruses are rehearsing and performing in person again, a blessing for everyone on our team both personally and professionally. And Chorus Connection has seen a surge in momentum that has allowed us once again to expand our team and start planning for the future.
As I reflect on our 10-year journey through an increasingly optimistic lens, the lesson I keep coming back to is one I first learned in 6th grade choir: the best, most meaningful experiences are ones where you have the privilege to work with wonderful people to create something bigger than yourself. That has been true at every step of Chorus Connection’s life.
In that spirit, I want to thank the many, many people who have made this journey possible. To start, thank you to the incredible folks who have been a part of the Chorus Connection team over these 10 years: Brian Griffin, Tori Cook, Kenny Litvack, Nick Deyo, Kris Boyd, Karyn Castro, Michael Hughes, Jen Rogers, Lauren Potter, and the many contributors to our blog. It is impossible to overstate my gratitude to each of you for your hard work, creativity, authenticity, empathy, passion, and joyfulness.
Thank you to the folks who helped kickstart Chorus Connection’s journey: Timorell, Craig Coogan, Kim Kuda, Robert Featherstone, Thea Kano, and John Jay. Thank you to Peggy Moore and Stephen Savage for your invaluable mentorship. Thank you to our investors, for putting your faith in us and believing in the change we’ve been trying to make in the world. Thank you to our customers, for being our partners on this journey, for the countless hours you’ve given to help us make Chorus Connection better and more useful, for your generosity of spirit when we’ve faltered, and for making the world a more beautiful place and inspiring compassion, empathy, connection, and joy through music.
We’ve come a long way, but I still feel like we’re just getting started. The next decade of our journey begins now. I can’t wait to see what we’re able to accomplish together.
Jacob is the founder of Chorus Connection and a proud member of the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus. A lifelong choir nerd and tech geek, he loves marrying his passions to help community choruses run more efficiently. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!