One of the big reasons people give for either not wanting to move to the Mid-Ohio Valley or for yearning to move away as soon as they get out of school is there’s nothing to do here. Set aside that fact that, when pressed for specifics, the things those people say can’t be done are available a couple hours’ drive away in any one of several directions. Actually, don’t set that aside. A strong argument people and organizations who are trumpeting the virtues of life in the MOV have going for them is we really are in a Goldilocks zone—near enough to metropolitan areas to get to big-time venues and activities, sometimes without even having to spend the night, but also rural enough to enjoy the somewhat slower pace of life in a small town. And that slower pace does not mean we live in an entertainment and cultural vacuum. All one need do is attend a choir concert by one of the local high schools or an entity such as the Smoot Theater Youth Vocal Ensemble to be reminded of the deep and rich tradition of quality choral music we have here. But, some argue, there’s no comparable program for those musicians once they leave school.
The problem with that argument, though, is it’s just not true. The Parkersburg Choral Society, currently under the direction of long-time educator and brilliant musician Luke Zyla, is one of multiple groups available in the area. It has for decades been providing an opportunity for those with at least some rudimentary knowledge and a passion for choral music to practice their craft with likeminded musicians. Beyond that, lovers of choral music have the opportunity to hear this excellent music multiple times throughout the year.
Spend just a little time with the members of the Choral Society, and the three words that will undoubtedly come to mind will be passion, professionalism, and family. Recently, after a hiatus of several months forced by the pandemic, several of the members got together for an informal kickoff event. It, of course, centered around singing. Even after months of not singing together—of not singing at all for some—they seemed to pick up right where they left off. In between songs, punctuated by Mr. Zyla stopping to give direction, the group caught up, sharing family stories and discussing missing members who are struggling with health issues. It wasn’t a formal rehearsal. Those don’t start until September. Yet, the majority of the members were there.
The group is made up of a diverse demographic, though it does skew a bit older. More on that later. The longest serving member is Don Hainkel, who joined in 1974.
“I worked for Public Debt. And they told me I’m going to Parkersburg. I got here in December. And then the first thing I did was I auditioned for Choral Society. And I joined the Actors Guild.” When asked his favorite memory, he smiled and said, “Well, it’s where I met my wife.” Many others have more than twenty years singing with the society and all have warm memories of past concerts and recruitment trips to small towns all over the valley.
Not only is it an outlet to make music with other people, but it’s a big social event too. I’ve got friends here that will last a lifetime.
Robert and Melissa Herceg have also been in the group for decades. And for both of them, it’s about the music, but even more about something else.
“For me,” Robert said, “not only is it an outlet to make music with other people, but it’s a big social event too. I’ve got friends here that will last a lifetime.” Melissa echoed this. “The non-musical factors are always more significant. It becomes almost a family as everyone’s announcing their adventures.”
There are some younger members. By far the youngest is Cassie Cline, who had been in marching band under, of all people, Luke Zyla. After graduating from West Virginia Wesleyan, where she minored in voice, she came back to town and looked up her old band director. She immediately felt at home in this group and enjoyed, “getting to get with people who are passionate about singing, and the art of reading music and keeping that alive.”
That sentiment, keeping the art of choral singing and reading music alive, was echoed by nearly every member of the ensemble. Person after person mentioned the importance and joy of putting in the work together to make the music sound just right. And that work, according to Director Luke Zyla, will be worth it when they finally perform. “And it’s so much work, but the real reward is when you do a concert, and nothing can duplicate that. You hear the applause and then afterwards, people are saying how wonderful it was and stuff and then it makes all the hard work worth it.”
The numbers have fallen off over the years and the group has started to show its age, with much of that first get-together dedicated to explaining the physical ailments that are keeping some members away. The lack of age diversity is a bit of a frustration for Cline, by far the youngest member. “We need new members, and we need young members and enthusiastic members to bring in new ideas. And, you know, that zest.”
There are two ways you can support this admirable group. One is to join in. There are really only two requirements, other than a desire to make great music. “But when people interview to join,” Zyla said, “those are my first two questions: do you have experience singing with a choir, and can you read music? And if they have those two things, we’d love to have them.”
The second way to lift up the Parkersburg Choral Society is open to all, even those who can’t read music or even carry a tune. The group performs four times a year. They are planning a fall concert, a Winterfest, a Valentine’s show featuring lots of fun pop tunes, and a recital in the spring, which will be held in their new home, the ballroom of the Parkersburg Arts Center. For more information on how to join or when you can see the group perform, find them on Facebook or go to their website. You’ll be amazed by the talent and passion of this remarkable ensemble, so make a point of attending at least one of the performances this year.