The Women Behing (and in front of) Womansong
By: Peggy Ratusz
As I read previously published features about Asheville’s oldest and largest all women’s chorus, Womansong, I wondered what I might focus on that’s not already been said. When I contacted Debbie Nordeen, the 75-member-strong team’s director for the past seventeen years, I decided to shine the spotlight on her.
Obviously, Debbie, leadership skills and music come naturally to you. How and when did you discover these attributes and what’s the story behind your involvement in directing choral singing?
I come from a singing family and I’m the oldest grandchild on my Dad’s side. One of my earliest memories was being eye level with the piano keys, looking up and seeing Dad, Mom, Grandpa, and other family gathered around that piano singing. Naturally, I chimed in. When I was ten, we did some family Christmas caroling and my aunt told me to lead. With great enthusiasm I pulled out the loudest fa-la-la’s I could in that crowd!
I like to think that my actual career in directing started in seventh grade. I was mentored by a wonderful music teacher who was nearing retirement. She passed on a baton, figuratively speaking. Mrs. Keeler must have seen something in me because she appointed me the madrigal director. I continued singing with others throughout high school and into college. Music has always been the joy of my life.
Who were your role models growing up?
I had musical role models in my family; people who loved to sing purely for the joy of it. In the public school system I had fantastic music teachers, choir directors who taught by example and who expected the best in me. One teacher actually had a very sweet name, Mrs. Shugars. Her quality was a quiet, deep respect for the integrity of music itself, and in trusting the singers to bring their hearts to the music.
Womansong is large group. How do you maintain harmony when you’re not singing?
While musical harmony, pitch, and blend are important, true harmony is the collective harmony amongst us as well as collective community harmony. We try to live the words of the songs we sing. One song by our member, Lytingale, was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s word: “With great love great things are possible… If you and I will be the change we want to see, our great love will set us free.” The word, ‘love’ is so easy to say, to sing. But to me it is a verb; it is doing. Doing loving things for and with one another is how to love. Our wonderful wise woman council plans and organizes for the benefit of us all and helps us communicate in loving ways. The songs we sing actually remind us how to be with one another.
Seventeen years is a long time to be at the helm of any organization. What motivates you to lead year after year?
Love in action motivates me. When I see the faces of the singers reflecting their hearts, I could do this forever. I know that sounds mushy. Singing together is a joining of souls, and singing songs that express the highest good, which bring smiles, move hearts; all this to uplift humanity. There’s deep joy in sharing this experience; it unites us. I am personally uplifted and strengthened deep within.
Some tunes you perform are written by members. Each concert’s playlist is derived using a theme. Talk about the process in choosing material and themes for your shows.
We perform more member compositions than any other women’s chorus I know of. Last year Womansong joined hundreds of women’s choirs in a SISTER SINGER FESTIVAL in Chicago where we featured songs by member composers. This fall we’ll feature a new song by Jean Cassidy which focuses on the environmental heroes of recent times. Our concert themes usually come when one song itself seems prominent. Then we surround that song with other thematic songs. Sometimes they are based on our beneficiaries. We did a concert to benefit Habitat for Humanity a few years ago and re-wrote words to an old bluegrass tune: Workin’ on a Building. We offer a mix of repertoire and a variety of touching, humorous, fast paced, poignantly moving, and uplifting songs.
Explain how important the roles are of key personnel as well as members themselves, to your personal success and longevity as the conductor of the chorus.
When I started we were smaller and more ‘go with the flow’ and may I say, ‘seat of the pants’? Over the years we’ve grown and work load has increased dramatically. One year I went away for the winter and when I returned we had become a 501(c)(3)! It showed me that Womansong is indeed a village that has incredible momentum of her own. The pace increased as our size and goals increased. Having an assistant director made all the difference. Last year we added a second assistant director. Our director team is an amazing trio made up of Althea Gonzalez, Sarah Rubin, and me. Each of us brings unique talents and skills. Together we get a lot done harmoniously. Our wise woman council, marketing, membership, music performance teams are crucial to our success. Because these positions are volunteer, love for the village, love for making music are motivating. These shared duties allow me to focus on music and repertoire, bringing songs to life through the singers during rehearsals and performances.
Uplifting the community and women of the community is the mission. While some people wish they could volunteer, how do you find time in your busy life to orchestrate and motivate participation?
Well, it’s sort of like a happy virus that I read about in a Hafiz rendering. It’s catching and it spreads in areas where there is susceptibility. Fortunately, Womansong singers have caught this happy virus through making music together; sharing fruits of this music with our community. We don’t have to work much at motivating participation; it just happens because participation pays immediate internal dividends.
I understand that, with their New Start Program, Womansong awards one-time scholarships and funds to women in need. How and when did this program come into being?
It was started by Womansong founder, Linda Metzner. Most choirs focus on music and have community involvement through doing benefit concerts and outreach programs. But our uniquely active New Start Program is a motivator for our singers, our sponsors, and our community. Besides these wonderful soul benefits for the singers, audience, and sponsors, there are women in need getting new opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones. (For more information, go to www.womansong.org.)
Tell me about arranging the compositions and vocal parts.
I ask myself about it frequently too! I wonder why I can’t just pick up an arranged song and use it just like it is! But I look at the music and think, “Why didn’t the publisher contact me first?” I’m kidding, of course. They don’t have my phone number. Either I work or some of us work collaboratively on arrangements. When I re-arrange an already arranged tune, I do so to fit ranges or skill set, or I may re-arrange the intro or ending. First we make sure we have permission from the songwriter. We love the work as long as the deadline for the score isn’t looming!
Please share memorable moments, special or unexpected outcomes during performances or rehearsals.
There are peak moments in every concert when the magic just happens. After every concert I get at least one compliment from the audience, “That was the best concert you’ve ever done!” I smile and thank them, but in my heart I know the reason they feel it is because they are in the glow of what just happened; the magic of the now of music; the magic of the throb of the hearer’s heart. Womansong owns the song in her collective memory and heart and freely shares that with the audience, who receive it directly and fully.
Besides these peak moments during a concert or rehearsal when the words, music, arrangements all simultaneously ring with the truth of love, there are things that only I see as the director. I see the faces of the singers, as all masks are dropped and self-consciousness disappears. The music and love speak on their faces and oneness occurs. At rehearsal the other night, I saw one singer’s eyes fill with tears during a new song we are learning about parting. I know the lyrics spoke to her.
There are plenty of spontaneously humorous moments at rehearsals when dozens of zany, creative women get together!
What goes on in your heart and mind just before and after a Womansong concert? Do you have any rituals?
One of the finest times for me! I call it ‘Que Sera’ time. We work hard; we make improvements up until the last minute. We are all dressed up. We’re in makeup (yes, we have a wonderful makeup team.) Ten minutes to go, we join in a circle. We congratulate those having their first concert appearance. We say how fortunate we are to share in this amazing experience together. We hum a few long prayerful tones, each of setting our own intentions. Our group intention is to be ‘in’ each song, each phrase, each note, and each breath. We remind ourselves to dedicate each song personally internally to someone, and we affirm that we are ready to give this gift to the audience. Even as I’m telling you about it now, the memory of singing with Womansong is bubbling up and making me happy.
How does it make you feel, knowing the number of lives you uplift in the community? Also speak to the lives you’ve changed and mended within the “village of women.” It’s a domino effect, I would imagine.
Tuck and Patty are a famous duo and Patty wrote and sings, “Love is the key… If love has made a difference to you, help somebody else believe that it’s true. Love is the key, show your love.” I believe that we are all divine. How wonderful if my actions have uplifted others! But I think about how fortunate I am. I know how many faults I have. So I’m grateful that God has given me something wonderful to do in this lifetime. What really matters is the love with which any of us does anything.
I’ve received kudos in my life. The work I do is so public. I’m in the spotlight onstage, up front and center. But to me what really counts is how any of us do the smallest thing; no audience, just doing. A smile from a stranger can change a life. I’m remembering the time I had to have surgery. My head had to be tented. A nurse put her hand on my head, comforting me in this claustrophobic space. I don’t know her name; I just know that in that moment she reached out to me when I needed her. Her stage was an operating room with three or four others present. I know that for every time my actions have helped, I too, have been helped. Womansong women are my teachers. Through them I ‘practice what I preach.’ It’s easy to say anything, but living what we say we believe can be challenging; but that’s what counts. These women have shown me how to live my beliefs. I believe we are all one. I am grateful for the gift of love through song. It keeps on giving.
As a surprise for Debbie, I asked a few of her colleagues and friends, to testify!
Deb sees the good in every person and situation, and inspires others to do the same. I’ve often heard her say she wants to live life like a musical comedy, not a soap opera!
Debbie conveys a joy and enthusiasm in music and musical performance that are absolutely contagious.
For seventeen years I have seen her embrace a life of love through musical service. She energizes and empowers Womansong to do our best.
Susie St. Clair
We always say that Debbie could get music out of a stone.
We are willing to give her 100% plus because she never asks of us more than she’s willing to give herself.
She’s a model for ‘women supporting women,’ and encourages creativity, outside-the-box thinking and singing; she truly loves leading this group.
Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, writer, and vocal coach.