Member Spotlight; Melinda Pollack-Harris, Sing to Live Community Chorus, Chicago
When Melinda Pollack-Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she needed music to face the challenge. That was the inspiration for Sing to Live Community Chorus for women, loved ones, and friends touched by cancer.
What is your choral music background?
I sang in choirs from kindergarten through 12th grade. Then I took jazz piano for about five years. When my piano teacher moved away, I was at a crossroads. Do I look for another piano teacher? Do I stop piano? I ran into this woman who was in a community chorus. I didn’t know such things even existed. I sang in that group for five to six years before I got my cancer diagnosis in 2004.
How did you get the idea to start a chorus for people affected by breast cancer?
When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know a single person who had cancer, let alone breast cancer. I really felt alone. People had compassion for me and were concerned, but I didn’t have anyone who had had cancer to talk to. I went to a support group that provided a way to share our experiences with each other. It also provided other activities, like cooking and art and tai chi. I thought that was wonderful, but what was missing was music. It was a glaringly missing piece.
I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I thought, “Wow, I would love to do a group that uses music. I did some research and there wasn’t anything. That’s when I decided to start it myself. We started off with 36 singers in 2005 and now we have two choirs and 90 singers. Fully 100 percent have been touched by breast cancer. About 20 percent are survivors, and about 65 percent have immediate family members who have been affected. The rest have friends and colleagues who have had breast cancer. Everyone knows somebody.
Our artistic director and conductor, Wilbert Watkins, is a gift from God—a brilliant sensitive musician whose twin sister is a survivor. He has brought such depth to my musical experience. And meeting these wonderful people in the choir has enriched my life in so many ways. It has blown me away, quite honestly.
What difference has the chorus made to the singers?
We get involved in people’s lives at different stages. We have had people come into the group because they knew someone else with cancer—and then got a diagnosis themselves. We have had people who have lost someone to cancer and that brought them to the chorus. They are singing in honor of someone.
Naturally, the connection to cancer brings a sense of compassion to the group. So whenever a situation happens to someone—the death of a loved one, a recurrence of cancer, or whatever—I ask the singer if they want me to share it with the chorus. Nine times out of ten, they do. And the outpouring of support they get is amazing. That is what we are about. We are not like a formal support group where we sit around for a half hour before rehearsal and say, “Well, I am an eight-year breast cancer survivor.” But the group has this unspoken, very strong, sense of support and community for the singers.
In the Spring 2013 issue of The Voice, we look at the various ways that singing in choirs helps one's overall psychological well-being. How has being in this choir helped you?
We are non-auditioned, and we’re really good! There is a balance of people who sing well and those who are less experienced. No one feels, “Oh I can’t do it.” The music brings layer upon layer of things that contribute to well-being. First, you are just making sounds, then you are singing your part, and then you are all singing together. While we are rehearsing it builds and builds and builds, and then you are performing, and it’s fantastic!
Also, being in the group really provides me with an ongoing comfort that, should something happen, I would have this support. I feel the comfort of knowing that everyone would be there for me. It makes it a little less scary. In nine years, we have lost one singer. She was young, just 55, when she died. About 40 of us sang at her memorial service. It was beautiful.
How has Chorus America helped you?
There are many Chorus America articles that have helped shape our operation over the years. I continue to look forward to the next issue of The Voice to see what is presented and how it can help us.
We have big plans. We added a second chorus a year and a half ago on the north shore of Chicago and we hope to start a third one on our tenth anniversary in a year and a half. Then we want to take Sing to Live Community Chorus to another state, and eventually go national. It has been an organic kind of development. Occasionally people will say, “Can you believe that you started this?” I am in such high gear, running and organizing, but it makes me pause. That’s the only time I pause!
This article is an online accompaniment to the Spring 2013 issue of The Voice, focused on Singing and Wellness.