Singing Out Loud: Can Joining A Choir Lead to More Friendships

Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

My first night of rehearsal was surreal. Nervous, I arrived 20 minutes before the appointed time and then waited in my rapidly chilling car until I convinced myself that I could walk into the music room at Tustin High School without being awkwardly early. As I poked my head through the double doors, I saw a crowd of about 30 people seated on risers. I first noticed women of various ethnicities and ages, though I also could see a handful of men clustered toward the back of the room. At 26, I was probably on the younger end of the spectrum. I approached Tony Wong, the Voices of Tustin administrative director, and he welcomed me to the group.

“Are you a soprano or an alto?” he asked.

“Alto,” I answered, thinking that the last time I was asked that question was in the third grade, and I hadn’t known the answer. The elementary school choir teacher asked me to sing the national anthem and then declared me an alto. A prissy fourth-grader later told me that meant I was a bad singer. Little brat.

Directed to sit with the other altos, I grabbed some sheet music from atop the piano. It was November, and the group was working on a number of holiday songs for an upcoming joint concert with the Tustin High choir and music students. I stared at the little music notes on the page.

There had been quite a buzz the month before when an Oxford University study said that one of the fastest ways to make friends as an adult is to join a choir. I repeatedly ran across the story posted to different social media sites, to the point where I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should test the hypothesis for myself. After all, I was the perfect guinea pig—my few close friends are all from high school and college. Co-workers notwithstanding, I hadn’t really made a friend or even many acquaintances since graduating from UC Irvine in 2011. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Though I find it hard to chitchat with strangers, I’m generally a social person. And I’ve participated in art classes, improvisational comedy classes, dance classes, and pub trivia nights—yet never came away with any sense of newfound community. If joining a choir could provide that, why not give it a shot?

A quick online search led me to one of the only community choirs in north Orange County. Voices of Tustin is a small but spirited singing group sponsored by the Tustin Area Council for Fine Arts. On Tuesday nights, a few dozen people (mostly Tustin residents, though some commute from the far corners of the county) meet in the music room at Tustin High. They’re led by the school’s choir and associated student body director David Peay and often receive additional guidance and accompaniment from Corey Hirsch, a Juilliard graduate and former student of Peay’s.

Many of the singers credit Peay and Hirsch for the success of the group. After my first day, it was apparent why. The men not only are skilled at leading the choir, they bring a lot of humor and energy to each rehearsal. During that first night, we ran out of copies of sheet music for one song. Peay told the group with his lilting West Virginia accent, “You’re going to have to be Sonny and Cher it.” A dad joke if there ever was one, but it got a big laugh and a few lighthearted groans.

Many members have been with the choir since its founding 15-plus years ago (no one agrees on exactly when it began). They’re a close-knit bunch. Marcia Maloney, one of the early joiners, says she has made lifelong friends through Voices of Tustin: “When my husband died seven years ago, the chorus sang at the funeral and it was really special. It has brought a lot of meaning to my life.”

Wong, who took on the role of administrative director in 2009 to help recruit more members, agrees.

“Voices of Tustin is a really safe environment to learn, make mistakes, and just keep going,” he says. “It really is an open community choir—we still don’t audition anyone. Many of us bond over the fact that we’re not trained and we naturally formed friendships that extend past rehearsals.”

Peay, who has taught music for more than 40 years, thinks of the group as a second family.
“It’s an outlet for me to work with adults and not just kids. They enjoy singing, and there aren’t really many options for adults who want to sing besides church. And they don’t sing Lady Gaga at church.”

I quickly was made to feel welcome and even attended the annual holiday party, where I tried my hardest to engage in conversations beyond remarking on the tastiness of the hot apple cider. I promised myself I’d stick with my self-prescribed experiment for at least four months, at which point I was due to have a baby and would have to go on hiatus.

I diligently went to rehearsal after rehearsal, learning harmonies and musical terminology such as mezzo forte (medium-loud)—as Peay once put it, “That’s not-so-forte.” I joined members for caroling at senior living facilities and almost lost my voice after what seemed like the hundredth verse of “The First Noel.” (Seriously, who knew that song had so many verses?) I sang in the holiday concert in the Tustin High gym, dressed in head-to-toe black, the group’s usual performance attire. And I made an effort to connect with at least one new person at each rehearsal.

Eventually my experiment came to an end. So was Oxford University right?

The answer is complicated. On one hand, I didn’t develop any lifelong friendships in my brief time with Voices of Tustin. But I did meet a lot of really nice folks I wouldn’t mind hanging out with again (though to be honest I was ready for a break from memorizing harmonies).

If anything, it soothed my worries about my ability to connect with other adults outside of work. It occurred to me at my college graduation that I was leaving behind more than term papers and hours of frantic studying. I had spent most of the first 22 years of my life surrounded by my peers in an environment that was perfectly suited to creating long-lasting relationships, and I was nervous about leaving that comfortable bubble.

After I got pregnant, everyone suggested my husband and I would connect with lots of other parents through play-dates and other kid-centric activities, but I wasn’t so sure. I worried that I would feel awkward talking to people I didn’t have much in common with, that I’d be unable to relate to other parents. But Voices of Tustin helped show me that I could put myself out there and make new connections.

And it’s apparent that members who have been part of the choir for longer than my paltry four months have formed some deep bonds. It made me feel good just to be around people like that—people of different genders, ages, ethnicities, and professions who have fun coming together and creating beautiful music, as cheesy as that sounds. I’m happy to know such a group exists in my backyard, even if I’m no longer a part of it.

Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

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