Hallelujah

With ice still clinging to the grass and the architecture illuminated by strings of lights, the Lawn was fairly quiet the night of Dec. 13, save the occasional crunch of snow salt upon brick walkways.

From outside Old Cabell Hall, one would never guess that it was packed with people. Inside the building, voices rang out through the hall. But this wasn't a typical concert -- the voices were coming from the audience's seats.

This was the 38th annual Messiah Sing-In, founded and still conducted by Professor Emeritus Donald Loach, who still teaches a Continuing Education class.

"I don't remember if we charged admission," Loach said of the very first Sing-In in 1968. "But we didn't call it 'admission,' because people weren't coming to listen to a concert, they were coming to participate, so it was known as a 'participation fee.'"

Loach first came up with the idea to have a sing-in of Handel's "Messiah" 38 years ago, after hearing a performance of the piece by the Oratorio Society.

"I thought, 'There's probably a lot of people who would like to get together, many of those people who had just sung [the piece], might like to get together again and just have a nice sing-along,'" Loach said, adding that sing-ins during the 1960s and 1970s were very popular.

In December of that year, he spread the word, and about 50 people showed up. There wasn't an orchestra -- only an organ and a string bass -- but he said people had such a good time that the event sponsors decided they would host the Sing-In again the next year.

"When I got the idea and wanted to establish it, I felt that it would be good if it was the responsibility of an organization," Loach said. "The obvious organization was the University Singers, which at that time was primarily a town and gown organization, not a student organization."

As time progressed, attendance grew rapidly.

The Sing-In's organizers had been borrowing music scores from various churches, but the event became so popular that people contributed to the University Singers specifically to buy music for the Sing-In.

The sponsorship later shifted to the Glee Club, eventually including both the Glee Club and University Singers as co-sponsors in the late 1980s, while the Virginia Women's Chorus was added as a sponsor only three years ago. These three organizations share responsibility in arranging the event, and also split any profit that remains after paying off all the expenses.

"I think it's fun for the three groups to get to involve other people in the University community and the Charlottesville community about what we do and let them sing along for one night," University Singers President Ryan Fleenor said. "I think a lot of people who would otherwise not have the time or the inclination to do choral music, this gives them a taste of the fun that we have every week."

Loach agreed that many of the participants are quite enthusiastic about the Sing-in.

"Members of the University Singers and the Women's Chorus and the Glee Club, many of them sit right there in front of me in that little semi-circular spot," Loach said. "Sometimes they sing so loudly that I have to tone them down because I can't hear the other 400 people who are in back of them."

Among those other 400 people, many have attended the Messiah Sing-In consistently and make it a part of their Christmas celebrations.

"I thought about not coming this year and last, but then I was like, 'No, this is a tradition for me,'" Health Systems Development Assistant Liz Tidwell said.

Tidwell, who has been coming for four years, noticed that many people return year after year.

"Some of the [people] have been coming so long they don't even need music," she said. "I'm still working on the 16th notes myself."

Fourth-year College student Stefanie Wallace, former president of the Virginia Women's Chorus, mentioned one of the common problems students come across when trying to attend the Sing-In: the date.

"The trouble with the Messiah Sing-In is that it's in the middle of finals, so every year I've had a final the next day," Wallace said. "But I made it a point that, even though I had a big paper due the next day, I was going to go" to the last one.

Loach runs the Sing-In like a rehearsal, stopping the participants occasionally to see if they can improve on certain parts.

"I wouldn't say I make it a teaching experience, but I don't like just having people sing through," he said. "I like them to feel that they're challenged in a way and that they learned something."

Wallace said she enjoyed the way the Messiah Sing-In was arranged.

"He doesn't really treat you like a professional chorus, he treats you like someone who wants to learn about music and wants to sing the 'Messiah' and enjoy the experience," Wallace said.

Loach agreed that his version of a Messiah Sing-In is much more of a relaxed atmosphere. While some Messiah sing-ins have professional singers performing the arias and an orchestra that has been rehearsed in advance, Loach prefers to keep things more low-key.

"I like the simplicity of the thing, and I like to keep it unrehearsed, make it a fun activity for everyone who comes," he said. "As far as the arias are concerned, I'll have all the sopranos stand up and sing one of the arias, which many of them had probably never sung, but they've always heard. I always say, 'Don't you want to sing the aria that you've always wanted to sing yourself, but nobody asked you?'"

The only things that have changed since Loach first started the Messiah Sing-In are the number of people who attend and the size of the orchestra, which is composed entirely of volunteers.

Third-year College student and flutist Kristina Dorsey said she was told about the event by a friend, thought it sounded interesting and was intrigued by the fact that anyone who wanted to could play.

"Even when I was standing in line, I kept looking around at people and asking, 'So I really can just go on stage?'" she said.

Dorsey said she enjoyed the experience, despite being one of only two flutes present and thus comprising the entire woodwind section that night.

"There was a whole bunch of violins who had obviously been there years and years and years because I didn't even know if they were looking at the music," Dorsey said.

Third-year College student and trombone player David Hondula said he also had fun at the Sing-In and that he plans to return next year as well.

"I had never been to it before, and I regret not having gone in the past," Hondula said. "Just the idea that everyone was there to create the music I felt was kind of neat."

Fleenor noted the Messiah Sing-In has been an event that brings the community together in celebration of the music and the season.

"I think you have a great intermingling of community members and students who come together because they either know the piece and want to sing it or they have heard about this event," Fleenor said. "Probably a friend dragged them along, and I think I love sitting with them more because you kind of see their eyes light up ... something clicks and they have a good time, they become part of the music and you can tell they get swept away by it."

But when Loach informs the participants that it's time to sing number 44, one can sense the excitement throughout the auditorium. Many cast away their scores and some link arms for the final and most well-known piece of the evening.

"We always end, of course, with the 'Hallelujah' chorus," Loach said. "Everybody stands up and they belt it out and they have a great time and we always sing it through twice. With 450 people belting it out, that's quite a sound."

Loach said his only plans for the Messiah Sing-In are that it will continue, for which many have expressed wholehearted support.

"I think [the Messiah Sing-In] speaks to the continuing power of the piece and the beauty of the music," Fleenor said. "In the end, it's a great way for people who know music and people who don't know music to come together, to celebrate, to have a good time, to enjoy good music. And I think that's why it's going to last"

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