COLONIE — Nestled in an unassuming building next to a Russian Orthodox church is a passionate and energetic group of people with a common interest. That interest? Singing music they actually want to sing. Music that is well known, loved and mainstream.
Seventy-percent of the members of Rock Voices can’t read music. Some have never had any sort of vocal training or musical practice, yet everyone shows up. The members applaud one another (literally and loudly) for doing something right. They also lean on one another for support in both music and everything else.
After the rehearsal, a few members and director Nate Altimari joined me at a local restaurant to chat and have some dinner. Contemplating over a spread of nachos, cheese fries and beverages, bass Brian Rose was tired. “I love being tired from singing,” he said. “It feels like we accomplished something and it feels great.”
Altimari, who conducts the Albany and Saratoga chapters, was attracted to the prospect of having his own chorus for many years.
“When my family and I moved from Boston and settled down here, I went through a significant period of time with no musical outlet,” Altimari said over a beer and steak nachos. He’s sitting with five of his longest members. “The opportunity presented itself several times to have my own choir. This was the first one that felt right.”
Altimari had never had his own group like this one. He’s an award-winning singer for his Boston-based group Firedrill!, but this was new territory. After four seasons, he’s learned to let it go. Not everything will be perfect, and that’s perfect in itself.
“This is such a casual, inclusive environment,” he said of his group, which hosts people of all ages, races, ethnicities and religions. “We have no divas or anyone who thinks they are better. We all just love music and want to sing.”
As the group rehearsed, the impending concert was on everyone’s minds. The Albany performers will take the stage at the Schacht Auditorium at Sage College on Saturday, May 4 at 7 p.m. The Saratoga chapter is taking the stage at Saratoga’s My Revelation Church at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 5. Tickets range from $8 to $15 and can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com.The concerts will make a charitable donation to Eyes Wide Open and Wellspring, respectively, through funds raised from donations and raffles.
Rock Voices was founded on a simple motto: “Healing ourselves and others through song.” Born from the brain of performer Tony Lechner, the executive director arranges all of the harmonies himself. Boasting an impressive 15 chapters across the Northeast, the groups all take advantage of the same programs. This makes it easier for those who travel a lot or have scheduling conflicts to attend rehearsals. Even if you can’t make the group you enrolled in, you’re welcome to join other rehearsals to get the practice you need. Because most members can’t read music, Rock Voices provides tracks for each vocal part to help members learn what they need. There are also sheets with strictly lyrics for those who find sheet music daunting. Altimari has 20 years of vocal experience and can smoothly hit all notes, including the sky-high soprano register.
Even after the rehearsal, the five members flanking Altimari have a contagious energy that could ignite the passion in even the coldest of souls. Every single one invited me to join the group and asked me about who I was as well. They listened as intently as they spoke. Their warmth to a stranger they met just three hours ago was like an incubator; I felt at home, accepted and at incredible ease.
Rose is usually the only bass at his rehearsals. With a rehearsal size of 65 (120 people will be on stage at the May 5 show at Sage), you could hear his booming, smooth voice as clear as day.
“It’s just fun,” Rose said. “I walked in a couple of weeks after Mike Hyrny in season one. I came because I wanted to sing ‘Africa,’ [by Toto] which was on the program. I didn’t know this was what I needed, but the feeling I get when those harmonies marry and that moment when it all clicks in rehearsal is something I cannot explain. It feels incredible. I’m hooked.”
Rose added the added pressure, if you will, of being the only bass at most rehearsals actually helps him learn his part better because he has to carry his own. Unlike the women and the tenors, there isn’t anyone else to cover for him if he makes mistakes.
Hyrny is sitting two seats down from Rose. Like Rose, he joined without knowing it was what he needed.
“I had gone through some major surgeries before getting here,” Hyrny explained. “Nate had spoken to the Daily Gazette about the first season in February 2018.
“The first rehearsal was actually the day of my surgery,” he continued. “Four weeks later I came in and saw this little chorus of seven or eight people. We had 17 people at the first concert.”
The sound those seven or eight people produced that night was so energetic and impressive, Hyrny immediately joined. In the 16 months and four seasons Rock Voices has been in Albany, he’s been involved in every one.
Ronnie D’Alauro is Hyrny’s junior high classmate. One day over lunch, Hyrny was telling her about the chorus with a bit of embarrassment. They met again a couple of weeks later and he invited her to the show.
“Everyone looked like they were having fun,” she said. “I didn’t know the background of this group, but I wanted to join.”
D’Alauro described the emotional experience she had at the first show, where she knew this was a group of people who wanted to sing and just have fun. As she talks, her eyes are bright and animated. Her personality is big and intriguing; you want to be around her, as you do the other members.
“I can make any conversation come back to Rock Voices somehow,” she said. “The way we connect, the way we sound — it’s a no brainer.”
The connection is what keeps Altimari coming back and what keeps his chorus stronger than anything the members could have imagined.
“When the music comes over you and the adrenaline is pumping, there’s nothing like it,” soprano Penny Blaisdell said. Blaisdell’s presence at rehearsal was prominent; every single time the group started singing, she would break out in dance. She moved with the music effortlessly. As I moved around the room, her warm smile greeted me whenever we made eye contact. Her church choir roots bred her for this exact situation.
“This music brings me so much nostalgia,” she said. “This music brings me back to those moments from long ago and simpler times. It’s freeing.”
Perhaps the biggest breakout story of the night was Kim Strosahl. A self-proclaimed introvert, Strosahl joined in season one with a fear of singing in front of people. Today, you’d never know that was the case. Since joining, she’s had a solo in each performance. At rehearsal, she belted the iconic “Brighter Than The Sun” solos with confidence and exuberance.
“I was looking for friends and that’s something that’s so hard to find in the second half of your life,” she said. “I wanted something with music in my life. I heard about this and realized it was exactly what I was looking for. No auditions and rock music. I’m in.”
The five singers credit Altimari for bringing the group into its own. A kind soul with the patience of a saint, he corrects with a soft voice and refrains from chastising.
“I couldn’t have done this the way Nate did,” Rose said. “The charisma that Nate has and his ability to bring us all together is something unique to him.”
The other four agreed. D’Alauro agreed, calling him a kind person in an odd way. Altimari’s energy and presence is something that people seem to be drawn to in practice. Everyone wants to talk and give input.
Altimari struggles with his own expectations, he said. There will be times where he feels the group is much further ahead than it is and it promptly slapped back to reality during rehearsal.
“A couple of weeks ago, I was frustrated with how much we had to do and I was just biting off everyone’s heads,” he explained. “I had to check myself in the car on the way home and then had to email all the members and apologize.
“I have to remind myself that this isn’t about being perfect,” he continued. “The brand of Rock Voices is about fun and expressing yourself. We’re going to be a little rough around the edges sometimes because we are human beings and that’s just human nature.”
Photos by Jim Franco.