N.C. state employees choir has unmusical name, beautiful harmonies

Diversity Choir of state workers amazes while striking a chord

mquillin@newsobserver.comDecember 4, 2012 

  • More information The Department of Cultural Resources’ Diversity Choir will perform in the rotunda at the State Capitol holiday open house Thursday at 9:15 a.m., and will sing at 1 p.m. the same day in Daniels Auditorium at the N.C. Museum of History.

— During a campaign to celebrate diversity several years ago, the state Department of Cultural Resources looked for a project to connect employees who might not otherwise get to know one another.

The notion of a choir struck a chord that resounds still.

“One, two, ready, sing,” Lorice Hyman instructed members of the small but powerful Equal Opportunity Committee Diversity Choir, known to most people as the Diversity Choir, during a recent practice. “No,” she chided. “You’ve got to give me more. I need more.”

They had already given countless lunch hours for rehearsals, coming once a month during their “offseason,” from January to April, and as often as twice a week when they had performances scheduled, such as one at the State Capitol’s annual holiday open house coming up Thursday. But they stood straighter, held their songbooks higher and pushed out a sound that hit the back wall of the auditorium in the department’s main building on Jones Street.

Despite its unmusical name, the group has found a groove. It remains open to any of the department’s 750 employees, who are scattered among museums and historic sites, the publications office, archaeology, genealogy, historic preservation, the symphony and the N.C. Arts Council, but its core membership is about eight women, most of them African-American, who work in Raleigh. They represent a range of voices from soprano to tenor. Some come with considerable musical backgrounds, others with none.

Together, they create harmonies so sweet they sometimes startle people who come into the building to hunt for family history or dig through military records and step out of one of the hushed libraries to hear strains of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“People say, ‘You all have a choir? And you sound so good,’” Hyman said. “They’re always amazed at how we pull it together.”

Hyman, the administrative services assistant for library development, sings with another group and directs the praise group at her church. She keeps the Diversity Choir on track, ensuring members make the most of their practice time before they have to hustle off to a meeting or back to a desk. Working a cappella and without sheet music, she teaches each vocal section its part, and the singers practice until they have it memorized. If someone is off-key, she stands in front of the offending singer and sings the part with her to bring her back in harmony.

“I’m struggling today,” said Swayzine McLean, on tenor. With no practices during the Thanksgiving break, she was having trouble remembering her part of “First Noel.” At the moment, Hyman was coaching the altos.

“We’ll get to you, Sway,” she assured.

Besides their Christmas performances, the Diversity Choir also sings at the department’s annual employee appreciation day and other events, including – by request – at retirement celebrations. For those, the group will try to learn a song chosen by the honoree, in addition to a patriotic tune that commemorates their service to the state.

When it started, the group had more voices and more ethnicities. People have dropped out, Hyman said, as they left the department or found they couldn’t commit to all the rehearsals.

“I understand that completely,” Hyman said. “But if you can’t commit, don’t put yourself out there. With singing, if you don’t rehearse, you’re not going to sound like anything when it comes time to perform.”

Except for a pianist who joined the group and then left the department, the choir has never had any men.

“We’re always looking,” Hyman said. “We’ll have one now and then who says, ‘I’m going to come,’ but they never come.”

Tammy James always comes, whether the group is rehearsing on the auditorium stage or, when that’s not available, in the photo lab, a hallway or some other borrowed space.

James, a supervisor in the collections management branch, doesn’t mind putting in hours of practice for just a few minutes of performance several times a year.

“It’s rewarding to me,” James said. “I like to sing, and it’s a chance to see people you don’t always get to see.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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