THE SOUNDS OF JOY
On Monday nights, if you stand close enough to the large red building just a few blocks west of the Willamette River, you can hear the basement come to life. Even from the sidewalk, it fills your ears; the sound of music seeps through the wood siding, carried by high-pitched notes and low-pitch vibrations.
On the other side of that wood is a plain room. It's furnished with dozens of blue chairs stacked in a corner, a kitchenette and a small table with a rainbow of markers and extra nametags. On the counter lie cookies, sandwiches, chips, pretzels, lemonade — it's enough food to feed a small army, which is exactly what it will do shortly.
But right now, the mouths of that army are hard at work.
In the middle of the room, about 70 people are gathered in a semicircle. Most of them hold three-ring binders filled with sheets of music, though none of them are looking down at their books. All of their eyes are fixed on the man in the front.
Lake Oswego resident Mark Barstow stands near a piano, wearing a black Rock Voices T-shirt and jeans. He is singing through a wide smile. His hands move energetically — they sing just as loud as his mouth. At the piano sits a woman in a baby-pink beanie, her head bobbing up and down as her fingers dance across the keys.
The choir sings dozens of songs, sometimes flawlessly, other times repeating the same verse over and over again. They blow through Adele, then spend half an hour on Aretha Franklin. Sometimes they clap, sometimes they stomp.
Most of the time they laugh.
This is Rock Voices, a community chorus for adults who like to sing, even if they don't know how. Rock Voices prioritizes accessibility, and it aims to reach all levels of singers, from folks who have spent their whole lives behind a music stand to people who have never read a note.
Unlike other choirs, no auditions are required to join Rock Voices, where classical music takes a seat and popular rock songs take the stage.
Rock Voices is wrapping up its second season in the Portland metro area with a choir of 75, more than double the number from last year; its members hail from Wilsonville to Vancouver, North Plains to Clackamas. The organization has chapters in 12 different cities, most of which are on the East Coast.
The Portland chapter will celebrate its season with a concert on Jan.12 at the Tigard United Methodist Church (9845 S.W. Walnut Place), where the singers will be accompanied by a live rock band. Tickets are available at the door or online at tinyurl.com/RockVoices.
But first, there are practices to attend.
A search for joy
Back in the basement, Barstow is leading the group with his voice and his hands. He studied vocal performance at the University of Massachusetts and sang in countless choirs throughout his adult life before starting the Portland chapter of Rock Voices last spring.
Today, he spends much of his time helping the people in this room learn more about his passion. He sings with the choir, encourages them to get creative with their voices and doesn't ever seem to stop smiling.
At first glance, it appears the choir is the result of excessive happiness, an oasis of joy. But in reality, this chapter was born during a time of immense sadness and struggle for Barstow. It is in fact the manifestation of a desperate search for joy.
In 2009, a cancerous tumor was found in Barstow's brain — a devastating blow for him, his wife Caley and their three children. After radiation and surgeries, he beat the cancer. But he was left battling depression. Music had faded out of his life.
"It was a dark time," Barstow recalls. "I really wasn't seeing the bright side of things."
Eventually, he turned to a therapist, whose primary goal was to help Barstow find the joy that had been stripped from him. He met with her for a year and a half, and many of their conversations traced back to music.
"Music was a big part of who I was," he says. "It was not a big part of what I was doing."
That's when Barstow reached out his old friend and a cappella partner Tony Lechner, who founded Rock Voices in Massachusetts. Lechner had been pushing Barstow to start a chapter in the Portland area for years, but throughout that time, Barstow had dismissed the idea.
"I didn't feel ready for it in any respect. I didn't feel skilled enough," he says. "I didn't feel happy enough."
In March 2018, after a particularly persuasive phone call, Barstow finally committed. He pushed to start the chapter as soon as possible, and shortly after that call, he began directing the first season of Portland's Rock Voices choir.
After just the second rehearsal, he says, he knew he had finally taken his life back.
"There was just so much joy in the room," Barstow says. "I felt like I was on Cloud Nine. It was euphoric."
His family members saw the change as well.
"That is the miracle of Rock Voices for our family," says his wife Caley, who sings and plays piano for the choir, occasionally sporting that baby-pink beanie. "He got the joy that he had before."
A dream come true
Barstow continued to heal as his relationship with music resurfaced and strengthened. He was aware of this process, and had hoped for something like it when he started the chapter. What shocked him, he says, was the way the choir helped other members heal as well.
During the third week of the season, Barstow asked everyone to stand and share why they were at Rock Voices. He was humbled at the way each person opened up to a room full of strangers.
Four women — Jamie, Denise, Melissa and Carly — each stood individually and shared similar stories of pain. Three of them were widows. One had cancer.
Six months later, they no longer stand alone.
They share the story of how they found music and found each other, and how those relationships have helped them heal. Barstow and the women all credit the healing qualities of the choir to the community it has created.
"We've just got this community and this sense of comfort and ease that creates confidence and courage," Barstow says. "Those things are all healing in their own way."
The supportive community does more than heal, of course. It pushes people out of their comfort zones.
Rock Voices member Amy Kjesbo Lincoln auditioned for a solo this season, something she never imagined herself doing. But after watching her community support the other auditions, she decided to give it a try.
"Joy doesn't come from being an excellent singer," she says she learned, "but from that feeling of community around you and pushing yourself to try something new."
Kjesbo Lincoln's narrative echoes throughout the choir. Dozens of folks are shocked to find themselves gearing up for a week of dress rehearsals and the concert on Jan. 12, during which they will perform to a large audience and sing alongside a band of professional musicians.
"It's definitely a little bit of a dream come true," Barstow says. "It's being a rock star for a week."
Last season, John Schwimmer was one of those week-long rock stars. A lawyer by trade, he hadn't sang in an organized group since his eighth-grade glee club. He was attracted to Rock Voices because of the music they sang, he says — and the fact that he wouldn't have to audition.
Schwimmer's wife joined the choir with him, and throughout last season they formed relationships with a lot of the other members.
"The concert itself was an incredible bonding experience," he recalls. "It was alchemic."
Just 10 days after that alchemic concert, Schwimmer was diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis shook him, but he was determined not to let it define him. He quickly set
a goal for life post-surgery.
"I vowed I was going to be back for the first rehearsal," he says.
That rehearsal was less than three weeks after his surgery.
A lot has changed for Schwimmer since then, but one thing has not. On Jan. 12, you can watch him live his rock-star dream on stage once again.
Rock Voices meets at the Tabernacle Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Southwest Condor Way in Portland. Learn more at www.rockvoices.com.
Lucy Kleiner is a journalism student at the University of Oregon. Reach her at lucykleiner.com.
IF YOU GO
What: Rock Voices in concert
When: 7 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12
Where: Tigard United Methodist Church, 9845 S.W. Walnut Place
Tickets: $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for students; available at the door or online at tinyurl.com/RockVoices.