On a frigid January Saturday in 2017, friends Mary Beth Thesing and Susan Kimball joined hundreds of others at Lourdes High School auditorium in Rochester, ready to lift their voices for Bring the Sing, the traveling community choral events Classical MPR takes around the region.
But soon after conductor Joe Osowski led the singers in warm ups and a rehearsal of the first piece, a fire broke out in the rear of the auditorium, choking the air with smoke and triggering sprinklers. Everyone evacuated safely and the fire was quickly contained thanks to the Lourdes staff. But in the end firefighters had to call the event off. Classical MPR vowed to return to Rochester if funding came through.
It did, and Bring the Sing did return, but not until first touching down in Duluth, Decorah, Northfield, and St. Paul. The Decorah event, held at choral stronghold Luther College, fell on April 14, a date that seemed safely close to spring. In 2017, however, it coincided with a historic blizzard stretching from central Minnesota into northern Iowa.
In Decorah, the storm arrived less as snow than as thick sheets of ice glazing every tree, lamppost, and sidewalk. Some participants trekking up the incline to the auditorium found themselves walking in place or falling down. The weather cut into attendance, but the few hundred who did make it sang with winter-defying heart. And again Mary Beth Thesing and Susan Kimball were among them. During the break, they introduced themselves as two of the singers who had attended the smoked-out Rochester event. I thanked them for being such intrepid community singers, dubbing them "Fire and Ice." (Any relation to Game of Thrones' theme music is purely coincidental!)
When I saw Mary Beth and Susan yet again this winter for Bring the Sing's return to Rochester, I asked them what kept them coming back. "Singing with others blends body and mind and spirit in a way that can change lives," Susan said without hesitation. Mary Beth was likewise to the point. "Community singing is vitally important to my well-being," she said. Susan then continued with some personal news related to a choral work that has become something of a Bring the Sing anthem.
Since I'd seen her last, her son had died. "A few months after the Decorah sing, we held a celebration of life ceremony for him and sang Draw the Circle Wide as part of it, as we had in Decorah."
Mark Miller's Draw the Circle Wide had been sung at every Bring the Sing event to that point. (It's now out of print.) Beginning as a simple unison line, it adds new voices and harmonies with each verse new layers of inclusion building to a joyous peak.
Draw the circle,
Draw the circle wide
No one stands alone,
We'll stand side by side —
Draw the circle,
Draw the circle wide.
Hearing Susan's and Mary Beth's stories reaffirmed that communal singing, like all variations on the arts in this culture-rich state, is not merely a "nice to have" it deepens our connections with each other and our communities at a time when those ties are fraying. For some, it's a return to an old friend; for others, a lifeline.