WESTERLY — Kathryn Aaron was born to sing. And now, the 40-year-old soprano and interpreter of early vocal repertory will teach others to do the same.
Aaron, a Niantic resident who specializes in historical performance practice, has been appointed the first-ever assistant conductor for the Chorus of Westerly.
"I feel totally adopted," said a smiling Aaron one afternoon last week as she sat in the office of chorus Executive Director Ryan Saunders, alongside Saunders and chorus Music Director Andrew Howell. "The chorus really is a family."
In her new role, Aaron will oversee two new chorus initiatives: "The Chorus of Westerly in the Schools" and "The Chorus of Westerly Foundations Chorus."
Howell, who has been in his role since 2012, when he accepted the baton from chorus founder George Kent, said it became apparent during discussions about how best to expand the chorus and collaborate with local schools that a new position was needed to help guide the 61-year-old organization into the new century.
"We are always looking for ways to open our doors and invite more kids and adults to sing," said Howell, "and we knew we had to start with a new position. It was the next logical next step in implementing the chorus’s mission."
"It was time to take the next step," said Saunders, who has been at the helm of the chorus since 2009. "It's our biggest expansion in decades."
The chorus conducted an extensive national search process and interviewed several musicians before finding their ideal candidate.
Aaron, a native of Falconer, N.Y., a small village of 1,500 residents two hours south of Buffalo where "there are more cows than people," said she has known about the chorus and its stellar reputation ever since she moved to the region roughly 20 years ago.
The chorus is known throughout the region for its high-level, quality music and programs, said Aaron, whose husband teaches English at Waterford High School.
A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins, the Jacob School of Music at Indiana University, and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, Aaron has extensive experience teaching children and adult amateurs how to sing and read music, both in sacred and secular traditions. Her professional conducting work has taken to her to churches and institutions across New England.
"I come from a musical family," said Aaron, the youngest of three daughters. "We were always singing."
In fact, continued Aaron with a laugh, her mother likes to say that Kathryn's first words came in the form of a song, inspired by Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," which was played often at home.
According to family lore, Kathryn used to jump up and down in her crib emphatically singing "you ya, you ya," — her unique version of "halleluljah" from the famous musical piece.
An oratorio soloist, Aaron has extensive experience working with youth and adult singers, professionals and volunteers, in many different types of choirs. She has worked extensively with many early music and Baroque ensembles including Catacoustic Consort, Eudaimonia, Pomerium, and the American Baroque Orchestra. She has also shared the stage with many important conductors, including Masaaki Suzuki, Simon Carrington and Helmut Rilling, and recently worked with Ian Watson and the Arcadia Players.
Aaron has also designed musical experiences for art museums. Her most recent recital, with Baroque guitarist Kevin Sherwin, focused on early Baroque Dutch repertoire, created for the Yale University Art Gallery’s "Dutch Masters: Selections from the van Otterloo Collection."
In addition to her background, education, and talent, Aaron has an "amazing ability to connect to people," Howell said.
"We are so lucky to have found her," said Howell, who will co-direct both new initiatives along with Aaron. "She is the perfect person to join us as we expand the footprint of the chorus."
Howell said the Chorus of Westerly in the Schools program, which will begin later this month and run throughout the academic year, will offer students free after-school choir programs once a week in each of Westerly’s elementary schools.
The program is open to all children in grades 3 and 4. Auditions will not be required and there will be no cost to the children to participate in the program. Complimentary bus service home after rehearsal will also be provided. The program was piloted in Springbrook Elementary School with much success, Howell said.
The Chorus of Westerly Foundations Chorus is a brand new choral ensemble designed to introduce adults to singing, Howell said, and is open to all adults regardless of musical background, ability, or training.
"We think everyone should sing," said Saunders, "and we hope this will give people the opportunity to do so."
"Every human being can sing," added Saunders, who sang with the chorus as a youngster growing up in Pawcatuck. "Sometimes people will say something like, 'Oh, I sing in the car or in the shower but I could never sing in public.' But that notion is false.
"We know singing can change their lives for the better," Saunders said, adding that singing is a "community effort" that brings people together.
"We hope people come here to sing and have fun," he said. "We can't wait for our new programs to begin."
"There is always room at the chorus table for everyone," added a smiling Aaron. "We want people to know that."
"Our mission at the Chorus of Westerly is to harness the power of music to transform lives and nourish the soul of the community," Saunders said. "For sixty years, we feel we've been able to do that ... now, we want to expand ... we want to provide another entry point and more access for people to learn music, appreciate music, and have their lives changed."
There are no auditions for the Foundations program which is designed to serve as a sort of "musical training choir for adult singers," Saunders said, "one that offers fundamental musicianship tools to singers so they can become confident and independent musicians."
The ensemble will have its own informal concert at the end of each semester.
The Foundations Chorus will meet Wednesdays from 7 to 8:30 p.m. beginning Feb. 5 and continuing through the middle of May. Admission is $100 and anyone interested is encouraged to call the chorus at 401-596-8663 or stop by the chorus offices at 119 High St.
In addition to her duties with the new initiatives, Aaron will serve as a true assistant conductor to Andrew Howell with the main Chorus of Westerly and as part of its regular performance season, stepping in as needed and helping in the preparation of the season's offerings.
The next concert on the chorus calendar will be Joahnnes Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" on April 4 and 5.