The sounds of Motown could be heard wafting out of the Methodist Church on Tuesday evenings the past few months. If anyone had peeked into the choir room, they would have found the Nicolet Choraliers rehearsing for their annual spring concert.
They would have seen a room full of happy, hardworking friends smiling, laughing, cheering and jeering, helping each other work through a program of bright, lively songs.
Directing the group is Bonnie Dawson, and alongside is Bea Kerner providing accompaniment at the piano. Both women have been leading the Choraliers for 25 years and couldn’t be more pleased with the job.
“We work well together,” says Bonnie. “We have signals-a glance or a motion-that we understand.”
Bea, an experienced accompanist who plays with many groups in the area, echoes the sentiment with a grin. “We have a saying: ‘Bonnie’s the boss, everyone knows, but what Bea plays goes.'”
It seems a perfect pairing. “Bea can look at a piece and say, ‘No, that won’t work or you may have to cut this part,'” says Bonnie.
“We work together selecting a theme for a concert. Sometimes we just get a bee in our bonnet and go for an idea; sometimes the girls suggest something.”
This spring’s theme of Motown hits has the group rockin’ and swayin’ with shouts, claps, hoots and animal noises, wearing costumes, waving streamers and sporting “bling.”
“We have a lot of fun,” says Bonnie. “But we also work hard. Most of the singers read music, but they also help out anyone who doesn’t, recording parts and offering them as a way to learn. They are so dedicated to the music and each other.”
The Nicolet Choraliers was formed around 1975, according to Bonnie. “It was Rose Nelson, Gerrie Martini and Jan Miller who first approached Nicolet College with the idea of sponsoring a women’s choir,” she says. “I moved here in ’77 from Chicago, and after a while I thought, I’ve got to do something. I joined up and sang second soprano.”
Through the mid-’80s, the group was led by Carla Strong and Mary Petersen, but ended up in need of new leadership in 1988. Bonnie stepped forward. At the same time, Bea became available.
“I was playing volleyball on Tuesday nights,” she says, “but then they tore down the Labor Temple where we played, so I was free.”
Nicolet College is the only institution of its kind in the state that supports a music program such as this, according to Bea. She also plays for the Nicolet Male Chorus, the Choraliers’ counterpart. Besides hiring Bea and Bonnie, the college helps out in other ways. “They supply some of our music,” says Bonnie. “They help out with advertising, printing tickets and programs, things like that.”
With a complement of 25 to 35 singers, the Choraliers enjoy a very dedicated membership. “I’d say 98 percent of our members have been with us for many years,” says Bonnie. “What our singers get out of the group is satisfaction, camaraderie and a sense of self-worth. It’s a wonderful group; we’re really like a family.”
Bea points out the fact that members help each other. “There isn’t competition, but cooperation. This a great support group, and we all get along very well.”
Watching a rehearsal, anyone can see the form that support takes. While applauding solo or small group performances, they’re not afraid to offer constructive criticism.
“You can often see them helping each other,” says Bonnie, “discussing problems and offering solutions.
Some of them make CDs, some people make costumes-everybody does something. With everyone helping, it’s not just the two of us.”
The Choraliers are taking the summer off, so the singing will begin again in mid-September. “Everyone is welcome to join us,” said Bonnie. “We’re looking for all voicings. We practice on Tuesdays through mid- May when we have our annual spring concert.”
For more information, call Bonnie at (715) 362-2485.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Living on the Lake and Northwoods Commerce magazines.