Savannah’s Spectra Choir lifts up the voices of women singers and composers

Credit: Provided by Tegan Miller/For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Provided by Tegan Miller/For Savannah Morning News

When vocalist Tegan Miller began studying choral conducting five years ago, she noticed in her first semester a glaring lack of women composers within the graduate curriculum. She immediately wanted to change that. And so, for every male composer she studied, Miller sought their female contemporaries, researched them, and shared her findings with the greater cohort. Miller’s diligence became the seeds that would grow into Spectra, Savannah’s very first all-treble voiced choir.

Saturday afternoon, May 27, Spectra Choir presents its spring concert, "Grounded in Truth, Empowered by Song," at Asbury Memorial Church, 1008 E. Henry St. The one-hour performance is followed with a meet-and-greet and light refreshments.

The concert revolves around questions, "What happens when a woman takes power? What happens when she won't back down?" Thematically central, these are lyrics from the composition, "What Happens When a Woman" by Artemisia, a trio of women a cappella composers whose contemporary work is part of the afternoon's line up along with pieces by Dr. Zanaida Robles, Ruth Moody, Andrea Ramsey and Helen Reddy.

Lifting up the under-represented voices of women in song

Miller, who graduated last summer from Iowa’s Simpson College with a master’s in conducting, is on a mission. She wants to share with Savannah and the world women composers and composers of color who, for centuries, have been systematically silenced, marginalized and disregarded. Miller is dedicated to finding underrepresented composers and bringing forth their voices to make them part of the canon.

As she wrapped up her graduate studies, Miller also worked to recruit singers and build the foundation of Spectra. She genuinely believes everyone can sing. With no prior experience necessary, the choir is for anyone who sings in treble clef, alto, soprano or higher, and understands its mission of empowering women through music and performance.

“This choir is a life-long dream,” emphasized Miller. “It is the joy of my life. I opened it to anyone, and over half of the current 22 members have never been in choir before. Hadn’t read music. Yet, what they have accomplished is mind blowing. In this performance we have one piece with seven-part harmony. I never imagined that people who had never been in a choir before would be able to sing in seven parts in our first year. Everyone in it works hard. Everything I throw at them, they soak it all up.”

Credit: Provided by Tegan Miller/For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Provided by Tegan Miller/For Savannah Morning News

Choir member, vocalist and Marsh Point Elementary music teacher, Rebecca Flaherty, joined Spectra because Miller’s vision and goals resonated. With a master’s degree in voice, she’d studied and performed music for years but had never been in a group where a significant part of its mission was prioritizing women in music.

“In school, studying women composers never was a focus,” recalled Flaherty. “And in joining this choir, I was interested in community. Sometimes in rehearsal we stop and talk about issues facing us as women. The other evening we paused to discuss women and imposter syndrome. Talking about this is a means of support, building relationships, and it translates into incredible support for the sound. The way you feel about people you’re singing with affects your sound. I am a fan of having a sisterhood, and we support each other which makes all of us sound good together.”

Flaherty recalls an incident in a master’s studio voice class in which a female student was made to feel ashamed for having a plus-sized body. Flaherty asserts situations like this are often typical of traditional voice programs in which women are considered disposable. Because there are so many more women in voice programs, they are often under incredible pressure to conform to strict expectations of beauty, body size and traditional femininity. If a woman doesn’t fit this expectation, she is discarded for another who does.

“Once an instructor was coaching a class on what to wear, “ recalled Flaherty. “A student got on stage to sing in a sleeveless tank dress, and the teacher criticized her for how her arms looked and how they were larger. Everyone in the class felt so uncomfortable for this woman on stage. In Spectra, we are here to make music, not be models. Tegan is building a community where people come in and feel comfortable making mistakes in order to grow from them, and in this environment we thrive and create truly beautiful music.”

Beverly Jaques moved to Savannah four years ago after retiring from a career in development at Harvard University. She's also a board member at American Traditions Vocal Collection where she got to know Miller a couple years ago. At first, Jaques wasn't sure if she wanted to blend her singing life with advocacy for women's rights. But the more she sings and performs with the group the more she learns and grows in music and is certain she made the right decision.

Credit: Provided by Tegan Miller/For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Provided by Tegan Miller/For Savannah Morning News

“I have found my happy place singing with Spectra,” emphasized Jaques. “I think its mission to empower treble voices and move forward in an uncertain world where our rights as women are being challenged all the time, is incredibly important. Tegan has this spirit that is all about learning and growing and making mistakes and embracing them. It unites and connects us all. The pieces she has selected for this concert are bold and empowering, and I’m excited to be singing them.”

Miller is also looking forward to what will be Spectra’s second community performance and is eager for what she anticipates the choir will become.

“It’s an act of taking back our power and finding our voice, that is the ethos of the choir,” intoned Miller. “In coming years I would like to build it to 50 voices or more. Although the majority of us are women, all who sing in the treble staff, align with our mission, and love to sing are welcome here. This is why we’re called a “treble choir,” not a “women’s choir.” We speak a lot about the patriarchy and how it affects us as women, but the patriarchy affects us all. We should all be feminists. We strive to be an inclusive space, approaching the world with joyful curiosity and open hearts and minds.”

If You Go >>

What: "Grounded in Truth, Empowered by Song," Spectra Choir Spring Concert

Where: Asbury Memorial Church, 1008 E. Henry St., Savannah

When: Saturday, May 27, 4:00 p.m.

Cost: Tickets starting at $20, available online and at the door

Tickets: Eventbrite

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah’s Spectra Choir lifts up the voices of women singers and composers


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