By Whitney Phaneuf
Mark Growden had a passion for jazz and classical music from a young age, growing up in the small northeast California mountain town of Westwood. So he set out to be a composer. He only learned to sing as an adult — out of necessity, when his instruments were stolen — and only then did his rich baritone vocals become a way to book gigs and get his music heard.
Now he's teaching others to sing — often, amateurs who have never sung before — and writing original songs for them to perform. His Calling All Choir, now in its second season, is a 150-person choir made up of singers who, for the most part, have never taken the stage before in their lives.
Growden has always found inspiration in unexpected places. His take on American roots music blends his love of jazz with influences as varied as Appalachian folk, cabaret, and prison work songs from the old South. He started out composing for local dance companies, mainly on saxophone, before learning to play more folk-oriented instruments such as banjo and accordion. He's spent the last 20-some years nomadically touring the country as a one-man band and in ensembles. In between shows, he'd stick around a city long enough to hold a singing workshop, which was as much about technique as it was about playful exercises that opened people up to music. Soon, Growden was known for both his songwriting and teaching abilities.
"The people in SF [in particular] kept coming back to the workshop," said Growden, now an Oakland resident. "They asked 'why do we have to stop for two months while you go on tour?' I had it in my mind that I had to be on the road to make money."
In September of last year, having just moved back to Oakland to settle down, Growden told his San Francisco workshop members, "Let's try it." He studied the community choir model, in which members pay dues to compensate the director, and started designing a program around his original compositions. He knew from the beginning that there would be no auditions; to reinforce its inclusive nature, he called it The Calling All Choir.
Growden spread the word online and through his previous workshop attendees, forming chapters in Sonoma and the East Bay, in addition to San Francisco. He set the dues on a sliding scale, ranging from $0 to $500 per person for the 18-week season. The inaugural season last year kicked off with about 40 members in each location. The three groups rehearsed separately — once a week for two hours a night — before coming together in January for dress rehearsals and final performances at The Sebastopol Center for the Arts and The Crucible in Oakland. The choir also performs at local hospitals and retirement homes.
First season member Gianna Smart had never heard Growden's music before joining, but it ended up being part of the appeal.
"I imagined I'd find a Christmas choir in a church basement somewhere, and was okay with that, but when I met Mark and discovered that he wrote all of his own original compositions, I was really excited," said Smart, who lives in Healdsburg. "The choir is a safe place to explore your own voice and be a part of a bigger sound. You don't have to hit all the notes because you're supported — someone always has your back."
The second season is already five weeks under way, with 150 members. They're set to perform four compositions by Growden in the coming weeks, plus a 1936 cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams called "Dona nobis pacem."