FRAMINGHAM — It was a September evening in the brightly lit community room of a historic church in the village of Saxonville. Promptly at the top of the hour, after seats were taken and greetings extended, the room filled with voices.
Seated at an electronic keyboard, Connie Galli warmed up her 40 or so students with some vocal exercises.
Roll your shoulders for me, she urged, and they obliged. Practice your “neutral jaw.”
“There should be no tension,” Galli explained.
Launched in 2018, this Framingham group is one of the longer-running chapters of Rock Voices, a network of 24 choirs and counting across New England and upstate New York, with outposts as far afield as Portland, Ore. It’s the brainchild of one man, Tony Lechner, a 53-year-old former school music teacher in South Hadley who saw a need for community groups with a shared goal: mastering concert-worthy choral renditions of a wide range of popular songs.
With groups based in Newton, Brookline, and Beverly and stretching south to Cape Cod, west to the Pioneer Valley, and beyond, Rock Voices has presented seasonal work featuring the songs of the Beatles and Motown, “yacht rock” favorites, and more.
The fall 2023 season that just kicked off is more representative of the crazy-quilt playlist of a typical season. (All groups practice the same slates of songs, to encourage drop-in rehearsals and collaborative performances.) During the second weekly meeting of the current season in Framingham, Galli led her group through practice runs of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” Yes’s “Roundabout,” and Level 42′s 1985 New Wave hit, “Something About You.”
“We’re just finding songs with harmony,” said Lechner in a phone interview the next day. Since 2012, he’s been teaching the longest-running Rock Voices group near the home he shares in Northampton with his wife, Sara, and their two children.
Harmony is the key ingredient of Rock Voices, in more ways than one. The people who sign up are not shy about their habit of singing in the shower, or at the top of their lungs in the car. For many, joining the group confirms what they already knew: Singing feels good.
But whether or not they realized it at first, they agree that the group has given them more than just an excuse to belt out a few tunes. It’s given them a welcome sense of community.
“We have become a family,” said Leah Charifson of Framingham, who had her service dog by her side. When Charifson had to put down another dog, her beloved 10-year-old Shih Tzu, her friends in the choir were quick to express their condolences.
And when she broke her ankle, she said, “Everyone took care of me. I love these people!”
“I was looking for some joy in my life,” said Michele Standwill of Natick, who identified herself as a single mom “with a lot of stress. My kids are getting older, and I wanted something just for me.”
The Framingham choir sings “Heartbreaker,” recorded by Pat Benatar and released in 1979.
“That’s probably the secret weapon of it,” Lechner said of his business. “Where else after college can you meet this many people? It’s not common.”
With a mission of “healing ourselves and others through song,” Rock Voices requires no audition to join. Seasonal enrollment costs $275, but financial aid is available.
“We give out a ton of financial aid,” Lechner said. “We don’t turn people away.” They also fund-raise for charity through ticket sales to seasonal concerts.
“This past summer we raised over $15,000 for charities,” he said. “We’re not a nonprofit, but we try to act like one.”
Though the United Kingdom has a popular community-based program called Rock Choir, Lechner said he was unaware of it until he founded Rock Voices. There are isolated rock choirs around the country, but none to his knowledge that are building this kind of network.
“Requests are pouring in from all over,” he said.
During a brief break in the rehearsal in Framingham, members milled about the church kitchen, peeling tangerines and munching oatmeal cookies. Kristin Chartier of Millbury said she joined Rock Voices last spring. A former teacher in Newton, she had to leave work after contracting Lyme disease.
“I’m single, and I live alone,” she said. “It was really isolating. And then I came here. It changed my life, honestly.”
She has her fingers crossed for the day when the organization will assign her favorite song: Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”
Galli, who also conducts the choir in Auburn, recently took over in Framingham for Michael Winslow, who has enrolled in grad school. The two groups have joined forces onstage, so the Framingham veterans already were familiar with Galli’s fast-paced, lighthearted teaching style.
She spent 35 years as choral director at Shepherd Hill Regional High School in Dudley. She first met Winslow in her church choir, when he was in fourth grade.
“You could tell he had a special talent,” she said. “And the student became the teacher.”
The Rock Voices teachers may be accomplished, but the students need no prior training. They don’t even have to read music.
That’s the nice thing about it, Galli said. “Classical choir sort of assumes a certain level of expertise. You don’t sing Haydn, Handel, and Mozart unless you have that.”
Back at the keyboard, she took turns instructing the soprano section, the altos, the tenors, and the basses. (There were four men in the group on this particular night, seated side by side just in front of the teacher. Enrollment skews female and older, Lechner said, but some groups have a higher percentage of men, and “the young people find their way to us eventually.”)
Learn the notes first, then you can “ping it up,” Galli told her students cheerily. “And if you don’t know what I mean by ‘ping it up,’ oh, you will find out!”
While trying to get the sopranos to lighten their touch for their harmony part on “Gimme Some Lovin’,” Galli held out her left palm and gently tapped it with the fingertips of her right.
“I always say ‘land on the note,’” she explained. “Don’t reach for it!”
She’s retired from Shepherd Hill but still teaches as an adjunct instructor at Anna Maria College in Paxton. Thursday nights are set aside for rehearsal in Auburn; on Wednesdays, she’s in Framingham.
“In my head, I still think I’m 16 years old,” she said. “I approach it with the same abandon.”
Just about anyone can learn to sing if they put their mind to it, Galli said. “I’ve only met two people who seriously could not match pitch.”
And even if she meets a third, she wouldn’t have the heart to tell them.
“If we’re not having fun while we’re creating art,” she said, “then what’s the point?”