Use Your Voice: Amplifying Community Through Art, Law, and Song
Avisen attorney and shareholder Abby Pettit has a lot of passions in her life, including community building, lifting up the women around her, and the art of performance and song. When she decided she wanted to return to singing and performing with a group, she knew Calliope Women’s Chorus, with their focus on promoting social change and keeping hope alive, was the right organization for her. Avisen’s marketing team sat down with Abby recently to learn more about when her love of singing started, what rejoining a chorus of diverse women has meant to her, and how Calliope’s mission aligns with her approach to helping her clients as an attorney.
Q: When did you first start singing and what are some of your favorite singing memories?
Abby: I’ve been singing and performing since I was a little kid. I did community theater, local musicals, church choir, and I was in my high school show choir. I’d say a lot of my favorite singing memories are from community theater. I had a lot of friends there who I didn’t go to school with, so it was a totally different group of people, and I really liked performing and being on stage. When I went to college, I was in a choir for 1-2 semesters. After that, I didn’t sing again until I joined Calliope. College was a lot and law school was a lot, so I didn’t really have hobbies for a time. I decided after I had started my working life and had settled into being an adult that wasn’t going to school that I wanted to resurrect my hobbies. I looked around for a choir that I could join on a regular basis but wouldn’t be a huge time commitment, and I landed on Calliope, which has been great.
Q: How did you originally find Calliope and how long have you been a member?
Abby: I joined about six years ago, with a year or so break in the middle when I had my daughter. I think I just googled around for choirs and choruses in the Twin Cities. Thinking back, I may have heard something about them on the radio, but it was kind of dumb luck. I was looking for something close to where I lived at the time. Now the irony is I keep moving farther and farther away from Saint Paul, which is where Calliope rehearses and performs, but I made great friends and it’s worth that travel time. I’m an introverted person, so it can be hard for me to settle in and be comfortable in certain social situations, but I’ve gotten really comfortable in the group, and I think that speaks to the other members and the group as a whole.
Q: As you were looking for a group that fit your availability and your own wants, what else drew you to this group in particular?
Abby: It’s a women’s chorus, and I always like working with large groups of women. On top of that, it’s a choir that’s focused on social justice and making change through art – in particular doing that through the work of female artists. The choir commissions pieces from local and non-local female composers, we feature work from female arrangers and artists. But the general focus of using art and song to promote a positive impact on our environment and community really spoke to me.
I also like that Calliope is an LGBT group and they’re the second oldest feminist chorus in the country having started over 40 years ago. It kind of grew from being a safe space for gay and transgender women to gather together to share art and music. I think that ethos is very much still part of who we are. It’s been important to talk about what kind of space and community we want to create to continue that welcoming environment for all female identifying people who want to participate and incorporating that into how we interact with other groups in the community.
We’re part of the Queer Music Consortium (“QMC”), along with the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, One Voice Mixed Chorus, the Minnesota Freedom Band, and the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra. QMC holds events at various points throughout the year, and those events usually have a social justice theme to them. There’s a joint Pride concert in June where we sing songs from the Freedom Songbook and it’s a great, open to the public, free event.
For me, Calliope is really about community and the opportunity to impact something outside of myself through art. And there’s always that in a performance group, you’re always going to connect with people through your performance, but it meant a lot to me that there was this other layer with Calliope.
Q: What have been some of your favorite moments with Calliope or in your singing career?
Abby: We did a very long piece a few years back, a four or five movement piece with a string quartet, that was based on the Diary of Anne Frank. I think it was 40 minutes long, and it was very difficult. It was everything the Diary of Anne Frank is: pretty and sad and hopeful. That was just an incredible experience and unlike anything I had heard before or experienced going in.
We’ve had the opportunity to sing a lot of pieces composed by women in the Twin Cities. Getting to learn and perform a new piece of music for the first time ever is incredible and we even occasionally have the added bonus of at least one session where we get to work with the composer herself. To have somebody who wrote something specifically for us and also give their time to come in and work with us, sharing how she envisioned it being performed, giving critiques, conducting us through the piece, that was really special. We’ve done that a few different times, and that’s always fun to do something brand new.
We also just had our first real, full-length post-shutdown concert a couple weeks ago and my husband brought my daughter who is almost 5 (my 2-year-old stayed home because that would have been a disaster). This was the first time she was really able to watch me and take in a concert. We tried when she was a baby and again when she was two, but she tried to rush the stage. Some of the songs we had listened to in the car and we talked about them. To get to see her reaction to seeing me sing – we talk about it when I’m going to rehearsal and she asks “Are you going to sing with your friends?” and I say “Yep, I’m going to go sing with my friends.” — that was really special to share this passion of mine with my daughter.
Q: How would you describe a Calliope concert to someone who’s never seen the group perform?
Abby: Usually our concerts have some kind of theme — this last one was “Music Is the Food of Love,” so the different pieces all had a food theme running throughout, both explicitly and implicitly of course (you can watch an archived livestream of that performance here). So usually there’s an underlying thread that pulls everything together.
The tone is pretty mixed. We’ll tend to have 1-2 more serious choral songs, some that are sillier numbers, at least one to get you dancing in your seat or us dancing on the risers. We’ll often have some small group numbers in addition to the full group.
We always end our shows with a song called “Deep Peace,” which the group has been singing since its beginning. It’s a 5-part a cappella song and we invite any former Calliope members in the audience to come on stage and join us or we spread out throughout the venue depending on the space we’re in. It makes my husband cry every time. It’s very pretty and it’s kind of an invocation: We hope this music fills you with peace and joy, now go out into the world and take that peace with you.
It’s a fun experience. We have a pretty faithful contingent of regular fans, but it’s also people’s family and friends, and of course we are always happy to welcome new concert goers! We try to get out there in the community as best we can, which has been incredibly difficult these past few years. I’m very proud of how we’ve maintained through the challenges of the pandemic. We’re only about 10 singers down from our normal of around 40 when we had stopped doing normal rehearsals. The composition of the group has changed quite a bit, lots of new people this year after we decided to go back to in person rehearsals. I think people we desperate for this kind of community.
Q: The Calliope website says that “many members and supporters say the group satisfies them both socially and spiritually.” How has your time with Calliope helped you grow as an individual and a community member?
Abby: Similar to when I was a kid and had my theater and music friends, who were a completely different group from my school and neighborhood friends, the people I interact with through Calliope are geographically different from me, but they also come from all different professions and walks of life. We range in age from college students to women in their 70s. It’s a great mix of experiences and perspectives and it’s a strong community, in that we’ve had to have a lot of difficult conversations about community building lately. We had to talk about how to maintain our community in a distance throughout the pandemic. At the same time, we also had to learn from the social and political movements that hit the Twin Cities and our country in general in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. As you can imagine, a lot of these movements are near and dear to the women of Calliope. We’ve had to learn how to juggle our group response to these movements while making sure to provide each other with individual support emotionally and spiritually.
A lot of the members have become good friends of mine, and they’re people I would have never known outside the choir. It’s given me the opportunity to get to know people who I would have had no reason to enter their orbit other than through our shared performance and music.
Q: What advice do you have to someone who wants to get involved with a vocal group like Calliope?
Abby: My advice is, if you have done music in the past and want to return to it, if you want to start being creative, just do it. There’s plenty of people — I’ve worked with plenty of other people involved in similar organizations who come back after decades away. It might take some time to readjust your brain, but it’s so beneficial. It’s a nice breath of fresh air in my week and it’s so different than my normal day-to-day. It’s a good, healthy, different outlet. I think it’s so important to be involved in the community in some way, just to connect to people. But also, it forces your brain to work in different ways. Reading, learning, and making music activates different parts of your brain. If it’s something you have a genuine interest in, just do it. You won’t regret it. There are groups available for every level of time commitment and talent, especially here in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Shake off the fear and nerves of rejection. Most people feel scared of joining new groups and of putting yourself out here, you’ve got to push past that. I call it ‘eating your vegetables.’ You have to do it because it’s good for you; and then once you’ve done it, you’ll keep doing it, because you’ll realize how good it makes you feel.
Q: Another quote from the website I thought was interesting said “Singers who audition for Calliope are attracted to the supportive community and to making music with a group that believes it can communicate its mission—and make change—through song.” How does this philosophy of community building and creating positive change translate to the way you approach law and helping your clients?
Abby: I really look at my work with small businesses and individuals, I look at that as my opportunity to help build my community. To help owners build something positive. To help families build their lives and legacies. I think when we make art, that’s something we’re also doing. We’re not only giving people that experience, but we’re building something as a group. Performances are very ephemeral — they happen and they’re done — and there’s nothing quite like a live performance. But when you’re part of a group that makes music together on a regular basis, you’re also making new ties and creating something more lasting. I hope that what we do in Calliope is contribute to the bonds that hold the Twin Cities community together, and I hope that what I’m doing as an attorney with my clients is helping them make connections with their business, employees, customers, and their networks. I hope what I am doing is creating a web that makes our local community stronger. That’s really what attracted me to Calliope, and that’s what I try to do with my clients.