Person leading a singing group in a chapel
Ryan Young / Cornell University

The University Chorus Makes Beautiful Music

The title is as revelatory as it is cheeky: “No Whining, No Flowers.” That’s the name of the Cornell University Chorus’s ongoing project, launched in 2003, to commission new works by women composers, based on texts by women writers.

The name pokes gentle fun at two stereotypical subjects of classical pieces for female voices: the tribulations of lost love, and the beauty of nature. And while it may be a bit of an inside joke, the project has serious aims: it underscores the Chorus’s commitment not only to musical excellence, but to expanding opportunities for soprano and alto voices on the Hill and beyond.

At Reunion 2022, the Chorus will hold several events marking its centennial—a milestone it actually reached in 2020, but was unable to celebrate until now due to the pandemic. They include a Friday night concert in Bailey Hall (tickets are required) as well as events solely for choral alumni, such as a “history tea” and singalong, a centennial luncheon, and a farewell picnic.

“It’s a cliché, but you create something greater than the sum of its parts,” Marion “Betsy” Murphy Erickson ’80, who served as president her senior year, says of performing with the group.

“You work together, listen to each other, use your bodies as your instrument to create a sound that’s beautiful and moving. Then you send it out into the audience and feel their reaction come back to you. It’s just thrilling.”

Originally founded as the Women’s Glee Club, the Chorus is what’s known as a “treble” choir, meaning it comprises sopranos and altos.

And while those vocal parts are typically female—and the Chorus is colloquially known as a women’s group—nowadays it’s open to anyone who sings them, regardless of gender identity.

About 100 people in a group photo
The Cornellian The Women’s Glee Club in the 1926 yearbook.

“Treble-voiced choruses are unique,” notes Scott Tucker, who served as director of the Chorus and Glee Club for 17 years (until 2012, when he became artistic director of the prestigious Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C.).

“It takes a certain repertoire, and it’s a certain sound,” he continues. “Because of the range they sing in and the nature of the acoustics, in some ways they have to be more perfect than men’s voices do to have that ringing sound you get when something’s beautifully in tune—so when that happens, it’s extraordinary. Cornell, along with a couple of other women’s choruses, really does that well.”

Headquartered in the basement of Sage Chapel and about four dozen members strong, the Chorus is a student-run organization with its own slate of officers, with musical guidance by a professional director (currently Sarah Bowe, a visiting lecturer in the music department who holds the same role with the Glee Club).

“What sets our ensemble apart is its legacy of student leadership,” says Caroline Hinrichs ’22, a nutritional sciences major in Human Ecology and the group’s outgoing president. “Most university ensembles are run by the conductor, but ours offers the unique opportunity for students to get heavily involved in their own success.”

Deirdre Courtney-Batson ’72, MA ’75—who has been compiling a history of the Chorus and sits on its alumni advisory council—stresses the level of student commitment the group requires, noting the opportunities it offers for personal and leadership development.

“These kids are remarkable,” she says. “They raise money. They plan not just concerts, but world tours. They do their work with amazing professionalism.”

Hinrichs, who sings soprano one (the highest vocal part), has performed with the group all four years on the Hill; in fact, she signed up to audition before she even matriculated.

“I was super excited to join the ensemble,” she recalls. “It was so cool, because you were part of this huge tradition; even having just arrived on campus, you had all this nostalgia and school spirit.”

The Chorus gives several on-campus concerts each year, and—in non-COVID times—tours nationally and internationally. It has released several albums, including a CD of Big Red songs and a collection of “No Whining, No Flowers” compositions.

And when it comes to admitting new members, it’s highly selective: roughly six people audition for each open spot.

The group also has an a cappella subset, dubbed After Eight. (Its previous subset, Nothing But Treble, was established in 1976 and spun off as an independent ensemble in 1990.)

Singing Pioneers

As Cornell history expert Corey Earle ’07 observes, the founding of the Women’s Glee Club in 1920 coincided with a surge in enrollment of female students on the Hill. (In its early decades, the group was also open to faculty and staff, their spouses, and community members.)

“It’s very much a pioneering organization, and it has a role in broader music history,” says Earle, himself a Glee Club alum. “It’s one of the oldest treble-voice college choirs—and keep in mind, around the turn of the century, coeducation was still controversial; our peer institutions were still not admitting women as undergraduates. So as far as I know, the only older ensembles were founded at women’s colleges.”

In 1960, the group evolved into the University Chorus—though, as Earle notes, its struggle for musical and gender equality was hardly over. “For many years,” he observes, “there was definitely prejudice against women’s voices.”

Ten people wearing matching t-shirts
Provided Nothing But Treble members on campus in 1980

And while the Glee Club had long performed during Senior Week and at Commencement, Earle points out, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the Chorus did as well; only in recent decades has it approached parity with its tenor-bass counterpart in terms of touring internationally.

“The first year I was in the group, we didn’t even have our own concert,” recalls Courtney-Batson, who joined as a sophomore in the late 1960s, sang throughout undergrad, and rejoined as a master’s student.

“We did do a marvelous Carmina Burana [the famed cantata by Carl Orff], and I don’t think I’d ever had so much fun in my life,” she continues. “But at the same time, we wondered, ‘Why don’t we get to sing Cornell songs? Or go on tour? Or sing around graduation or Convocation?’ And that’s when things began to change.”

While at many schools the men’s and women’s singing groups eventually merged into one large ensemble, Cornell has maintained the Glee Club and Chorus as separate entities—though they regularly perform together and even go on joint tours.

“When you have both a treble-voice group and a lower-voice group, you have more flexibility,” Erickson observes. “And you can put them together to do mixed works—so it’s the best of both worlds.”

Given the longstanding connections between the two ensembles, perhaps it’s inevitable that there have been dozens of marriages between their members over the years.

Those inter-ensemble couples include Erickson and her husband, Ken Erickson, MPS ’81, and Courtney-Batson and her husband, Philip Batson ’70, PhD ’76.

“It was kind of funny—at the time, the Glee Club had a rule that they had to vote on any collaborations they were going to do,” Erickson recalls with a laugh. “So when we got engaged, my husband stood up at a rehearsal and said he had an announcement of a collaboration that none of them got to vote on.”

Another choral alum married to a former Glee Club member is Kathy Heppner Trogolo ’95, wife of J. Michael Trogolo ’96. Chorus president her junior year and general manager as a senior, Trogolo vividly recalls seeing the group sing on the Arts Quad during her freshman orientation, when members not only performed but taught traditional Big Red songs to the newly minted Cornellians.

“I’m one of those people who tends to say I majored in chorus; so much of my life revolved around Sage Chapel, Lincoln Hall, and all the performance spaces,” she says. “When you come to campus with a love of music, and you find a community that not only also loves it but wants to engage with it in the same ways—intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially—it really becomes a family.”

While many choral alumni have continued to nurture their passion for music by singing with community groups or church choirs, some have gone on to professional careers. They include Dara Taylor ’09, a double major in music and psychology in Arts & Sciences who’s now based in Los Angeles as a composer for movies and TV.

Taylor, who holds a master’s in film scoring from NYU, boasts such credits as the Amazon Prime drama The Tender Bar (directed by George Clooney and starring Ben Affleck) and the Kristen Wiig comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.

“It’s impressive how few music majors are in the Chorus, but how strong the musicianship is: there were bio majors who could sight-read me under a table,” says Taylor, who served as president (as well as musical director of After Eight), and is now on the group’s alumni council.

“The passion was undeniable,” she says. “Everyone really wanted to be there, because it made their heart sing.”

For Taylor—as for many choral alums—the group and its camaraderie were defining elements of her college years. Among her most memorable experiences: a tour of China that included performances in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

“When you’re taken out of your comfort zone and put into a new place with all new people, you make your own family,” she observes. “That’s what the Chorus did; it was a home, and some of those people are still my great friends to this day.”

Adds Taylor: “I like to say I never joined a sorority—unless you count the Chorus.”

Read the story in Cornellians.

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People singing
Jason Koski/Cornell University The Chorus at the inauguration of President Elizabeth Garrett in 2015.
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