Song of the soul
"The voice is the sound of the soul," said Mimi Bornstein of Camden. She should know: she has two decades of professional experience directing choral groups, including 13 years leading a church choir, and is now artistic director of the Midcoast Community Chorus.
Raised in the suburbs of New York City, Bornstein sang in choruses throughout her school career, and said she had been inspired by her high school choral director, though she didn't realize it at the time.
"He was wonderful," she said, recounting how when she took part in a concert to honor him at his retirement, she was struck to realize that she had unconsciously picked up much of his conducting style and made it her own.
She had already begun her musical career in the 1980s when she spent three years studying and working with the late composer and musician Kay Gardner, a pioneer in the field of healing with sound. Gardner, whom she called her "musical mother," taught Bornstein, a classically-trained pianist, about the "feminine" side of music, including its "spiritual qualities," she said.
During this period, she learned about research into the effect of music on the immediate environment, as well as its healing power. According to studies she's read, she said, music changes people on a cellular level, and "when you change yourself [by singing], you change the world."
She said she saw the power of music to change people's lives when she was teaching voice. Often as a student would find her voice in music (many of her students were women), a parallel process of finding a voice in her life — finding a direction, becoming more assertive — would take place as well.
Bornstein, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockland, was the church's choir director for 13 years. In 2004, the church wanted to do a choral project as an outreach to the community, and to raise awareness of environmental issues, Bornstein explained. She advertised for local volunteers to sing Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" ("Earth Mass"), expecting about 70 people to show up, and got twice that many. The concert raised $10,000 for Tanglewood 4H Camp in Lincolnville, paid the musicians who accompanied the chorus and covered all its other expenses.
Even Bornstein was astonished by the overwhelming response.
In 2006, she put together a community chorus to do a benefit concert for Area Interfaith Outreach, a Rockland food pantry and social service organization, which was trying to raise money to buy a small building to house its operations. During rehearsals, she presented information about hunger in the Midcoast put together by AIO, and chorus members brought canned goods in. People brought canned goods to the concert as well. This time, $12,000 was raised, all of which was matched, and about a ton of food went to AIO as well.
Local people who had taken part in either or both of the community choruses were starting to get hooked on the experience and some of them asked Bornstein to form a permanent chorus. Invitations were sent to singers from the two previous events and a meeting was held to talk about organizing MCC, which was formed in 2007. Eventually the group became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and it now does two concerts a year: one in January to raise money to sustain the chorus, and another in June to benefit a community organization.
Bornstein chooses music from around the globe, with each concert organized around a theme. She said she selects "music of peace, hope, healing and transformation all over the world," adding that singing the music of other cultures helps to break down the barriers between peoples. Her concerts are participatory events, with the audience singing on many of the numbers, and sometimes clapping in rhythm as well.
She believes that audiences are looking for "short, intense community experiences," and that is what MCC's concerts are designed to be, with their themes, sing-alongs and repertoire based in folk music.
For Bornstein herself, conducting is a spiritual experience, though she was careful to say it is not religious. She defined spirituality as energy, and herself as the mover and synthesizer of the energy of band, chorus, music and audience during a performance. Music, to her, is a form of spiritual expression and "has always been my safe place."
Along with Kay Gardner, she named her high school choral director, Bernie La Due, as her "musical father," saying he had shown her that "you can take amateur musicians and really make them sound beautiful." Ysaye Barnwell, one of the founders of the African-American women's choral group Sweet Honey in the Rock, is another heroine for her.
Following its January concert, MCC will sing part of "Missa Gaia" with the Paul Winter Consort in February. Bornstein called the turn of events "a wonderful full circle."
The chorus will begin a new semester of singing Monday, Sept. 13, at the John Street United Methodist Church in Camden. Interested singers may register online at mccsings.org or come to the church at 5 p.m. before the 6:30 rehearsal.