This Liberty chorus director mixes professional and amateur singers to make 'magic'
Anyone can join the Liberty Community Chorus, where amateur singers sit next to classically trained vocalists. “Without them sitting next to those other singers, they never know how good they can become,” says Artistic Director Bryan Taylor.
Bryan Taylor floated the idea of a one-night concert by an amateur choir in Liberty, Missouri, in 2003 to help everyday people reconnect with making music. When 110 people showed up to the first rehearsal, he knew he had something special.
Twenty years later, the Liberty Community Chorus averages between 60 and 80 regular members, and performs four concerts a year under Taylor’s artistic direction. The choral group, which doesn’t require an audition to join, provides a unique space where classically trained musicians and amateur singers alike can learn from each other and give their community the gift of music.
“Without them sitting next to those other singers, they never know how good they can become,” Taylor says of his choir members. “That’s the magic I love about it.”
Taylor’s professional singing experience is far-reaching: He sang with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers at Carnegie Hall in the late 1990s, and was a member of the Kansas City Chorale when the group won a Grammy Award in 2015.
Taylor cherishes those professional experiences, and keeps a reverence for the highest levels of choral performance. Still, he says there’s something different about the music he makes in Liberty.
“He could concentrate on only his abilities and he would be celebrated for that,” says Kansas City organist and music leader Jan Kraybill, who’s also been nominated for a Grammy. “But he gives his gifts back to the community, and I love him for that.”
Kraybill’s professional path has crossed with Taylor’s many times over the years, including accompanying the Liberty Community Chorus. She says his love for the chorus proves he is one of the most generous musical colleagues she knows.
“When people first hear the chorus is non-audition, their expectations are lower,” Kraybill says. “Bryan does not allow that to enter his thought process. He enables (choir members) to dream big and do more than they thought they could. It’s obvious that he believes in them and even loves them, and it’s amazing to watch.”
New members are welcome when weekly rehearsals resume from 6:45-9:15 p.m. Thursday, August 24 at Liberty United Methodist Church, with the first concert of the season in October. Titled “Let Music Reign,” the performance will celebrate a history of British choral music.
Taylor began his career as a high school choir teacher in Kearney, Missouri, keeping regular church gigs on the side. After he began working full-time at a church in in 2000, it didn’t take long for the teaching itch to return.
“It wasn’t for lack of enough work to do, but I think as a musician you have to keep busy and ask yourself to do more to develop your own talents,” he says. “That teaching absence was something I really needed to pick back up and keep.”
Members of the Liberty Community Chorus range from career singers to those who have never sung in a group before. While some directors might be daunted by such a patchwork assembly of voice parts and skill, it gives Taylor a chance to mold fresh, new singers while still choosing a repertoire that challenges the more advanced members.
“To get the kind of sound that we are able to produce, without auditioning folks to see that they can sing the parts, that goes back to Bryan’s ability to get the best out of us,” says Stan Niederhauser, a longtime member of the chorus and friend of Taylor’s.
He says Taylor is able to articulate precisely what he wants from each section of the choir and explain it so everyone can understand. When he gives critiques, it’s always done with love, Niederhauser says, and when he sets high expectations, the choir knows it’s because Taylor believes they’re capable of achieving them.
“He can show you exactly the sound he wants from you himself — it’s uncanny,” says Niederhauser.
The concerts Taylor programs are complex and varied, and he has a special appreciation for theming, so every performance centers on a new motif. Former themes include Broadway showtunes, Holocaust remembrance, and an homage to people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia and their caregivers.
Often, members of the choir find unexpected resonance with the subject matter, adding a sentimental layer to the performance. One memorable piece for Niederhauser was an arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” In Niederhauser’s 13-year tenure with the chorus, he’s performed it three times. It never gets old, he says.
The piece begins with bagpipes echoing through the performance venue. Then, a solo singer enters, followed by an organ, drums, and the rest of the choral voices in a slow build. Niederhauser calls it a “mountaintop experience.”
“It’s emotional,” he says. “That’s the reason all of us keep coming back, to duplicate that feeling.”
Taylor’s own surprising connection to the music came in 2010, when his mother died of ovarian cancer. He intentionally scheduled the next Liberty Community Chorus concert to coincide with the worst of her illness.
As the choir began their rendition of “Calling My Children Home,” he became overwhelmed.
“For me, that was the song — a little-bitty, unimportant piece,” he remembers.
“It wasn’t a selfish decision to include it,” Taylor says, “but an example of what I often preach, which is that we don’t know what one chord or phrase is going to save somebody.”
Whether it inspires emotional revelations or not, the Liberty Community Chorus has spent two decades providing dozens of singers and hundreds of listeners a space to come together in song.