You don’t have to be a superstar to join the Loudoun Chorale—you just have to love singing. And for the past three years, a choral wunderkind has been breathing new life into the county’s community choir.
The chorale’s artistic director, 26-year-old Max Nolin, is inspiring performers with his youth and talent, bringing joy and verve to the group, which accepts all music-lovers ready to put in the time and effort required.
Nolin, a Washington-based music teacher, commutes to Loudoun every week to share his expertise, helping the nonprofit group offer top-notch choral performances while remaining true to its mission as an inclusive community choir.
“What the chorale has—and it was there when I got there and it continues to grow—is a really human sound and a really beautiful sound,” Nolin said. “When people come to our concerts, they’re moved not just by the sounds, but they’re moved because the people are really committed to what they’re doing. It’s a really full experience.”
Nolin grew up singing in church and school choirs near Canton, OH, where his mother, a music teacher, was his first choir director. The lifelong singer started college at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland with a dream of becoming an opera singer, but shifted gears after the university’s choral director and his work with a local church choir led him to fall in love with community music-making. While earning his undergraduate degree, Nolin directed a 12-member choir at a Cleveland-area church.
“It was the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. … I love the work of it, the community of it and how much fun it is,” Nolin said. “The choral community is really tight knit and about human connection and human interaction.”
Nolin went on to get his master’s degree at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, which he calls “choir mecca.” There he immersed himself in choral music and singing with top symphony orchestras. After finishing graduate school three years ago, Nolin was hired to teach middle and high school aged students at the Edmund Burke School in Washington. Around the same time, he learned that the Loudoun Chorale needed a part-time director.
“As much as I love working with kids, I like working with adult singers. It’s an amazing experience to get to see people from a lot of different generations come together and try to make music with each other,” he said.
Nolin lives in Washington near his day job but hits the suburbs on weekends for his directing gigs. He leads a church choir in Potomac, MD, and heads to Loudoun on Sunday evenings for rehearsals.
The volunteer-run Loudoun Chorale has been a perfect fit, Nolin says, and the feeling is definitely mutual.
“He advocates for diverse and high-quality music prepared and performed with a tremendous sense of joy and community,” said Loudoun chorale singer and board member Elizabeth Newberry. “I find we spend our rehearsals smiling and laughing with his brand of conducting and his enthusiasm.”
For Nolin, the secret is a good mix of old and new. He’s a self-described traditionalist in terms of programming, but also has plenty of new ideas. One of the most important changes has been creating concerts that tell a story or use choral music to highlight a theme. A recent program explored musical treatments of the afterlife in classical, folk and gospel music based on the popular early 20th Century hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
“Programs that unify different music under a big idea or theme was probably the newest idea and something they hadn’t experienced before and something they really enjoy now,” Nolin said.
This year’s season includes a December “Holiday Time Machine” concert, spanning the centuries from ancient Christmas music to sacred music from the baroque era to tunes from the great songwriters like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Nolin programs a classical masterwork every spring, and the spring 2018 selection is Brahms’ Requiem. In between those concerts, one of Nolin’s favorite events is the chorale’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. choir festival held every year on the Sunday before the MLK holiday. The impressive event brings together choirs from around the region to celebrate King’s legacy.
The Loudoun Chorale is an open group, which accepts singers ready to commit to practices without a formal audition. This can present challenges, Nolin says. Blending seasoned and less experienced singers can be tricky and open admission can also mean winding up heavy on certain vocal parts and light on others. But Nolin tackles the challenge by offering clear guidance to all singers and by pairing up new and more experienced singers for mentorships.
“We always make it work, which is really amazing,” he said.
The chorale is conducting rolling admissions throughout the fall—so it’s not too late for music lovers to sign up for the current season. Nolin recommends that interested singers attend a Sunday evening rehearsal in Leesburg and spend some time with him figuring out where their voice fits in.
“[Choral music] is one of the few art forms where you can get an asymmetrical group of people with very different skill levels together and create an amazing product. Singing is a technical thing. People can read music. They can sing beautifully and have great technique. But singing is the most natural thing in the world,” Nolin said. “[We] create an environment where people feel okay not being the best, creating an environment where people feel comfortable to sing, but at the same time, not talking down to them, never treating them like kids. We really try to treat every singer like a professional even if they’re not.”
The Loudoun Chorale is offering rolling admission for new singers this fall. For more information on enrollment and on the Chorale’s 2017-2018 season, go to loudounchorale.org.