Sweet Adelines director retires on high note
George led chorus for over 40 years
After more than four decades, Altoona Chapter of Sweet Adelines International will be singing to a new leader.
Ann George of Loretto recently stepped down from directing the Altoona chorus — the oldest chartered chapter in Pennsylvania — after 43 years.
George, 74, joined the all-female chorus in 1970 and took the director’s position eight years later. Interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the barbershop chorus recently started to practice again — outside to maintain safety — at Valley View Park.
“She’s in a very small group — it’s a long time to be a frontline director,” said Lori Whitehaus of Sweet Adelines International. “Typically, a director leads for 20 years, some may do it for 30, but over 40 — it’s unique.”
Altoona chorus Interim Director Mary Kay Parrish of Duncansville said the group has won 25 medals in annual competitions and two appearances at international competitions during George’s tenure.
“We went from 14th place to second place in a year’s time under Ann,” Parrish said. “When she took over, she said it was with the intention of being the best and never going back again.”
Parrish and other chorus members cite George’s passion and dedication for their success.
“She is so patient and yet is so driven; she’s a rare combination. She’s so dedicated and has never taken time off for any reason. Uppermost in her mind is what she needed to do for the chorus,” Parrish said.
At their first practice post-pandemic, George and member Linda DiNicola of Altoona were presented with their pandemic-delayed 50-year membership pins. Sweet Adelines came from as far away as Florida to wish George a happy retirement.
“It was the first time we were together and I thought the balloons were for that,” George said, laughing at how unsuspecting she was about the party in her honor. “I was looking for a card to sign. It never dawned on me that the party was for me.”
Whether it was a personal road trip or a trip to a Sweet Adelines competition out West, George said she never worried about being stranded by a roadside emergency.
“I made sure I had the Sweet Adelines directory and knew no matter where I was, if I needed help, I could call another Sweet Adelines member for help,” George said. “I have friends all over the country I’ve made through Sweet Adelines.”
Her shirt reinforced her message as it stated “Real women. Real harmony. Real fun.”
“I just love it so,” George said, explaining that health issues have made the physical demands of standing, singing and performing difficult.
“It’s like a second family,” member Catherine Cicero said of the friendships shared and deepened through their love of singing and performing.
“You are singing in four-part harmony with the melody buried inside and it’s choreographed. It’s a show chorus. It’s like the TV show ‘Glee’ but for grownups,” Whitehaus said.
“Altoona is a chorus we all admire,” said Whitehaus, who is the education coordinator for Atlantic Bay-Mountain Region 19 of Sweet Adelines International and also a director for a mid-size chorus in the Lancaster area. Region 19 has included Altoona since 1985 and boasts 24 choruses and 900 Sweet Adelines members throughout a five-state region.
“Altoona has always been very good, and Ann has been a big part of their success. She is very calm, persistent, and very kind. She has had a vision for what they can be and has taken them there one step at a time. She’s been a real rock,” Whitehaus said. “The Altoona chorus is the oldest in Pennsylvania and has quite a high status in the history of the organization and is one of the highest achieving small choruses.”
The pandemic halted performances and competitions in March 2020. The organization plans to resume in 2022.
The Altoona chorus has 24 members and draws participants from not only Blair County, but also from Indiana, Pittsburgh and Bellefonte. Participants span in age from teens to 85. In pre-pandemic times, the chorus performed at various events and brought joy to nursing home residents, Parrish said.
For George, her favorite audiences are found in nursing homes.
“You sing a song they remember and you can just see them light up as the memories come,” George said.
A cappella singing is growing in popularity, Whitehaus said, in part because of mainstream hit groups like Pentatonix, who help the chorus combat the stereotype of men in armbands singing outdated songs.
The chorus sings selections from all genres, including Broadway show tunes and popular music, from all decades.
Invited to attend a Sweet Adelines rehearsal, DiNicola has served the group in every office capacity during her 51 years, including 15 years as a board member. Participating in the chorus took her “out of her comfort zone,” she said, and has formed enduring friendships.
“We’ve supported one another through good and bad times,” DiNicola said.
Some Altoona chorus members are family by blood as well as through music. Such as George’s niece, Terressa Hall, and Parrish and her sister, Peggy Freyvogel, of Monroeville, also sing with the Altoona chorus. Her granddaughter is also passionate about barbershop and carries on a family tradition.
“I’m a barbershop rat. That’s what we call those of us who have grown up in barbershop,” Parrish said. Her father, Clarence Becker, was a member of the Altoona Horseshoe Chorus, which belongs to the Barbershop Harmony Society. But it was their mother who taught their four children to sing the tight harmonies.
“There’s something about the sound,” Parrish said. “There’s a thrill of accomplishment and making it lock. When it’s perfect, the voices sound like one.”