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Sentimental Journey
The Hi Lo Silvers women's chorus hits 10 years of high notes

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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011

Sentimental Journey

The Hi Lo Silvers women's chorus has hit plenty of high notes
in 10 years of bringing songs to Silver City audiences.

by Donna Clayton Walter


"Loud isn't beautiful. It's just loud," says Valdeen Wooton with a laugh. The two-dozen mostly silver-haired ladies of a certain age on the stage before her titter good-naturedly. Rehearsing for their 10th anniversary concerts on May 6 and 8, the Hi Lo Silvers women's chorus is running through their feel-good, nostalgic, often patriotic repertoire: "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy," "Sentimental Journey," "Tumblin' Tumbleweed."

hi lo chorus
A 2002 performance at Sixth Street Elementary School — Patricia LaMarche (at piano); top row, from left: Caroline Baldwin, Molly Glazewski, Ora Rede, Nan Thacker, Donna Edgar, Valdeen Wooton; bottom row, from left: Marsha Christensen, Anne Sherrell, Patricia Petty, Peggy Hamm, Janet Hess.

Wooton has stopped the singers at that point in "You'll Never Walk Alone" where many singers screech to reach that high note in "NEV-er." The group runs through the line again, this time satisfying Wooton's ear.

"Good job," she interjects, and the group sails along smoothly into "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "You Are My Sunshine," a segue from "Sentimental Journey," then on into "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "When You're In Love."

Celebrating their tenth year, the Hi Lo Silvers number 24 strong — a sort of magic number representing their "maximum membership" set as a goal by the handful of founders in the early years. Planning for that future possibility, music was ordered for 24. Props were stocked for 24. And dust gathered on some of it.

That milestone now happily reached — with a couple of founding members returning for this anniversary concert — the group has become more than many of those initial vocalists had ever hoped it could. And like one of its signature tunes, the path has been a sentimental journey of its own.

When she moved to Silver City in 1997, the group's director, Valdeen Wooton, was planning to let music take a back seat. With a bachelor's degree in music education, she'd taught elementary and junior high school vocal music in Kansas City, Kan., sung in the Syracuse Opera chorus for three seasons in the late 1980s and in the Kansas City Symphony Chorus for five seasons in the 1990s. Moving to her new southwest home, she'd set some new goals for herself — developing as an artist (she does oil portraits and pastel landscapes) and trying her hand at being a professional writer. Local readers may remember her column "PLANEthings," which gave a window into her aviation adventures and ran in the Daily Press for four years

But music came to the fore once again for Wooton when she saw a news article inviting local musicians to join a community orchestra. She signed up to play viola. It wasn't long before she was directing rehearsals when the regular director was out of town for other obligations.

This reminded Wooton how much she missed directing, and conversations began at orchestra rehearsal breaks about starting a women's chorus. Wooton and four other women met in a private home in November 2000 to see whether this was a worthy idea. By the group's third meeting, a fifth singer had joined.

More singers came and the group grew modestly. They couldn't settle on a name and had no reputation at all, Wooton says, but as community organizations and individuals invited them to sing at events for special occasions, the small women's chorus became more serious about their rehearsals and set their sights on performing — really performing.

Wooton's neighbor, a Copper Cowbelles member, asked if this new women's chorus could sing some patriotic music for a district meeting the chapter would host at the Pinos Altos Melodrama Theatre in March 2001. Nine singers, an accompanist and a substitute director, Charlotte Ashford, provided that first performance.

Wooton says that one small success provided adrenaline for more. What could the group do and what could they afford? Founding member Caroline Baldwin knew about the Mimbres Region Arts Council's Fine Arts Friday program and facilitated an agreement for Hi Lo Silvers to appear in local schools and earn a little money at the same time.

Hi Lo Silvers used a patriotic theme for music they presented to schools one year and followed it with another of singing rounds. By then, the women were rehearsing at the First Presbyterian Church and accepting invitations from civic groups in Silver City.

No crystal ball, Wooton says, could have predicted that Ashford, the fill-in director of the group's first appearance, would be the catalyst for Hi Lo Silvers' first public concert. Through Ashford, the Tucson Girls Chorus came by bus to Silver City and sang the second half of a concert early in 2003. Hi Lo Silvers sang the first half. By now, the women were exploring Broadway tunes and movie-themed music. Audience response was positive and gave them confidence to repeat this experience.

The women have sung regular spring and autumn concerts ever since. They now schedule two performances a season, one a Friday evening and the other a Sunday afternoon, for both spring and autumn. After all that practicing, Wooton adds, it felt good to sing the program twice. Having both an afternoon and an evening performance also opened the opportunity for a larger audience.

Audience participation — a lucky brainstorm — resulted in a happy outworking and expanded the group's performing abilities and schedule. At first, holiday appearances were confined to private groups. There simply wasn't enough time between October and December for the Hi Los to feel properly prepared to put on a "public-worthy" holiday program. But repeated requests from the community encouraged the singers to take a risk.

Guessing that people would like group singing, especially familiar holiday favorites, Hi Lo Silvers tried out an idea. They sang the first half, and the audience sang the second half. It worked! The group's now-popular open-to-the-public Holiday Concert was born.

One singer who joined early enough to consider herself a founding member thought it would be fun for Hi Lo Silvers to travel. Janet Lueken's efforts resulted in annual appearances since 2004 at the Deming Performing Arts Theatre. Most have been holiday programs but, beginning with this year, the traveling concerts will take place in October.

For the past several years, Hi Lo Silvers has sung in each annual production of Theatre Group New Mexico's family holiday show, "Joy," at Western New Mexico University. A natural fit for their patriotic-themed music, Hi Lo Silvers also sang at Fort Bayard this past December for the "Laying of the Wreaths" ceremony for all branches of the military. The group plans to make this an annual appearance, too.

While growing musically, rehearsing weekly to hone their chops and perfect their performances, the women of Hi Lo Silvers have become close, more than just singing partners.

Discussing what she calls "the business of living and dying," Wooton says, "During our years together, we have become a band of sisters who support each other through the happy and sad times. We have supported each other through hip and knee replacements, cancers and surgeries on a plethora of body parts, and the shared triumphs and defeats of our families.

"We didn't see it coming, but necessity provided the reason. We have several pieces that can be ready to sing for a memorial service with just a bit of brushing up. We have participated in services for two of our members, for two husbands of members, and one member's mother. My husband passed away in August 2010. The support and love of my Hi Lo Silvers sisters made an invaluable difference to me throughout his illness."

Deep into the anniversary concert rehearsal, the group is turning the corner on honing "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds." Here the "whoo-whoos" are less like the train in "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and more like ethereal breezes blowing over the plains of the Old West. The ladies' faces are bright, yet serene, the notes bringing a flutter to the ribcage.

They sing, "Deep in my heart is a song…"

Thinking of their audience, the community that has come to expect an uplifting evening of traditional, feel-good music and fun, the Hi Lo Silvers let that song out.


The Hi Lo Silvers present their 10th Anniversary Concert, a program of old favorites and songs from Broadway and film, at the First Presbyterian Church, 1915 N. Swan St. in Silver City, with two free performances: Friday, May 6, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, May 8, at 3 p.m.

Donna Clayton Walter is a Silver City freelance writer
who prefers to confine her singing to the shower.

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