OAKLAND -- When Oakland musician and composer Mark Growden sings "The Gates/Take Me to the Water" medley alone with an accordion or with his band, two lines of the song sum up how he feels about his growing 150-member Calling All Choir.
"Everyone is welcome. All souls are welcome."
That is, if you want to sing.
Growden is the leader and teacher of The Calling All Choir, which meets Tuesdays in Oakland and weekly in San Francisco and Sonoma, and you don't have to try out to be a member. The choir, whose first-season singers performed in front of lines of flame at The Crucible last January, takes vocalists at all levels of range and skill. It's an inclusive group who learn Growden's own compositions to sing at end-of-the-season performances and for free at convalescent homes and retirement centers.
"It's not so much about being a really good choir," Growden said. "It's about being an inclusive choir."
Having pros who have sung before and know if they're an alto, a tenor or a soprano before the first day would "be a lot quicker, but it would be less satisfying in the end," he said, and it's not necessary. The voices combine into melodies that sound good even with some weaker singers.
Growden is not a stranger to having people sing with him and for him. He's been a teacher and, perhaps more famously, a nightclub and art house performer for years. At a recent show at Awaken Cafe in downtown Oakland, the entire crowd was singing along with his tune "Inside Every Bird," and he often gets his audience members to sing songs they don't even know by prompting them with the lyrics right before the verse.
He loves to sing, but he may love to hear others singing even more. He says it's beautiful, empowering to watch people sing and enjoy the songs he creates for his band and his choir.
"Helping other people sing is really inspiring," he said. "I've dedicated my life to that."
Growden has been mostly a touring performer, his education based on jazz performance. Over the last 20 years, give or take, he has recorded 11 albums and music for film. His last three recordings were made in a series. "Lose Me in the Sand" was recorded in Tucson, Ariz., "St. Judas" was recorded in Oakland, and "In Velvet," his newest album, was recorded in New Orleans.
Recently, Growden discovered through regular four-week singing workshops he's been leading for about 20 years that he could make a living leading choirs full of fans and other interested people. He's staying put now in Oakland and focusing his attention on his three choirs, all named The Calling All Choir
At a recent rehearsal, about 30 choir members participated in warm-ups that not only got their vocal chords ready but their bodies moving. Growden's voice booms in the crowd, and the members sing the playfully arranged "Pain All Over Me," bumping hips and toes with partners and dancing around the room. They opened their rib cages with a big stretch and yawned to loosen their soft pallets while Growden explained why such an exercise was good for the voice.
Janet McFarland, of Oakland, had never seen Growden perform with his band or solo before she signed up for The Calling All Choir. She also sings in another choir but loves Growden's group because it's so fun and anything goes, she said.
"I also love that Mark makes his own music. That's really exciting," she said.
The mix of singers, from new to seasoned, is not a disability for the group, McFarland said. It all works out because "there is so much talent in the room.
"He's teaching us, so you don't have to know everything before you get here."
Growden likes to say that his less seasoned singers are lifted up by the more advanced ones. Like two mismatched players playing tennis, a pro player will always return the ball to a relative newbie.
"If you're not very confident but you're standing next to someone who is confident, you gain that confidence," he said. "You'll hear what you strive to be."
After warm-ups, singers split into groups by skill and pitch and learn the song of the evening. Growden has composed about 12 songs for his choirs and teaches them all the music so they can perform in front of both large and small audiences. Most of his works are set to sheet music, but you don't have to be a sheet music reader to follow along with the songs.
On this night, Growden said a more challenging piece could be learned by the more confident singers in separate sessions. Growden gives time to make the choir strong and often offers one-on-one sessions on a sliding scale rate to struggling singers looking for the right pitch. The Calling All Choir is also sliding scale. Singers pay $0 to $500 per season or do work trades for Growden.
"It's a unique, safe, fun environment," Kate Bowman, of San Rafael, said. Bowman's been a singer for years, but she doesn't think twice about the person next to her who sings a little lighter and with a little less gusto. "Nobody's out to embarrass you, and you learn how to sing with a group."
The choir is not drop-in. It runs on seasons and they are currently in midseason. That doesn't mean you can't drop in to see what it's like, Growden said. And, of course, you're welcome.