Staples Area Men’s Chorus learns to sing again

The Staples Area Men's Chorus had to halt rehearsals and public performances after half a century due to the coronavirus pandemic. But with a bit of moxie, creativity and luck, the group has found a way to recently resume rehearsals together, wearing masks and safely spaced out in a large machine shed.

Steve Hoemberg, artistic director of the Staples Area Men's Chorus, directs the chorus during a rehearsal at a large machine shed on Jon and Samantha Krause's farm in Staples. Precautions include singing with masks on, social distancing, wide open hangar style doors, temperature checks and symptom checks at the entrance and giving contact information in case someone comes down with symptoms and people need to be notified. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Steve Hoemberg gets choked up about singing with others, especially when he couldn’t.

The artistic director of the Staples Area Men’s Chorus becomes emotional when asked about how the group, which started half a century ago, had to stop making beautiful music together.

“Well, the most important elements that we bring together is that togetherness and the fact that we’re singing now,” he said of the temporary cessation of rehearsals due to the pandemic.

The Staples Area Men’s Chorus resumed rehearsals this month but follow health and safety recommendations. The men screen themselves with temperature checks for signs of infection, social distance themselves, wear face masks and rehearse in a large farm machine shed.

“We feel like we are ‘in full attendance’ if we have 35 to 40 guys, and since we began rehearsing again here a few weeks ago, we’ve had right around 25 to 30 guys at each rehearsal, and sometimes it’s not the same group,” Hoemberg said.


Singing together

Hoemberg grew up in Staples, sang in the men’s chorus as a Staples-Motley Senior High student and was the seventh- through 12th-grade choir director for 15 years from 2001 to 2016.

“And I went into a very natural progression from choir teaching. I became a heavy equipment operator and a heavy haul truck driver for a local construction company,” Hoemberg said.

Hoemberg now works as the director of outreach for the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence.

“That means I promote and advocate for transportation-related careers and career pathways, so I used to work with students and teachers all the time, then I left and worked in industry, then I came back to the education system but now in a transportation-related career,” Hoemberg said.

This year will be Hoemberg’s ninth year directing the Staples Area Men's Chorus. He initially directed the choral music group from 2010 to 2016, took a hiatus and returned to direct.

“For us, it’s about being with each other and then what we can do together and share with others. That’s what motivates our people,” Hoemberg said of the chorus. The stated mission of the chorus is “to provide a high quality and diverse choral experience for singers and audiences of all ages in central Minnesota.”

“We have as many as roughly 60 guys on the roster. However, a lot of those guys are maybe seasonal … maybe they go South and things like that,” Hoemberg said.


Chorus season

The group’s season traditionally kicks off the first Wednesday in September annually, and the chorus welcomes new members to join any time of the year.

“We do have some things in the repertoire that are a capella, whether that be an occasional barbershop-style tune or whether that be something from the Renaissance. … We occasionally will do a tune that would be considered more of the popular genre,” Hoemberg said.

The chorus would rehearse 8:30-10 p.m. Wednesdays in the high school choir room for literally decades, according to Hoemberg, but that was before the governor’s stay-at-home order.

“So over these eight weeks, we’re doing those things. We hope to get a few unique and cool recordings out of a machine shed on a farm, essentially out of a barn,” Hoemberg said of the resumed rehearsals.

The Staples Area Men’s Chorus would perform, for example, at the annual Real Men Sing festival in the fall at the high school gymnasium or take part in a Christmas concert at a local church.

“We also would routinely do some more service-oriented performances. For example, we’ve routinely annually performed at various assisted-living facilities or nursing homes,” Hoemberg said.

Juergen Brunkhorst and others sing at rehearsals of the Staples Area Men's Chorus at a large machine shed on Jon and Samantha Krause's farm Wednesday, Sept. 23, in Staples. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


“From seasonal concerts to musical theater and dinner concerts, the chorus has entertained with a repertoire from classical composers to folk, pop and sea shanties,” according to its website.

Hoemberg said, “We occasionally would travel and maybe do some outreach things at some schools. But for the most part, it would be what you might call a traditional stand-up concert … so I would say highly populated, or densely populated areas, if we’re going to make the connection to COVID.”

The chorus had to cancel prior engagements once it became apparent coronavirus cases were on the rise in Minnesota, and soon after, stopped rehearsing.

“I was ill-equipped to say to the group, ‘Hey, let’s do a virtual choir, let’s rehearse online,’” Hoemberg said. “I wasn’t prepared for that. That being said, none of our guys were really into that either. We didn’t necessarily lend ourselves to that as an organization either.”

The group’s board of directors and Hoemberg, however, did continue to communicate with each other via Zoom, a digital platform that has gained popularity during the pandemic but they had never used before rehearsals stopped.

“And we tried to have a Zoom meeting with the chorus — invited everybody — and I think we had about seven or eight or nine guys who showed up,” Hoemberg said. “And so then we were at sort of a crossroads in my opinion where we had to decide are we going to do something or are we going to do nothing?”

Steve Hoemberg is the artistic director of the Staples Area Men’s Chorus and director of outreach at the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence. Steve Hoemberg / Staples Area Men’s Chorus


Together while apart

The chorus enlisted the help of Adam Reinwald, a consultant sponsored by the Five Wings Arts Council, who helped update the group’s website. But virtual is not the same as real interaction.

“We recognize in our chorus that a significant number of members … would be in that at-risk population, whether it’s age or whether it’s preexisting situations, so how do we meet? And how do we do it respectfully?” Hoemberg said of the decision to resume in-person rehearsals.

Hoemberg said he was working his part-time job hauling gravel and drove by a farm south of Staples owned by his former student who is also an occasional member of the men's chorus. The farmer has a 72-by-52-foot machine shed with an airplane hangar-like door at the end.

“The chorus is in its 50th year, this year, and they’ve never once gone more than three months from being together. And here it was five months later and 35 guys showed up, and we’re just amazed,” Hoemberg said, on the verge of tears at the memory of the first rehearsal on the farm.

The Staples Area Men's Chorus has posted videos of the rehearsals on the group’s Facebook page.

“Anyway, we couldn’t believe the acoustics. We thought, ‘Holy hell! This is a pretty nice place to sing. It’s like singing in a church,’” Hoemberg said while laughing.

Steve Hoemberg, artistic director of the Staples Area Men's Chorus, directs the chorus during a rehearsal at a large machine shed on Jon and Samantha Krause's farm Wednesday, Sept. 23, in Staples. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


The chorus will continue to rehearse this month and the next in the machine shed on the farm owned by Jon and Samantha Krause. On alternate weeks, the chorus rehearses at another large venue by Verndale Custom Home Builders — all the while experimenting with Facebook Live.

“We learned that our members would show up, we learned that they would set aside any drama about belief systems or whatnot. And they would just follow the protocols that have been directed to us and that we had a nice space to do it,” Hoemberg said.

Some of the chorus members travel up to 100 miles to rehearse each week, according to the Staples Area Men’s Chorus website.

“There’s something magical about when men come together for simple goodness. So often we, as men, throughout history get together for a number of things. … But this has one purpose. It is about goodness. It’s about sharing in each other and sharing with each other,” Hoemberg said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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