Walla Walla Valley Men's Chorus follows its (female) leader

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Skeels directs and writes musical arrangements for the all-men's group.

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Skeels and the chorus rehearse in a music room Tuesday night at Walla Walla University's Fine Arts Building.

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Chorus members see if their bow tie colors work for choir director Wendy Skeels during rehearsal for their upcoming show, "Back In The Good Old Days."

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One chorus member reads his music on an iPad Tuesday at rehearsal.

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Director Wendy Skeels preps the Walla Walla Valley Men's Chorus during rehearsal for its upcoming concert, "Back In The Good Old Days."

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Walla Walla Valley Men's Chorus Director Wendy Skeels coaxes the sound she's looking for from her members during rehearsal.

COLLEGE PLACE - You might say Wendy Skeels was born to lead men.

"For me, personally, I love it. I grew up with it. My father sang with a men's quartet that was part of the Voice of Prophecy ... so I kind of grew up living men's chorus, and never lost my love for it," Skeels, the director of the Walla Walla Valley Men's Chorus, said during a recent phone interview.

Skeels' love of music continued beyond the days of listening to her father perform in quartets.

After receiving a college degree in music, she embarked upon a successful music teaching career that focused on kindergarten- through eighth-grade students.

Then in 1981, Skeels got the chance to lead a men's choir when a group of employees of St. Helena Hospital in Napa Valley, Calif., decided to join their voices to perform sacred music.

What followed was 26 years of directing the St. Helena Hospital Men's Chorus, which sometimes left her doing as much arranging of music as she did leading.

"Mostly with the men, in the beginning, it grew out of the frustration of not finding the kind of music I wanted (the men) to sing," Skeels said.

At the time, most sacred all-male choir music was "too high" and not at all the sound Skeels said she wanted to hear.

So from 1981-2006, Skeels arranged numerous pieces for that chorus, many of which can still be heard today via online recordings.

Eventually, that choir had its last performance in December 2006, but it would not be Skeels' last chance to lead men.

"I think they are coming back," Skeels said, referring to the history of all-male choirs in the latter half of the 21st century.

"For a long time they just fell off the radar. And I don't know why, but the last 15 to 20 years they are definitely coming back. It is becoming popular again," she said.

Proving her point, in January of 2008 the Walla Walla Valley Men's Chorus was formed.

That relatively new choir is directed by Skeels and, once again, she does much of her own arranging.

As with her previous all-men's choir, the music is centered around Christ, but you'll hear no glorias sung in Latin.

"We are very middle-of-the road. We will leave all the highfalutin' stuff for the colleges," Skeels said with a laugh.

Currently, the Walla Walla Valley Men's Chorus is comprised of 34 singers, directed by Skeels and accompanied by pianist Rachel Coleman.

"A chorus is only as good as its accompanist and Rachel is a phenomenal player," Skeels said.

As for the range of male voices, Skeels said, "I have been very blessed. I am pretty well balanced right now. I am very lucky. Some years I need more baritones and some years I need more tenors."

The men's choir exclusively performs sacred music, but next week it will hold its first secular concert, which will include works from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Mitch Miller.

"If it is well received, we will certainly consider doing it next year. But we've got to test the water and see how people like it," she said.

As with past performances, many of the arrangements will be by Skeels.

To hear her arrangements performed by St. Helena Hospital Men's Chorus, go to wwvmenschorus.org, where a number of the choir's recording are streamed online.

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