David Simmons, artistic director for the Congressional Chorus, conducts a practice session for the group at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in 2009.
Washington may be a city with a lot of turnover, but there’s one thing that remains constant: its love of music. From Washington native John Philip Sousa leading the U.S. Marine Band in the late 1800s to the booming jazz scene in the first half of the 20th century to Lady Gaga performing in town earlier this fall, D.C. always has something musical going on.
And D.C. residents don’t have to sit in the audience. Several groups offer a performance outlet for musically talented residents.
Fridays and Beyond
One of the oldest such groups is the Friday Morning Music Club, formed in 1886 by 15 women who had no opportunity to perform publicly. They would meet in each other’s Georgetown homes to study and perform classical music. Within a few years, the FMMC was too large to meet in individual homes and was forced to expand to public performances. The group remained exclusively women until the 1970s, but it would occasionally bring in male musicians as guests.
“In the old days you could never find a bassoonist who was female,” FMMC Rules and Revisions Director Gail MacColl said. Today, “it’s just irrelevant whether you’re a man or woman in this group.”
MacColl said the group has nearly 700 members committed to the original mission of studying and performing classical music. FMMC members form several musical ensembles, including a full orchestra, called Avanti, chamber groups and a chorus. MacColl said a group of FMMC pianists still hold events in each other’s homes, just as the original members did. There is also a recently formed composer group within the FMMC.
All performances by FMMC’s various ensembles are free. MacColl said the group offers performances in a variety of locations, most frequently at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives (1201 17th St. NW), where small concerts are held most Fridays. Small chamber ensembles also perform at local nursing homes for senior citizens.
MacColl said the FMMC’s largest event is its annual orchestra show at the Kennedy Center.
New members can audition to be in any of the ensembles or participate as non-musician members. The group is all volunteer and primarily supported by dues, which vary by member but don’t exceed $85.
Singing on the Hill
Vocalists who are looking to join a singing group can find plenty of choices in D.C., but only one got its start right on Capitol Hill. The Congressional Chorus was founded in 1987 by a group of Hill staffers who would rehearse during their lunch break once a week. Administrative Director Debby McConnell said the group started out performing at events such as private Christmas parties but quickly experienced a membership boom.
“It grew to 40 or 50 members in the ’90s and early 2000s and started to incorporate non-Hill members,” McConnell said.
The chorus sings exclusively American music and tries to stick with newer pieces, occasionally commissioning composers for original music.
In the past few years, the chorus has sung at a number of high-profile events, including the inaugurations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and the grand opening of the Capitol Visitor Center. The chorus performs three major concerts each year — a fall concert, a cabaret show in March and a season finale concert in June — as well as private performances.
Today, the chorus has 80 members. McConnell estimated that about 45 percent of the chorus works on Capitol Hill. While the group can’t exceed 80 members, McConnell said spaces did open up during the elections. To any tenors and basses out there — the chorus is looking for you.
Write a Song
Washington is also home to a community aimed at not just performing, but creating original music. The Songwriters’ Association of Washington was founded in 1979 as a way for local songwriters to network. According to SAW President Jean Bayou, the group now has more than 350 members in the D.C. area.
“We’ve been growing in the past few years while trying to keep active and present opportunities for our members to [get their work] out,” Bayou said.
For a $35 annual fee, songwriters of all experience levels can participate in SAW’s workshops, showcases and open mic performances. The workshops are held on the fourth Saturday of every month and cover everything from “the nuts and bolts of songwriting” to forming an image as a performer. Occasionally SAW will bring in guest songwriters to host a workshop and critique members’ work.
Showcases and open mic events let SAW members show off their skills. Members have to reserve a showcase slot in advance, but Bayou said the six to eight acts in a showcase are usually entertaining and feature a variety of styles. Open mic performance time isn’t reserved in advance, but it gives SAW members the chance to test out a new song in front of what Bayou called a supportive audience.
The membership fee also gives songwriters a spot in the SAW membership directory, which Bayou said gives them an opportunity to network for collaborators within the organization.
But penning ditties isn’t a requirement for joining the group.
“People who aren’t songwriters are welcome to join if they want to support songwriting,” Bayou said. “We love having people come listen.”
Finally, if kicking back and listening is more your thing, there are plenty of opportunities to hear great music without the pressure to perform. Applause is the only necessary involvement.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2700 F St. NW) offers a 6 p.m. concert daily at its Millennium Stage. The performances vary greatly. A children’s puppet show, an experimental percussion group and a classical quartet could be back to back on the calendar. The best part about these shows? They’re free. Get there early because seats fill up quickly.
The Kennedy Center is also home to the National Symphony Orchestra, Broadway musicals and just about every other conceivable type of performing art.
In Georgetown, Blues Alley (1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW) is the longest continuing jazz supper club in the U.S. The club was formed in 1965 and has live performances seven nights a week.
And, of course, there are plenty of clubs that feature rock, hip-hop, indie and alternative acts every night. The 9:30 Club (815 V St. NW) and the Black Cat (1811 14th St. NW) are just two local hot spots.