The Ypsilanti Community Choir owes its existence to our founder, Denise Rae Zellner. While a member of the Ypsilanti Players (a local theater group) in the early 1980s, she recognized a need for a community choral group. At the encouragement of friends she took the lead and organized what became the Ypsilanti Community Choir in the spring of 1983.
Active in several other community organizations, one of Denise’s joys was performing with the Ypsilanti Players, where she often served as musical director. On those occasions, when she needed a choir, she called her musician friends and colleagues into service. She again turned to those friends and colleagues when she needed a small vocal ensemble to conduct as part of her work toward a master’s degree in conducting from the University of Michigan.
Denise often heard how much people enjoyed singing in these groups, and buoyed by the success of the Ypsilanti Community Band, she began working in earnest to organize a similar group, to be known as the Ypsilanti Community Choir. She spent much of 1983 planning and preparing, and a small group gathered to sing a few tunes with the Ypsilanti Community Band on their July 4 concert. In the fall, Denise mailed 70 flyers to church choirs and friends, inviting singers to the first rehearsal of the Ypsilanti Community Choir. This effort netted her only three replies; but Denise didn’t let this slow her down. She then phoned everyone who had ever expressed an interest in a community choir. In December, The Ann Arbor News ran both a call for singers and a feature story on Denise.
As a result, more than 40 singers attended a rehearsal in the social hall of the First Baptist Church of Ypsilanti in January 1984. On March 15, the Choir made its first official appearance as the Ypsilanti Community Choir. There were nearly 60 musicians on stage at Holy Trinity Chapel, and The Ypsilanti Press published a lengthy article promoting the Choir’s first appearance.
Later that year, the Choir shared to programs with the Ypsilanti Community Band. This partnership continued through 2012 with an annual joint Christmas concert.
In its infancy the Choir operated under the auspices of the Community Band, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, enabling Denise to apply for and received a $400 start-up grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts. That grant allowed YCC to file the necessary documents for its own nonprofit status and to begin building a music library. (Music till then had been borrowed from other groups.)
The Choir was incorporated in the State of Michigan in 1984 and was granted its own 501(c)(3) status from the IRS on June 28, 1985.
Over the years, the Ypsilanti Community Choir has performed in many venues for many audiences, even collaborating in 1984 with Holy Trinity Chapel in their production of The Sound of Music and in November 1985 with EMU’s Opera Workshop’s production of Amahl and the Night Visitors.
The Choir continued successfully under Denise’s tireless direction until 2003, when she was diagnosed with cancer. She put up a valiant fight; but in July 2006, she lost that fight. The group was a true labor of love for her and a constant in her life while she worked as a music educator and administrator in the Woodhaven, Milan, and Hamtramck schools. Denise had not only been the Choir’s leader, she had been the spark and the inspiration behind everything the group did. What would happen now? Could this group, without its beloved leader and founder, keep the ball rolling—as Denise would want? Happily, the answer to that was “yes.”