Heather Hutton seems born to sing. She eschewed dolls in favor of imitating Michael Jackson and refused to give up when she had trouble figuring out the violin.
"She's always adored music," says Heather's mother, Kathleen Del Grande, from her home in Eureka, Calif. "Whenever I'd take her anywhere and music was on, she'd be rocking out in her car seat. And for her birthday one year, I gave her a tape recorder and radio, and she would go in her room and play the radio, sing, tape it and play it back, and it was hours and hours of that."
A year after the death of its beloved director, Dave Marston, Rogue Valley Peace Choir continues to make music celebrating peace and unity.
Now under the artistic directorship of Heather Hutton (with assistant Katie Anderson), the 100-person choir held its spring concert in May and is looking ahead to its eighth season starting in September.
"At one point, the members weren't sure if they would continue the choir," says Hutton. "It's so inspiring to me the way they've gone so deep and are now coming out of a dark spot and moving forward. It's a renewal of faith."
Filling the "shoes of a master" wasn't easy — from either end of the deal.
"We were looking for leadership quality, music skills and some other categories, but there was also a sense that we've got to have somebody whose heart is in the right place, not just a skilled musician who has a free Thursday night," says five-year member Ron Hertz, who was a personal friend of Marston. "Heather's spirit is just right, and she has a way of balancing the hard work with a playfulness."
The choir has forged a positive, creative rapport with its new director, imbuing the group with pride.
"When we were singing our concerts at the end of the year, I just felt this great sense of satisfaction that we were able to go on," says Hertz. "That was the greatest legacy we could leave for Dave. And it feels like we're moving from one master to another. It's a great fit."
Rogue Valley Peace Choir formed in 2003 when Diane Garcia brought the idea from Eugene. Garcia and three friends set about creating the foundation; 75 people came to the first rehearsal, and many have been singing ever since.
Choir members come from various musical backgrounds: Some have sung professionally; some have conducted choirs; for others, this is the first time they've "taken voice."
Membership in the community choir is open to everyone. New members, tenors and basses in particular, are invited to join in early September. Rehearsals are every Thursday at the Methodist Church in Ashland.
See www.sing4peace.org to learn more.
An only child living with her single mom, Hutton was always headstrong.
"Even a little bit bossy," confesses the blue-eyed blonde who's made a name for herself in Southern Oregon as a Jackson County School District No. 6 music teacher, artistic director of Unity Church in Ashland, owner of Unified Voice-Works in Talent and new artistic director of Rogue Valley Peace Choir.
"When I had birthday parties, I'd want to dance for my friends, and I would make up my own songs," says Hutton. "And I remember not getting on the right string on the violin. I remember yelling, 'I can't quit!' I just knew I couldn't quit. It was all of it — all the feelings of frustration and determination; the feeling that I wanted to get it faster than I was getting it. But I couldn't quit it; it came from the inside; I was pushing myself."
Del Grande says her daughter's perseverance made her think Hutton would grow up to be a leader — and she was right.
"I have an understanding of people who don't get it so quickly — adults and kids — because I understand how it was for me," says Hutton. "When someone took the time to explain it to me in a way I could understand, that was so helpful. Now I get to help in a more creative way."
To aid in her various teaching roles, Hutton exercises her general philosophy that music and singing are connected to a person's overall growth and communication skills.
"In workshops and sessions, I'm not only teaching people to be better singers and musicians but coaching people to find their own way toward a greater sense of self-acceptance and expression," she explains.
She has a vision of offering her theory to the public-school system — somehow connecting arts with social skills. Recent budget cuts have left little for arts programs, prompting her to explore the possibilities for bringing music "in through the back door."
"I feel arts and social skills are two areas where kids will need a lot of support," she says. "I see song-writing in circles for kids with severe behavioral issues. When you're doing something together, whether it's sports or music, it can help us get out of our inner conflicts."
Unconventional approaches to music and singing are one of Hutton's specialties. Calling herself a "holistic weaver" who "pulls different parts together," Hutton may encourage students to explore the boundaries of their voices by singing while swinging upside down, on their hands and knees or with boas tossed around their necks.
"It shifts them out of what they think singing is, and they may be able to shift out of a physical position that may not be serving them."
Similar ideas have been embraced by Rogue Valley Peace Choir. The group was having difficulty learning the tricky nuances of The Beatles song "Because." Over and over, they were singing their parts and, over and over, it wasn't coming together.
"Heather said, 'I know it's a difficult song, but you're stuck! This song is about being a kid, looking at the clouds!' " remembers Ron Hertz, a baritone from Ashland who's been a member of the choir and its audition group, The Ensemble, for five years. "She broke through this block by having us lie down in the church rehearsal space and pretend we were kids looking at the clouds — it got us to that interesting, mystical part of music that connects with your body, your emotions, your heart."
Hutton taps that well in her own music, too. She cut a CD of original songs called "Closing the Divide" in 2008, and she's just finished a demo CD of three new songs. "Please Let Me In" is from the heart and was written during the process of breaking off a relationship, "Annie Mae" was inspired by an older gentleman who was talking to his dead wife at her grave and the folksy "What Would Water Do?" captures a signature blend of folk, Celtic, mystical and pop.
"Hearing her sing makes me cry," says Del Grande, who has been sending the new CD to some music-industry people in Nashville, Tenn., "just to see what happens."
Hutton found her gift through perseverance and not giving up, and now music has become the gateway to a lifetime of opportunities. For more information, seewww.heatherhutton.com.