LEWISBURG — What started out as a group celebrating the 150th anniversary of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mifflinburg is still going strong 50 years later.
What's now known as the Buffalo Valley Singers was founded in 1973 by Charles Emerich, a band leader at the Mifflinburg Area High School.
Emerich, a graduate of Westchester and Penn State universities was asked to direct a chorus in singing for the 150th anniversary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
"The group started out with about 30 members," Emerich recalled. " After the 150th Lutheran church anniversary, the members of the chorus wanted to continue with the group and have their own community chorus."
At that time, the group was called the Mifflinburg Community Chorus.
The name Buffalo Valley Singers (BVS) was adopted in 1979, and the group became incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1984. The group practiced at the Mifflinburg middle or high schools and performed one spring concert a year.
"There was no community chorus in the area. Most of the members came from church choirs and this gave them a different genera to sing," said Emerich.
The biggest challenge for Emerich then was that he was an instrumentalist by teaching.
"Tom Ruhl was a student of mine at the Mifflinburg High School and he played trombone and I did as well," said Emerich. "Getting such a diverse mixture of singers, and me being an instrumental teacher; the challenge for me was teaching vocal to the group and conveying to the group the different styles and genera of music.
"Most of those who sung in the chorus had sacred music backgrounds and getting them to embrace the new styles and genera the chorus were singing was also a challenge," said Emerich.
One song the singers have always performed is "Precious Lord Take My Hand."
"It's always been one of our favorite closing songs," said Emerich.
He particularly remembers when the group sang at his home church, Christ Lutheran Church in Schuylkill Haven.
"The biggest joy I had was in the friendships we developed in working together to bring about making great music," Emerich said, of his time with the singers. "And they must have enjoyed the conductor."
Emerich taught for 14 years in the Mifflinburg Area School District before moving to Kent, Conn., where he spent 30 years teaching music.
"One of the hardest things for me was leaving the BVS and going to another job," he said. "I am very proud and pleased to know they are still going after 50 years. It makes me very proud to know I was there at the beginning and they are still going strong.
"Music is a very important part of life," he continued. "It's also a nice way of social contact and it's a great way to feel not only personal accomplishment but together as a group as well."
Emerich left the BVS in 1982, following a concert in the Poconos.
Charter member Dave Beckley remembers when the group met at the Mifflinburg Area High School for practice.
"Back then we had pretty good crowds," he said. "We sang at a lot of places. One time, 16 of us went to the Poconos to sing a Christmas program and ended up getting stuck on Interstate 81 south due to an accident on the highway. It was really icy. I remember stopping at Buckhorn in the middle of the night to get something to eat."
Current BVS President Andrea Tufo has been with the group for more than 10 years.
Tufo said got involved as a recommendation from her doctor.
"I was having problems with my lungs so my doctor said I should try singing so I decided to join the BVS," she said. "The minute I walked in I fell in love with the group. There's a 'coming home feeling' singing with the BVS... Singing makes you happier and healthier and feeds your soul.
Thomas Ruhl became the BVS director following Emerich's resignation. He served in that capacity until 2003, and returned in 2011 and 2012.
"I sang with the group from 1978 until Emerich left and placed me in charge in 1982," Ruhl said. "When I took over, there were about 40 in the choir, which grew to 80 to 90 voices singing in our Christmas concert. As the choir grew so did the audiences and I knew we were giving something back to the community."
Those who were part of the group became like family, Ruhl said.
Tom Mecouch has been with the group for 40 years.
"I was recruited by my church choir director Dottie Knause, at the former Wesley United Methodist, now Mifflinburg Methodist Church," Mecouch reflected. "It's a wonderful, fun group to sing with... For many years we shared concerts with the Buffalo Valley Brass Ensemble. It was great with the BVS being backed up by the ensemble."
He noted that Buffalo Valley Singers had its own ensemble group of 16, who gave smaller performances.
"It's a no stress group," Mecouch said, of the singers. "You don't need to audition. You'll find a variety of skill levels and we all help each other out, plus it's a lot of fun."
Marge Schmader has been with the group for 47 years. Over the years, she's only missed two performances with the group, one due to her mother-in-law's death and the other because she had both knees replaced.
"When I first started with the group there were only like 40 people, but now we have over 80 voices sining," Schmader said. "It just kept growing and growing.
"I enjoy the people, they are really like family," she continued. "Getting to know them is like having another group of friends, and when you run into them outside of practice you have that connection."
She encourages anyone who enjoys singing to consider joining the group.
"I can't believe it's been 50 years," Schmader said. "It seems just like yesterday. I've enjoyed every concert, and I'm still enjoying them even at 80 years old. It's just part of my life.
Todd Hummel was an accompanist for the group for a short time.
"It was fun, I met a lot of nice people," he said. "We worked hard but had fun doing it. The group brought a lot of local people together and brings them a lot of joy."
Tim Latsha also accompanied the group, but said he stopped playing right before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I played for five seasons," Latsha said. "I really enjoyed the people.
"Music making is a collaborative process between the actual music and the people performing it," he continued. "They are beautiful people. They come with a desire to learn to make the best voice they have and enjoy each other's company. It's an old-fashioned community. It's one I wish more people took advantage of."
Anne Lawrence has been singing with the group for the past 10 years. Her son, Fred, played drums for the singers and her granddaughter, Asli, has sung with and played the flute for the group.
In 2018, Asli auditioned to be part of an honors choir with a performance at Carnegie Hall.
"The BVS helped raise money for her to go and perform," said Lawrence. "Then, as a freshman in college, she had an opportunity to study music in Italy for six weeks. The BVS helped raise funds for her to go there as well.
"That is the spirit of the BVS and their interest in young people. It goes well beyond the music," added Lawrence.
She has particularly fond memories from last spring, when she, her son and granddaughter were able to perform together, as part of the choir.
Current Director Connie Pawling-Young was the accompanist for the group for 18 months before Ruhl stepped aside. She became conductor in 2011.
"It's been a passion for me," Pawling-Young. "This group is so willing to learn. We are a big family I love them so much."
Pawling-Young talked about one of the hardest pieces of music the group had encountered.
"We did a John Rutter's requiem with an orchestra backing us up," Pawling-Young said. "Two weeks before the performance I was unsure if it was going to happen, but they pulled it off. It was a rather difficult piece as only 30% of the choir could read music."
Pawling-Young said it's a real balancing act in selecting music for the group.
"Picking a program that is easy enough for everyone but still provides a challenge for those who can read music is a real test," Pawling-Young.
Currently, she said the group is learning Bill Cutter's "I Hear America Singing, which include a patriotic medley.
"They are starting to fall in love with it," Pawling-Young said. "We are also doing an arraignment of Shenandoah along with flute, oboe and bassoon."
The BVS promotes itself as being the only public choir in the Susquehanna River Valley offering a non-audition opportunity to singers of all skill levels, and a safe environment to learn and perform.
The next performance of the BVS is a spring pops concert, to be held at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 21, at St. John's United Church of Christ, Buffalo Road, Lewisburg.
New members are welcome. Practices are held Monday nights at the St. John's United Church of Christ, 1050 Buffalo Road, Lewisburg, at 7 p.m.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.