By Bryn Nelson
In April 2019, Nancy Otness Bent had just finished playing a rousing version of “Proud Mary” with the Seattle Women’s Chorus to end the first act of their dress rehearsal for the “Legends of Rock” show in Benaroya Hall. Then she received a picture of a newborn baby on her cellphone. As she learned after stepping offstage, her daughter-in-law, Shannon, had just given birth to a baby boy and she became Proud Nancy—a very happy grandmother.
“Lots of hugs and tears of joy backstage with my sisters in song!” she recalls. For nearly twenty years, since the founding of the Seattle Women’s Chorus in 2002, Otness Bent was there at the piano, reveling in the joy and sisterhood of an organization she has adored. She still remembers the sheer happiness of that very first rehearsal. “People just cried for joy at having this chorus. It was just a very emotional beginning to the chorus, so it was wonderful.” she says.
The principal accompanist is now retiring with a mixture of sadness and gratitude for two decades of unforgettable experiences. “I am a straight, white woman from the Midwest. And yet, in the women’s chorus, that was never an issue—I was just welcomed and accepted immediately,” she says. “I do feel privileged to have been part of a movement that is so important to my heart and to the world.”
As a classically trained musician long drawn to choral accompanying, Otness Bent has loved hearing SWC come together year after year, blending their diverse voices into a magical sound. “In a choir, the combined sound is so much more than the sum of its parts,” she says.
As someone who has felt called to support the mission of an organization whose combined power is likewise far more than the sum of its members, she recalls the pride and inspiration of being part of the “incredibly meaningful” SWC outreach concerts in Eastern Washington and elsewhere. “And the weddings!” Otness Bent still laughs with joy at the memory of being there in 2012 for the weddings of two chorus couples during another concert intermission in Benaroya Hall (SWC members Jane Abbott Lighty and Pete-e Petersen, and SMC member Neil Hoyt and Donn Jenny) after Washington State legalized same-sex marriage. “It was Benaroya packed full of people crying and celebrating these wonderful weddings. That was another high point.”
She has felt similar thankfulness at being part of a community that has consistently looked out for each other in less joyful times. “Someone has cancer in that group, and there’s a meal train and there are people driving them to appointments. It’s an incredible sisterhood of caring for each other,” Otness Bent says.
“Nancy’s artistry is surpassed only by her goodwill and generous spirit,” says Paul Caldwell, artistic director of SWC and SMC. “Hundreds of singers have come through the Seattle Women’s Chorus during her tenure. And every one of them represents a life made more beautiful by Nancy’s presence. And she’s my friend. I’ll never stop missing her.”
Otness Bent’s involvement with the choruses actually dates back to 1996, soon after she moved to Seattle with her husband, Sam. She met Dennis Coleman at the First Congregational Church of Bellevue, where he directed the choir. Coleman had another choir, of course, and when Seattle Men’s Chorus accompanist Evan Stults hurt his back, Coleman asked whether she might be willing to step in for a few rehearsals.
“I didn’t know it was a gay men’s chorus! I just knew Dennis had a chorus,” she recalls. “I was so nervous. I walked in and there were 200 men in this church basement on Fifth Avenue. And they were so warm and welcoming, and they sounded glorious, like an ocean of sound.” She fell in love with the organization, substituting as needed, until Coleman had an even bigger question for Otness Bent six years later. “When the women’s chorus started, he asked if I would be the founding accompanist. And I could not have been more honored. I was so excited,” she says.
At Montreal’s GALA Festival in 2004, the first one attended by SWC, the audience erupted. “It was like we were rock stars! We were a new gay women’s chorus and people were just cheering for us before we got on stage. It was wild!” Highlight after highlight followed: an exquisite a cappella arrangement of “Go Lovely Rose.” An unforgettable “Sure on This Shining Night” with SMC at the GALA Festival in Miami in 2008. “The Humming Chorus” from “Madama Butterfly,” when both Otness Bent and the piano were covered in a silk cloth. A rollicking version of “This Land is Your Land” arranged by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. “There were some wonderful, crazy musical events.” She laughs. “And then just beautiful a cappella singing.”
Longtime SWC member Lora Davis recalls how Otness Bent helped chorus members learn difficult harmonies and chord progressions and how her quick-thinking and improvisation repeatedly supported them during performances as well. “Nancy’s support and grounding influence on the chorus was not just about the music,” Davis says. “She was always there for us: musically, emotionally, and as a colleague and friend. It is not an exaggeration to say she was adored by all the women who stood behind her piano. Her kindness, genuine acceptance of all and steadfast positivity filled the room.”
Otness Bent has reveled in experiencing so many new things, of learning so much from the human voice, and of working with talented conductors like Coleman and Caldwell. “I’m sad, and it also definitely feels like it’s time to give someone else a chance,” she says. She will miss the community and conductors and musical venues. “And oh, I’m going to miss my band!” she says, laughing. “I’m a classical musician so I don’t get to play with drums, guitar, bass, and saxophone all that often, and we’ve always had fantastic bands.”
And now? She will stay busy, teaching piano lessons and playing chamber music. In 2020, she picked up a classical recorder that her kids had played long ago. “And then I just fell in love, and I now own nine beautiful wooden recorders.” Still learning, she has discovered another world of early music, and will travel to an old farmhouse north of Barcelona to play all nine of her recorders with fellow musicians for a week this fall. “I love playing an instrument that requires wind. It’s my way of singing,” she says.
Another thing won’t change: she still feels called to speak out on issues about which she cares deeply: equality, reproductive rights, gun control, health care, and especially climate change, which will affect the poorest populations first. Like the choruses she loves, Otness Bent fully intends to keep making music, and to keep raising her voice with others where it matters most.