Eric Lane Barnes reflects on his 17 years with SMC and SWC

Eric Lane Barnes reflects on his 17 years with SMC and SWC

August 7, 2017
Categories: Seattle Men's Chorus, Seattle Women's Chorus

Earlier this spring, Eric Lane Barnes approached Paul and Steve to discuss his role in the organization. Having made it through the transition to a new artistic director, Eric wanted time to pursue advanced training in music therapy and to put new focus on his composing career. After some conversation, they happily agreed to a new position in which Eric would maintain his role with Captain Smartypants and Sensible Shoes as Director of Ensembles, but step back from his full time role as Associate Artistic Director. Following a brief tribute at the June concerts, we asked Eric to reflect on his life with SWC and SMC.


On New Year’s Eve of 1999, my husband Paul and I arrived in Seattle with a truck of our belongings. I was to start my new job as Assistant Artistic Director of Seattle Men’s Chorus in January of 2000. I had met Dennis Coleman several years prior at a GALA Chorus festival; what began as a cordial acquaintance grew into a working relationship: Dennis had programmed several of my songs on SMC concerts, and had begun commissioning me to write new pieces for the chorus. When he invited me to apply for a new position I jumped at the chance, continuing an artistic collaboration that has lasted over 20 years.

One of the first tasks Dennis set me to was forming a small ensemble. I had been directing the small ensembles Aria and The Windy City Slickers in Chicago; I based my experience with these groups and numerous years in Chicago theater to form Captain Smartypants. Many will not remember, however, that Captain Smartypants’ first name was FAQ. We performed once under that name, for the SMC Auction in 2000. The most frequently asked question, however, was "What does FAQ mean?" by people who were befuddled and - in one instance - offended. From that point on the ensemble has been Captain Smartypants.

Although I had gotten my degree in Choral Music Education and had conducted dozens of musicals in Chicago, working in such close detail with a choral performance group was a new discipline for me. Dennis was an excellent and generous teacher, showing me different ways to finesse some of the finer points of choral conducting. Conducting became my third favorite thing to do, after writing songs and playing the piano.

In 2002 Seattle Women’s Chorus was formed. At the 2004 Montreal GALA Festival SWC established themselves decisively as one of the best women’s choruses in the choral circuit. My role was redefined as Associate Artistic Director, and my artistic role expanded to include working with Seattle Women’s Chorus (with SWC’s magnificent assistant conductor Rhonda Juliano sharing conducting duties with Dennis). Dennis invited me to write and arrange songs and scenes for SWC; I fell in love with choral music all over again, but this time it was the women’s voices that thrilled me. When Rhonda left Seattle for a job opportunity in another city I took on many of her duties, and at the same time took over direction of Sensible Shoes. Now, as any parent will tell you, an adopted child is loved just as much as a biological child. While Captain Smartypants began as my own brainchild, I love Sensible Shoes every bit as much as their slightly older brother. Sometimes - and don’t tell the Pants - even more.

In these past 17 years I have curated/directed/scripted/written 16 shows for Captain Smartypants, composed over 30 songs for SMC, composed over 25 songs for SWC (including the shows We Can Do It!, Unsung, and Vixen Fiction, the latter written with SWC member and performer Brenda David), curated numerous shows for both SMC and SWC (including SMC’s Elton John show and SWC’s Reel Women), scripted countless scenes for both choruses, staged, polished (and even choreographed) dozens of production numbers, helped plan, collate and coedit several CDs (including two with Captain Smartypants), auditioned hundreds of prospective members for both SWC and SMC, rocked five GALA Festivals with the full battery of groups, appeared many times on radio and TV with both choruses and both ensembles, and - in short - had a fantastic time being steeped in music and love, always working for greater equality and acceptance for LGBTQ people everywhere.

While performing for packed houses in the best concert halls this town has to offer is always thrilling, it’s the smaller moments that come to mind when I think back over the highlights of these past 17 years:

- a woman coming up to me at a gas station thanking me for a performance Smartypants had done two years before (Waltz for Teddy) and bursting into tears. We, of course, hugged.

- seeing SWC members’ eyes fill with tears when real-life Rosie the Riveters walked onstage during We Can Do It!

- playing an intimate version of "What Are you Doing New Year’s Eve?" with Tituss Burgess (on the fantastic concert grand piano at Benaroya Hall)

- embracing Pete-e and Jane after their onstage wedding during the campaign for marriage equality

- an SMC member hugging me tightly after a performance saying, "I am so grateful you let me into the chorus"

- hearing an audience member whisper, "Jesus!" in the silence that followed after the final note of "Ancestral Voices"

- the tough-as-nails lesbian who told me a song I’d written for Sensible Shoes was the most feminist song she’d ever heard ("Happy Camper")

- the time a soloist I took a chance on casting completely knocked her song out of the park

- getting an email following a performance from a member saying, "You were in rare form tonight... I love it when you conduct"

My all-time favorite moments were during production meetings when Dennis and I would catch one another’s eye with a very specific gleam. This gleam would say, "I have a crazy idea that just might work ..." And, more often than not, these crazy ideas worked like magic. I feel blessed to have been able to work with such grand magic for so many years.

As I step down from the Associate Artistic Director to the role of Director of Ensembles, I wish both Seattle Women’s Chorus and Seattle Men’s Chorus great continued success and joy under the baton of new Artistic Director Paul Caldwell. We have all come a long way since the early days of the LGBTQ choral movement. Here’s to the next thrilling chapter in the book of music, love, and a greater celebration of all people in the human spectrum.