Outside the Chebeague Island Hall on a warm summer evening, laughter can be heard 100 feet away. Somebody’s just told a joke. Inside, the group setting up chairs around a grand piano is still chuckling.

But now it’s time to get to work.

The Whalers’ rehearsal is about to begin and music is on everybody’s minds. About 20 people are seated around the piano and Peter Carleton is playing chords. The group starts out with voice exercises and shoulder rolls led by John Howard, director of the Whalers. Next up: a run-through of the music for the upcoming summer concert. As the chorus sings, Howard conducts and occasionally interrupts to tell them what they need to improve. All ears are open as he micromanages each note and offers the correct articulation of each syllable.

Howard stepped in when the group became director-less in 2002.

“We all loved to sing and couldn’t bear the thought of the Whalers ending,” says Howard, a painting contractor. “I had no experience directing but plenty of experience singing in various choruses and was curious to know if I’d be any good at this. It was a supportive and forgiving bunch, and it has been a learning experience for all of us.”

Howard clearly has a passion for singing, directing, and the Whalers.

“Directing gives me a chance to create an entire evening of entertainment in a way that showcases each person to their best advantage,” he says. As the director, Howard chooses the choral pieces and themes for each concert. “I usually have at least one song that I’m really excited about. Sometimes the theme coalesces around that. It’s good to have variety: a few that stretch our abilities along with the crowd pleasers; a few gorgeous ballads and a few comic or novelty numbers.”

Howard often invites guest performers to accompany the singers. “It’s great when I can include other instruments such as flute, guitar and drums,” he explains. But the instrument of choice for the Whalers is the piano, and Howard has found a good accompanist. “I’m incredibly fortunate to have Sally Tubbesing playing piano,” he says. “Sometimes we’re still adding songs within weeks of the performance, and she always pulls it off.”

Tubbesing was recruited as accompanist by Howard in 2006. “It’s a wonderful cross-section of people on the island in terms of age, history on the island, summer people, and people who have lived there their whole lives,” she says. “I think we all enjoy each other.”

Tubbesing lives in Freeport and has a summer cottage on Chebeague. During the winter, she commutes to the island for rehearsals. Playing for the Whalers was a big change, she says, because she was more familiar with classical music. “I had accompanied the glee club in high school, so I had played with the choral group, but I had taken piano lessons all the way through college and not played much after that,” Tubbesing says. She admits she was a bit rusty at first. “They put up with me,” she chuckles.

Everybody improves with practice, including the Whalers, she adds. “They get better every time they sing, and it’s great fun.”

For some in the group, singing is as much a social event as an artistic one. Sue Sawyer, a Whaler since 2006, says, “The group is close. Outside of rehearsal we talk about it and feel like we’re in the same little club.” For her, “singing is sort of therapeutic; not just physically, but emotionally.”

Joan B. Robinson was one of the original members of the group when it formed in 1992. “I like it because I’m around people I don’t usually associate with much,” she says. “It’s a fun group of people and we have an awfully good time.”

The Whalers perform twice a year. The group’s most recent concert was held July 14 at Chebeague’s Island Hall. A second concert is held around Christmastime.

Deborah Gordon first formed the group in 1991. Gordon, who now lives in Portland, had just moved to Chebeague. Around the holiday season, she thought caroling around the island was a good idea. “I asked if anybody ever did Christmas caroling,” she recalls. When people said they didn’t, she organized an event. “I was trying to make friends,” she explains. “When the caroling was over, someone asked, ‘Why can’t we carol all of the time?’ I said, ‘We could sing all the time.'”

In February 1992, the Whalers held their first concert. Gordon left Chebeague 10 years later, and eventually Howard stepped in to lead the group.

At July’s concert, called “Where is Love?” the chorus included six sopranos, six altos, four tenors and seven basses, a larger number than usual, thanks to some summer residents. On occasion, male singers are in short supply, but not this performance. The Whalers performed 15 choral pieces and six solos or duets about love, hence the concert’s name. The songs included classics such as “Seasons of Love” and “At Last,” and comical pieces such as “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” “I Remember It Well,” and “The Shape of Things.”

A Whalers concert isn’t all about music, however. There’s a lot of good-natured fun amid the singing. Audiences have learned that some of the Whalers compete during the performances for the label of chorus clown.

The group’s popularity was obvious at a July performance. Despite the heat, almost every seat at the Island Hall was full.

Tubbesing says the Whalers are more than a Chebeague organization; the group is a reflection of the spirit on the island. 

She discovered that on a cold winter night when she arrived at the Stone Wharf without a car. “When I first joined the Whalers, I had to commute to the winter rehearsals and I was totally shy about asking people for rides. They were all so generous. That really says something about the Chebeague community.”

Genevieve Dyer is a resident of Chebeague Island and a participant in The Working Waterfront‘s Student Journalism Program.