A life in music: new church choir director looks back

Choir-Director-Ruth-Ann-Hanlin-Choir director Ruth Ann Hanlin’s whole life is music. And the same could be said for most members of Blaine United Church of Christ’s (UCC) choir.

The church was without a director for many months until, in a magical, musical congruence, the church without a director and a director without a church found each other. Hanlin and members of the Blaine UCC choir connected shortly after she arrived in Bellingham. It was a match made in Heaven.

Hanlin’s musical journey began in Indianapolis, where she was born into a melodic family. Her father was a professor of Greek at Butler University while her mother was a musician who played many of the large pipe organs in Oklahoma City. Hanlin and her brother and sister grew up singing trios at church when they were young. At age five, Hanlin started violin lessons.

“Violin is what I loved most,” she said.

In 1947, her father, a Navy chaplain stationed in Micronesia during World War II, went to Kosrae Island at the request of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. His purpose? To establish religious schools to train young men and women as ministers, deacons and deaconesses. The family stored their belongings and left for Kosrae Island. “It was called the Pearl of the Pacific,” Hanlin said.

At age eight she learned the Kosraen language to help her parents communicate with the natives. Later, Hanlin and her mother returned to Oklahoma to raise money for the mission field. She attended Putnam City Consolidated Schools and took violin lessons at the University of Oklahoma City.

Later relocating to the Island of Truk, her father established a school for young women and Hanlin helped teach English, math and organ. Once again, she returned to the U.S. to finish high school. She received a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory, in Oberlin, Ohio, graduating with a degree in violin and a minor in vocal conducting. She played in several orchestras and directed singing groups and married a young pianist. Both became chiropractors, with a practice in Columbia Falls, Montana where they also gave concerts.

When the couple divorced, Hanlin opened a chiropractic health clinic in Colorado, and played in the Littleton Symphony and Evergreen Symphony Orchestra. She then moved to New Mexico, and founded the Westside Community Chorus with nearly 50 singers.

When her sister died, she moved to Honolulu to be closer to her nephews and nieces. While there, she played violin and directed the choir at Manoa Valley Church. She returned to New Mexico as assistant director of the Mesilla Valley Chorale, and established the group “Singing Out.” Their first concert had 44 singers.

“The beauty of the mountains, rivers, lakes and forests of Montana drew me to the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “… and my heart’s still on the Pacific.” When she discovered Bellingham in 2015, she knew she was home.

UCC’s choir has about 12 vocalists, but Hanlin makes them sound like more. When asked how she coaxes such delightful sounds from such a small group, she said:

“I like to paint pictures for them to identify with, so it’s not notes on a page, but words. My goal is to help each singer experience the magic of their instrument – their body. I love to inspire the singers to sing from within. When they do, all of us hear what they are really singing about. I want them to get that inner spirit.”

And she does everything possible to see that they do.

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