Sunday, November 24, 2019

Voices In the Living Room

I will never tire of hearing the ranges of a human voice. There was a sense of warmth and play during New Music Edmonton's UltraViolet concert last night. They also invited guest vocalist and composer, Jane Berry, into their living room space. Chenoa Anderson, Allison Balcetis, Amy Nicholson, and Roger Admiral began with John Cage's Living Room Music as they each played items one would find around their home, such as a rifled through magazine or a 2x4 piece of wood. A rhythmic series of percussive taps and restless rustles of paper invited the audience into their on-stage domestic space. They also recited Gertrude Stein's "The World is Round," which introduced the voices of the instrumentalists into the space as well. They sat in a semi-circular formation complete with carpet on the floor, two recliners and two wooden chairs that looked like they had been been borrowed from a dining room set, a lamp on a side table, and even a plant perched at chairside.

Tanzer Lieder by Ana Sokolovic is structured with three different language voices in the five movements from French, German, and English. Sokolovic's writing demanded an array of vocal technique from Berry from the wailing vocal glides in Stimmen to the haunting vocal suspensions in Last Song. There was a cohesive tension created from the instrumentalists and Berry's vocals throughout the movements. The sounds from the piano and cello strings often matched the held frequency from Berry's own vocal folds. The pulsating vibrato on the flute gave an audible sound to the fluctuating breath heard in a body.

Alyssa Aska's The Woman and the Lyre: Sapphic Cycle shared many movements of vocal and instrumental play. I am more tremulous had a racing agitation between Anderson and Berry and there was good use of created reverb in Of the tacet earth where Berry's live vocal input was processed live and fed back to the audience on speakers surrounding the audience. It changed the resonating space around Berry's voice.

Chains  by Frederic Rzewski was by far one of the most playful as Berry read a local newspaper on the recent climate strike led by Greta Thunberg at the Alberta Legislature. Berry's speaking voice ranged from matter-of-fact to sarcastic depending on the sentence being read. A large repertoire of sounds were shared from tablet and phone ringtones, boxing gloves being used to play the piano, and the sound of the typewriter echoing the other voices on stage.

There was the world premiere of Berry's composition The Break, which shared text from a young woman, Cassandra Siwiec-Hlewka, with bipolar disorder. The poetry was from Siwec-Hlewka's first manic episode. Berry created opportunities for each instrument to have their own vocal line before introducing her own, which was the last in the progression. There was a sad beauty in the lyrical lines, but space between each instrumental introduction, as if space was being held for them on stage to be heard. There was this feeling of cyclical descent with text "catch me, under the water it's pulling me" and repeated phrases such as "I pray and I pray..." Out of the ebb and flow of vocal lines emerged a hopeful image of a flower blooming in the darkness. It was a beautiful image to finish the first half of the concert. An acknowledgement of the internal resilience that people possess even when their challenges are not visible.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

An Interview with Conductor, Elaine Choi

Conductor and music educator, Elaine Choi, is a citizen of two places. She has lived half of her life in Canada and half of her life in Hong Kong. Choi is based in Toronto and immigrated to Canada in 2002. Prior to that, she was living in Hong Kong for 17 years. She is the cultural ambassador that the Canadian choral scene needs with her skills to facilitate the exchange of choral music between Canada and Asia. Choi understands the void of Chinese choral music in Canada and, conversely, the absence of Canadian choral music in Asia. Choi shares: “We sing a lot of different languages. Choir is always a way to welcome people into a country or place. But I have never had a chance to sing Mandarin choral music ever since I came to Canada. Mandarin choral music is quite accessible. There is language complexity that tends to scare people away.” Choi is well suited to be make the introduction since her Doctoral thesis looked at the complexity of Mandarin as lyric diction and the dissemination of Mandarin choral music. Her goal is to have a choir that is not afraid to sing in Mandarin and this could be a way to increase a singer’s comfort level by having a mix of non-native speakers and native speakers in her group. On a previous visit to Hong Kong four years ago, Choi realized that Asian choirs were unaware of Canadian choral composers. When she informally polled choral musicians in Hong Kong, oftentimes there was only one Canadian composer they would mention: Healey Willan.

Last year, she was invited to share Canadian choral music with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CU) Chorus. She partnered with CU Chorus to arrange workshops with five local high schools this July. Each school has chosen to learn a work by a contemporary Canadian choral composer that they will workshop with Choi and members of Babεl. One school will be tackling Eleanor Daley’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” another will sing Mark Sirett’s “Things That Never Die” and there will be a mass choir with all five high schools, Babεl, and the CU Chorus performing Matthew Emery’s “Sing Your Song.” It is not often that a choir is created in response to an international workshop request, but that is a factor in Babεl's formation. Choi realized that if she brought singers with her to Hong Kong this July for these workshops the music would further resonate with audiences. Choi and Babεl will also be working with the Caritas Institute and sacred professional choir, Vox Antiqua, to promote sacred Canadian choral works.

Babεl is comprised of singers that reflect the diversity of the Greater Toronto Area. The group includes non-Chinese speakers, non-Chinese descent, international students studying at the University, and many first and second generation Chinese, and some who have parents that speak Chinese but who don't speak the language themselves. For the latter, performing in Mandarin allows them access to a part of their culture they have never been exposed to.

Choi believes there are two large contributing factors that has resulted in limited Mandarin choral music in Canada:

1. Chinese is a hard language to learn and can be intimidating for non-speakers.
2. Organizations and choral leaders don’t know where to find this music.

The first area of difficulty is addressed by using pinyin transliteration, which can be read using the English alphabet. As long as the rules for consonant and vowel pronunciation are outlined, it is no different than a choir singing a work in a different language. Choi also notes that the tonal part of Mandarin is not a distinguishing feature once the text is sung, often on neutral vowels and different pitches. There is an increasing amount of Mandarin choral music written in a western style, especially in Taiwan. There needs to be further development in marketing these scores for North American choirs and making sure there is standardized pinyin in North American music editions. A goal of Choi’s would be to work with composers in Asia to publish accessible North American editions to encourage non-native speakers to sing this music outside of the country of origin. There is an authenticity that results from standardizing the music from the source since there is a challenge when North American composers are trying to write arrangements of Asian folk music. Mandarin music is more than songs about jasmine flowers and Japan is more than Sakura. If the arranging composers don’t use the standardized pinyin transliteration, it can end up creating a lot of text confusion for non-native speakers since there may be multiple transcriptions of the same noun.

The passion in Choi’s voice is evident when she verbalizes the goals of Babεl and the excitement of beginning an important process to promote and share culture through music. Choi grew up in a musical family with her Mom and two Aunts as accomplished music educators and piano teachers back in Hong Kong. Piano lessons commenced for Choi at 2.5 years of ago but her family knew that immigrating to Canada would provide more options for Choi and her sister, Yvonne, to pursue musical careers. Yvonne has a degree in collaborative piano and works with many Toronto choruses. It is apparent that Choi is a music educator at heart. It doesn’t matter if she is working with professional singers, a community adult chorus, or a children’s choir because Choi has the warmth and inspiration to guide them all.

A video to learn more about the choir

Curious to hear more Mandarin choral music and groups?

Composers to watch:
Jan Tien Hao (冉天豪) - Taiwan
Ng Cheuk Yin (伍卓賢) - Hong Kong
Xingzimin Pan (潘行紫旻)- China
Jenny H. Chou (周鑫泉)- Taiwan
Jin Chengzhi (Aaron King) (金承志)- China

Choirs to listen for:
Rainbow Chamber Singers (Shanghai)
National Taiwan University Choir
Taipei Philharmonic Chorus
Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Music Example:

Grandmother - by Rainbow Chamber Singers

Love tree - Taipei Philharmonic Chorus - Chamber Choir

The Happiness of Snowflake - National Taiwan University Choir

Babεl Biography

Babεl began as a dream to bridge choral music between Canada and China.  The SATB ensemble is dedicated to supporting Canadian composers through national and international performances and recordings of their work.

We also hope to play a pivotal role in the Canadian choral world - bringing work from contemporary composers in China back to Canada.

We are hitting the ground running, ending our first season with a tour to Hong Kong and Taiwan in July 2019. This tour will be an opportunity to collaborate with the CU Chorus, workshop with aspiring high-school musicians, and perform with the sacred music ensemble, Vox Antiqua.

DR. ELAINE CHOI (D.M.A) contributes to Toronto's vibrant choral community as a conductor, educator, adjudicator, and collaborative pianist. She is currently the Director of Music at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Past President of Choirs Ontario and conductor of the University of Toronto Women's Chorus. 

As a music educator, Elaine was a faculty member at the National Music Camp from 2010-2015 and currently serves as a guest coach at various schools throughout the city, including Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, North Toronto Collegiate Institute, and the York School. 

Elaine is active as an adjudicator and a clinician for various community events, such as the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival and Singsation Saturdays. 

Elaine is an advocate for Chinese Music as she is also proficient on several traditional instruments such as the Erhu and Zhongruan. She was the conductor of Toronto Chinese Orchestra from 2010-2017. This fall, Elaine has founded a chamber choir Babel, an SATB ensemble founded to bridge choral music between Canada and China. The group supports Canadian composers through international performances and recordings of their work and brings work from contemporary composers in China back to Canada. 

Elaine began music studies on piano and violin. She earned her BMus in Music Education (2008) and a MMus in Music Performance specializing in Choral Conducting (2010) at the University of Toronto. She also holds an ATCL (1999), an AmusTCL Diploma (2001) in piano performance from the Trinity College of Music, London, and an Advanced Certificate (2000) from Associate Board of the Royal Schools of Music, England. 

Elaine is a four time recipient of the Elmer Iseler Fellowship in Choral Conducting (2008, 2009, 2014, 2015) and a finalist in the Sir Ernest MacMillan Foundation Fellowship Award in Choral Conducting (2012). She's the 2018 recipient of the prestigious William and Waters graduating award.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ten Years to this Day

I am a singer.

There have been many moments in my life where I have wavered on accepting this title. But after 10 years of blogging, and over 20 years of choral singing, I know that who I am at my core is a singer. It is a huge component of my identity. Singing is an expressive means for me to communicate. While it is my pleasure to work with patients on discovering their communicative voice as a Speech-Language Pathologist, singing has always been and will continue to be my expressive mode of communication.

There is a overwhelming gratitude I feel towards the blog for holding me accountable to my passion: choral music. For the past 10 years, I have shared my thoughts while going through an artistic process and relayed these discoveries with my readers. In recent years, the blog has also developed into a platform where I am able to share the work of other singers, composers, conductors, organizations, and choirs as well. It is staggering to articulate the significance this blog has served for me, as well as others, over this past decade. I have enjoyed looking through my posts and photos to assemble some of my favorite moments. It's also exciting to look towards the future and contemplate what new projects, pieces of repertoire, singers, conductors, and composers I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting.

Please enjoy this anniversary post and my apologies in advance since I'm certain people have been missed from this sampling of content. Regardless, thank-you, dear readers, for continuing to read my choral musings.

10 Year anniversary by Sable C

Listed below are 20 significant posts on The Choir Girl Blog over the past 10 year. Many of them signal a change in my role as an artist, thinking, or direction at each chronological time point in the blog.

1. Camp: A Rite of Passage

2. We'll Sing Anywhere

3. Choir Uniforms Do's and Don'ts

4. Arrival of the Virtual Choir 2.0

5. ESO Reviews

6. Making the Cut

7. Sh*t Choristers Say-An Interview with the Vancouver Cantata Singers

8. Tweet Me. Embracing Social Media at Podium 2012

9. Opera Girl

10. Painting the Nightingale

11. The Culture of Fear in Rehearsals 

12. Epilogue: Life after the Circus  

13. Dear, Opera Chorus

14. Backstage at Madama Butterfly 

15. I'm a bit of a hippie: An Interview with Cy Giacomin 

16. Interview with the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, Teiya Kasahara and Neil Craighead 

17. Podium 2016 Social Media Team  

18. National Youth Choir Class of 2016  

19. An Interview with Jane Berry 

20. The Formation of FEMME

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Best of 2018

Greetings readers and Happy Holidays!

While posting frequency has diminished, the Choir Girl blog is not forgotten. You probably have noticed that I only post when I have something significant to post. Entries on this blog begin back on January 19, 2009 so I am coming up on my 10th year anniversary on January 19, 2019. Is there anything you'd like to see me do for a commemorative 10 year post? Please let me know.

My blog has served as a platform to hold me accountable for the projects that I take on and challenges me to reflect and share a performance perspective some individuals may not see. It has also allowed me to document my process from moving from a community choral singer into professional chorister. The focus has evolved these past years but the heart of the blog serves as a platform to create discourse about music and performance.

I have a few round ups for the year of 2018 which was a year of performance passion as well as challenge. But as most of you know, I love a challenge, so here are some of my picks for projects that topped my list for the year.

1. H.M.S. Pinafore with Edmonton Opera

Photo by Nanc Price Photography courtesy of Edmonton Opera

This show was most physical one I have had to tackle as a member of the Edmonton Opera Chorus. Between the dance intensive staging rehearsals every other evening and taming my body to listen to choreographer instructor, my mind and body were physically and mentally maxed out. My upbringing didn't include any exposure to dance instruction but I took on a learning attitude and embraced my enjoyment of movement in general. I got to learn moves like a charleston, chaine, and sugar. While I was in a perpetual state of muscle soreness for many weeks from January to February, I was pleased with what I was able to pull off when I saw video clips and photos. I didn't want to bring the the show down so I kept up an intensive cardio and stretch routine outside of rehearsals. I would practice my dance steps, video myself, watch the video, and then keep running it to make sure it matched what the choreographer showed in rehearsal. But once the show was running, my body had loaded the movements in. Once the curtain went up, I could just set sail, enjoy the expanse of that beautiful ship set, and soak in the energy of the on stage band and my fellow performers.

Photo by Nanc Price Photography courtesy of Edmonton Opera
2. Banff Centre Residency 

The Banff Centre residency was by far my most challenging music project that I took on this year. Learning five new compositions and getting them all performance ready in four days took all of my skills as a performer and created a pressure cooker situation to develop the skills I needed to meet the challenge. However, with naps, group sectionals, practice room time, perseverance, drink, I survived! It was not a relaxing residency but time is a luxury and we didn't have much of it. But the result of having a full schedule meant that we got to pack in more cool projects like completing some recordings for Equus with Darren Fung.


One of my most powerful projects this year and one I am personally most proud of. I didn't expect to co-create my own singing sisterhood but somehow I managed it with Jane. I stayed true to my intuition and was gifted with finding artists who resonated with the project. It was also the first time I  had text of my own adapted and set to music. All the thanks goes to the people who supported us by being in the audience, sending me texts and e-mails of support, artists sharing their skills to amplify our work, or listening to me rant about the under-representation of contemporary female perspective in choral music. I send all my unconditional love to the fellow FEMMEs, Jane Berry, Amy Voyer, and Dawn Bailey. Many thanks to New Music Edmonton to create a reason for us to form and a space to perform. It is amazing to be in a musical community that creates space for experimental works and I am beyond excited to see what projects we get up to in the future. I was also so excited to style and direct this photoshoot with Nanc Price as my photographer. 

See you all in 2019!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Formation of FEMME

This is FEMME. Works written by women, sung by women.

FEMME is a new project I am very honoured to be a part of. There are distinct moments in my mind that led to the formation of FEMME. The first was the Love Fail collaboration Pro Coro had with the Good Women Dance Collective as a part of New Music Edmonton's season. It was the first time I was singing in a quartet at a professional level. That unification of treble voices and movement had a lasting impact on me as a performer. Another key moment was singing Jane Berry's Mass for Recovery with Pro Coro. Jane fulfills multiple roles in her daily life but she is also an Alto in Pro Coro and Composer. Many of us in the choir noted how well-written the parts were for the Sopranos and Altos in her Mass. It was an emotional sing for all involved since it documented her mother's struggle through surgery, rehabilitation, and her eventual passing.

When I saw New Music Edmonton was accepting proposals for their See You in September event, I immediately thought of Jane and wondered if she would be interesting in writing a work for it. I wanted to sing another work written by Jane. I was open to it being a work that could have included a variety of voice parts, visuals artists, and dancers but we were working within particular constraints to have our proposal accepted for the concert:
  • 6 performers max
  • works 15 minutes
In mid June, I sent a Facebook message Jane's way to assess her interest. She confirmed that she was definitely interested and that we should meet for coffee. We covered a lot in that coffee meeting and a cascade of decisions were made. I revealed that I would love to do something like Love Fail again. I was really interested in exploring the use of female voices in music through time whether that included chant, lullabies, siren songs, or pop singers. Many of the other decisions were based on logistics of creating a work and having it performance ready in under three months. She decided that she had more possibilities writing for four voice versus two or three so we invited two other singers, Dawn Bailey and Amy Voyer, whose voices complimented the piece that Jane wanted to write in her mind. We both felt it should be a pilot quartet project for now and see how the work comes across. If the musical core was strong, the work could then lend itself well to other elements like movement, visuals, we could invite more singers while maintaining our core, or Jane could develop a full choral arrangement in the future.

She did note at this meeting that she find it's easier to work from a place of text first. The next two evenings I began to re-read my favorite feminist texts and sketch out my thoughts on sisterhood, the segregation of women, how conditions are created for women to feel jealousy instead of support, exclusion breeding self-doubt, female roles and expectations, and female desire. I sent some examples of works I had been reading as well as my own text sketches to Jane and received a response from her wondering where I got the last text. I told her those words were mine and she could do with them as she wished.

I left on vacation to Berlin at the start of July and within a week she began sending me scores as she finished them. It was a very organic back and forth process. I loved the text fragments she took and what she added of her own. I felt it told a cohesive story overall. Of course, since we had the 15 minute time constraint, the topics are musically introduced but not fully discussed. However, an introduction is a start to further conversation. There was also an opportunity to raise the question if we had to use he/she or if we could use gender neutral pronouns like they/their. Rarely do I see inclusive language represented in a choral music score. The first time I began reading through the scores on my iPad in Berlin, I felt a strong emotional resonance. Music was amplifying my thoughts.

Over the next two months, we met to rehearse and memorize the work. We wish for this group to amplify the voices of female composers and musicians. They deserve more than exposure and should have appropriate compensation for their work.

All things have beginning. While we do not exist to represent all women, we are one set of voices beginning to create a dialogue using choral music as our medium. We hope to add voices to this discussion. Until then, we will unapologetically inhabit performance space for women singing at a professional level.

Hear us, September 22, 2018. We will be just one of many other amazing acts programmed by New Music Edmonton.

To be a Woman
Written by Jane Berry
Text by Sable Chan and Jane Berry

1. Sister, my Sister
2. Sequester me, away
3. Must I be a Mother?
4. I Desire


Dawn Bailey grew up in Edmonton, where her passion for music was ignited at a young age, singing in the Schola Cantorum and Cantilon choirs. She completed her Bachelor of Music degree in Voice Performance at the University of Toronto, and later moved to Montreal to pursue a Master of Music degree, specializing in Early Music. Dawn quickly became a fixture in the early music communities in both Toronto and Montreal, performing and recording with some of Canada's leading early music ensembles. After further studies in Amsterdam, she returned to Edmonton with her young family, where she is excited to delve into as many early music, new music, and choral ventures as she can.

Jane Berry moved to Edmonton to start her PhD of Philosophy in Music Theory in the fall of 2011. Shortly after her arrival she began singing with Pro Coro Canada and quickly became integrated within the local choral community. She is the director of ETown Minors (a choir developed for at risk youth), section lead for ETown Augmented and in-house arranger for both groups. She also works for Sing for Life Society of Alberta, has taught a number of courses at the University of Alberta, sings with various new music ensembles, volunteers with local youth and works as a composer and visual artist.
Jane holds a Masters of Arts in Music Theory from the University of Ottawa (2011), a Bachelors of Music in Composition from Acadia University (2005), and is currently working on a degree in Education at the University of Alberta.


Amy Voyer has been an enthusiastic part of the Edmonton choral community since the age of 9, singing with the Edmonton Youth and Children’s Choirs, Kokopelli Youth Choir, Concordia Concert Choir, and Chronos Vocal Ensemble. She now sings professionally with Pro Coro Canada and teaches K-6 Music full time at St. Kateri Elementary School. She holds Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Education degrees from Concordia University. When you’re not being blown over by the Richter-scale level of her laugh, you can find her writing essay length captions on her Instagram posts, hosting solo dance parties in her living room, and tearing up while thinking about how much she loves people.

 Sable Chan is an avid chorister who was raised within the local Edmonton choir community singing with Schola Cantorum, Cantilon Choirs, and The University of Alberta Madrigal Singers. She now sings professionally with Pro Coro Canada and the Edmonton Opera Chorus. She received a Masters in Speech Pathology and Audiology from the University of Alberta and a Certificate of Vocology from the University of Iowa. Sable demonstrates her passion for the art of choral music as the author of The Choir Girl blog where she publishes her choral musings.

All photos by Nanc Price Photography

Monday, March 12, 2018

Banff Centre Choral Art Program 2018

It has been a week since the first Choral Art residency at the Banff Centre has finished up. The entire residency ran just over two weeks in length. There were five composers and five conductors accepted into the program to work with the Choral Art Faculty composed of Michael Zaugg, Lone Larsen, and Ugis Praulins. Each week hosted a different ensemble of eight singers. This was the lab choir for the conductors and composer.

I'm just starting to emerge from the haze of living on the Sleeping Buffalo (a.k.a Tunnel Mountain) for 10 days. It felt like a strange time warp where I was at adult music camp for an extended period of time. My heart was full but this was paired with significant exhaustion. I remember pondering how I was going to fit another note and direction in my brain as the hours passed by during my days there. I was aware the experience would be a challenge going in; however, I had no idea how intense it was going to be until I was immersed in it. Ensemble Two had the challenge of receiving new scores from the composers and getting them concert ready with the conducting participants in three days.  Ensemble One had their own set of challenges to overcome. They had a set of scores which they had previously prepared and there a focus on the conductors to practice their gestural technique using these set of scores. The Ensemble One singers also sang through the composer's sketches, gave feedback, and read through some of the provided texts that would eventually form the works for Ensemble Two to perform. In between the residency for Ensemble One and Two all of Pro Coro singers for our Canadian Connections production headed out to Banff to rehearse and perform. The weekends also had opportunity for the participating choirs, Dnipro, Joyful Noise, and the Edmonton Youth Choir to work with the Choral Art Faculty and some Pro Coro singers.

Ensemble One was joined by the rest of Pro Coro on the weekend and the focus quickly shifted to rehearsing and presenting Ugis Praulins' Nightingale. Those first rehearsals in Banff rehearsing the Nightingale in front of Praulins himself was a bucket list moment for me. Six years ago, I remember being wide awake after rehearsals. I was buzzing from the energy of the piece. It led me to compose this Painting the Nightingale blog entry, which connected me with Ugis. That first rehearsal at Banff Centre was a moment where I felt: "Life cannot get better than this," as I sang with Ugis and in my peripheral vision. He would give a few brief statements of his vision for a certain movement and then sit back and gently nod when we would try another run of the line again. Pro Coro performed the full Nightingale the next day in concert at Banff Centre before returning to Edmonton on Sunday afternoon to sing it again at All Saints Cathedral. There was something magical about that Banff Centre performance though. In addition to the Nightingale, Pro Coro also sang The Way Children Sleep, Cy Giacomin's Negen and David Désilets' en vuelo. Flûte Alors! joined Pro Coro for these weekend concerts and demonstrated the wide sound palette produced by recorders in the different pieces.

Dress Rehearsal for Pro Coro's concert in Rolston Hall at Banff Centre. Photo by Graeme Climie.

After Ensemble Two's arrival out in Banff, we had a fantastic choral and body warm-up with Lone. We played games to explore concepts of trust, sending energy to our partners through our voices, making sure everybody had the opportunity to do their best, exploring some basics of choral improv and how to generate a song together based on a concept, setting, or few lines of provided text. The session was mindfulness at its best since I was present those around me. After this two hour session, my mind felt buoyant, devoid of the cycling of internal self-talk. However, this feeling of buoyancy was quickly replaced with stress for me at the Monday evening rehearsal. During our dinner break, we received scores from the composers who had been hard at work to meet their Monday afternoon deadline. That Monday evening rehearsal was the first opportunity for us to sight-read our way through the scores in front of the composers who wrote them and for the conductors who would  conduct them. Michael sat down at the piano and gave a disclaimer to the conductors and composers in the room that all comments had to be reserved for later. He made it clear that this rehearsal was for him to work with the singers and read through the score. The studio practice room fell silent. I realized soon after that there were only three days to prepare these scores for their concert debut on Thursday night.

Sight-reading in public and feeling unprepared is my nightmare as a performer. The reason that I have been a successful choral singer to date is that I invest time in the preparation process. In this way, I can be receptive to the conductor's comments and be able to implement them without worrying if I am singing the right notes or not. Although the conductors and composers understood we were all reading the scores, I still felt terrible at having to demonstrate my struggle at sight-singing contemporary works. I was frantically hitting my tuning fork on my knee in order to locate my starting pitches and seeing if I was still in tune at certain checkpoints when there was only one singer on each line. My brain was so overwhelmed that I had trouble reading vertically to locate parts that paired with my own. I changed my quality of sound while holding notes as my brain processed the vocal descriptors above the written notes like "glottal fry," and I would be striving to create overtones through a series of outlined vowels a bar or two after the overtones should have already commenced. It was a test in staying objective and keeping a forward momentum. I kept a log of my errors to revisit later during my own practice sessions. There was no stopping once we started reading. I later realized that this was one of the only times we had the chance to sing through some of the pieces from start to finish until the concert run. Previously, one of my Med School friends gave me an expression that summates how I find it in intense scenarios like this: it's like drinking from a firehose. There is such a high quantity of information to absorb in such a short amount of time that one feels pummeled by this constant bombardment of information.

Gorgeous Pro Coro practice room at Banff Centre
Every rehearsal following this initial one would feel better in some ways and then worst in others. It's part of the frustrating process when multi-tasking to learn new skills. For every 5 hours I spent in rehearsal, I spent 3-4 hours of my own time working through the music by myself or in small groups with other singers. There was a point somewhere between Monday night and Thursday evening where the balance began to shift: I was working hard not just to redeem myself from a terrible sight-reading session but it was out of my respect for the composers in the program. I really wanted to sing my best for their pieces.

The rehearsals weren't stressful all the time though. There were light moments like when Michael commented on how "Pro Coro likes!" after singing the lush chords in Laura Hawley's, Absence. I accidentally recomposed my Alto solo line in Jonathan Russ's, Motion and Use, a work set to texts from Tao Te Ching. To be fair, Michael only deemed me to be the soloist a few seconds beforehand by making eye contact with me. The group chuckled when my fellow Alto and I mustered up a know-it-all, nasal tone for the delivery of the line, "The truth is relative." I was surprised at myself for how easy it was for me to channel this obnoxious persona. This previous text was from in Jason Noble's brilliant Furiousier and Spuriousier. The Unforseen Consequences of the Democraticization of Knowledge, a musical fairy tale of Lewis Carroll and René Decartes. Stuart Beatch presented a recent commission he had been working on, I Am Like Many, for the Senate House Library's exhibition of Queer Between the Covers. Netta Shaha's work, It Is All a Chaos of Nothing, was an evocative contrast to the other works on the program.

It has been a long time since I have felt this exhausted from a musical experience. I fit a month's work into three days. I survived living rehearsal to rehearsal, meal to meal, with some periods of sleep interspersed throughout those segments. Survival was possible due to the positive reinforcement from the conductors and composers, as we chatted in line at Vistas dining room buffet, locking myself away in a practice room to play through chords while learning my part in context, and sectionals with fellow choristers in the practice hut. These sectionals were equal parts wild and hilarious. 

I had all these ambitious plans to write, conduct interviews, learn how to use the climbing wall at the Rec facility but my energy went into taking care of myself and learning music. My days were a general cycle of eating, drinking a hot beverage, singing practice on my own, singing in rehearsal with others, and then repeating that cycle about three times.

My take-aways from the experience:
  • I need time in order to prepare
  • I will put the work in to meet a deadline
  • I do better with written feedback or specific comments that are made but left so I can process them later on my own time
  • I need time to quietly work on my own first or else I will reinforce incorrect motor patterns if I keep running things incorrectly in rehearsal
  • When it's time for a break, I need a break. My mind can't process any more after-the-fact comments. I need silence to reset
  • Pro Coro singers are the best. I'm grateful to sing alongside them
  • It is my privilege to be a part of somebody's creation and learning process
Do you think you're up to taking part next time? Conductors and Composers reading this post, keep your eyes open for applications to Choral Art 2019, when they come out later this year.

Here are some more photos from the residency:
Composers: Laura Hawley, Stuart Beatch, Jonathan Russ, Netta Shahar, Ugis, and Jason Noble (L-R). Photo courtesy of Michael Zaugg.

Ensemble One at Banff Centre. Photo courtesy of Michael Zaugg.

Ensemble Two at Banff Centre following a recording session with Darren Fung and the Edmonton Youth Choir.

Conductors: Kathleen Allan, Geung Kroeker-Lee, Jack Bennet, Aya Ueda, Dierdre Kellerman, and Michael Zaugg (L-R)
A view from the podium during the recording session.
Working on some choral improv techniques with Lone Larsen

Ugis Praulins Q&A with Dnipro and Joyful Noise at Banff Centre

Taking my caffeination game seriously during the residency

A voice care education talk with the Edmonton Youth Choir. Photo courtesy of John Wiebe.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Soft Red / Hard White

Photo by Ruta Nichols/Harcourt House

I had the chance to be a part of: Soft Red / Hard White by Jen Mesch. Jen is an Artist in Residence at the Harcourt House and created an installation that also has a live performance component to it. Jen embroidered graphic scores which are interpreted by the musicians and dancers to create a live improvised performance that is different every time it appears in the space. Explore this link to learn more about the different film, dancers, musicians, and scores.

Soft Red / Hard White was thrilling to be a part of with its experimental and collaborative rehearsals. Jen described her creation process and allowed the dancers and musicians to look in the close detail at her embroidery and sketches. We mused over the soft reds and hard whites in hand-made paper books and embroidered fabric. I watched with interest as each dancer would give different versions of their solos. They each had a red paper cut with symbols and their initials to inform their movement. It was also the same template for an accompanying musician to work with as well as responding to the live movements. Each dancer was challenged to expand or condense their movements into different time spans during the rehearsal process. During the dress rehearsal, we had a 45 min period where we had the chance to have dancers and musicians continuously responding to different scores. These scores come from rooms in the abandoned pioneer house installation which are then hung outside the house for the musicians and dancers to interpret. Meanwhile, audience members are free to move through the live performance space and visit some rooms inside the installation.

As a musician, it has been an incredibly freeing process to not be constrained by prescriptive scores that dictate everything from tempo, text, and volume, to sung vowels. Although that is the training and format I grew up with, and I do seek a certain amount of comfort in being told what I need to do, I am always looking for a challenge to go outside of my comfort zone. Vocal improvisation is definitely in the realm of challenge. On opening night, I found I was singing a sweeping minor melody that clearly wanted to be sung even though I have never sung those particular notes in that succession before. It was a musical motif cycling in my mind that wished to be expressed at that point in time. In the following days while I was warming up, I used that same lingering vocalise from opening night. There was also the welcome challenge of experimenting with how many vocal and non-vocal sounds I could produce with my vocal tract as a singing musician. Glottal fry, subtle I.P.A. vowel transitions, and overtone singing were some techniques I was playing with during the performance.

I look forward to performing once again in the Gallery. If you are free tomorrow, the last live performance of this work will be on at Harcourt House from 7-9 PM. There is no admission fee and there will even be prosecco and cookies. If that is not the best drink and treat pairing I have heard of to date, I don't know what is.

The Main Gallery . October 5 – November 25, 2017
Harcourt House Artist Run Centre, 3rd floor, 10215 – 112 St, Edmonton

Photo by Jack Bawden

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Canadian Chamber Choir in Chicago

Photo by Andy Rice, courtesy of Canadian Chamber Choir

There appears to be a raw void following a period of intense music making. During the past week on tour with the Canadian Chamber Choir, I had the privilege to connect with other singers through song. As on any tour, energy levels peak and dip, rippling through proximal choristers. The majority of these emotions are one of elation, compassion, and warmth; however, there is a compounding fatigue which leaves one wondering if a nap, caffeine, or snack are adequate to give an energy boost to get through another 2.5 hours of rehearsal.

Having an afternoon to explore Navy Pier before the first rehearsal
Travel always gives an opportunity to highlight what one needs in order to maintain self-care. I implemented small ways to maintain my stability: I brought my own coffee hand grinder and aeropress to ensure consistent caffeine delivery each morning. I tried to have some outdoor time everyday for a few minutes whether it was lying on the grass outside or venturing out for a walk in the pouring rain to get a coffee from a nearby cafe. When there is so much that is outside your zone of control, it is important to embrace small ways you need to regulate yourself.

There was a large focus on educational workshops with choral communities of sizes and age ranges. I remember looking out into the audience at Nicholas Senn Highschool and watching friends hold each others' hands as they watched us sing an arrangement of Gordon Lightfoot's Song for a Winter's Night. One of the members, who also happened to be Captain of the football team, chuckled with disbelief at the low range of the basses in our choir. Every time I see moments like this, it reminds me of the first time I saw the CCC performing in Edmonton. It couldn’t believe that singers could fly into one location from all across Canada and perform at such a professional level. I often have these moments reflected back at me when I watch the faces of students watching Canadian Chamber Choir perform.

Another moment that floored me was watching Sullivan Highschool Students learn musical skills in a collaborative manner. We worked on the school Fight Song, Fight on Sullivan, Fight On. Two students sharing the bench at an electronic keyboard and playing the chords announced by their teacher. The keyboard keys had stickers on each of the notes with the note names to help them landmark which chord they would need. I have since learned that Sullivan Highschool has a large immigrant and refugee student population. It appeared as if the the social, economic, and racial labels for each of these students could be temporarily set aside during these musical moments of unification.

Who knew that in the basement of the Oakdale Covenant Church in south side Chicago was the Oakdale Children’s Choir under the direction of Terrance Smith? Hearing them learn without sheet music in a call and response structure with Terrance was some of the most electrifying, invigorating, and exciting feats of choral singing I have ever heard in my life. I had goosebumps during the entire performance. It’s like somebody turned up the dial on volume and searing resonance and my ear drums hummed in response to the electrifying sound they were creating. It was also a marvel to see them create something so amazing on the grit of their local community and charismatic musical leader.

Another important component during this tour was working on the Where the Waters Meet project with Composer, Carmen Braden, and Indigenous Dancer, Activist, Actress, Model Sarain Carson-Fox. It will be a collaborative commission surrounding water: personal memories, safety, access, all articulated through sound and dance. Sarain opened the process with a smudge ceremony to unify the singers and acknowledge the water in all of us, further emphasizing the similarities in ourselves before we began to discuss the differences that still exist in the relationships between settlers and Indigenous people. As Carmen described it, the areas where two sources of water meet is often turbulent and muddy. However, navigating that process is still something she was committed to as a composer and one we collectively agreed, as Artists, was an important one to continue. Never before have I had the opportunity to sing sound sketches by a composer in formative compositional stages. A commissioned work is given to me by the conductor in its completed form. However, in this process, I get to see the thought process that goes into creating a new work. What is a privilege it is to have time allocated to this creative process.

The past week with Canadian Chamber Choir reinforced the importance of non-competitive spaces where you can create Art. For me, it was allowing myself to relinquish a sense of inner control and invite a connection with others through shared voices. Being grateful or privileged doesn’t begin to describe the lingering feelings following the tour. If I think about my own family, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose each other. We had to learn how to live with one another. Being chosen to join a choir, being adopted into a family, it feels entirely different. You trust in the vision of another and the members create an inclusive space. I can think of no higher compliment than to be adopted into a choir family. It renews a vigor in me to embrace challenges, continue learning, and to keep performing.

More photos from the past week:
A lovely desert platter of USA and CA love hosted by the Canadian Women's Club of Chicago
Singing at the Bahá'í temple

The idyllic pumpkin patch outside Trinity United Methodist Church

The most beautiful display exhibit/coffee table at my billet's home in Skokie, IL. My homestay host, Joe, served in the US Military posted in North Korea and Japan, came back to teach history at a local highschool for 35+ years, and though retired, now gives school tours at the Field Museum. I miss our morning time of reading a paper copy of the Chicago Tribune and listening to a Lyric Opera Chicago broadcast on the radio.
Pre-concert rest before our performance at Anderson Chapel at North Park University

More social media gems over the past week:

Check out Canadian Chamber Choir's blog for more posts:

Day 1

Day 2 and 3