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

Friday, June 9, 2017

The First Edmonton International Choral Festival

This past weekend was the first edition of Edmonton's International Choral Festival. VoNo Vocal ensemble from Stockholm, Sweden and the Halifax Camerata Singers traveled to Edmonton to participate in the Festival. As I've been ruminating over the past week since the Festival has finished, the lingering feeling I have now is how well the past, present, and future were represented throughout the festival.

The Halifax Camerata Singers' Halifax 1917: From Dreams to Despair  was modern in its presentation while sharing a significant historical moment from Halifax's past. The format of the show was an interwoven musical and textual chronology of life in Halifax from January to December 1917. The Rhapsody Quintet provided an instrumental anchor at the core of the work with Actor, Jeremy Webb, voicing the part of a WWI solider who is reading out his letters to home. As each month passes, different musical themes would emerge to highlight a historical period, such as the welcoming of the New Year with Auld Lang Syne or Operetta tunes like Vilja-Lied from The Merry Widow. The use of projection and presentation of a Charlie Chaplin short with live instrumental accompaniment by the Rhapsody Quintet also created a moment where the audience could feel transported back in time. The work progressed towards the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917. The entire show was the perfect balance between historical discourse with written letters, musical vignettes through solo and choral ensemble works, and instrumental works by Rhapsody Quintet. Brava, Halifax Camerata Singers and a special kudos to Peggy Walt for her months of archival research to write the letters and identify the historical themes in the show.

Pro Coro's repertoire was focused around themes of past childhood memories but re-imagined with a contemporary compositional voice. It began with the ethereal and playful bernat vivancos bubbles, which by the way, had the best comedic moment in our show. A percussion triangle was decimated by a chorister. She went to strike it on cue, it snapped into two pieces, then crashed to the floor during a quiet suspension in the piece. You're welcome, Kim :) There was the world premiere of Uģis Prauliņš' The Way Children Sleep that posed questions of how watching the innocence of sleeping children can make one reevaluate the role of war in our society. Cy Giacomin's, the boy in outerspace, that was recently premiered by Vox Choir, used poetic text written by a boy with Autism. Pro Coro also tossed in a prairie welcome with Trent Worthington's Alberta Homesteader and Flunky Jim and Stuart Beatch's Prairie Bound on the program. Pro Coro also had the pleasure of being conducted by Kathleen Allen, the Emerging Choral Conductor sponsored by Choral Canada. She conducted Tormis' Helletused, Childhood Memory. While I consider her to be far from emerging, she humbly assured me that everyday she is learning means that she is becoming a better conductor. I find her resistance to settling very inspirational.

VoNo Vocal Ensemble was the group I had the least familiarity with before going to their concert. I am so glad this was the case because their presentation of Earth Calls blew my mind. It gave me a glimpse of what the future of choral music could look like by adapting the present day tools we have to communicate with an audience. The use of choreography was sleek and created flow throughout the entire show. There was also a segment with choral improvisation where audience members would shout out a number from 1-17, and whichever number was heard, it was the basis for a short improvised work from the ensemble. Each number corresponded to one of the United Nation's Goals for sustainable development. They would take that goal concept and improvise text and music for it.  I've watched a lot of improvised theatre and I've watched a lot of modern dance but I have never seen it done with professional choral singers before. Sometimes the best ideas are ones that take the things we know and merge them together to synthesize something new.

The Gala Choir was made up of singers representing 42 local Edmonton choral organizations. Each spotlight choir had a chance to sing 2 pieces and then the Gala Choir was conducted by Robert Sund. It was also a special treat to have Paul Mealor conduct In the Bleak Midwinter and Robert Sund conducting his arrangement of Sukiyaki with Pro Coro's youth choir, #CONNECT. Michael Zaugg noted that Robert Sund conducted his very first Festival choir experience in 1994. There was a sense of past meeting the present on a local and international level. I can't wait to see what the next Edmonton International Choral Festival brings to town on May 30-June 2, 2019. Mark it in your calendars.

As well, Pro Coro Canada just launched a collaboration with the Leading Note in a new series of music for advanced and professional choirs. Many contemporary Canadian works PCC has sung over the past few years, as well as at this YEG International Choral Festival, are now available for purchase. You'll see familiar names like: Cy Giacomin, Stuart Beatch, Kristopher Fulton, Jeff Smallman, Jason Noble, Robert Rival, and Cecilia Livingston.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Sassy Sisters of Cinderella. An Interview with Caitlin Wood and Sylvia Szadovszki.

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

The sisters of Cinderella sparkle with a searing sassiness. Soprano, Caitlin Wood, and Mezzo-Soprano, Sylvia Szadovszki play the sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, in Edmonton Opera’s upcoming production of Cinderella. There is an instantaneous connection and infectious charm that is amplified when they are within proximity of one another. They have a tendency to finish each other sentences, release a unison giggle at comedic moments, and offer each other knowing looks of support as they help each other formulate answers that reflect their personal experience.

Caitlin Wood as Clorinda. Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

There is a sense of homecoming in many ways since Caitlin grew up in St. Albert and Sylvia in Calgary. This is Caitlin’s debut performance with Edmonton Opera and she shares, “it’s nice to be home and to be able to perform at home. A lot of family, friends, and one of my mentors who got me into music growing up will be coming. They haven’t seen me perform since highschool.” In her last highschool production, she was playing Maria in West Side Story. It will be definite treat for her supporters to hear her in this professional role.

Sylvia Szadovszki as Tisbe. Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Sylvia is ecstatic to be back at Edmonton Opera after her previous work in the Barber of Seville. “When you first get hired, you don’t know the people there, but everybody here is so nice, sweet, supportive, and fun. It makes coming back to the company just really awesome,” she reveals.

Caitlin notes, “To me, Clorinda and Tisbe, they’re are always together. Once I met Sylvia, I found it so easy to see who these characters are going to be.” Even though they both entered the rehearsal process with ideas of who their characters might be, these traits were not fully formed until they met one another. “We come with our own ideas of the character but we are flexible and amend things in rehearsal. When you are in this rehearsal situation, it becomes so much easier to see a character and play off of each other. When practicing recit alone, it’s basically impossible,” says Sylvia. 
Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

When asked about who they thought their characters were before they entered the rehearsal process, both Sylvia and Caitlin reveal they knew the sisters were mean but they didn’t realize how Director, Rob Herriot, would play it up with comedic effect. “I probably thought that the sisters were more under control, but I feel like now, they’re absolute brats. I probably thought they’re late teenagers, early 20s, they’re probably not going to throw an entire fit. But they do. I think they’re those people never taught or corrected by their parents to be kind,” says Caitlin. “We’re very uncivilized,” says Sylvia with a warm laugh.

In commenting on how they are finding the quick-paced costume changes, the relentless Rossini bel canto runs, and the cast of quirky characters, Sylvia reveals that “the whole cast has a really good sense of humor. Everyone is quick-witted, one of the most fun processes I’ve ever been a part of.” She cites Stephen Hegedus, playing Alidoro in the production, as having some choice comedic moments in the rehearsal process. 
Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Fashion inspiration from the 1950s plays a huge role in this performance. Edmonton Opera costume designer, Deanna Finnman, plays with a wide palette of color, texture, and structure in the sisters’ dresses. Caitlin recalls the first time she went in for a fitting: "I immediately thought “these are what these girls are going to look like.” It helped me figure out who the characters after seeing the costumes and going into the fitting. It takes a really specific person to pull off these dresses. I think the sisters are exactly that, very loud, garish, go big or go home." Sylvia further elaborates in the fashions for each sister: "Caitlin’s costumes are more poofy, huge dresses and mine are more angled. We have taken that information into how we move and how our characters do certain gestures.  There’s never been a time when I’ve gotten in a costume and it hasn’t amplified the character. You get so many more ideas. I could play with this bow, I could walk tighter way because I’m in a tighter skirt.”

The constant contact over the past few weeks has increased the sisterly bond between Caitlin and Sylvia. “People have actually made observations that we answer questions the exact same way, we’ll say the exact same thing on the exact same pitch. We have melded,” says Sylvia. “We are now related,” states Caitlin with a laugh. Sylvia begins, “I felt like we had this instant little…sisterly bond,” says Caitlin finishing the sentence.

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

As the Edmonton Opera cast of Cinderella is working their way through tech week before opening night this Saturday. Both Sylvia and Caitlin muse about their favorite upcoming moments. Caitlin is eager to start running through the eight costume quick changes she does throughout the show. “It’s always exciting to have things come together finally,” says Sylvia, “having all the pieces of the puzzle come together.”

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

The sister duo of Caitlin and Sylvia have the power to steal the show with killer comedic timing and how they embrace the ridiculousness and excess at the core of the sisters. Both Caitlin and Sylvia overflow with gratitude towards Edmonton Opera, and I would not be surprised if their performances leave the audience asking themselves: when can I see them again?

Cinderella performances:
February 4 at 8 PM
February 7 at 7:30 PM
February 9 at 7:30 PM

Tickets are available online at Edmonton Opera

Photo by Nanc Price Photography, courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Friday, January 27, 2017

An Interview with Jane Berry

To state that Jane Berry had a challenging year from October 6, 2015 to October 7, 2016 is an understatement. In addition to being a PhD student, professional chorister, running a beach volleyball club, and mother to 5 year-old Piper, she spent the majority of her time taking care of her mother, Marilyn Berry. Marilyn underwent surgery for brain tumour removal on October 6, 2015. Following that surgery, Jane witnessed her mom cycle through gains and losses while maintaining a connection to her mother through good humour and music.

Personally, as a fellow chorister witnessing Jane manage her multiple roles from the sidelines, it was staggering to see her navigate this complex process when reading her Facebook updates or chatting with her at choir break. I also remember catching glimpses of her composing her first major choral work, the Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising in dedication to Marilyn Berry, who passed away on October 7, 2016.

Initially, Jane’s Mass for Recovery began as a counterpoint exercise. She was a teaching assistant for a second year counterpoint class and found herself frequently sketching melodies in down time during lectures.

“I found myself writing the Kyrie, the section with the women's voices before the bass solo, the part that returns again at the end. Pro Coro was also starting to prepare for the Missae production last year. The year before we had done the Rheinberger, Praulins, and Frank Martin Mass. The opening Kyrie is basically adapted from Frank Martin’s mass; it had a huge impact on me. I recalled the line in my mind but not the true form of it, my mind had adapted that line. That is a strong musical quotation in my mind. I started writing just the Kyrie. I was working on it in Pro Coro rehearsal one day, and Michael [Zaugg] was looking over my shoulder, and said, “Oh, what’s that? a Kyrie? Send it to me.” I had very little done at the time; I had only that initial section completed. Six weeks later, I sent him the entire mass.“

She did not expect Michael to program the entire Mass. “In all honesty, Michael expressing interest in wanting to see it, and suggesting that we might perform it, was this really strange vote of confidence in me that I didn’t expect. I don’t know if I would have gone farther than the Kyrie,” she reveals.

“What happened when I started fleshing out the Kyrie, I started to incorporate my experience watching my mom. There is a voiceless motive in the Kyrie that was specifically related to my mom's recovery. Michael’s encouragement made me finish the Kyrie. That is when I had the motivation and inspiration to write the whole Mass and really link it to her recovery. Everything sprang from the motivation of wanting to finish the Kyrie. My mom was already in the hospital by the time I finished the Kyrie, and when she woke up from surgery, that was when I started being at the hospital every single day. Basically, six weeks after my mom finished having surgery, I was done the Mass. From there, I did the majority of edits after she died.” A warm tone of gratitude is evident when Jane speaks about Michael’s role. She lauds his patience and his collaborative input in the editorial process of the score.

Jane chose to use the Mass framework and Latin text in a modern way: “I think having a contemporary setting of that text was important. If I had been too traditional with it, it wouldn’t have felt like a representation of my mom. She was both religious and contemporary as well. I tried to reflect that balance she had in the setting of it.” Each of the Mass movements is also paired with a subtitle that documents a stage in her mother’s recovery: Kyrie - The Speechless Awakening, Gloria - Breakthroughs & Breakdowns, Credo - Turbulence, Memories & 1000 Needles, Sanctus - The Battle of Glenrose*, Benedictus - Angels & Prayers, Agnus Dei - Going Home. “The entire piece was based on her rediscovery of things that she lost during surgery: language, memory, lucidity to some extent. This battle of regaining and losing, having these amazing breakthroughs and ridiculous regressions where she would go from fluent speech one day to nothing the next,” Jane states.

“One of the things I have an incredible amount of respect for my mom was that she was so liberal and progressive. Working as a feminist, working for women’s rights, running a shelter for battered women and children, and being a social worker. It was really interesting to see her involvement with religion. It’s something that hugely influenced my life. I remember times when we went to this church that was huge, and borderline cultish,” she says with a laugh, “but they had a really good music program. She would lean forward during the sermon, loud enough so many around us could hear, “ok, and this is where the pastor interpreted things a little wrong, this historically happens very often, the wife doesn’t actually have to serve…” Whenever it came to issues of gender in the church she was very vocal about her rationale about how she compromised with this liberal side of her and how she consolidated with her interpretation of religion,” she says.

There is a meticulous musical design behind the entire work: “Basically, my theorist self made me write it chronologically. My idea behind the whole thing is the structure of two tonalities. If you look at any of the movements, there is a underlying structure of a ninth: first movement has C minor and G minor overlapping so the fifth becomes the root for the next chord etc. etc. It starts in C, with the ninth reaching up to D, and the D then cycles through acting as the root of the next movement. It worked out with the six movements I could end up back in C so it forms a full circle. That idea came really early to me. There was a duality in her recovery process, progression and regression, so having two kind of competing tonalities seemed appropriate. Somehow I also feel like this duality relates to her her decision to finally have surgery. Although she was diagnosed in 2003 she decided not to have surgery at that time. We were all supportive, especially in retrospect, knowing that she may not have lived to see my daughter if she had chosen to have surgery at an earlier stage. But she had such a good quality of life in the interim. There was this dichotomy in every aspect of her recovery. She was stuck between two worlds. She was aware of what she had lost. The more lucid she was the more painful it was for her. Near the end, she was almost calmer.”

Each of the movements documents its own story in the recovery process: “The Benedictus, Angels and prayers, was about a few specific nurses from the U of A Hospital. They would take her for extra bubble baths, shut the door, and sing to her. It was my mother’s favourite thing. The movement began as detailing these specific individuals and then changed to represent a sort of resignation. This movement was the most religious movement for my mom. She was struggling with faith and understanding why things were turning out the way they were. Now the Benedictus has evolved to be more about the period in time when she got to come home. Where my daughter, Piper, could come in and dance around her and give her hugs.” Jane wove the fragments of melodies she would sing at her mother’s bedside within the Credo: Bizet’s Habanera, Garth Brook’s The River, and the American folk tune, Cross the Wide Missouri. Her mother knew the Kyrie and Gloria the most. There is a Laudamus Te melody in the Gloria, which her mother knew as “her song.”

The subtitles of the movements became more prophetic than even Jane could have predicted. She titled the “Battle of Glenrose” before her mother was even admitted as an inpatient. Prior to that transfer, Marilyn spent just over three months at the University of Alberta Hospital recovering from her neurosurgery. It was her mother’s move into the Glenrose that signaled the start of many complications, especially her struggle with depression. The Agnus Dei “Going Home” relayed the feeling of the unknown, as it was originally written while Marilyn was still in the hospital Jane was unsure of what the end would really look like, whether going home would represent a return to their apartment or her mothers passing.

It is no surprise that Jane wrote the piece with Pro Coro’s sound in her mind. She is blunt in stating that the work wouldn’t be as good as it is if she had to limit herself in term of functional composition restraints such as range. She wrote parts with specific chorister voices in her mind. Her experience as a singer is also apparent in the score since soloistic lines weave throughout all voice parts. She wrote melodies she would want to sing.

Jane notes that Pro Coro’s upcoming concert with the premiere of Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising will feel like a memorial in some ways. Many of the individuals she would have wanted to be at her mother’s memorial in Edmonton will either be singing in the concert or are planning to attend. Her sister is flying in from Halifax the day before and her family here in Edmonton is waiting for the end of winter before travelling back to Halifax for a ceremony in their home province.

Speaking as a chorister and friend who has witnessed Jane’s life from the sidelines, it is a true pleasure to be able to premiere her work. I feel honoured to be part of the choral community that can help a fellow chorister remember her mother, channeling our collective voices through a musical medium. In April 2016, I was part of a quartet of singers that sang at her mother’s bedside. I still recall the look in her mother’s eyes. There was spark of excitement but tears pooling at the edges. I remember how lucid she looked, and how Jane laughed when she realized the strength of her mother’s grip on her arm as she was trying to pull away. The Mass for Recovery reminds me that when a loss for words renders us speechless, we will always have the role of music to communicate what cannot be spoken.

Pro Coro Canada will premiere Mass for Recovery: Phoenix Rising Sunday January 29, 2017 at their Missae IV Concert. All Saints Cathedral at 2:30 PM.
*The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital is a facility providing inpatient and outpatient services in Edmonton, AB.
Jane grew up singing and composing from an early age before eventually going on to begin her music studies at Acadia University where she completed a BMUS in Composition. She then continued to complete a MA at the University of Ottawa and is now in the final year of her PhD at the University of Alberta. Jane Berry is thrilled to be performing as a member of Pro Coro Canada for her fifth season now and is also a member of several of Pro Coro’s specialized smaller ensembles. Jane enjoys working as a vocal coach for the Etown Minors acapella group, teaching at the University, running a local beach volleyball training facility, and most importantly, spending time with her beautiful daughter, Piper. Her academic research interests include music cognition, autism and sensory sensitivity issues, abstract and graphic score analysis, and popular music studies. After a long hiatus from composition Jane recently found herself compelled to pick up writing again following some difficult life events and has since found a renewed joy in composition.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016

Greetings readers,

I wish to reflect on the awesome happenings that occurred on The Choir Girl Blog as well as my own personal development as a singer. In no particular order, here are some of the highlights:


It's not everyday I get to have some of the most innovative social media choristers in my hometown. I was ecstatic when Missy Clarkson, Amy Desrosiers, and Jean-Pierre Dubois-Godin accepted my invite to join a social media team for Podium Conference and Festival. My local photog friends, Nanc Price and Twila Bakker were also equipped with their cameras throughout the Festival and Conference. We had the opportunity to create content prior to the conference and festival and we could share multiple perspectives at once. These aforementioned individuals showcased how we can use these tools to highlight the work of our choral community. I was humbled to work in close conjunction with them leading up to Podium. Podium 2018 will be hosted in Newfoundland, perhaps you may see some familiar faces once again.

The Interview Machine

National Youth Choir 2016

I managed to conduct 11 interviews in preparation for Podium. It was an ambitious feat to extend an invitation to interview all choirs coming to Edmonton for the Podium Choral Conference but I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the choirs arriving. I also wanted to show how online tools could extend the educational reach of the conference and highlight the work of conductors and their ensembles. To hear from the leadership behind ensembles like The National Youth Choir, Pro Coro Canada, Grande Prairie Boys Choir, Shumayela, i Coristi Chamber Choir, Elektra, Opus 8, Chorale Saint-Jean, Coastal Sound Youth Choir, Calgary Girls Choir, and the Prairie Chamber Choir provides for an invaluable glimpse behind these ensembles. Some of my favorite quotes were hearing Morna Edmundson from Elektra and Elaine Quilichini speaking about the mentorship of female conductors and providing nurturing spaces for women to sing, how Jeannie Pernal mentors a group 120 boys to sing within the Grande Prairie community, and Melissa Morgan's passion to create an accessible archive of Prairie choral music and an ensemble to share their works.

Love Fail

Love Fail Photos by Michael Zaugg, courtesy of Pro Coro Canada

This was by far one of the most challenging choral projects I tackled this past year.  I was in a solo quartet performing a work for a solid 50 minutes which was unconducted plus staging. However, as with most challenging projects, it proved to be the most satisfying because I had to stretch the skills I had a singer to meet the demands of the project. In the end, I had a positive result! I learned much about how I receive feedback, how I adapt that knowledge or how I require extra processing time to take notes into consideration. It was also a test in how I manage my nerves while getting through the performance when adrenaline causes my heart to race for the first 20 minutes in the piece. I also learned that my nerves decrease as I increase my preparedness level over time. It was also nurturing to be connected to a positive female creation process while working with the Good Women Dance Collective as well as with my fellow Pro Coro singers. Another fond memory was my fellow quartet of singers providing music at the bedside of a choral mother who was not able to make it to the performance. Since that time, her mother has passed away, and I will forever treasure the reminder that it is a true gift to share music with others, especially with the intent of healing and support.

Personal Voice Work

As any singer knows, we are in a process of training a biological instrument that is constantly changing throughout our entire lifetime. It is susceptible to changes in age, stress, hydration, hormones, general body fitness, and many more factors. I always like to switch up voice teachers and have occasional check-ins to to consider a variety of different perspectives. I find I gain the most from a intense period of voice lessons and then having time to decode and attempt to transfer those teachings into my functional voice practice.

In my training as a Speech-Language Pathologist, I received great advice from a Voice Therapy mentor. I sat in a group of eager voice trainers and clinicians appealing to her for the gold-standard approach to treat a voice disorder. Instead, she explained that the process is like tackling a knotted ball of yarn. There is no one right way or method to tackle a problem since everybody is different and all techniques must be adapted for a client. Instead, you go from different angles, you may work on one thread and then you may return to a previous thread; however, with enough persistence, it will eventually untangle.

At the end of this previous year, I had some excellent voice sessions. My voice coach showed me different techniques to access the upper and lower limits of my voice range. All of a sudden, I was able to attempt singing aria repertoire I deemed too challenging for myself five years ago. It blew my mind! There's something empowering about being able to sing works that you have previously shelved due to having an instrument that wasn't ready.

Ship Shape for Opera

A photo posted by misssable (@misssable) on

This last Edmonton Opera run of Turandot was the most physically and musically challenging I have had to tackle in my time as a chorus member. There was much text to memorize, quick tempos, and physical staging to execute at the same time. Challenges included making sure I could see the Maestro in the pit or projected in the video monitors in the wings while lying crouched on my side and, if there were no sight lines available, I had to memorize the preceding orchestral lines prior to my vocal entry point and still come in with confidence. It was the first show I started doing cardio before the performance so my muscles were warmed up from activity earlier in the day. It felt helpful to have muscles that were stretched and warmed up for the hours of evening activity in order to minimize injury. I also incorporated full-body stretches during during vocal warm-ups in order to coordinate singing with movement. It was a good reminder that voice work incorporates many body systems. Last time I was rehearsing for Merry Widow, we rehearsed a lot of curtsies and I did zero stretches. In the following weeks, I had to roll myself to the edge of my bed and use my arms to push my torso upright in order to wiggle out of bed because my legs and lower back were too sore to move. Never again!

A photo posted by misssable (@misssable) on

As 2017 unveils itself, keep me posted on your choral happenings readers, and I will promise to do the same. Until we meet again in the new year!