Monday, March 11, 2024

Guest Speech to the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers

Dear readers,

This speech was presented live on March 9, 2024 at the University of Alberta Faculty Club for the Madrigal Singers Brunch Concert and Fundraiser. 

At the request of some individuals, I have published it below, enjoy!


Greetings U of A friends, family, and administrators,

Thank-you to Tim Shantz and the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers, otherwise referred to as MAD’s from this point onwards, for inviting me here today to speak at your brunch fundraiser. 

My name is Sable Chan and I am MAD’s alumni from 2008. I currently work as a S-LP with the public school board and run my own private practice where I have an interest in the area of voice therapy. I see patients referred from Ear, Nose, Throat specialists and work with patients diagnosed with vocal nodules, polyps, fatigue, chronic cough and more. I work with everyday speakers and singers. 

I sing with Pro Coro Canada, The Canadian Chamber Choir, and co-founded FEMME Vocal Quartet. In addition, I have been blogging about choir music for the past 15 years on TheChoirGirl.Ca. It was due to a combination of these factors that led to my recognition in Edify Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 Class of 2019

As I began to reflect on my time in MAD’s, I acknowledge that my time was short, but significant, in my professional formation as a singer and health sciences professional. MAD’s was a challenge to fit into a packed Science schedule; however, there was an auspicious alignment of timetable factors in my 4th year at the University. I recall the excitement as I left my Biology lectures on the Engineering part of campus and strolled over to the Fine Arts Building for MAD’s rehearsal on a Monday afternoon. It was my first time singing in a mixed choir, as most of my early choral singing experiences were in treble voice ensembles at Schola Cantorum and Cantilon Choirs. Some highlights from that MAD’s season included singing my very first Handel’s Messiah at the Winspear and competing in the Cork International Choral Festival. 

Growing up as a chorister in Edmonton, MAD’s held this prestige in my mind as one of the most elite groups I could sing in as a young adult. I was elated when I auditioned and was accepted in my 4th year. Suddenly, I was connected to a network of passionate singers from many places and areas of study. There is an incorrect assumption that choristers at the U of A are all Music majors. In fact, singers come from all different faculties. I was delighted to know I was not the only student in Sciences and began connecting with fellow singing friends to strengthen my networks all across campus. To this date, some remain my closest friends. In fact, I just sang at a wedding of two fellow MAD’s alumni who got married to one another this past June! 

I know that when people think: University teams, they may instinctively mention areas such as sports or research. However, I think the artistic contributions of providing rich, creative opportunities, such as University music ensembles, contributes significantly to the ecosystem of the University. There is a significant population of students and staff at the U of A and it is nourishing to have opportunities to engage with a wide range of interests. We need all of these factors: athletics, research, innovation, leadership, arts and more to contribute to a diverse and healthy campus. Singing in MAD’s allowed me an opportunity to represent the U of A at local, national, and even international levels when we went to compete in Ireland at the Cork Choir Festival! 

While in MAD’s, I recall the fun and excitement of the social and performance calendar of MAD’s life: there were fundraisers to organise, Halloween parties to host, early morning radio segments to perform at, Valentine’s Day quartet gigs to sing in HUB, and it was with a mix of the most warm-hearted and loving humans. The opportunity to sing at such a high level, while completing my degree, provided me with an outlet of artistic expression, social connection, and reassuring reminders of self-confidence. 

No matter how much I might have struggled on an Immunology midterm, I knew that when I went to MAD’s rehearsal, my insecurities would lighten as I made music with others. There would be a temporary reprieve from the everyday burdens of life and burning, existential questions like: “what am I going to do with a Science degree?” Instead, we would synchronise our breath, work on musical details in Bach motets, and fall into a musical flow that seemed untouched by external time. 

There is a lightness and heaviness we all carry within us at any given moment. Singing allows us to release and share that. Instead of letting those feelings stay stuck in our body, we can mobilise and release those sentiments with a group coordination of our breath and voice. 

Choir is my means of communication and connection with others. I suspect it may be for some of you, as well. Choir, to this day, allows me to learn about new music cultures and continue to connect with new friends. I continue to write about choral music topics on my blog because I love reflecting on my own artistic choral practice. I also feel like in a world with a decreasing amount of arts media and discourse, it is important to have accessible outlets to share current perspectives on choral music. 

I love how there is always more to learn in singing. I have seen how music-making has changed in my life: it’s more and less important at any given time. However, I have always been singing. I continue to sing. And I will always be a singer. 

I hope you all will as well. 

I am grateful to be sharing this time and space with you here today. Thank-you.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Unlearning Within a Choral Community

Photo by Andy Rice
Dear readers,

I had the pleasure two weeks ago of reconnecting with my Canadian Chamber Choir (CCC) choral community. It has been seven years since I last sung with the group in-person on our Chicago tour of 2017. I was grateful to be a part of many online professional development sessions the CCC offered and I also had the opportunity to be a part of and the virtual choir premiere of Edward Enman's "Unimagined Light." 

However, re-entering the touring process this time looked different because we were not just performing a set of prescribed choral scores, but rather, the CCC was committed to developing a new work with Composer, Hussein Janmohamed. The CCC had already begun work with Janmohamed in the Fall when there was an incubation period with him in Winnipeg; however, on this most recent tour in Calgary, the CCC was committed to present a new, collaboratively created work in performance. Leading up to the in-person collaborative sessions together, Janmohamed shared his Doctoral dissertation research from the University of Toronto, readings on Shia-Ismali traditions and Muslim cultures, and Spotify playlists sharing music from the pluralistic South Asian sound worlds that he grew up with. I was part of an online zoom session during one of the CCC's work with Janmohamed in the Fall. Regardless of that virtual introduction, I still felt like I was coming in as a newcomer to the collaborative incubation sessions scheduled during this tour. However, this sense of feeling like an outsider was soon abolished when Janmohamed began our session by humming a drone, which we all picked up instantaneously, and he sang a South Asian Ismaili devotional poem (ginan) in Hindi to open our session space together. There was an overwhelming feeling of: we are all welcome.

It is not my first experience working with choral improvisation before. I have been significantly influenced by my work with Lone Larsen at the Banff Centre Choral Art residency, and hearing VoNo, a professional ensemble based out of Stockholm that embraces choral improvisation and collaborative co-creation. I feel that the more you release and play within the sandbox of choral improvisation, the more comfortable one begins to feel when the parameters of the sandbox shift. What I felt was most profound in terms of singing self-discovery during those Banff sessions was the sense of freedom in terms of expression and how that translated into a sense of ease with my vocal instrument. I was connected to the purpose of communication through voice. I was not focused on the biomechanics of singing. I also sang what felt natural to me in those moments. I thrived off the knowledge that nothing I could do was wrong. Everything I chose to do or not do was an acceptable offer. It was thrilling!

Thus, I was humming with excitement to come into those incubation sessions with Hussein. We assembled into small groups to play. I was so curious to hear the voices of those in the choir in an intimate way. The CCC is a cherished group of choral peers and I do not usually get the opportunity to hear everybody as individuals within a choral setting. We would break out, play, reassemble to see what different small groups came up with, and see which of those aspects would make their way into our collaborative composition together. CCC Artistic Director, Dr. Julia Davids, seamlessly decentralized her leadership role and integrated herself as a fellow co-creator, experimenting alongside others in the choral collective.  Janmohamed would record these fragments for us to listen to and process later. We listened to the audio clips and shared thoughts that came up. Upon the whiteboard brainstorm, keywords and phrases were written down:  

  • low drones
  • clusters built on future melodies
  • laments
  • conversations
  • individual voices, duets, trios
  • harmonizing and responding
  • angst/anger/tightening
  • vocal calls
  • movement
  • rhythmic components
  • irregular rhythms
  • wild
  • drone pulses
  • arrival together
  • unison
Janmohamed was vocal that it was a struggle for him to resist the urge to write music down for us. I could also sense that some choristers would have preferred a structure, any structure to ground our compositional process together. There was a tangible mix of tensions in the air between performing notated music yet an active resistance of doing just that. I could feel the unlearning happening around me. Some singers struggled, some were neutral, some singers looked enthralled, and many of us fluctuated between those states throughout the entire process. As singers, we can forget that we have been singing longer than there has been music written down for us to read. It was about taking a step back and deciding what we wanted to say, evaluate our motivations, and choose collectively how we wanted to do that. It is a process that takes organizational support, a unified intention to co-create a work to present, and time to allow this collaborative process to happen.

There were moments during those small groups where there was a suspended feeling of musical flow and magic. Janmohamed outlined a South Asian inspired modal colour we were encouraged to play within it. He facilitated and channelled the feeling of play. A sense of security, openness, and curiosity to experiment was present. We began to hear raw vocal textures and lamenting lines emerge from the singers. I heard voices emoting messages ranging from sorrow to certainty. Within the few days leading up to the concert premiere of the work, we did have to decide, as a group, the general structure we would choose to present. Dr. Davids was instrumental in helping to gather and organize our thoughts and transitions as well as provide cues to keep us aligned during the live performance. The supportive feedback and outside eye of Dr. Davids and another chorister, Deb, helped us with the staging elements throughout the piece. Thus, we were able to feel confident in remembering what we were singing and doing for the initial performances. 

We acknowledged that the piece would always be changing. It would never be finished. It was a framework that would evolve each time a group of singers returned to it. To me, that is the most exciting part of unlearning: singing what emerges and not just what we are told.

Photo by Andy Rice
Photo by Andy Rice

Published with permission from Hussein Janmohamed in message dialogue he shared with me regarding this blog entry:

"I think it is interesting how as singers and as conductor and composer we were all grappling with how we wanted to organize music in the ways we have learned to, and how we wanted to also resist that, as you have said. The interplay of order and indeterminacy was always here, and that was interesting for me. Especially that for me as a facilitator commissioned to compose something with the choir, I could not help but fall into the trap of telling the choir what to do, what and when to sing. I had to really challenge my own musical upbringing both in Western replicative arts, and in Ismaili traditional transmission that what people received and did replicated what they were taught...which inevitably came with artistry, craft, and a sense of unity, but also came with expectations of behaviour, thought, and action. I was panicking that I needed to 'write' the music out, or give the choir a graphic score of some sort, or whatever it was, but as soon as I sat on the notational software, I could not. The way we were singing, the tones, the modes, the movement between notes, etc. was not something I could give an instruction for. We had embodied a kind of sonic way of being that was in itself a resistance to the notated forms of defined melodies we are so used to, and that I believe embraced a completely different way of listening and sounding, enacting a performer as a composer way of being."

Friday, January 19, 2024

Fifteen Years to This Day

Dear Choir Girl readers,

My blog is 15 years old! I am as surprised as you. While I have contemplated with the idea of retiring this blog, a few readers convinced me it is not yet time. 

There is less arts journalism all the time. It is rare for a magazine or newspaper to even have funds to contract an arts and entertainment writer for local coverage these days. If you are lucky enough to get a writer in attendance at your event, you'd be lucky to have one that is knowledgeable enough to comment and critique the performance. It feels like the platforms with quality artistic discourse are ones run by the writer themselves, with some kind of Patreon subscription to make their work financially sustainable. Sure, established, popular artists will still have an opportunity to get media coverage, but what about all the emerging voices and groups that have something to say? While I do not have the stamina to keep up with my choir posts of the past, I do feel there needs to be a platform to host artistic content. Thus, this blog continues to live on. I will continue to save this online space for me to publish choral musings of myself and others as occasions arise.

It was only five years ago that I published this 10 year recap. It is heart-warming to see the array of beloved choral faces even today. It reminds me of singing opportunities I have been fortunate to experience. As well, it reminds me of how my blog has introduced me to so many artists that have significantly impacted my life. It is also sweet for me to see my very first blog post: The Beginning, where I share my hopes and wishes for this blog. 

In the past five years, I have kept on with my singing adventures, albeit, in a more intentional and focused way. I feel it is a mix of getting older, maybe wiser, and rebalancing my singing desires with diminished energy levels post-pandemic. The pandemic really overhauled how I continued to sing or not sing with all the restrictions. It is surprising to see how many masked photos I have of myself in the slideshow round-up below. 

I continue to feel an overwhelming gratitude towards this blog. Some of my closest friends began as blog readers first. If you meet me in person, you may notice that I speak more through actions than words. Reading what I am writing is the best of knowing me: my inner motivations, passions and thoughts. I sense a closeness with each reader. There is no way I can convey what I want in a quick, surface-level interaction if we were to meet in person. Thus, it means so much to me to know that you are taking your own personal time to read my content and connect with me. I have met so many fellow singers, composers, conductors, and members of my artistic community. I am moved by the flourishing and active choral scene we have here in Canada. 

While I am not sure about the future artistic endeavours coming my way, I will be sure to post some adventures here as I go. On my schedule thus far is the Canadian Chamber Choir tour in Calgary this February 2024 and Podium in Montreal this May 2024. 

Until then, please enjoy this 15 year anniversary post slideshow!

Thank-you, dear readers, for continuing to read my choral musings.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Podium 2022

 Dear fellow choral survivors of the pandemic,

We made it this far! Perhaps our laptops are all running a bit slower with the increased amounts of video recording and sound recording software we downloaded to complete virtual choir tasks, we have an increased array of lounge pants to work in, and we have a pre-zoom meet routine of clearing our rooms of pets and family before joining calls.

This past weekend was Podium 2022 in Toronto. The last one scheduled in May 2020 was cancelled. Fast forward two years and choral leaders, singers, choirs, administrators, exhibitors, and enthusiasts met for the first time in person once again. As primarily a choir blogger and choral singer participating in Podiums for the past 10 years, my relationship with the conference and festival has, not surprisingly, changed throughout the years. 

In 2012, I was accepted to the National Youth Choir of Canada (NYCC) that would perform in Ottawa. Due to scheduling conflicts, I wasn't able to participate in NYCC but I still attended Podium because my community choir, Belle Canto, was invited to perform. Podium 2012 was marked a pivotal moment in the expanded vision of this blog. Instead of it being a platform speaking solely about my personal experiences in choir, I began to interview key choral voices in our country to generate a discourse. In a time where there is less formal writing about music, it's even more important to share and discuss what is happening now. My interviews with Lydia Adams, Ivars Taurins, Michael Zaugg, and Hilary Apfelstadt were interview articles I wrote as well as summaries on what was happening at the conference. At that time, I recall there being less than five people using Twitter to tweet the conference hashtag. There was no Instagram. I felt like I was the lone social media voice minus a few voices tweeting back to me. This paragraph from my 2012 summary still resonates for me today: 

My aim through actively using blogging and social media during Podium 2012 was to showcase the power through use of these social media tools. I know that people feel uncomfortable with making public statements over social media, but if we are accountable for our words… then what is the fear? There are always ways to use tools responsibly and social media is no different. As far as I am concerned, the more we can share information and discuss our experiences in an open musical forum, the more that people can benefit. If I ever wanted to go back and remember my conference activity all I would need to do is search for my Podium 2012 blog posts and tweets. It is easy to be wary of a form of communication that seems so foreign and public. It is even easier to dismiss them. All I ask is for people to consider and potentially embrace a new form of musical discourse. We are all looking for ways to connect; it is a shame to not consider implementing an instrument that works so effectively. As with any instrument, it can only be as good as its instrumentalist and there is no better way to learn than to practice.

In Podium 2014, I was present once again since Pro Coro Canada was invited to perform in Halifax, NS. I continued my blog content creation by adding interviews with Peter Togni, Cy Giacomin, and Matthew Emery. Podium 2016 was in my hometown of Edmonton, AB and marked the start of a significant social media presence due to the assembly of the Choral Avengers team. What a dream team. A group of passionate, choral-minded individuals from across the country all met in Edmonton to cover every corner of conference and festival content. There was live tweeting, photos, and interview content leading up to the conference. I took a bit of a Podium break after that and the social media duties passed onto Amy Desrosiers, a member of the Choral Avengers, and to the Choral Canada staff and conference organizers. It was time to take a step back. 

At that start of 2020, I was making plans to head to Podium 2020 in Montreal to attend as a delegate. No singing duties and no formal social media duties. Sure, I would post things to social media but without the pressure of timelines, scheduling, and content creation amidst the frenzy of the conference and festival itself. That was all placed on hold until this past weekend. I headed into Podium 2022 with the same plan but more worn down from the pandemic. I knew I lacked the stamina to jump in like I previously did. I would watch a session or concert for 1-2 hours and then rest or explore on my own for 1-2 hours. This was not hard to do with Toronto being filled with many neighbourhoods, restaurants, and friends I haven't seen in over 4 years. While it was joyful to see so many wonderful faces, both familiar and new, it was also overwhelming to see so many people. 

The amount of overflowing, musical energy surpassed the reduced, cautious capacity I have developed over the past years to cope with the fact that there was a huge live music void in my life. While many choirs were singing in different ways throughout the pandemic, whether virtual or in-person and masked, there was an unease throughout all of it. Virtual singers would continually rehearse alone in their homes, ignoring the glare from their ring lights while staring at the dark zoom grid of fellow singers. They would resist the urge to do yet another recording of their part before submitting the final video and audio to their director. In-person singers wondered who would drop out of productions due to sickness, constantly assessing themselves using checklists to determine if they felt well enough to go to rehearsal, staying physically distant from other choristers at break, avoid eating lunch together, and leaving immediately after rehearsals to avoid gathering. For me, singing was not enjoyable at this time. I was anxious before every rehearsal. I would wonder if I was asymptomatic and was just going to infect my fellow singers. I derived little pleasure from singing into a fabric muzzle and bathing my face in my own oral humidity for extended periods of time. There was an underlying, persistent tension throughout all of it. However, I figured that some singing was still better than no singing. 

Seeing the reunited faces and concert spaces come alive with music this past weekend was beyond nourishing and inspiring. We felt whole again. We collectively reopened a musical part of ourselves that has been closed for a long time. The pandemic has overwhelmed many of us with a debilitating sense of loss. It will take more time to process what has happened; however, at this Podium, we were able to begin the healing process together and begin opening our hearts to music-making once again.

A selection of photo memories follow:

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Beginning of Happiness

Dear readers,

When a fellow live theatre goer shouted at me in the Fall 2021, "another survivor!!!" I chuckled at the statement. It took a moment before I realized that it was no exaggeration. I wish to acknowledge the hardship, adaptation, revision, planning, cancellations, equipment, protocols, and more that artists have had to navigate during this pandemic. We are, indeed, survivors. In these past two years, I have acquired black singer masks, more home recording equipment, attended zoom rehearsals when I don't feel well enough to attend in-person rehearsals, and rapid test before rehearsals. At this point in time, seeing singing faces covered with masks is the norm. I remember at one of my first rehearsals back in June 2021, I marvelled at how heads are attached to bodies, they're not just heads floating in a virtual meeting frame. How was it that 25 other bodies arrived at the same time and place to sing with me? It was such a sensory overload to hear that much sound but a welcome change to feel the energy of singers around me again.

Rehearsal with Good Women in July 2021
I have never been a fan of learning the hard way. I welcome the past wisdom and advice of those who have walked the path before me. However, these past 2 years felt different as we were all figuring out how to continue with Arts creation with fluctuating pandemic restrictions and risk levels. My collaborative project with FEMME Vocal Quartet and Good Women Dance Collective was no different as we cancelled our live show, "The Beginning of Happiness," weeks before the premiere. It was a project we had all been rehearing since July 2019 and planning even before that time. Amongst the artistic core in the Spring 2021, we decided that a film would be a realistic and safe way of seeing through the project. Director of Photography, Tamarra Lessard, assembled a crew for us to film in August 2021. There were many logistics to consider in adapting the live music + dance show to a film. Park permits needed to be obtained for evening filming, costumes had to be adapted to be used in water, and most significant, the score was shortened from one hour to 30 minutes. The film is now available for streaming from February 17-24, 2022. Half of the proceeds will be donated to WIN House.

The Beginning Happiness Performers and Crew for August 2021 filming

Recording at Silver Studios in May 2021 
During our recording sessions in May-July 2021, FEMME recorded the entire one hour work at Silver Studios. All the singers recorded their parts separately to stay covid safe and the recording engineers, Caleb Nelson and Amelia Chan, later layered the tracks to form the ensemble sound. This was possible since we sang to click tracks programmed to specific tempos and heard the playback of the other voices who had recorded their parts already.

My ears are greeted with the reunited sound of FEMME once again as listen to the album writing this post. The music is such sensitive and informed writing for treble voices. For a work that explores and reflects upon issues of domestic violence, there is a healing beauty within the musical storytelling. There is such a wide range of vocal textures created ranging from the warm feel of love to breathless unrest. After having this work living in my tablet for three years, I am so grateful that this music gets to live in the world. There is a wonderful sense of closure to be able to release this music and invite listeners in.

FEMME Vocal Quartet during Aug 2021 filming

The album is available for streaming and download from Bandcamp. We suggest a price of $10 for download but will gratefully accept donations above that amount. Proceeds from the album will go towards FEMME's continued work to amplify a contemporary female perspective within choral music through new commissions and performance.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

An Interview with Deirdre Kellerman


There is no such thing as perfect. This theme emerges as I chat with Tone Cluster’s new Artistic Director, Deirdre Kellerman. In fact, Kellerman feels that parting with the mindset of perfectionism holds the key to discovering who people are as singers.


This past year was Kellerman’s first working with Tone Cluster, a 2SLGBTQ+ choir based in Ottawa. Choir members met online for a weekly rehearsal and produced home audio and video recording content for their virtual performances. There are many singers that Kellerman has not even met in person. She acknowledges the amount of vulnerability for everyone participating in an online format. Kellerman shares her thoughts in this regard: “It was very hard to facilitate a safe space. The way I ended up doing it was going all in and programming intense and vulnerable concert themes: self-love, acceptance, and resiliency. I decided to lean in and that helped so much. It took the awkwardness out of Zoom when we were allowing ourselves to have conversations about resiliency and what that means in our life. Discussing this content in the streaming concerts. I think that was one of the things that got us through the year.”


Though an online season had its challenges, Kellerman focused on taking this time to facilitate discussion. Allowing this space for discussion set the choir down a path of working through A New Harmony, a workbook developed by GALA Choruses, the primarily North American umbrella for LGBTQ choirs. They have started to have conversations about equity, access, and belonging in choruses. The workbook has different workshop resources to discuss aspects of mobility, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, mental health, and neurodiversity. Tone Cluster is looking forward to continuing to use a New Harmony as a guide in the upcoming seasons.


Oftentimes, during a regular performance season, there is a relentless pressure to learn music quickly for an upcoming performance. Whether conscious or subconscious, there is also a desire to have enough concert repertoire to justify the price of admission. “That is something I’ve always struggled with for several artistic reasons. Always feeling like there is a rush for singers to learn their music and a rush to get things done in rehearsal. Of course, that has to do with rehearsal methodology and efficacy, but it has been such a breath of fresh air to talk about why we’re singing particular pieces. It’s validating for me when I program something and hear the other singers’ connections to the music. It gives me a better sense of what clicks with them and doesn't and who they are as individuals, shares Kellerman.


There have also been profound changes for choristers singing and recording at home for a year. This perseverance to continue singing during a pandemic is a huge challenge. In many ways, it would be easier not to sing at all. However, Tone Cluster’s weekly virtual check-ins helped to maintain a sense of community. In this online format, Kellerman was intentional in giving her singers space to create: “I occasionally gave them instructions on where they should be or how they should dress. I always give them the opportunity, for at least one song, to go and record wherever in their homes or in their surrounding community that feels most authentic to them for the piece. To be as creative as they want to be. That has been game changing.”


Kellerman's view of a choir is not a mass of bodies singing together, but as a group made up of individuals, each with their own voice to share. With a social and political landscape that is becoming more charged with the inequalities facing people, both in the choral community and beyond, Kellerman reflects on her own approach to music making in this time: “Language matters… my journey with these ideas of decolonization and broadening what it means to be a choral artist has been about deconstructing the words success and excellence. Realizing it doesn’t always have to be music first. It can be connection, community, and stories first and that will allow us to create excellent music.”


There is a shift in approaches to collaborative choral leadership; however, rigid models of hierarchical teaching are still dominant in the classical music scene. This is a traditional model where a conductor determines the direction of music making. They likely have strong opinions of how to define musical excellence. Kellerman gives permission to their singers to not be focused on perfection, but instead, commit to communication of the music. It allows singers to experience the release from unhealthy expectations of perfectionism. Though these expectations can exist internally and externally, Kellerman has eliminated external ones in her role as a conductor. She goes further to clarify, “It doesn't mean that I don’t care about the quality of the music, because I do. I just think the way we get there can be in a more collaborative and engaging way with each other and the music. “


There is a huge role of unlearning that begins for any Artist when they begin to challenge whose definition of excellence they are trying to meet. Is it a Mentor? Organization? Conductor? Voice Teacher? Or perhaps one of the most critical yet, themselves? A toxic equation that outlines a direct relationship between performance expectations and self-worth.


Kellerman reminisces about the countless stories of shame singers have experienced throughout their training. Stories from a childhood where a singer was told that they need to mouth the words because their voice wasn’t good enough. They carry that vocal hesitation into adulthood and breakdown with gratitude as they enter a nurturing choral space as an adult. “Everyone has the right to sing,” states Kellerman with an assertive calmness. We need to “start from this place of ‘what stories do we want to tell? how do we feel about the music we’re singing?’ and stop talking about what styles or composers are for what singers,” states Kellerman.


Tone Cluster has a mix of demographics, such as young adults and recently retired, some newly out of the closet, some having lived decades within the queer commuity, and a significant number of allies that don’t identify as queer in the group as well. Kellerman elaborates, “they want to do better for each other. They want to learn how to be more accepting and welcoming. They are always striving for that. They are doing it in a way that is fun. They are serious about their inclusivity and enjoying their community together.”


Kellerman shares her approach to programming for Tone Cluster this past year and the current show: “I was drawn to what are our lived experiences that are the same no matter how we identify within the choir. I am really interested in diving deeper into an individual basis. Whether that is stories of people who were living during the AIDS crisis, which is not that long ago, or talking about what it’s like to not know yourself or have labels for yourself or knowing where you land. Those are all really important for queer organizations to focus in on. Tone Cluster has a great history of singing and speaking about social justice focused topics. We can go farther with queer centered stories written by queer composers. We have such talent within the organization itself. There are poets and storytellers. I would really want the choir to be in front of an audience and feel like they are telling their story.”


The idea of a decentralized form of leadership continues to surface during Kellerman’s verbal reflections, especially regarding the aspect of collaborative programming. While she acknowledges that there is so much ego that can be wrapped up in the role of conductor, she is interested to discover what a model of efficient collaboration can look like. Tone Cluster, in many ways, is an excellent group to explore this process of finding a new path of looking at leadership and direction. Kellerman hopes for the “singers in the choir, no matter their skill level or experience, to feel connected to the ensemble in an artistic way and that their voices are being valued.”


In a pandemic year of creation, Kellerman remains curious about what is to come: “I am fascinated about what people would have learned about themselves in this year of isolated singing. I imagine there are going to be struggles, whether it is tuning, balance, or even the emotions of being back with people again and singing. I want to prepare for anything. I am also anticipating real strength and development of skills. People have been forced to sing and learn music on their own; what that’s going to mean for choral singing. I don’t anticipate that people will shy into the background and rely on other peoples voices. They have been forced to find their sound and to accept their sound.”


Given the discussions that have occurred within Tone Cluster this past year, Kellerman is first to note that siloing can be a dangerous thing: “As much as it is beneficial to be talking about [equity] in a choral setting, I think this is a great opportunity as we are having these discussions to open the door a bit and note that all art forms are having these conversations. To be collaborating not just as an interesting way to get an audience through the door, but to diversify and deepen these stories and how they connect in our music community and audiences. I’ve always felt there’s been so many lines drawn between the choir world, the orchestra world or singer songwriter world and this is the time to be expansive,” reflects Kellerman, and “to collaborate not just for the sake of collaboration, but to connect, and create together.”

Deirdre Kellerman is a choral conductor and vocal coach based in Ottawa, ON, where she is the newly appointed Artistic Director of Tone Cluster - quite a queer choir, as well as the Artistic Director of Hypatia's Voice Women's Choir. From 2015-2
021, she was the Music Director at First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, and also worked as the Assistant Director of the Ottawa Choral Society. 

Deirdre has studied with Canada’s leading choral pedagogues, including a residency at the Banff Centre’s Choral Art program, studying with Michael Zaugg and Lone Larsen. She was nominated for the 2018 Leslie Bell Prize for Choral Conducting. An avid chorister, Deirdre has sung with a wide variety of ensembles, including Xara Choral Theatre, and the National Youth Choir of Canada. 

Deirdre holds a M.Mus in Conducting from the New England Conservatory and B.Mus in Vocal Performance from Acadia University.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Do Not Be Afraid: A discussion on musical appreciation vs appropriation by Melissa Morgan

The subject of cultural appropriation verses cultural appreciation is a hot topic right now. While there are several books, articles, and blogs which address this subject, I have found that musicians and specifically choral conductors do not know what to do when programming music from a culture different from their own. My conducting colleagues have confided in me to say, “I want to be an ally, I want to diversify my program but I’m afraid that I will do it wrong. I do not want to offend anyone.” There is a real fear out there and these emotions of fear can have a firm grip on musicians. As a result, we tend to avoid certain music because we are afraid. We are afraid of what others will think; we are afraid that we will get it wrong; we do not want to be criticized, and not to mention, that we all have a lot going on and getting it wrong will simply add to the stress that currently exists in our lives. The goal of this blog is to encourage all musicians (myself included) to feel the fear, make the preparations, do the work, and go for it!

Let’s talk about the subject of appropriation – what it is?

In March 2019, choral educator, conductor, composer, speaker, and writer, Dr. Rollo Dilworth, gave a presentation posted on the Chorus America website titled “Examining Cultural Appropriation in the Preparation and Performance of Choral Music”. I have found this presentation to be extremely helpful when trying to understand how to define appropriation. Let me summarize it for you.

Dilworth is a prolific composer who writes primarily in the gospel style. He mentions in his presentation that he receives numerous, almost daily, messages about how to authentically perform his music. He shares that conductors will often ask the questions:
“ Is it appropriate for me to even consider doing this music?”
“Am I allowed to perform this music when I do not identify with the culture?”

He highlights three categories of people that fit within the framework of his discussion. People who are:

1) Comfortable: This person perceives their identity as the “Insider” -- as someone who is comfortable embracing cultural traditions or norms, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are a member of the cultural group or perhaps they have lots of experience working and living within the norms of the cultural group (Dilworth 2019). 

2) Somewhat: This person perceives their identity as someone who is moderately comfortable embracing cultural traditions or norms. Perhaps they feel confident in certain situations because they have a connection to a particular culture or group or perhaps, they are biracial or multi-racial (Dilworth 2019).

3) Uncomfortable: this person perceives their identity as someone who is not comfortable embracing cultural traditions or norms. These people admit that they do not have any knowledge or experience in a particular culture and they perceive their identity as an, “outsider” (Dilworth 2019). 

From there, Dilworth refers to the Canadian philosopher, James Young and his book, Cultural Appropriation and the Arts in which Young defines and describes three types of appropriation (Young 2008):

Young’s definition of appropriation is this:  “when members of one culture (outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (insiders)”(Dilworth 2019).

The three categories of appropriation as described by Young are:

Object – “object appropriation occurs when the possession of a tangible work of art (such as a sculpture or a painting) is transferred from members of one culture to members of another culture” (Young 2008).

Content – “When this sort of appropriation occurs, an artist has made significant reuse of an idea first expressed in the work of an artist from another culture. A musician who sings the songs of another culture has engaged in content appropriation as has the writer who retells stories produced by a culture other than his own” (Young 2008).

Subject – “ . . . outsiders who represent in their artworks individuals or institutions from another culture. . . when this type of appropriation occurs no artistic product of a culture is appropriated. Instead artists appropriate a subject matter . . .” (Young 2008).

Something Dilworth highlights is that Young does not place a moral value on these definitions. He simply categorizes and defines terms for exactly what they are. Young does not state that subject, content or object appropriation is necessarily bad. In fact, Dilworth suggests in his presentation that appropriation is not always negative.

Dilworth introduces another scholar in his presentation, Richard Rogers, who argues that cultural appropriation “Is inescapable when cultures come into contact including virtual or representational contact”(Rogers 2006). Rogers explores the idea that unless we live in a culture without exposure to other cultures (i.e. we have never eaten another culture’s food, or worn their clothing or jewelry, read a book by an author from that culture, or watched a film -- which he argues are all levels of engaging in cultural appropriation -- then we are participating or have participated in cultural appropriation: it is unavoidable. 

Armed with this information, Dilworth goes on to ask self-reflecting questions of himself and invites the presentation audience to do the same. 

Question #1 – If according to scholars appropriation is inescapable – how do we navigate the arts without being offensive or harmful?(Dilworth 2019) 

Question #2 – Is there such a thing as acceptable cultural appropriation?(Dilworth 2019)

This is where Dilworth highlights three acceptable instances of appropriation (Dilworth 2019):

1) Cultural exchange – An agreed-upon time where two cultural groups mutually come together to learn and share with each other. This could include a tour exchange or some sort of cultural exchange. The key is that there are equal levels of power between cultural groups (Dilworth 2019).

2) Cultural appreciation – using elements of a specific culture in our work but taking the necessary steps to honour, respect and value the original source (Dilworth 2019).

3) Cultural assumption – a term coined by Dilworth – “used to define instances in which we harmlessly (and sometimes unknowingly) interact with culture outside of our own. Such examples include watching a film, listening to music, eating food” (Dilworth 2019).

We all need to understand when appropriation is negative or simply wrong. Based on Young’s research, Dilworth mentions three ways in which cultural appropriation is wrong or objectionable:

1) Cultural appropriation as theft – Young defines this as “outsiders taking (without proper permission) property that belongs to insiders”(Young 2008), e.g., using an instrument such as an Indigenous ceremonial hand drum as part of a performance without asking permissions.

2) Cultural appropriation as assault – “causing harm to a culture or members of a culture and in some cases threaten the viability of a culture (Young 2008),”e.g., recording the performance and selling it for profit without compensating the rightful owners of the drum.

3) Cultural appropriation as profound offence – offense to one’s moral sensibilities (Young 2008), e.g., when an act of appropriation has been taken too far – when theft, assault and moral disrespect has taken place.

Dilworth then asks another question of himself and of the participants in the audience: What can we do to move forward?

Here, I will refer to suggestions in which Dr. Floydd Ricketts, artistic director and conductor of Ensemble Noir in Montreal Quebec, recently shared in a webinar with the Phoenix Chamber Choir: Making Music in the Mess. Ricketts gives nine insightful helpful tips in the webinar but I will highlight four, and then add a suggestion of my own and finally, conclude with another suggestion from Dilworth:

1. Recognize – “it is not enough for you to only acknowledge appropriation after someone brings it to your attention. The only way that we can go about ending appropriation or at least abating it, is for everyone to know what appropriation looks like, and to call it out. Be an ally” (Andrews 2020).

2. Involve people – “Credit alone is not enough. If you want to engage in a culture that isn’t your own, involve people of that culture, ask them questions (assuming they want to be involved), and invite them to share their stories and experiences” (Andrews 2020).

3. Education – “It is extremely important to be aware of historical context. In my opinion, this gets people into trouble more than any other point. If you don’t understand all the pain, trauma, the triumphs that lead to the development of a genre of music, you are bound to error. . . do your own in-depth research before seeking counsel from the community in question” (Andrews 2020).

4. The hard truth – “Recognise that, unfortunately, even if you get all of this right, you may still be accused of appropriation. This is because there is seldom only one authority in a cultural community. Gaining permission from one authority does not mean that all other connected communities will agree with that authority. . . . while you may have done due diligence . . . knowledge is invisible, and it will not always be obvious to others that you have done the work. Be prepared to solidly answer questions about your familiarity with the material and the culture surrounding it” (Andrews 2020).

5. Know your “why” – In his book, Start with Why, Thought leader, Simon Sinek, reminds us all to get to the heart of the matter (Sinek 2009). Know your purpose. Understand what are your true intentions. Believe in your “why” and others will recognize your authentic intentions and believe with you (Holley Jr. 2019).

6. Find the original source – “There is an assumption that if music is published and in print then there is some level of permission. This may be the case but is not always the case. Therefore, one should acknowledge the original source, if need be or if in doubt, contact the original source for the permissions necessary. Do due diligence – we must be discerning” (Dilworth 2019).

It is my hope that after reading this blog, someone will be empowered to move forward and explore the choral work of a culture for which they are not familiar, without fear. Acknowledge that engaging with a new culture, language, or musical style may present challenges. For this reason, preparation (research, engaging in conversation, actively seeking to develop relationships with ‘insiders’, listening, self-reflection, taking time) is key. 

We are living through challenging but very exciting times and with boundless opportunities. Now is not the time to ‘play it safe’ but it is the time to take the risk and teach fearlessly, love more, share what we know, and learn about what we do not know.  If we make the preparations, make connections, do the research and necessary work, then we should not be afraid to share the stories of others but rather strive to break down cultural barriers in our choral communities.

Websites and links to repertoire lists and organizations:

African Diaspora Music Project:

African American Art Song Alliance:

Beyond Elijah Rock: The non-idiomatic choral music of Black composers:


Institute for Composer Diversity:

Malaysian Choral Composers Series: Vivian Chua:


Andrews, N., Frédéricka Petit-Homme Condon, Leela MadhavaRau, Andre Myers, Floydd Ricketts (2020). Making Music in the Mess: A conversation towards a greater understanding of African Diasporic voices in Canadian Choral Music. Phoenix Chamber Choir Webinar. 1:20:17.
Dilworth, R. (2019). Exploring Cultural Appropriation in Choral Music. Chorus America Website, Chorus America.
Holley Jr., E. (2019). "Cultural Appropriation: From Culture Stealing to Culture Sharing." Retrieved Oct. 2, 2020, from
Rogers, R. A. (2006) From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation. Communication Theory 16, 474-503 DOI:
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why : how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, Portfolio.
Young, J. O. (2008). Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Malden, MA, Blackwell publishing.

Photo credit Danielle Tocker Photography

Dr. Melissa Morgan is the Assistant Professor of Choral Music in the department of Media, Arts, and Performance at the University of Regina. An active conductor, she is frequently asked to serve as a guest clinician, adjudicator, and conductor with high school, children’s choirs, and church choirs throughout Canada. 

Dr. Morgan holds a Doctorate of Music Performance in Choral Conducting from the University of Toronto, a Master of Music Performance in Choral Conducting from the University of Western Ontario, a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Regina. She is also an Associate of the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music (ARCT) in piano, voice, and flute. 

For more information on Dr. Morgan please visit her website:

Have an idea or perspective you wish to share for this decolonizing choir series? Let me know at this link.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Guest Blogger: A Conductor’s Self-Reflection by Gloria Wan

My name is Gloria. My parents bravely emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada over 40 years ago, making me proudly Chinese-Canadian. Additionally, I’m a conductor, educator, singer, instrumentalist, and Candy Crush enthusiast (Still? Yep). I’ve had my heart set on choir since my first encounter with a cluster chord in Grade 9, and an equally-large passion for contemporary, jazz, and pop music. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve had the immense privilege of learning, working, teaching, performing, and living in four provinces and states and two countries. By singing in a choir, I have experienced (and continue to do so) many makings of humanity which may otherwise be difficult to understand or approach without music.

However, I am beginning to evaluate the ways in which the choral education system is biased and how much of it is really rooted in colonialism. When you think of some of the world’s so-called “greatest choral conductors,” how many of them are North American or European, and how many represent other regions or nationalities? Do most of those individuals fall under the first category? Why is this the case when the innately human tradition of singing has existed in all regions for centuries? 

Addressing issues and systemic biases within an artform which we care so deeply about may be difficult to approach at first, but is absolutely essential in an effort to end traumatic and otherwise preventable experiences for our singers. To start, the dismantling of any biased system in which we are a part begins with self-reflection. In the months and years to come, I’m keen to find ways to uplift the voices in choral music which may not have received the proper recognition, dignity, and understanding that they deserve—especially those in Canada. 

Recently, I became an administrator on @choirisracist, an Instagram platform dedicated to sharing anonymous personal stories of biases, racism, sexism, and microaggressions within the world of choral music, rehearsal, and performance. Inspired by other similar pages in related fields bearing the “______ is Racist” moniker, this platform has proven to be a necessary space for releasing past traumas, injustices, and other painful memories which contributors have been holding onto for years without a proper outlet; it is NOT a form of entertainment or “delivering the tea.” These stories exist as anonymous public statements, often facilitating a much-needed conversation and re-examination of our own practices as educators and choral musicians. 

“So you’re a conductor, and you help run a platform called “Choir is Racist”?” Yes. Although it was initially inspired by the “______ is Racist” network, these profiles all receive submissions of deep-seated issues that exist beyond the scope of racism. Again, the idea of “decolonizing” any educational space or making any curriculum more “anti-racist” must begin with the person administering it—or in our case, the person at the podium. In this self-reflection as a conductor, I admit I have been careless with my choices on some days — whether that be with word choice in rehearsal, programming, or other similar decisions. Working on the team of @choirisracist is not only a way to practise this self-reflection constantly, but to help bring the greater choral community one step closer to facing these issues and fostering an anti-racist, anti-sexist culture. We know that change can be good and hope that it can come sooner if we start having these conversations out in the open with our mentors, students, colleagues, and audiences. 

As we affirm these experiences from musicians around the world, I can’t help but to notice similarities coming up not only across posts, but many that are much too reminiscent of some of my own choral experiences as well. We will look at a handful of anonymous public submissions (view all posts on Instagram at @choirisracist if you feel inclined), and the biases present. I have included a few guiding questions which arose in my own self-reflection towards decolonizing our spaces.

Conductors often use imagery in rehearsal to describe or invoke a particular sound within an ensemble. You’ll hear phrases like, “Can I hear it brighter/darker/more crisp”, or even “picture a school of fish swimming in the water on a warm day at the beach.” Descriptive language can be effective when rehearsing to help singers mentally frame a piece and awaken musical contrast. However, it’s our job not to present any implied biases or stereotypes that most often do more harm than good.

  • What is the sound I am trying to describe, and are there any other less offensive ways or means I can utilize for sharing the musical idea I am teaching to my students? 

  • What is the perceived undertone in using words like “sass,” “spice,” and “gang signs” in rehearsal, and are they appropriate? 

    • Again, what is the sound to be achieved, and is the use of those particular words the best way to reach those goals?

Some of us may be able to recall a rehearsal scenario in which the conductor says something like, “Hey everyone, let’s end on a good note. Let’s sing (name of spiritual/folk song/other cultural piece)”. Of course, we assume the conductor has good intentions with this. However, this music is too often not given the adequate rehearsal time which it deserves in comparison to time spent on other (typically Western or European) repertoire. 

  • What are these feelings of “fun” and “goodness” that I am trying to pass to my choristers through the singing of this music, when oftentimes the original makeup of it was rooted in deep oppression and suffering -- the very opposite of those feelings? 

  • Time in a choral rehearsal is far too often allocated to teaching diction in pieces by composers like Schnittke, Bach, or Monteverdi, as an example. 

    • In what way(s) can we structure our rehearsals to make more time to educate not only ourselves and students sufficiently about non-Western repertoire, but to respect its cultural roots without degrading them in the name of a “good time”?

Black voices matter, Black composers matter, and it is only fair that non-Western classical music be dedicated sufficient time and respect not only to be pronounced correctly, but truly understood correctly. 

Without a doubt, The Aeolians of Oakwood University (dir. Dr. Jason Max Ferdinand) captured all our hearts at ACDA 2019, with a diverse concert program showcasing their absolute musicality on every level; the Aeolians were even nicknamed “the choir that broke ACDA.”  However, their caliber as one of the top—if not the very top—choirs in the world existed long before their appearance at this conference. 

It was clear, however, that some participants were surprised when the Aeolians executed a Bach motet movement with brilliancy. There is an inherent problem when Black choral music and Black musicians are not viewed in the same light as Western music and Western musicians, and when Black musicians are stereotyped to excel only at Black music. Even with this great imbalance, and in situations with limited resources, Black musicians are often more adept at performing Eurocentric Western music.

  • To these folks, why is the sheer thought of Black competency surprising, and how is this perspective rooted in colonialism? 

  • When commenting on the Aeolians’ performance at the conference, what is the meaning of separating Bach from the rest of their repertoire? 

Since adolescence, I’ve been incredibly insecure with all aspects of my voice from speaking, singing—reading out loud.I was either asked to sing high completely in head voice, or my voice was always much too low. To be honest, some of my most favourite memories in choir have been from singing at pitch with the tenors and baritones. Later on in academia, I noticed that the only repertoire written for the so-called “low female voice” mostly came either from Baroque composers like Vivaldi and Bach, or from channels outside of Western classical repertoire like jazz, pop, or rock. What it comes down to is that the voice does not have a gender, provided that a singer is shown how the voice functions healthily in order to avoid any possible vocal injury. 

  • In what ways can I remove designation of gender from my pedagogical practices for a more human-centred approach? What are some ways through which I can start implementing this right now (for example, using “lower voices” and “upper voices”)?

  • How can I break down these barriers and societal constructs to provide experiences/opportunities (ex. solos, flexible voice parts, etc) for the students who are in front of me, regardless of the gender written on the music?


We may not get it right the first time, or even ever fully get there, but if we don’t start re-evaluating now and checking our own ideologies and privileges, the same destructive biases will transfer to our students and perpetuate this harmful cycle. If we consciously turn ourselves away from the deep-seated issues which we know exist within our own house, can we ever truly begin healing from generational trauma and unfairness? Generational trauma has no business in the choral space or any environment for that matter; it has been time for this, and we might as well take this opportunity away from the physical rehearsal space to begin this much-needed work on our own.

Moving forward, @choirisracist will remain open as a platform for submissions in our hope that these stories do not repeat themselves and that they will remain as pieces for all musicians in self-reflection to each continuously “do better.” If we don’t, we risk committing a great disservice to our students and community as educators.

“Don’t cancel the year that woke us up.” 

- Original author unknown, 2020


Originally from Vancouver, BC, Gloria Wan is a first-year Doctor of Music student in Choral Conducting at the University of Alberta under the tutelage of Dr. Timothy Shantz, and is active as a conductor, singer, educator, and instrumentalist. Most recently, Ms. Wan was the Choral Music Director at Swift Current Comprehensive High School in Saskatchewan, additionally teaching English Language Arts, Psychology, and Arts Education. Her principal conducting study has been under the guidance of Drs. James Jordan and Joe Miller. Ms. Wan has taught music within various contexts and age levels, including elementary, middle, and high school. She has served as Assistant Conductor for Westminster Schola Cantorum, Alberta Youth Choir, Princeton GirlChoir and other ensembles, along with performing with and assisting a number of other vocal groups in the US and Canada. Ms. Wan has been a session presenter and poster presenter at the International Symposium on Singing and Song and Podium 2018, respectively. As a performer in various genres, she has appeared alongside esteemed ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Canada, and at venues such as the Forbidden City Concert Hall, the American Choral Directors Association National Convention, and two seasons at Spoleto Festival USA, amongst others. As an instrumentalist, Ms. Wan is in demand on guitar and percussion. Along with djembe on the single Peace Song, she can be heard on Westminster Choir’s album Martin: Mass for Double Choir. She has studied voice and piano privately, and holds Kodály Level III certification. Ms. Wan holds bachelor’s degrees in music and secondary education from the University of Alberta, and a master’s degree in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College.

Have an idea or perspective you wish to share for this decolonizing choir series? Let me know at this link.