Saturday, December 29, 2018

Best of 2018

Greetings readers and Happy Holidays!

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

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

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

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

Photo by Nanc Price Photography courtesy of Edmonton Opera

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

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

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


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

See you all in 2019!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Formation of FEMME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

All photos by Nanc Price Photography

Monday, March 12, 2018

Banff Centre Choral Art Program 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking my caffeination game seriously during the residency

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