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.