Building a Family

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I cannot believe that it’s been over a year since I’ve written on my blog, but I promise you, I have a very good reason. I’ve been busy.

Just before the 2014/15 season of the Coastal Sounds Community Choir, my wife (and fellow Artistic Director) and I decided that it was time to grow our little organization into one that could service the singing needs of more people. This included more permanent projects for different demographics, and building on our “occasional” projects so that people could take part in activities that didn’t require a night of their week all year round.

Thus, we evolved into the Coastal Sounds Choir Association.

One of the CSCA’s biggest benefits is its locality. The Town of Conception Bay South has a very strong artistic community (music, dance and visual art), helped along by a plethora of music schools, dance studios and other community-based programs. Considering it’s the second largest municipality in all of Newfoundland, it’s a great pleasure to offer musical activities to the local residents to save them the trouble of travelling to St. John’s or farther (even though St. John’s is only 20 minutes away, folks really love to stay in their town, hence all the schools and studios).

The plan was to build on the recent success of two new projects that were done in the past two years. The first is the Christmas Cantata Project, which premiered in 2013 with just my own singers from Coastal Sounds and Topsail United Church, and then was opened up to all interested singers the surrounding areas in 2014. We’re now on our third Cantata and it’s become one of the most popular parts of the musical year in CBS, for both concert-goers and singers. Singers enjoy the opportunity to take part in a “spread-out” rehearsal schedule (this year, over five Saturdays) because it can be difficult to commit to another weekly activity, especially for those who work long days or have young families. The Christmas Cantata Project has received such positive feedback that we intend to keep it an annual tradition for our Christmas concert.

The second is our Summer Music Program, which was originally organized by just Beth and I, but was rolled under the umbrella of the CSCA during the expansion. Over the past two Augusts, we have held an Adult Choir Camp for singers who wanted to receive an accelerated choral education but could also not commit all year long to a permanent choir. The program accepts singers of all musical backgrounds (like the Coastal Sounds Community Choir, our flagship project) and aims to just get people singing, to get them interested and show them just how much fun it can be. The Adult program continues to grow year after year and we hope that we can expand it to youth in 2016.

And finally, we created a second permanent project, the Aurora Women’s Choir. We held auditions for interested members in September 2014 and started with 19 singers. This year, we’re up to 28. Even though the choir’s only been together for just over a year, they’ve had wonderful growth in both capability and opportunity. Aurora won a Gold Standard at the 2015 St. John’s Rotary Music Festival and in July 2016, they have been invited to represent the province at the UNISONG Choral Festival in Ottawa. It’s awesome to think that we’re only getting started and the more repertoire research I do, the more excited I get about all the wonderful music there is for women’s choir. After working in Barbershop and men’s voices for a decade, it felt right to explore the other side of things as well.

We rebranded this year (a HUGE thank you to WaterWerks Communications for their hard work) and I invite you to our website to check it all out. One main focus for growth in 2016 is a new project called the Con Fuoco Youth Choir. This choir is intended to be a comprehensive choral education for young singers aged 12-18. Auditions will be scheduled soon so watch our website and Like our Facebook page to stay up to date.

It’s been an incredible year and I am overjoyed at the idea of getting more people involved in choral singing. It has obviously changed my life and will change yours, too. Come to our 2015 Annual Holiday Concert and see all the smiles for yourself.

Sheet Music Plus Classical

Coastal Sounds: A Case Study In The Power Of Encouragement

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While studying my Masters, I started teaching for The Music Corner, a newly opened music school in Manuels, which is a township of Conception Bay South. In 2006, I discussed with the owners about starting some kind of group singing opportunity through the school. The idea from the beginning was to offer a classroom setting that would be more of a “group voice lesson”, using the choral context as the medium for delivery. Concerts and recitals would happen, but they would be less important than just getting people singing and teaching them to sing well.

Along with The Music Corner, my wife and I started Coastal Sounds (originally called the CBS Community Choir) in January 2007. On the very first night, we had eight people. I really had no idea how many would show up or what the backgrounds of the singers would be. I had prepared Locus Iste from a choral conducting book and an SATB arrangement of The Water Is Wide. Locus Iste was a bit of a disaster (do NOT throw Latin at untrained singers as the first lesson, TRUST me) but the other arrangement ended up being a great first success for the group.

The choir started in unison and slowly built it out into three parts. Because we had so few men in the beginning (in fact, I only had around six guys in the group until a couple of years ago) it was hard to find choral music that included them but didn’t overtax them. Thus began my life long love of the SAB context. I’ve come to realize that SAB repertoire is often underrated and a powerful tool to make group singing happen without too much effort.

We slowly built out The Water Is Wide in three of the four parts. This also taught me a lot about how to plan for three parts in the future. Even in most Level 1 and 2 SATB arrangements, you can sing SAT and the piano will cover the bass notes. I highly recommend using SAB for your community choirs and a lot of SATB arrangements will also have three part, two part or unison alternatives. I continue to use SAB arrangements on a regular basis because they ease the amount of rehearsal time necessary for part singing, and give the men a realistic goal to achieve.

Coastal Sounds amicably broke off into its own non-profit organization three years ago and has continued to grow every year. We now have almost 50 regular members, sing at least two concerts a year, with many more exciting ideas on the horizon for expansion. I teach almost everything by singing and modelling, and I’ll get into more detail about this method in a later post.

The choir has always been available to anyone who has an interest in singing. We have members from many different musical backgrounds. Not everyone reads but the blend of experience with non-experience amongst singers has provided more teaching support that I could have ever anticipated. Those who know more help the ones who don’t. We still bill it as a group voice lesson with no harsh expectation on performance but the choir continues to get better and more capable with each passing season.

As we grew, a very disturbing trend started to emerge amongst almost every person who has ever sang with the group. Year after year, I heard story after horrible story about how a music teacher in the individual’s past told them:

A) They could not sing;

B) They would never be able to sing; and

C) They should only “mouth the words” and not make any sound whatsoever.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that among the vast majority of the people I have taught in Coastal Sounds, someone in their past, directly or indirectly, robbed them of something incredibly important; a lifelong love of making music.

A little tangent. I first met Dr. Doug Dunsmore, now retired professor of choral activities at MUN,  in the summer of 2004 at the Sing Summer Adult Choir Camp sponsored by the Nova Scotia Choral Federation. Of all the wonderful things I came to learn from Doug over the next 10 years, perhaps the most ‘infamous’ one was that he is a lover of sayings; short musical parables that continuously resound over and over, sometimes to the point of polite ribbing from his singers. He has a bunch of them, some of them are even a bit comical, but there’s one, the ‘golden rule’, that came to impact me in a very profound way.

“Singing is 90% brains and 10% talent.”

This echoed because it spoke directly to me and my experience. I had not been a choral singer for very long. Thanks to many great opportunities from 2003 to 2005 in Nova Scotia, I quickly developed enough skills to participate in more challenging music by just doing it as much as I could. Repetition, repetition, repetition. My world quickly became consumed by choir. Meeting Doug was really the turning point for my career. Watching how much fun he had with the singers, along with the positive experiences that I had while conducting, gave me the motivation to make choir and choral conducting my passion.

Now, back to Coastal Sounds. If we hold “Doug’s Rule” to be correct (which I’m living proof that it is), the only missing piece is the amount of time and effort on the part of the singer, and the amount of encouragement and patience on the part of the teacher. After the first few times of being told the same horrible story from a member’s past, I vowed early that I would do whatever I could to encourage anyone to sing who were willing to make a commitment to learn.

Of all these ‘misfits’ who have come to our island to sing over the past 7 years, less than 5% of them have had what society would call ‘tonedeafness’, which is a term I personally hate, because I’ve come to learn it’s actually false. I have come to discover with my private teaching that these individuals actually possess remarkable ability in audiation, but in most cases, there are so many physical barriers (nervousness, upper body tension, poor breath support) that the singer is just completely incapable of phonating the pitch they’re audiating. I have worked with two singers for the past number of months who have come to Coastal Sounds but were having pitch matching problems, and with enough training and muscle development, they are finding way more success than they ever had before. I tell all my private students that from the beginner all the way up to the professional, going to a private music lesson is like going to the gym. Sometimes, no matter how much you ‘know’ something, you need to work it out for it to grow. Corrective repetition.

There are a few other simple factors that create success in Coastal Sounds. Because I do have singers who can read and follow their lines, they end up singing a bit more confidently than the others. While singing in three parts, the right answer in any given part is always present in some capacity. I regularly encourage my singers to become better listeners as well. Take a person who comes in convinced that they would never sing, sit them next to a person who can sing the part, and once the tension of having to sing alone wears off, they succeed brilliantly. Most of the time it’s ‘chickenissimo’ (another Dougism) at first because they lack confidence, but the fact remains that they can do it.

Here’s one of my own musical parables:

“If you have done something correctly once, there’s no logical reason why you can’t do it correctly every single time.”

All I do as the director of Coastal Sounds is to show people how easy singing can be (once you know a few simple rules on how to do it well), give them the experience that they can indeed sing, and encourage them when they do it correctly. With this simple methodology, I have seen the blossoming of incredible amateur musicians who genuinely have a love for what they’re doing. To think that so many of these people lived DECADES carrying around the curse of belief that they could not sing only motivates me to help as many more people as I can.

I have never put too much impetus or pressure on the performances we do. No matter how well I can get something to sound in rehearsal, the spectre of self doubt is still alive and strong in many people. Although I continue to give them positive experience after positive experience in concert, there are those who will always be plagued with stage fright. But even with the occasional ‘improvisation’ from the choir, the looks on everyone’s faces are the true truthtellers. Coastal Sounds members have fun making music. And in the end, isn’t that the most important thing of all?

Sheet Music Plus Classical

St. John’s: Choral Mecca

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UPDATE: I’m so pleased at the traction this post appears to be getting. If you don’t live in Newfoundland, it should definitely be at the top of your tourism wish-list, and make sure to take in a choral concert while you’re here! Please check out my Facebook page or the rest of my social media profiles by using the buttons to the right.  Thanks for reading!

We are all still mourning the untimely and indefinite hiatus of Festival 500. I feel that it was only fitting that choral singers from all over the world made a regular biennial pilgrimage to our fair city for such a long time. It would be very difficult for me to prove this, but I enjoy the very real hypothesis that St. John’s has more choirs per capita than any other city in Canada.

St. John’s has grown leaps and bounds since my wife and I moved here in 2005. In almost 10 years, due mostly to the success of the provincial government in securing energy deals that will bring billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, the city has produced an enormous amount of urban sprawl. Most of this sprawl extends outward away from the downtown city core on newly developed lands with row after row of new houses. While the city is growing in people and industry, it still only takes me about 20 minutes to drive from what we call the ‘East End’ to the ‘West End’ in a moderate amount of traffic. It’s very small and it continues to be my most favourite attribute.

Packed tightly into this small geographic space is what can only be described as an impressive amount of choral activity. Newfoundland has a deep historical connection to singing and song-writing, and that, coupled with a strong focus on singing and choir in the school system over many years, has helped produce a massive multi-generational community of choral enthusiasts. We boast a diverse and vibrant collection of organizations; from top-notch school choirs participating in provincial and national festivals, to church and community choirs who sing for fun and do tons of charitable work, to a brag-inducing number of world class semi-professional choirs who have brought home some of the choral art’s highest achievements. And we’re all pretty tight.

Because of geographical boundaries, these organizations could not possibly stand completely alone. They are inextricably entangled. Choral families are joined by the inevitable marriages of members who freely pass from group to group.  I myself have had stretches where I sang in many groups simultaneously and I was not the only one. How could you resist so many great singing opportunities that are all within a 10 minute drive from one another?

This has of course caused difficulties as well. When choirs are competing for the same venues and the same “perfect dates”, it’s impossible to avoid scheduling conflicts. Concerts occasionally occur on the same dates in venues that are even next to each other or just down the street. But there’s a silver lining. Our audience is huge and it rocks. When we’re not singing, we support our fellow choir families with an almost weekly docket of choral concerts to attend. Our proud families come to see us shine in concert. The city is filled with choir lovers who still manage to fill the cavernous Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for an annual two-night Christmas tradition of Handel’s Messiah. As the city grows, so does our audience and our community.

People work hard to keep this community thriving and it’s only getting better. 2014 brought the announcement of a generous endowment to Memorial University by Drs. Jean and Angus Bruneau, established as the Bruneau Centre for Excellence in Choral Music. This endowment means hundreds of thousands of dollars will continue to flow into the healthy choral scene to help it evolve with the growing and changing population.

It’s an exciting place to live and even more exciting place to be a choral singer and conductor. I would start spouting off names of awesome choirs to you, but it would be impossible not to leave someone off the list. Google “Newfoundland Choir” and be amazed by the number of results. You will not be disappointed.

Thank you, Bruneaus. We won’t let you down.

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