Finding my voice amidst the thousand

Had I known what I was getting myself into, I might not have ventured out that cold evening last winter, braving the weather, heading to Barbara Chamberlin's studio to audition for the Persephone Singers, a women's choral group in Whitehorse.

Had I known what I was getting myself into, I might not have ventured out that cold evening last winter, braving the weather, heading to Barbara Chamberlin’s studio to audition for the Persephone Singers, a women’s choral group in Whitehorse.

After the audition, Barbara, the conductor for the group, invited me to join. She offered me a role singing with the Alto Ones, as she was searching (perhaps desperately) for more mid-range voices.

At the following Monday night’s rehearsal, I realized that these women had been singing together for more than 10 years (with some coming and going, but about nine of the original members still singing). They had an extensive repertoire, which included dozens of songs. I knew none of them.

I learned that, in the coming week, we would be in the recording studio.

I also heard the group had recently auditioned successfully to compete and perform at a prestigious international choral festival in July in Powell River, BC. This meant the Persephones would not take their usual summer break beginning in early May but would continue to sing to prepare for this adventure. It sounded like hard work.

Even so, I committed to join the group and attend the festival. With the support of the talented and enthusiastic two dozen women surrounding me, I got into the groove of learning music … fast.

On top of family life, a teaching career and a new dog, months of singing came and went, now all a blur.

The Persephones recorded at Old Crow Studios.

We performed at various venues around Whitehorse, from house concerts to bars to the Yukon Arts Centre. Yukoners encouraged and supported us through bidding at silent auctions, attending our concerts, hosting concerts and making donations, all to support the trip to the festival in Powell River. While rehearsing one evening, we cheered with delight as we received news that the Yukon government had offered us support through the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture Arts Fund to assist with the expenses of attending the festival.

In addition, we would receive support from Yukon Lotteries.

While the group’s fundraising and rehearsing efforts (including memorizing all our songs) were ongoing, I was doing my best to have Latin, French, Old Elizabethan and, at times, even my mother tongue – English – flow from my mouth in a lyrical and fluent manner. Within my home it became apparent that my seven-year-old son was also memorizing our songs and was perhaps doing a better job than I was. I sang in my waking hours. I sang in my sleep.

Early July arrived and I found myself flying to Powell River for the much anticipated International Choral Kathaumixw (a “gathering together of different peoples” in the language of the Coastal Salish people).

On the small plane between Vancouver and Powell River, I watched whales and sailing vessels plying the Pacific waters.

Powell River sits 135 kilometres northwest of Vancouver and boasts lush coastal scenery, a friendly population of about 22,000 and an internationally acclaimed Academy of Music.

The weather for the festival was forecast to be hot and sunny. It lived up to its promise with temperatures soaring to a humid 32 Celsius throughout the week.

Upon arrival, my travelling companions and I were greeted by former Yukoners Shann and Jim Carmichael, longtime Mayo residents who took us under their wings and became our unofficial “host family.”

Shann took on extra volunteer duties and became our official photographer. This couple welcomed us into their home, fed us, allowed us to use their home for rehearsals and costume changes, and hosted our celebratory party at the end of the festival. We also had a lovely official host, Judy, who met all of our requests.

For five days (and nights), the Persephones joined in the cacophony of activity, singing alongside 27 other choirs (three adult and 25 youth and children’s choirs), sharing the experience of 1,000 voices joining together from all around the world. Choirs had come from across Canada, the US, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

We entered two competitive categories and performed in three concerts. We were adjudicated by choral juries to help us improve and develop our singing. We watched and listened to excellent choirs from around the world, which has expanded our ideas for new repertoire, sound quality, performance, and costuming. Our choir director formed a liaison with a choir director from Australia which allowed us to share musical notions and may possibly lead to exchange visits in the future.

The grand finale of the festival was on Saturday night when the Thousand Voice Choir performed. All choral groups had met in common choir rehearsals through the week to learn seven new pieces. Two choral conductors, Fred Sjoberg from Sweden and Don James from Canada (one of the festival founders) completed the mammoth task of uniting 1,000 voices and teaching the seven final concert pieces in only a few days.

Now that I’m home, and having been a participant in the 2010 International Choral Kathaumixw, what images and moments remain with me?

First, I think about the time spent with the women who make up the Persephone Singers, a group of women with whom I have shared hours and hours of singing voice, yet (until this trip) very little in the way of conversational voice; the orienting oceanfront walk upon my arrival; watching as stars magically appeared in a summer sky; sitting outside (insect-free) in the summer; soothing my aching feet in the ocean; listening to and watching choirs from around the world, especially the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir as they exuberantly performed a traditional Maori song; and a vigorous hike through the hills of the coastal forest to the welcoming waters of Powell Lake for a refreshing swim.

The Persephones’ participation at Kathaumixw gave the choir a week of constant exposure to choral excellence in competitions, concerts and the mass choir rehearsals and performance.

We are so appreciative of the help that Yukoners gave us to make this happen. As other memories fade with time, I will sing a song of gratitude for the opportunity – and the privilege – of finding my voice amidst the thousand.

Grace Snider is a writer and choral singer in Whitehorse.