I first experienced being in a choir before I was old enough to be a singer: as a wee girl, on occasion I’d tag along when my mom went to her church choir practice.
As a teenager, I was in the high school choir, sang at church, and even had a couple memorable sessions singing back-up vocals at a local recording studio ran by the Mercey Brothers, a well-known Canadian country band. My choir-joining ways continued through university but, once I started a journalism career with its unpredictable hours, I could no longer commit to regular practices and choir participation.
That changed for me when I became a rare bird in the journalism flock: a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, which meant mostly steady, daytime hours, Monday to Friday.
For the next few years, I was able to join a community choir, known as the Village Singers (for Wortley Village in London, Ontario) that later morphed into the Karen Schuessler Singers, named after the group’s conductor. We rehearsed once a week and did three concerts a year, usually in late November, late March and a final concert in May, when for many years the choir performed Missa Gaia/Earth Mass by Paul Winter, the first choir in Canada to tackle this work whose songs are built upon the recorded sounds of wolf, whale, and other creatures.
Choral Canada calls being in a choir an “integral part of the Canadian cultural experience” and says there are 40,000 choristers in choirs under the Choral Canada banner: that doesn’t count many school, religious, and community choirs that don’t join this national organization.
Why do people continue to want to sing together? Canadian choral conductor Iwan Edwards, in an interview with CBC Radio, said that singing in a choir “meets an emotional need, an intellectual need, a physical need, in a sense, a community need. Once you start to put all these things together, at that point you’ve got a very special situation.”
One of the great joys, and pitfalls, of singing in a choir is uncontrollable laughing. There’s nothing quite so funny as when the wheels come off a choir bus in rehearsal: musical train wrecks (at least, among non-professionals) are frequent and it is a choir director’s hardest job to pull back everyone from laughing and make them refocus on getting it right, the next time.
Canada’s choirs have contributed “significantly to religious, educational, and concert activities within the country, and some have earned high reputations abroad,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia entry on choral music. ” Choral singing in Canada became immensely popular in the second half of the 19th century, reached its first peak — unsurpassed, certainly, in the quantity of choristers relative to the total population — in the years preceding World War I, and entered a new period of vigour and expansion after the middle of the 20th century.”
A few choirs pay their singers, but most choristers are volunteers, doing it for love only, not money. Some ensembles demand enormous commitment, with a dense rehearsal and performance schedule; some expect their singers to read music, while others will teach musical lines through repetition.
In Toronto, two friends have re-imagined how to run a choir, taking into account the difficulty many people have making a steady rehearsal commitment and the fact that many who want to sing don’t associate with traditional hosts of many ongoing choirs.
“Most choirs take place in school or a church,” says Daveed Goldman, co-founder of Choir! Choir! Choir! “We didn’t want that kind of vibe; we wanted a much looser vibe to what we did.”
Goldman, who has worked in the restaurant industry, and his pal Nobu Adilman, who has been a TV producer, in 2010 pulled together a group to sing at a friend’s birthday. Everyone had a great time and they started thinking, how can we do this again? In 2011, they set up shop in the back room of Clinton’s Tavern on College Street in Toronto. Their plan: one evening a week they’d be there, with lyric sheets to a pop, folk, or rock song. The pair create three-part arrangements (voices divided not into gender-based soprano, alto, tenor, bass but into “high-medium-low”) and Goldman accompanies on his guitar; Adilman conducts; and singers each pay $5 cover. People can grab a drink, learn their parts and, at the end, a videographer captures the final song performance so people can share what they’ve done.
I first learned about this group at Creative Mornings TO in 2015 when Nobu Adilman was a guest speaker; since then Choir! Choir! Choir! has exploded into a media phenomenon and choir empire. Adilman and Goldman now lead larger singing sessions at everything from Luminato, a Toronto Arts Festival (where in 2016 1,500 people came out to be backup choristers for singer Rufus Wainwright; video views 5.3 million and counting) to Radio City Music Hall in New York. The pair were invited to Radio City to lead choir and audience on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” after the Choir! Choir! Choir! video of “Space Oddity”, recorded with 500 singers at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, caught the attention of the producers of the Bowie tribute in New York.
It seems like they’re everywhere, these days. Tree unveiling and holiday launch at the Eaton Centre? Two thousand singers showed up to learn and sing “What a Wonderful World.” Canada Day Parliament Hill festivities? There’s Choir! Choir! Choir! Toronto Life recently did a feature on their “Top 10 Choir! Choir! Choir! videos.”
While the pick-up singing sessions still happen at Clinton’s (two evenings a week, now), Adilman and Goldman are for hire for corporate events and a core group of singers tour, although audience members at these events can also be taught the parts and join in the fun.
“A city like Toronto gets a bad rap for being so unfriendly and people don’t smile,” says Adilman. “Come to choir and you’re smiling all the time. It’s kind of so joyful, it’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed to have started Choir! Choir! Choir! because it makes me so happy.”
Main photo: Courtesy Karen Schuessler Singers, London, Ontario.