– Words by Jane Zatylny Photography by Lia Crowe
I love to sing—privately. In the shower. In the car. And around the house. I’ve never thought I was good enough to sing in any kind of public way. But singing in a choir, I’m learning, is about more than just hitting the right high notes.
“If you want to sing with other people, just do it,” urges Marc Jenkins, director of The Choirs YYJ. “It feels good, whatever your skill level.”
Marc tells me that Victoria has the highest number of choirs per capita in the country. “There are more choir singers than hockey players in Canada, too,” he quips.
Different sorts of choirs are springing up all across the province, from the traditional symphonic, educational or auditioned choir to choirs that practice and perform pop music or gather to sing a hit together on a single night.
Choirs, of course, are all about community. And after the seclusion of the pandemic, it obviously feels great to gather again and work together as a community on a song or two. But something else happens when people gather to sing together, Marc says: “If two people sing next to one another for four months, their bodies get to ‘know’ one another. That’s when the hook goes in with choir.”
Lynda Kaye felt a strong pull when she first started singing with the Tofino Ucluelet Choir. She was part of a choir in junior high and loved it, but didn’t do anything with singing again until her 60th year.
“Some musician friends of mine told me about a woman named Sophie L’Homme, who was starting a choir. I went in to that first rehearsal and—wow—it changed my life overnight.”
Seven years later, Lynda is still hooked on choir.
“There wasn’t a rehearsal in Tofino where I didn’t laugh and cry and feel fantastic. It was just an extraordinary, extraordinary experience. And everybody that I know who’s done it has felt the same way,” she says.
The creation of harmony—literally, as well as metaphorically—is another very powerful aspect of choir, says Marc: “In a way, we’re like bees in a hive.”
I dropped in to listen to one of Marc’s rehearsals and saw immediately what he meant: there was laughter and close camaraderie as people arrived, greeted one another, and set up chairs. And then sweet, sweet sounds flowed across the room, from soprano voices to alto, then from to tenor to bass.
The vibe in the room was contagious, even from my chair at the back of the room. I couldn’t help but sing softly, too, close my eyes and sway to the music.
Rebecca Lam, creative director of the Vancouver-based Chorus Studio, explained why: singing, she said, releases endorphins and oxytocin, the famous feel-good hormones. Ah, that makes sense.
“Connecting with music and expressing yourself creatively is an empowering endeavour,” says Rebecca. “Singing in a choir is also a wonderful way to meet people and make new friends. We’re vulnerable with each other because you have to be while singing. This naturally cultivates camaraderie between people.”
Lynda now divides her time between Tofino and Victoria and continues to participate in her Tofino Ucluelet choir via Zoom. She’s been checking out local Victoria choirs, too, and expects to find a new choral home in Victoria soon.
To anyone thinking of joining a choir, she advises: “If you have even an inkling that you might want to sing in a group, give it a go. Go someplace, find a drop-in choir or go to a choir performance and observe how it’s done. Talk to a choir director or someone else who’s in choir. Just give it a go.”
And don’t let your musical insecurities or inexperience hold you back. In the Tofino Ucluelet choir, Lynda said, half of the people knew how to read music and half didn’t.
“It’s an advantage if you can read music, but it’s not a requirement,” she explains. “When you raise your voice with a group of people, the community of choir pulls everybody with it. It’s okay if you miss a note or forget your lyrics because we’re all there to hold you up.”
The joy of choir all comes back to that undeniable feel-good factor, says Marc. “If you sing in the shower or you sing in the car, and want to do that with other people, do it, because it feels really good.”
Here are some tips to consider if you’re thinking of joining a choir:
Do your research.
Go online and find out what sorts of choirs there are in your area, then go to a few concerts to see what you like.
“Most choirs will have a website or social media presence,” says Marc. “There you can get a flavour of what the choir will be like.”
Recognize that choir is a commitment.
“You’re all doing it and you’re all working hard at getting good at it,” says Lynda. “You have to learn the music, you have to practice the music, you have to show up for a rehearsal. And you have to be okay with repeating, repeating, repeating until you get it right.”
Shy on commitment?
Consider a drop-in choir. There are many one-night performances where you learn a pop song and record it with the group in a single evening.
“We’ll still obtain a goal,” says Marc. “We’ll do a little three-part harmony.” (The Choirs YYJ will do a Beatles drop-in choir night in June.) Check online for a drop-in choir event in your area.
Don’t be intimidated.
“We like to say, ‘If you can speak, you can sing,’” says Rebecca. “It is outdated to believe that one is either born with talent or not. Musical ability can be cultivated and nourished.”
And lastly, don’t give up.
It may take time to find the right choir, says Marc. It’s like buying a car; sometimes you have to kick the tires.
“Some of it can be social too,” he says. “For instance, if you’re really extroverted and you join a choir that’s pretty introverted, you might be like, ‘Why does nobody like me?’ It’s worth scoping around and trying things until you find your way.”
The Choirs YYJ
A collective of three Victoria-based ensembles that represent over 200 people of all ages, genders, experiences, vocal abilities and musical tastes.
A Vancouver-based community of adult pop choirs, professional voice lessons and performance workshops, and regular open mic and karaoke nights.