All Are Welcome: James Bay’s Joyful Choirs
By Adele Haft
“What better way to foster the best qualities of the human spirit than to lift our voices together in beauty, passion and grace.” — Ann Mortifee (1)
After moving to James Bay from New York City in 2017, I yearned to sing with others. Until my final year at university, I’d performed in school choirs throughout my communities. Then a demanding career intervened. So, the day after my James Bay hygienist enthused over the Gettin’ Higher Choir, I became a member and haven’t stopped singing.
What I didn’t know then was that Canada boasts an astonishing number and variety of choirs: one in ten of us – over 1.8 M adults and 1.6 M children under 18 – harmonize our voices in 28,000 church, school, and community centre choirs; one in four of us attend a choral performance each year (2). According to former Gettin’ Higher Choir director Denis Donnelly, by 2010 Victoria had at least 60 vibrant choirs (3).
Today, there are even more. Consider our own James Bay.
The Capital Unitarian Universalist Congregation (CUUC) features the CUUCCOOS, who meet a half hour before the 10 AM Sunday service at James Bay New Horizons on 234 Menzies; there, under the direction of Dick Jackson, the choir prepares the hymns and songs from different faiths that it will guide other congregants in singing. Meanwhile, on 511 Michigan, the James Bay United Church choir gathers for practice under the direction of Daniel Brandes prior to the 10:15 AM service; and the larger Anthem Choir sings at Christmas and Easter. Steps from James Bay, the Anglican Church of Our Lord boasts a 25-member non-auditioned choir: its director, Sheila Sim, notes that they practice on Thursdays at 7 PM from September through June, and perform regularly throughout the year on special occasions.
Choirs for School Children:
1. At South Park Family School (SPFS), choir is “part of every classroom” (4). Students learn to sing and study both music theory and appreciation. In the younger grades, everyone sings in the primary choir, while fourth and fifth graders join the senior choir with its more intricate pieces and harmonies. James Bay’s jazz vocalist Susannah Adams, whose children attend South Park, reports that the senior choir performs with the whole school choir at school assemblies and productions as well as public events. Highlights abound. The SPFS Choir has joined others in the Celebration of Black History as well as during Carolling Week at City Hall and the Christmas Tree Light-up at the Legislature. In 2016, it won the Kiwanis Fraser Valley Festivals Trophy. As Susannah says: “We are very thankful that the children have a dedicated music class and realize that this certainly is not the norm in most schools…. [People] have been making music since time began so to have it fostered in the school system is truly wonderful.”
2. Nearby is the James Bay Children's Chorus (JBCC), a non-auditioned community choir open to 7-14-year-olds from the greater Victoria area. Several singers come from James Bay Community School, which in 2008 offered the first children’s choir under the ChoirKids program. After that program ended (5), James Bay resident and organist Sandra Fletcher founded the JBCC in 2017 as an affordable alternative for students without access to choral music. And what they’ve achieved! Not only does the JBCC sing as a guest at larger concerts like SingYourJoy’s April event, but they also produce smaller concerts for friends and family. Perhaps you lucked upon their Michigan Street pop-up concert in May. Or caught them at the Greater Victoria Performing Arts Festival, where in 2018 they won the Joy of Singing award; and in 2019, the Victoria Commonwealth award (6). If your children enjoy an age-appropriate repertoire that is fun and beautiful, the JBCC resumes practice on Thursday, September 5, 4-5 PM at the James Bay United Church. (Those interested should contact Sandra Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 778-677-5887.) Their next goal: auditioning for the 2020 International Choral Kathaumixw in Powell River. Stay tuned!
Choirs for Seniors:
James Bay New Horizons (JBNH) hosts two. (a) The Entertainers is the “house” choir, a non-auditioned group of 20 members whose repertoire revolves around their three annual concerts. After summer break, The Entertainers resume on Tuesday afternoon, September 3, under new director, Joyce Tenner. According to outgoing director Anne Milroy, in 2018-19 the choir fee was $10 semi-annually, plus the annual $40 JBNH membership. (b) The second choir originated for the visually impaired. Founded in 2015, the VIP Singers “perform at public events and fundraisers, seniors’ homes and community centres. [Their] repertoire includes inspirational...pop songs and show tunes...arranged...by director Marcelina Stanton” (7). Practices are Mondays 10-12 at New Horizons. (Contact JBNH at 250-386-3035.)
What if you wish to sing with others, but are not part of a congregation or school or senior centre?
Welcome to the Gettin’ Higher Choir and the High Noon Choir!
Founded by the incomparable Siobhan Robinsong, both of these close-knit community choirs “are unaffiliated with any particular religion or spiritual path, but celebrate humanity’s highest aspirations through music, welcoming people of all ages and cultures” (www.gettinhigherchoir.ca). New singers can join the non-auditioned choirs even without previous vocal experience or ability to read music. Both choirs are member-supported, renting space at the Church of Truth near Fisherman’s Wharf at 111 Superior. Inside is an airy octagonal room that is wheelchair-accessible and stacked with chairs. Under its tent-like ceiling, choir directors hand out binders of the eclectic repertoire shared by both choirs: world music, contemporary folk, Celtic ballads, African freedom songs, spirituals, various rounds and chants, and other inspirational pieces. Singing is a capella in four-part harmony, with occasional accompaniment. Because listening is central to music, new members are encouraged to stand (or sit) beside those familiar with the songs, thus creating a community of trust among the 50 of us encircling the director(s). Brief intermissions and a potluck each season allow us to mingle. Connecting us to the 1500+ individuals in our extended choir community, frequent emails called “Higher Notes” share information and opportunities to sing at celebrations of life, fundraisers and other community events. Most important, the choirs draw on the talents of Gettin’ Higher Choir directors, past and present:
Siobhan (“Shivon”) Robinsong, founding director of both choirs, whose infectious enthusiasm, energy and compassion keep singers returning year after year.
Denis Donnelly, winner of the 2010 Herbert Drost Award for lifetime achievement in choral music, Denis’ multi-part compositions and arrangements grace the pages of our binders.
Cathy Baker, singer and instrumentalist, who often leads choir members at “Sing When Asked To” (SWAT) community events. Her confidence, knowledge and warmth bring out the best in us.
Dick Jackson, a multi-talented musician, whose roles include pianist, percussionist, creator of our digital audio files, and editor of the choirs’ newsletter and website.
Why two choirs?
1. The Gettin’ Higher Choir (“GHC”) gives singers the option to perform. Founded in 1996 by Siobhan Robinsong and co-directed with Denis Donnelly (1999-2018), the choir recently passed to Cathy Baker and Dick Jackson, both graduates of Robinsong and Donnelly’s influential Community Choir Leadership Training program – modeled on the GHC (http://www.communitychoirleadership.com). The GHC meets at the Church of Truth for two hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, with many members attending both evenings. After summer break, the GHC will resume in mid-September 2019 for the first of two annual seasons. During the initial two weeks, newcomers receive an orientation and can attend rehearsals free of charge. Once registered, members can download digital audio files of the repertoire from the website’s “Current Singers Only” and rehearse with guest artists prior to performance.
At the end of each season, the Gettin’ Higher Choir performs at Alix Goolden Hall, whose acquisition and renovation Denis Donnelly presided over as director of the Victoria Conservatory of Music (1985–99). More than 100 of us choose to sing in these concerts, which feature guest artists like Ann Mortifee, Pat Wictor, Samara Jade, and Greg Greenway. Proceeds go to charity. The February 2019 concert was the GHC’s 22nd annual benefit for the Power of Hope, a non-profit that empowers at-risk youth through the arts; the June 2019 concert was the 21st that benefited the Caia District of Mozambique. Nothing is more gratifying than to help others by singing in a celebrated performance hall before an audience packed with friends and admirers. To date, the GHC has raised more than $225,000 for Power of Hope and $629,000 for the Caia Connection (8)!
GHC Fall 2019-2020 season
Tuesdays, September 17 to December 17, 2019; then Tuesdays, January 7 to 21, 2020, 7:00-9:00 PM
Orientation sessions: Tuesday, September 17 or September 24, 6:30 PM
Thursdays, September 19 to December 19; then Thursdays, January 9 to 23, 2020, 7:30-9:30 PM
Orientation sessions: Thursday, September 19 or September 26, 7:00 PM
Performance at Alix Goolden Hall: Saturday, January 25, 7:30 PM
GHC Spring 2020 season
Tuesdays, February 18 to June 9, 7:00-9:00 PM
Orientation sessions: Tuesday, February 18 or February 25, 6:30 PM
Thursdays, February 20 to June 11, 7:30-9:30 PM
Orientation sessions: Thursday, February 20 or February 27, 7:00 PM
Performance at Alix Goolden Hall: Saturday, June 13, 7:30 PM
$200 for each season of 17-18 weeks, with a sliding scale discount, down to $150 as needed. (For more info, email directors Cathy Baker and Dick Jackson at email@example.com.)
2. The High Noon Choir (“HNC”), founded in 2003 by Siobhan Robinsong, exists solely for the joy of singing with others. It meets on Tuesdays 12:00-1:30 PM at the Church of Truth and runs throughout the year. Siobhan leads three 12-week seasons with an orientation on the first day of each:
HNC Fall season
Tuesdays, September 24 through December 10, 2019, 12:00–1:30 PM
Orientation session: September 24, 11:30 AM
HNC Winter season
Tuesdays, January 7 through March 24, 2020, 12:00–1:30 PM
Orientation session: January 7, 11:30 AM
HNC Spring season
Tuesdays, March 31 through June 17, 2020, 12:00–1:30 PM
Orientation session: March 31, 11:30 AM
$100 for each season of 12 weeks, with a sliding scale discount, down to $80 for seniors, students and the unwaged. (See http://www.gettinhigherchoir.ca/high_noon.php or contact Siobhan at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
For those wishing to sing during the summer, the current season ends on September 10. Dick Jackson will offer another 11-week Summer Season, plus orientation, beginning in late June 2020. Dick’s fees are the same as Siobhan’s, but singers in the summer 2019 HNC had the alternative of drop-in fees “on a sliding scale from $11 down to $9.” (For more, contact Dick at email@example.com.)
As member-supported choirs, those of us in the GHC and HNC are happy to pay in full. But fees can be reduced or waived depending on your circumstances: “No one misses choir because of money!” That is another reason why these community choirs are a James Bay fixture. Come and sing!!!
1. Ann Mortifee, about the Gettin’ Higher Choir: www.gettinhigherchoir.ca.
2. Choral Canada: Association of Canadian Choral Communities/Canada Choral: “3.5 Million Choral Singers in Canada," Hill Strategies, July 2017: http://www.choralcanada.org/uploads/3/8/9/2/38921071/national_choral_census_summary_0917.pdf; Sarah Claydon, CBC blog, March 29, 2018: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/blogs/the-science-behind-why-choir-singing-is-good-for-you-1.4594292.
3. Grania Litwin, “Victoria Choir Directors Lauded: Denis Donnelly [and] Tony Booker...,” Times Colonist June 17, 2010: https://www.pressreader.com/canada/times-colonist/20100617/283175784746111; Cormac O’Brien, YAM Magazine, Nov/Dec 2018: https://www.yammagazine.com/just-sing-the-popularity-and-culture-of-choirs-in-victoria.
4. South Park Family School: https://southpark.sd61.bc.ca/our-school/about-us; https://www.sd61.bc.ca/parent-student-resources/registration/kindergarten-registration/south-park-family-school; The South Park Family School Handbook , https://southpark.sd61.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/62/2013/05/handbook.pdf; Susannah Adams, email to author, July 15, 2019; Black history, https://artsvictoria.ca/show/343147/view); carolling, https://www.victoria.ca/EN/meta/news/news-archives/2018-archive/carolling-week-at-city-hall.html; light-up, https://artsvictoria.ca/index.php?htaccess_qs=show/479502/view; Kiwanis Trophy, http://kfv.ca/pdf/2017/2017KFVIMFBandandChoirProgram.pdf.
5. ChoirKids is now “delivered through the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Outreach for Children, into local Elementary schools” (https://vcm.bc.ca/choirkids). Currently, none of its programs is in James Bay.
6. James Bay Children’s Chorus: https://bcchoralfed.com/choirs/james-bay-childrens-chorus; SingYourJoy concert, https://artsvictoria.ca/index.php?htaccess_qs=show/485252/view; https://www.jamesbayunited.com/news/childrens-chorus-joins-voices-with-young-adult-choir; pop-up concert, https://www.jamesbayunited.com/news/pop-up-choir; 2018 award, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5be1d0e99772ae92743479aa/t/5cf16faee237bd0001abdef4/1559326640902/2018+Awards.pdf; https://www.facebook.com/pg/jbcchorus/events/?ref=page_internal; 2019 award, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5be1d0e99772ae92743479aa/t/5cdefafb9cb38a0001719621/1558117117450/Choral+Award+doc.pdf; https://twitter.com/jbcchorus.
7. VIP Singers, https://artsvictoria.ca/artist/722342/view.
8. Dick Jackson, email to author, August 5, 2019.
Many thanks to Susannah Adams, Cathy Baker, Denis Donnelly, Sandra Fletcher, Dick Jackson, Anne Milroy, Joan Ryan, and Sheila Sim.