Phenomenon of Singing in Phenomenal Newfoundland

Deanna near Ocean

The Eastern-most woman in North America

Well, that was an incredible 4 days.

Up at 4:30 am on Sunday to catch a plane to St. John’s for the Phenomenon of Singing International Symposium VIII, At Memorial University Newfoundland, the academic part of a GI-NORMOUS choral festival called Festival 500.

Let me tell you, there really were no downsides to this journey. In fact, I’m not really sure what to say, or where to start.

Highlights from the Symposium:

  • Kate Munger, who began Threshold Choirs in California about 10 years ago–groups of women who singing to people who are dying. She was warm, thoughtful and best of all, taught us several songs in harmony. Singing at an academic conference is rarer than you’d expect (or want)
  • Louise Pascale (Lesley University) who volunteered in Afghanistan in the late 1960s through the peace corps, and creating a collection of children’s song with a local musician. In the intervening years, the Taliban had suppressed all music and culture, and about 7 years ago, she decided she’d try to get the songs back in case this was the only remaining record. The project has grown massively, producing one collection of songs, and another one in the works. Stories of people weeping as they heard these songs, not having heard them since they were children. Deeply moving. Check out the Afghan Children Song Book Project, and if you know of sources of funding pass that along.
  • Kiera Galway (my fellow Ph.D. student at University of Toronto) examined the tensions and joys of (re)presenting culture, land, and history based on her research with NL Youth Choir Shalloway.

I presented a paper too–thinking through the difference between being safe and being comfortable in community singing, thinking through how we as singers experience transformative kinds of learning when we feel safe to take risks and looking primarily at the work of critical pedagogue bell hooks and her idea of a love ethic.

But what really made the Symposium exceptional was that it was attached to this massive choral festival! Literally a 1000 choristers, either whole choirs or individuals coming to sing in the “Come Solo” Choir assembled through the week. Performances day and night, and some truly astounding presentations. The ones that blew me away: Lady Cove of St. John’s (conductor Kellie Walsh; Rajaton of Finland (and that’s pronounced Rye-a-ton. If you pronounce it like I did, you will feel decidedly uncool). And here’s a youtube clip of the insanely amazing Indonesian Youth Choir Cordana. Here’s just a tiny excerpt:

In the words of a colleague, I think I just had a choralgasm.

St. John's from Signal Hill

St. John's at dusk (view from Signal Hill)

But to be honest, nothing at the Symposium or the Festival could match the sheer awesomeness (in the biblical sense rather than the valley girl sense) of St. John’s. My first glimpse of Newfoundland and those rugged cliffs as the plane banked over the Atlantic brought surprising tears to my eyes, and I remained weepy for the rest of my days there. Cape Spear, Signal Hill, whales frolicking off the coast…unimaginable beauty.

That was my first journey to Newfoundland, but it won’t be my last.



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