advice for choosing a choir

Echo Women's Choir with Suba SankaranI was the guest editor for Whole Note magazine’s May 2012 edition. This Toronto area-based music magazine is known for releasing its ‘Canary Pages’ in May– a listing of choirs and other singing opportunities in the Greater Toronto Area for anyone who’s looking to join a choir, or perhaps looking for a change. I was asked to write about choirs and community for this year’s edition(you can read it here).

I also had some long, wonderful discussions with two Toronto-based conductors: Isabel Bernaus, conductor of the Jubilate Singers and Common Thread Community Choir; and Becca Whitla, conductor of Echo Women’s Choir and Holy Trinity Church Choir. I quote from our conversations a bit in the editorial, but they offered some really great advice for people looking to join a choir that wasn’t in the editorial.
So here’s the advice:
I asked both Becca and Isabel what kinds of advice they’d offer novice and advanced choristers, especially given the complexity of many of the issues surrounding community and musical excellence. Their advice? Take some time to do two kinds of research: research yourself, and research the choirs.

First, figure out what you want: what kinds of music do you want to sing? How often can you rehearse? How much commitment do you want to make? How far will you travel? Most importantly, what kind of atmosphere are you looking for: a professional, goal-oriented and music-focused environment, or an opportunity to meet people and sing among friends? Or something that balances both?

Once you’ve figured out these things for yourself, do a little research on the choirs listed in the Canary Pages and elsewhere to find good matches. Even then, however, it might be difficult to know if you and the choir you’re eyeing really are good fits. Both Bernaus and Whitla suggest attending a rehearsal and/or performances. “Many choirs have open rehearsals that you can attend,” Whitla suggests, “and if not, see the choir in performance.” Bernaus agrees, even encouraging potential choristers to contact the conductor (try to find a non-pressured moment—like AFTER a concert…) or contacting the member coordinator. They might welcome you to sit in on a rehearsal, or at least describe what the choir is like so you can make an informed choice for yourself.

The same advice holds whether you are brand new to Toronto or to choral singing, or if you’re looking for a change from your current choral engagements. If you are more seasoned, you can be more targeted, more strategic in your approach. You may perhaps already know some friends or colleagues that have worked in other choral settings, so you can get an ‘insider’s perspective’ on the repertoire, the rehearsal practices, the performance styles, and the feel of the choral space to decide it it’s a good fit for you.

In fact, choral singing overall is only one of many kinds of singing practices, which of course represent one of many kinds of music-making. The Canary Pages are a great resource, but they are not definitive. Many group singing activities happen beyond these pages. The volunteer-run World Harmony Folk web site ( and newsletter, for example, promotes community singing classes, vacations, workshops, and yes, even choirs, from around the world.


beautiful women singing in a beautiful city

The Twentieth Anniversary Season Concert for Echo Women’s Choir happened this past Sunday. I had the pleasure and privilege of guest conductingBeautiful City concert poster a substantial portion of the concert. I don’t have any video or audio–yet–so you’ll have to take my word for it: these 80 women sounded wonderful.

The program was pretty eclectic: some gospel, some worker/protest songs, an Arabic love song, a few pieces from the Republic of Georgia. The central piece was a composition called ‘Sun’ (conducted by my colleague Alan Gasser), with text by Eliot Rose and music by William Westcott–this full-on, massive sounding,insane piano-accompanying, hard-to-sing vocal yearning for spring. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that much sound in Holy Trinity Church before. It was glorious.



Echo is a community choir, meaning no auditions to get in, just have to wait patiently for your name to come up on the wait list–maybe about a year. If choral singing is your thing, or maybe your thing, there are numerous choirs in the GTA for every singer and for every taste. A good starting place  are the Canary Pages of Wholenote magazine that come out in May. You can find the pages in stands around the GTA, or browse their online map of choral groups. I got the pleasure of writing the editorial for this year’s edition, too.

But for me, Echo has been an amazing experience, and I’ve been blessed to be a part of their singing work.


Beautiful City May 13

Beautiful City

Echo Women’s Choir 20th Anniversary SeasonBeautiful City concert poster
with special guest Suba Sankaran

Sunday, May 13, 2012
3:00 pm

The Church of the Holy Trinity (West side of Eaton Centre)

Tickets: $12 advance/$15 door
$8 children/seniors/underwaged

For info and tickets: 416-588-9050 ext 3


This is it! Echo’s Spring Concert is almost here. I’ve been having an insanely wonderful time conducting this fantastic group of 80 women. Come and listen to us sing songs from many traditions–Georgian, gospel, South Indian, folk, and a whopper of a piece called Sun composed by Bill Westcott using a stunning visceral poem written by Elliot Rose.

Plus, guest artist Suba Sankaran, of Autorickshaw. We’re singing several of her songs and arrangements, from a traditional Carnatic processional to an arrangement of Bobby McFerrin’s Freedom is a Voice.

It’s going to be a wonderful afternoon, hope you can join us!


For more info and to download a flyer:


performance: voices in the dark

Voices in the Dark Earth Hour Arts Celebrationposter for Voices in the Dark

Saturday, March 31, 2012
7pm to 10pm
Church of the Holy Trinity (10 Trinity Square, by the Eaton Centre)
Silent Auction and Cash Bar
Tickets $25/Sponsors $100

To reserve/for more info: 416-462-9400 or

this flyer can be downloaded from

Usually I’m not a fan of being in the dark, but if this year is going to be anything like last year, spending $25 to sit in a candle-lit 100-yr old church listening to music and stories could possibly be the best way to spend your 2012 earth hour.

The event is “Voices in the Dark”– a joint fundraiser for Echo Women’s Choir and Mariposa in the Schools, with guest artists Chris Rawlings, Dan Yashinsky, Sandra Whiting, Njacko Backo, the Miss McCarthy’s, Anne Lederman, and Echo. Hosted by Jowi Taylor.

In honour of Earth Hour, the first half of the concert is performed in the dark, lit by candle light. Just to give you a teaser, here is a clip from last year’s joint funraiser. The artist is Gurpreet Chana (otherwise known as The Tabla Guy) performing his incredible, and incredibly moving, piece Gratitude. Enjoy, and hope to see you on March 31.



sing for love

At the risk of killing romance, I’m going to be honest: I hate valentine’s day. I buy pre-packaged branded valentine cards for my sons to give to their friends, and my kids will come home this afternoon with bags full of the same kinds of cards that bear not more than a tenuous connection to love. Same for the chocolates and roses we’re supposed to purchase for our lovers this one day: consumerist expressions of love. So I’m a cynic, a valentine scrooge: bah humbug on love, valentine style.

But this morning, I’m rethinking the value of a day in February dedicated to love. Many of you may know that February is Black History Month and I had the good fortune of seeing the Washington-based women’s a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock perform at Koerner Hall in Toronto last Friday night. I’m putting together a rehearsal plan for Echo Women’s Choir tonight, and I’m planning to teach the rain forest chant they sang as part of our vocal warm-up. And all of this has got me thinking…maybe we can reclaim valentine’s day as a day dedicated to love. Real love. Hard love. The love that struggles and works to make us better, as individuals and collectively. I actually can’t think of what we more need now, around the world, than (as Burt Bacharach insists) love.

So let’s celebrate love. Love as justice, love as courage in the face of fear, love as the struggle to make our own lives, and the lives of others, better. Sweet Honey sang “The Ballad of Harry T. Moore” last week, a song that chronicles the work of a Florida man who fought lynchings, and registered Black Floridians for the vote (a quick look at his accomplishments on Wikipedia). On Christmas eve in 1951 a bomb was planted in his home that killed Harry and his wife on Christmas Day.

Sweet Honey sings this story: the words and music combine to offer a story that is both horrible and courageous, and ultimately hopeful: “It seems I hear Harry Moore, from the earth his voice still cries: ‘no bomb can kill the dreams I hold for freedom never dies.’”

So in memory of Harry Moore, and in honour of those who are fighting for justice, and singing for justice, here is the song. Happy Valentine’s Day. May you truly walk, and sing, in love.


new singing experiences for 2012

Tonight is the first rehearsal of Echo Women’s Choir’s Spring concert season: their 20th Anniversary concert. I’m thrilled to be a guest conductor, alongside the wonderful Alan Gasser, while the choir’s other wonderful conductor, Becca Whitla, pursues her Masters research in Cuba.

Echo is a community-based choir in Toronto. There are no auditions to particicpate, though you might have to have your name on a waitlist for a little while. If you’re interested in singing, there are probably hundreds of choirs in the city to choose from, many of which do not require auditions. Most choirs have fees to participate, but some, like Echo, offer sliding scale or subsidies.

And trust me, there are choirs of every variety around here. From the more traditional Western European material of the Annex Singers to the rock n’ roll performances of newchoir to the more casual pub-friendly choir!choir!choir! to the sound-scape approach of the Element Choir, there’s something for anyone longing to sing with others in a choral kind of setting.

Two great resources for finding choirs are the Canary Pages of Wholenote magazine and the directory of Choirs Ontario (but rather annoyingly, the list is sorted alphabetically, so if you’re looking specifically for Toronto, it takes a little while). Don’t rely on these 2 only, however. Lots of singing groups are cropping up that aren’t in either of these (like all the choirs I mentioned above).

If you find a choir to sing with, tell me where and what the experience is like. Or maybe I’ll see you tonight at the Echo rehearsal?


Sing in the Season

Well, ‘tis the time of year for seasonal concerts of all kinds. Here are a few that I’m involved in, or planning to attend. Maybe I’ll see you at one of them?

Echo Women’s Choir: “Land of the Dreams”
Sunday, December 11, 2011 @ 7:30pm
Holy Trinity Church (West side of Eaton Centre)

The concert is named after one of two pieces I arranged for them, both written by the wonderful singer-songwriter Laurel James. I’ve heard them rehearse and the evening promises to be warm and enjoyable with repertoire from regions around the world.

Toronto Jewish Folk Choir: “Chanukah Concert Live”
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 @ 7:00pm
Barbara Frum Library (20 Covington Road)

A one-hour concert by the long-standing Toronto Jewish Folk Choir. I’m thrilled to be joining the sopranos for this concert—the group is absolutely wonderful. Plus the concert is free!

University of Toronto Faculty of Music Choirs: “A Seasonal Celebration”
Wednesday, December 7, 2011 @ 7:30 pm.
MacMillan Theatre, 80 Queen’s Park

If more traditional choral music is your thing, check out this concert from the Faculty of Music at University Toronto, where I’m chipping away at my Ph.D. The concert features a triple bill of the MacMillan Singers (conducted by Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt), the Women’s Chorus (conducted by Ana Alvarez) and the Men’s Chorus (conducted by David Holler). And all three choirs will form a massed choir to perform the Pinkham Christmas Cantata, along with brass from the U of T Wind Ensemble. Yep, there’s gonna be a lotta sound coming off that stage.

Megacity Chorus: “Reflections”
Saturday, December 3, 2011 @ 2pm & 7pm
Lawrence Park Community Church (2180 Bayview Ave)

OK, I’ve never seen these guys perform before, but who can resist a concert when their web site calls them “an older, less dysfunctional version of Glee”? Plus I’ve worked with their conductor Dan Rutzen and he’s amazing. So if you’re into 4-part barbershop a capella-style harmonies, check this one out.

There are probably several dozen other performances of choral and vocal concerts happening around the city. If you’d like a more complete listing that’s not at all Deanna-promoting, Wholenote magazine has a pretty comprehensive listing of concerts in the GTA. Happy season to you!




beginning and beginning again: six strategies in starting with a new voice teacher

I went back to school this week to begin the 3rd year of my Ph.D. in Music Education, and I was often cheerfully greeted with “Happy New Year!” In this corner of the world, September feels like the real start of the year. Whether you are in school, have kids in school, or have simply been conditioned through previous years of school, we approach September with the fresh optimism of beginners, even with a longing for a summer that has slipped by.

This beginnings-time-of-year was underlined for me this week: I had several new voice students begin at my voice studio. And they remind me that beginning (again) is a frightful and amazing place to be. Some students are true beginners, having never taken a voice lesson, and one or two have rarely ever sung. But some are merely beginning with me, having sung lots before, studying with other teachers. Whether you are beginning or beginning again, embarking on singing lessons with a new teacher means navigating a new relationship that is both a practical skills-building endeavour, as well as an incredibly intimate and intensely personal journey. Singing often feels vulnerable. Students are trusting their voices, and in a way, their whole being, to another human being in a one-on-one setting.

Navigating a new singing relationship often takes some time find an equilibrium and know whether the fit works for you. Here are a few suggestions for you if you are embarking on singing lessons in a new voice studio:

  1. Find out your teacher’s philosophy and pedagogy. Have a conversation in advance of the lesson to get to know your teacher to find out their philosophical and pedagogical approaches, as well as their experience if that’s important to you. I like to have this conversation in the first lesson, but not all teachers do, so make sure to find out so you get a sense of how your values might match up. These values form the foundation of the working relationship.
  2. Know what you want to get out of taking lessons. Are you looking to improve your upper passaggio? Are you looking to extend your breath? Are you hoping to explore and find your singing voice? Are you hoping simply to make sounds that you feel happy with? Whether you have precise technical goals, or general hopes, know what they are and discuss them with your teacher. This will help your teacher guide your lessons and it will also help you both figure out the fit between you. Also know that your goals often change as you study singing, which is ok. But knowing why you’re starting is important.
  3. Adopt a stance of curiosity. Curiosity allows you to embark on the adventure of singing with a new teacher and trust them to take you to new places. Curiosity also allows you to ask questions of what’s happening and articulate to your teacher how his or her approach might be different from what you’ve experienced before. Curiosity invites questions without judgement, which can be quite productive and help you bridge previous experiences with this one.
  4. Voice your discomfort. If you are feeling physically or emotionally uncomfortable in any part of the lesson, talk about it. If your teacher is experienced enough, he or she will either adapt the exercise to fit you better or help you work through it so that you feel capable of taking this on. Feelings of discomfort are normal in singing lessons, so most teachers have worked through this with students and have strategies to help you. You don’t need to be a suffering artist, unless you want to be!
  5. Suspend your suspicions enough to go along for the ride. Sometimes a teacher will take you on a journey that, at the start, looks weird or wrong or even scary. But sometimes, these moments require some faith and courage to go along for the ride and see where you end up. More often than not, you’ll be surprised and excited at the destination. If you’re not, extend your faith just a little more to try again. If you’re continuously disappointed or anxious though, you might need to find another teacher.
  6. Pay attention to how you feel during and after your lessons.  Does your body feel more open? Do you feel lighter and more open in spirit? Do you feel like your voice is changing in ways that make you happy? You won’t always walk away from a lesson feeling good. Vocal journeys have plateaus and even some dark places, but often those hard lessons occur just before a major break-through. However, if you’re feeling conflicted, confused, and unsatisfied over the course of several lessons, you may need to find a teacher that’s a better fit for you.

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.



it’s like falling off a cliff, over and over

The vocal pedagogy that I practice and teach mostly draws from the work of Fides Krucker. I just got back from a lesson with Fides, and through my vocal and pedagogical training with her, I’ve come to understand singing as an integration of contradictions that demands the quiet but complete bravery of leaping off a cliff.

In one of my first singing lessons with Fides, back in 2003, she was coaching me through a vocal slide, trying to get me to find air flow without pushing or straining the muscles around the vocal folds. She told me “it’s like you’re falling off a cliff, over and over, all the way through the slide. Feel yourself fall off a cliff about 3 times on the slide up.” That’s Fides for you. Don’t just fall once but THREE times. And singing with Fides IS like falling off a cliff over and over: scary, exhilarating, and continuously challenging no matter how much “progress” I make in my vocal work. There’s always something else to let go of.

Fides has developed a unique and to my mind highly effective vocal pedagogy that draws from two seemingly opposite traditions with results that far exceed the mere sum of both. First, she draws from the Roy Hart school of extended voice technique, primarily through the work of Richard Armstrong. This technique offers what Fides calls cathartic work. A kind of vocal exploration of voice that follows emotional and physical threads rather than seeking perfection and beauty in every note. Her particular version of extended voice technique invites in the cracks, frays, burrs, growls, skips, yells, whispers, and tremors. Further, students are encouraged to follow our bodies, let our intellects (along with our self-judgements) to take a back-seat and approach singing as though we’re not quite in control of the whole thing. How extraordinary to begin singing from a place of curiosity and exploration of the voice, rather than judging which sounds are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad.’ To figure out how my body naturally breathes, and learning to follow what my body already knows rather that what my brain thinks is smart or right or good.

At the same time, Fides has integrated core principles of bel canto technique, which, contradictory to what I just said, demands precision and a kind of mental acuity and control in vocal production. Bel canto, literally “beautiful voice,” is of the Italian tradition that underpins most operatic singing, and while the technique varies widely, it’s characterized by a pure, beautiful sound that balances the lower and upper registers in the human voice (Wikipedia offers a pretty decent overview of bel canto, as a starting place, if you’re interested). For Fides, bel canto technique offers the technical grounding to the extended vocal work, containing singers’ cathartic experiences within technical precision and sound research on vocology (how the voice works in the body). So while students might experience something like a psychological purge through extended vocal technique (and trust me, I have purged an awful lot through our lessons), our wild explorations are always put to service of vocal technique. We remain attentive to our bodies as instruments AND as homes of our hearts and minds.

This blend of two divergent singing traditions informs Fides’ work, yet her work exceeds a simple integration of previous disciplines. Fides demands singers (including herself) to engage contradictions in the embodied here-and-now of singing: technical precision and emotional intuition; mental acuity with body knowledge; learning to control with learning to let go. A kind of embodied dialectics. A clear confusion. A wild precision.

At my lesson today, Fides brought me back to that cliff metaphor. But this time instead of falling, I’m leaping off the cliff, making adjustments as I fall. I’ve given up control while controlling what I can. It’s been a big sustained jump, verging on a continuous freefall. At moments, it almost feels like flight.

Fides wouldn’t encourage students to take leaps that she herself wouldn’t take, figuratively and literally. Here’s a short film called “Opening Night” by Julie Trimingham from 2001 starring Fides with Richard Armstrong. The text on youtube describes the film as “an explosion and exploration of the moment –the breath taken– before the first note of an opening night performance is sung.” The film is a decade old, and Fides, true to her own form, has continued to deepen her own vocal and pedagogical practice by keeping herself on the edge of her own experience and knowledge through her practice and pedagogy, navigating that paradoxical line of heart and mind, life and art.