Long before there was a symphony or opera company, choirs were the backbone of music in Toronto

Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale.

This afternoon’s performance at Koerner Hall by the Pax Christi Chorale of Edward Elgar’s The Kingdom, a 1906 oratorio very rarely heard in these parts, a significant concert event, represents not even the tip of a vocal iceberg in Toronto.

Before the 90-year-old Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company — a youthful 60 — were a twinkle in their founders’ eyes, the city already had myriad glee clubs, community choirs, choral societies and church choirs, led by conductors and teachers and organists. Miraculously, though tremendous social and cultural change, they have not only survived, but they are thriving.

Although church and synagogue attendance has been the victim of our secular times, choirs are a vital force of community musicmaking here, and nearly everywhere else in Canada. Look at any church or community noticeboard, and the May calendar groans with end-of-season concerts featuring every conceivable style of music, size of ensemble, and level of skill — from 6-year-olds to vigorous octogenarians.

The appeal of singing in a group rather than only in the shower is clear.

It may be helpful to be able to read music, but many people who sing in choirs can’t. The beauty of singing is that you don’t need to know how to play an instrument; you just have to be able to match pitch and rhythm.

This has to be the psychologically healthiest form of mass entertainment ever devised. And the need to breathe in a controlled manner will keep your cardiologist smiling. Singing solo can be a nerve-wracking ordeal for many people, but, as a group of activity, it releases feel-good endorphins.

So, here is something to strive for this month of May: Go to a choral concert.

Better yet, think about trying to sing within the safe embrace of a group of like-minded people sometime soon. Chances are good you will never look back.

Like musical genres, there’s a choir for every taste, persuasion and life stage. Here are but two points along the broad spectrum of choral experiences going on out there:

1. The professional Elmer Iseler Singers and Lydia Adams, working together with children in Parry Sound:

2. Toronto’s Common Thread Community Chorus (“Changing the world one song at a time”):

As the swoosh people say, Just Do It.


Here, for devoted singers everywhere is some humour culled from the Web, starting with a chorister’s guide to keeping a conductor in line:
1. Never be satisfied with the starting pitch. If the conductor uses a pitch-pipe, make known your preference for pitches from the piano and vice-versa.
2. Complain about the temperature of the rehearsal room, the lighting, crowded space, and of a draft. It’s best to do this when the conductor is under pressure.
3. Bury your head in the music just before cues.
4. Ask for a re-audition or seating change. Ask often. Give the impression you’re about to quit. Let the conductor know you’re there as a personal favour.
5. Loudly clear your throat during pauses (tenors are trained to do this from birth). Quiet instrumental interludes are a good chance to blow your nose.
6. Long after a passage has gone by, ask the conductor if your C-sharp was in tune. This is especially effective if you had no C-sharp or were not singing at the time.
7. At dramatic moments in the music, be busy marking your music so that the climaxes will sound empty and disappointing.
8. Wait until well into a rehearsal before letting the conductor know that you don’t have the music.
9. Send a quick text to another chorister to remind them which pub everyone’s going to afterward.
10. When possible, sing your part either an octave above or below what is written. This is excellent ear-training for the conductor. If he hears the pitch, deny it vehemently and claim that it must have been the combination tone.
11. Tell the conductor you can’t find the beat. Conductors are always sensitive about their technique, so challenge it frequently.
12. If you are singing in a language with which the conductor is the least bit unfamiliar, ask her as many questions as possible about the meaning of individual words. If this fails, ask her about the pronunciation of the most difficult words. Occasionally, say the word twice and ask her preference, making to say it exactly the same both times. If she remarks on their similarity, give her a look of utter disdain and mumble under your breath about the “subtleties of inflection.”
13. Ask the conductor if he has listened to the Hilliard Ensemble recording of the piece. Imply that he could learn a thing or two from it. Also good: ask, “Is this the first time you’ve conducted this piece?”
14. If your articulation differs from that of others singing the same phrase, stick to your guns. Do not ask the conductor which is correct until backstage just before the concert.
15. Find an excuse to leave the rehearsal about 15 minutes early so that others will become restless and start to fidget.
16. Remember softer means softer.
17. During a long and very meaningful rest, either hold the note before a second too long or come in one beat before the rest is over.
18. Make every effort to take the attention away from the podium and put it on you, where it belongs.

Now, let us all end with a little confessional prayer (for those of you not in the know, it’s a clever parody of the Prayer of Confession in the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer):
Almighty and most merciful Conductor;
We have erred, and strayed from thy beat like lost sheep;
We have followed too much the devices and tempos of our own parts;
We have offended against thy pronunciation laws;
We have left unsung those notes which we ought to have sung;
And we have sung those notes which we ought not to have sung;
And there is no intonation in us.
But thou, O Conductor, have mercy upon us, miserable singers.
Spare thou them that have lost their music;
Restore thou them that have forgotten the signature;
And grant, O most merciful maestro, that we may hereafter live an allegro moderato, un poco andante life;
To the glory of thy choir’s Name.

John Terauds


One thought on “Long before there was a symphony or opera company, choirs were the backbone of music in Toronto

  1. I did 2 summer camps with Otter Werner Mueller (of Julliard and Curtis). Sheez, you shloud have seen him put down young conductors who were so full of themselves and their waving arms! My own experience (very limited) with both playing and conducting is that the orchestra usually knows what they are doing well enough. On stage, the conductor is more of a reminder and P.R. thing. When there is a connection between the soul of the music, the conductor and the players, than the only reminders necessary are facial gestures . did this myself!

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