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A & E MUSIC | Loud and Proud

More and more Hamiltonians are discovering the joys of singing...at the holidays and beyond.

By James Tennant

a&e music
The Hamilton Children's Choir, shown in action, boasts more than 150 members.

It's the holidays. Most of you are roasting chestnuts, decking halls and dreaming of white Christmases. In fact, you're not just thinking of and/or doing these things, you're singing about them.

At the piano, in church, at parties, it doesn't matter – the holidays are one time of year when many of us get to sing somewhere other than the shower.

People love to sing. Most of us, afraid of attention or uncomfortable with performance, do it under our breath or in a steamed-up bathroom. There's plenty of reason for this love – music moves us, cheers us and the physical act of singing releases endorphins that lead to a feeling of euphoria.

Choral singing – in choirs or groups, formal or informal – is said to have an even more intense effect on us. Studies have shown choral singers rate their sense of satisfaction with life higher than most people. Choral singing has proven to decrease both anxiety and depression levels. Maybe it's the social aspect, the inherent connection and communication between souls… it doesn't really matter the reason. People like to sing together.

Sarah Good and Annie Shaw like to sing together so much they'd do it by themselves in the living room – and have been known to do so. The two Mohawk music grads have co-founded several acts, including the duo glassEYElashes and the cheekily named Earth, Wind and Choir. Considering their other acts range from jazz to post-punk to experimental electronic, forming a choral group – dare we call it an "indie" choral group? – seems no surprise. Earth, Wind and Choir came together at Christmas (of course) several years ago and still goes strong.

"We wanted [to create] a choir that our friends would really want to be in," says Good.

"And also I wanted a choir I really wanted to be in," adds Shaw. "There are enough choirs doing actual choral music."

Instead, Shaw and Good create vocal arrangements for pieces that range from experimental/classical (Terry Riley's "In C") to TV themes (Batman). The choir performs the sorts of venues where indie bands might regularly be found.

"We like every form of group singing and a cappella singing," says Good. "We wanted to have a choir where we could incorporate everything."

A love of singing often starts early in life, as it did for Shaw and Good. Choirs are often the first places children experience the joy of creating and performing music. There are many outlets for kids, from school choirs to organizations such as the Hamilton Children's Choir, who recently returned from the 1st Xinghai International Choir Championships, where they were named champions in the Children's Choir category. They were joined by over 100 choirs from all over the world, and were the only choir invited as "guests," to perform in the opening ceremonies at the Guangzhou Opera House. If it all sounds fairly prestigious, it is – but remember, these are children, some of whom are as young as four.

"I believe that if you can speak you can sing, and if you move you can dance," says artistic director Zimfira Poloz. She knows of what she speaks – in her native Kazakhstan, Poloz was once told she didn't have an ear for music, yet she went on to achieve the highest diploma the Soviet Union had to offer and founded the country's first Choir School.

"These days so many children have difficulties with that because they are all occupied with computers and technology," she says. "They don't talk to each other anymore; they're texting. [In the choir] you have to learn to communicate and sing together, to be a friend and be part of a team. Whatever's plugged into your ears comes out. It's fun but hard work as well."

Kids in the choir can start as beginners and end with solid vocal training and the ability to read complex musical arrangements. For some, it can become a lifelong commitment.

"It's always our main goal to share music, though," says Poloz. "It's not about prestige or anything else."

The same can be said about the Bach Elgar choir. Though they are probably the most prestigious choral organization in the region – and one of the nation's oldest – the music is more important to its membership than the prestige of being in the organization.

"What's special about Bach-Elgar is there's a culture there," says artistic director Alexander Cann. "I often pick up musical scores and think 'wow, there's no way I could get a group to do that,' but then Bach Elgar can do it because they've done it before. You ask for 'hands up who's done this piece before' and more than half the hands go up."

A graduate of the choral program at McGill, Cann is in good company, with choir members who range from lifetime choral singers to people fresh out of a university vocal programs to music teachers and musicians. Yet he is equally pleased to work with beginners, and they are always welcome.

"There's a lot of fear around formal music organizations like ours," says Cann. "When you audition lots of people as I have, you come across that hesitation that's born of being intimidated by singing in public and that kind of thing. Yet the vast majority of adults – any adults, period – could join choral groups. If you're looking at Hamilton and the range of choirs available, there's a choir out there for you – a good choir, too. You just have to shelve those anxieties, go for your audition and you'll see that there is a place for you and that it is a fantastic thing to do."

Cann, Poloz, Good and Shaw have no definitive explanation for why we love to sing. Studies aside, most people simply know it to be a truth.

"The thing that unites is that people have this strange habit – they like to sing," says Cann, "and of course the thing about singing in a good choir is that it's just so awesomely excellent."

"It's exhilarating," agrees Good. "When you're singing with other people, something magical happens. It's so glorious and you feel part of them."

So if you enjoy that feeling you get when you sing of silent nights and reindeer, make yourself a resolution. Find a choir and feel that way all year long.