The latest vocal group in Whitehorse is taking on a different kind of repertoire
This story originally ran in the Summer 2014 (V8I2) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
As people shuffle into the small, downtown-Whitehorse home, an abundance of conversation fills the air. Suddenly, the commotion is silenced as Erica Mah steps to the front of the room, urging everyone to gather around and begin their warm-up.
The ambiance slows as a stereo plays Josh Ritter’s “Monster Ballads,” which echoes through the space while Mah leads the crowd of 30 through stretches, a series of breathing exercises, and singing scales.
"THERE IS SOMETHING MAGICAL ABOUT HOW HUMAN VOICES CAN BLEND TO MAKE A JOYFUL SOUND ..."
“They sound great,” Mah says of the pop choir she established last September. “I’m really proud of how much they’ve grown and what they’ve accomplished, even just in their comfort level with each other. Now the biggest challenge is trying to get people to stop socializing and get back to singing.”
Only a week after moving to Whitehorse, Mah formed the choir after assembling a troupe of experienced and inexperienced local singers in the living room of her home. Mah’s approach was largely based on the Kingsgate Chorus, a group she performed with for two years in Vancouver, B.C.
“Originally, Kingsgate was just a bunch of singer-songwriters getting together, and we decided to do some of our favourite songs,” she explains. “We did a Pixies song, some Bruce Springsteen, classic rock, folk rock, indie rock.”
A trained musician herself, Mah was looking for a way to meet people in Whitehorse who were either involved in the music scene or simply passionate about music. Starting up a pop choir seemed like the perfect conduit.
“Also, I’m a teacher by trade, and I think teaching singing in particular is just a really big passion of mine,” she adds. “I’ve been trying to explore it more, and I thought it would be really fun to lead an adult choir.”
After warm-up has concluded, the choir members split into their assigned sections based on what vocal range they’ll be performing—from soprano to alto and baritone. Mah picks up a guitar and plays the first few chords of the newest song to the group’s catalogue: “Gimme Sympathy,” by Toronto band Metric. After working through the arrangement a few times, the singers move on to “Safety Dance,” by Men Without Hats, keeping time by audibly tapping their feet on the hardwood floor.
Mah says the response from people interested in joining the pop choir was overwhelming. There is still a waiting list of eager vocalists, but she capped the group at 30 to make it manageable.
“I was also surprised with how balanced the response has been. I know that it is really hard to get male singers for a lot of choirs, but a third of our choir is male. It’s nice because you can do different kinds of arrangements.”
Choir member Remy Rodden has been singing since he was a kid and has regularly performed at coffeehouses, festivals, and other events since moving to the Yukon, in the 1980s.
“With two CDs out now, I guess I could be considered a ‘professional’ singer, but I've not had a lot of formal choir experience, except for a couple of sessions at the Yukon Summer Music Camp,” he says. “I love the synergistic energy of people singing in harmony. The idea of a less formal, community-based group singing pop tunes really appeals to me.”
Conversely, Jill Delaney is not only new to singing, but she’s also a fresh face to the choir, having recently moved off the waiting list to nab a spot when it opened up.
“My singing thus far has been limited to the shower and belting out tunes on long solo drives between Dawson City and Whitehorse,” she says. “This is really fun and easygoing. There is such an interesting mix of community members in the group.”
Looking around the room at the Taylor House—a log heritage building that became the choir’s new rehearsal space in January—the crowd does represent a noticeable sampling from the city’s population, ranging from those in their 20s to those in their 60s.
“There is something magical about how human voices can blend to make a joyful sound that is so much greater than the sum of the parts,” Rodden explains. “I really admire Erica's willingness to stand up and lead this group so ably with humility and good humour.”
While the choir won’t be growing its vocal membership any time soon, Mah says she does hope to explore new arrangements by tapping into Whitehorse’s talented music scene.
“Trying to accompany [the choir] on guitar and conduct at the same time is a challenge because your head is split in all sorts of different places,” she says of her leadership role. “I think if there was one thing that I’d like to try and do in the future it’s to bring in some other instruments to accompany the choir and make it more like a band.”
Suffice to say this isn’t—and never will be—just an ordinary choir. Y