Arts & Culture

Tidings of comfort & joy — How community choirs are enjoying new life by bringing classic songs into the present

“Silent night. Holy night. All is calm …” Actually, that’s a lie. Everything is calm in St. Columba Church except me.

Thus begins my mock tryout for Ottawa’s Stairwell Carollers, a bilingual a cappella chamber choir. After my elected solo, I’m asked to join three choir members for their top-secret audition song — a traditional four-part harmony. Words as old as the Renaissance roll off our tongues. My nerves relax; I can’t help feeling joy as our voices blend — even if I miss more than a few notes. The choir’s effusive director and founder, Pierre Massie, is my musical judge and jury. Sporting a shaved head, a goatee, two earrings, and a T-shirt, he looks every bit the retired, hip music teacher. Performing relics of the past, he is very much a fixture of the present.

Stairwell’s members are devoted; there were only two open spots in the choir this year. And the nearly 40-year-old group is part of Ottawa’s thriving coterie of more than 70 amateur and professional choirs that will be appearing across the city in the lead-up to Christmas — from formal shows at churches, cultural centres, and senior homes to carolling sessions in malls and outdoor markets. But why is it that so many locals are finding their perfect pitch as choristers? It is, as I learned, a peculiar mix of comfort and joy that is unique to choral singing.

“People associate carols with a positive feeling in a positive season,” says Holly, Massie’s wife and fellow songbird. “It’s a great time of year to cheer people up.”

That holiday cheer is on full display at her group’s rehearsal — especially during her husband’s haunting arrangement of “The First Nowell.” Male and female sections take turns echoing the word “nowell,” almost serving as a form of driving percussion and anchoring the rest of the ensemble’s verses. The effect is magical. Almost primal. And the enthusiasm of the singers is palpable.

And why not? Singing is literally good for you. Neuroscientists have shown that the act of singing produces endorphins — including the hormone oxytocin — that spur feelings of happiness and can even help boost the immune system and fight depression. It turns out, singing moves the singer just as much as the audience. Maybe that’s why so many Ottawans are getting in tune.

Some, such as 613 Casual Choir and Just Voices, are informal and welcome anyone. Others, like the University of Ottawa Choir and the Capital Chamber Choir, are more formal and hold auditions.

Lawrence Ewashko describes singing as therapeutic — “a very healing process” —  especially in a group environment where choristers can feel safe to express themselves. Ewashko, who conducts the Ottawa Festival Chorus, the Ewashko Singers, and two University of Ottawa academic choirs, says that in his 27 years guiding singers in the capital, he has witnessed a growth spurt, both in active groups and in the general “desire for people to sing.”

The Massies frame Ottawa’s love affair with song as part of “a worldwide resurgence in choral music” — from show choirs to Renaissance, complaints choirs to barbershop. Television’s Glee and the Pitch Perfect film franchise have also helped strike a chord.

Singing is cathartic in our fast-paced digital age. Organic. Tangible. Authentic. A meaningful group activity that provides real companionship and glad tidings. Ewashko recalls hearing a profound piece of advice: “Go sing in a choir — that’s where you’ll find your life partner.” Because people singing together need to work in harmony — literally and figuratively. Most importantly, they have to listen to one another.

Singing certainly brought the Massies together. Holly’s carol-friendly name caught Pierre’s attention in the mid-’70s when the couple met in first year at the University of Ottawa. She was enamoured of his piano playing and singing ability — and the fact he sang Italian love songs in her ear was a nice bonus. By the holiday season, he’d convinced her to carol with a group of friends. They often sang at the base of residence stairwells, the music carrying up the floors and drawing in an audience like the Pied Piper. Impromptu public performances followed in the years to come. That casual group grew into the formal Stairwell Carollers — their name paying homage to the choir’s origins.

Carols also make the group unique. Pierre Massie writes his own, after all. In fact, his works are even played on the Peace Tower carillon — Dominion Carillonneur Andrea McCrady has called him one of her favourite local composers. The fact that the group sings in multiple languages, including Latin and French, doesn’t hurt either; Massie even arranged a Huron carol (“Iesous Ahatonnia”) for the choir’s brand new Christmas album.

Massie sticks with traditional carols to “bring back the true meaning of the season.” The group is known for its sacred and secular Renaissance music, so they put their faith in the classics, eschewing commercialized modern carols like “Rudolph” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The choir’s sound is ageless, and so is their chosen repertoire.

But Massie has a passion for putting his own twist on traditional seasonal numbers like “Good King Wenceslas” and “I Saw Three Ships.” That innovation ensures that Stairwell’s performances feel both familiar and fresh. The group is in such demand, they book their Christmas concerts a year ahead of time. In fact, Ottawa’s holiday concert calendar is so competitive, Ewashko says local choirs negotiate to ensure there’s not too much overlap. They don’t want to cannibalize one another’s audiences.

For every singing group, practice makes perfect. There are dozens of carols to learn before the holiday season. After a summer break, Stairwell meets weekly. But Diane Fraser, a member since 1984, says all that hard work cultivates life-long friendships — even some unlikely ones, given the group’s age range is from 16 to 78.

For most choirs, now is truly the time to shine. And it’s all about the carols — songs that come gift-wrapped in nostalgia and rooted in family, community, or church traditions. While cheesy versions of carols are ubiquitous in malls and commercials, something changes when you hear them performed live.

“Even if you’re not Christian, coming to a Christmas concert is still beautiful music and makes you think about other people and the peace of the season,” Fraser says. She has also gone door to door carolling and says nothing beats “the look of surprise” on people’s faces.

So this holiday season, keep an ear out. Take in a show, join a choir — or just gather a friendly crew, mix some eggnog, and belt out “Fa la la la la la la la la” around your neighbourhood. No stranger to carolling himself, Ewashko sums up the appeal of finding your voice: “You take your instrument with you — it’s very inexpensive.”

At the end of my Stairwell audition, Pierre Massie provides hopeful feedback. “A little bit rough to start” but “impressive” for my first kick at the can. Apparently, I can sing in tune and would have been invited back for a second tryout if the choir had had an open position. The neighbourhood dogs needn’t feel threatened if I show up on their doorstep with a songbook. So let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Here I come a-carolling. Who wants to join me?