Ottawa choir struggles to find new singers

·4 min read
The Christ Church Cathedral choir is struggling to recruit children after the pandemic forced a two year break.   (CBC News - image credit)
The Christ Church Cathedral choir is struggling to recruit children after the pandemic forced a two year break. (CBC News - image credit)

The children's choir at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Ottawa is returning after a two year break caused by the pandemic, but things are not going back to the way they were before.

Andrew McAnerney, the artistic director with the choir, said two years of the pandemic have deterred people from returning.

"They feel out of practice because they've had a two year break or they're concerned because their voice has changed and they just feel out of sorts," he said.

"So we're losing people who previously sang a lot of the time."

Another big concern, McAnerney said, was the lack of children between the ages of seven and 10 making their way to choir.

"I'm concerned that if we don't find these children and start bringing them into choir activities then there's going to be a sort of a generation who never get the joy of singing."

CBC news
CBC news

Kurt Ala-Kantti, the conductor of the boys' choir at the Ottawa's Children's Choir, said recruiting young boys from grades 7-12 has gotten harder.

"It's difficult in the best of times to recruit boys, now after a couple of years of not singing, its finding them and letting them know this exists and that there's a place for them," he said.

"We have a few returning but we're starting from scratch in a lot of ways."

Adapting to pandemic concerns

Indoor singing being labelled as a high-risk activity during the pandemic led many choirs to be temporarily shut down.

But singing in a choir can be safe activity if public health guidelines are followed according to Meghan Hila, the executive director of Choral Canada, an advocacy, training and research organization for choirs across the country.

"It turns out that singing in a choir is just at the same level [of risk] as playing sports or talking in your boardroom," she said.

"What keeps it safe is that people are wearing well fitted masks and with multiple layers. [It matters that] they are distancing and ventilation is being taken into consideration."

The Ottawa Children's Choir says following those guidelines and rethinking aspects of the group has helped it recruit and retain singers.

Jennifer Berntson, the conductor at the girls' choir said holding online auditions, having both virtual and in-person rehearsals and maintaining a strong online presence helped the conductors kept their singers engaged.

Berntson says the choir isn't completely back to normal just yet. They're keeping choir groups smaller than before to facilitate distancing and address learning gaps of some of the young singers.

"Really we've seen a big interruption to their music," Berntson said.

Still, the children's choir has been able to retain most of their young singers, and she said many of their fall programs are full.

"For the people that love choral singing, there is nothing like it. And I think those people will come back because you can't really replace it."

'We want new young people'

Georgia Rose Becklumb, 16, considers herself a veteran choir singer. She said she was disappointed to see the next generation of singers not coming through the ranks.

"It's hard to get new people to come, especially because we're getting older. We want new young people to come to the choir so that they can have a long career."

She said that at age 16, she and her friends have only a few years left before they move on.

"We're all getting older and there wasn't any recruitment during the pandemic. It's almost like no one wants to sing."

Jason Sidaros, 12, said people are missing out on a lot by not coming to choir.

"Having a full choir is pretty awesome and it's cool to hear from the community," he said.

"It's nice having everybody around and hanging out with everybody."

It's hard to get new people to come, especially because we're getting older. We want new young people to come to the choir so that they can have a long career. - Georgia Rose Becklumb, choir singer

McAnerney said choir is not just good for singing, it's good for mental and social health as well. He said people hesitating to jump back into choir after a two year break shouldn't be too worried.

"One of the things that I hear when I talk to members of the community, who haven't come back to choir, is this concern that they're out of practice or they're no good any more," he said.

"I want to reassure people that they're not alone. Everybody is out of practice, everybody has had two years of not singing. So, be brave and try again."