What’s Christmas without “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir?” After all, we wouldn’t hark the herald angels if they weren’t singing, would we?
Ah, it’s a joyous sound when voices combine in the “Carol of the Bells" and blend through "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with apparent ease.
But the first thing anyone learns about choir singing is nothing is as easy as it appears to be.
About one hour before they performed their Christmas concert in Stratton, the Rainy River Ecumenical Choir met in the gym of Our Lady of the Way School.
Pianist, choir director and conductor Stephanie Hawkins ran the group through some of the “nightmare spots” she noticed on a recording of their last rehearsal.
“You’ve got to jump right into that," she said after the group holds onto a rest about half-a-beat too long. "There’s not a lot of time there.”
In another spot, a last-minute soloist is having difficulty finding the right note near the end of a song.
“Just pray for [the choir] to come in then,” Hawkins said, getting a laugh from the group.
Although Hawkins will run the choir over the same bar of music five times, carefully listening so the notes don’t go flat, by the time the show starts, everyone on stage makes it sound like they know every note of the concert by heart—and that the large, black music books are just being used on stage for ballast.
Hawkins, who has been directing choirs since 1982, started the Rainy River Ecumenical choir four years ago.
“When I first moved up here, I was very depressed about the lack of culture here," she noted. "Then somebody told me, ‘Why don’t you put something together?’”
So Hawkins did exactly that. What started out as 12 ladies from various churches in Rainy River has grown to a 28-person choir, complete with basses and tenors, not just a few altos and a lot of sopranos.
Hawkins admitted she pushed the choir to perform their best but tried to do so without crossing that fine line between being too lax and too strict.
“Like anything else in the arts, you have to be nice to people and respect them, or nobody will work with you," she said. "They’re pretty critical of themselves, too.”
The ranks in the choir vary from veterans to those who have hardly sung before. Hawkins, who gives newcomers a brief lesson in music theory, relies mostly on the buddy system when it comes to training new voices.
“You usually sit these people beside someone who’s sung previously,” she said, noting that by the end of learning one concert, most people in the choir have some capability at reading music.
Choir member Scott Downs isn’t a stranger when it comes to music, making up part of “Not from Nashville,” one of the area’s local bands.
But singing in a band and singing in a choir are two different things, he said.
“Someone was telling a story of Canada’s first female test pilot," Downs said. ”One of the questions they asked was what does she know about being a team player. She said, ‘Well, I sing in a choir.’
“In a choir, you have to read your part, listen to your partners and take direction all at the same time," he continued. "It’s much tougher in a choir.”
Marvin MacDonald is another person who’s no stranger to singing—just ask anyone who attends the Evangelical Covenant Church in Rainy River. They’ll tell you not only does he like to sing, but he also sings well.
But singing in a choir is an experience MacDonald described as being “nerve-wracking" in some senses. "If you do a mistake, you let down 25 other people,” he said.
He opened his music book to show line after line of music which the choir managed to learn in about 12 practices.
“Just a couple of hours every week," MacDonald said. ”It’s not easy. You have to know when to come in, how long to hold the note—however, it’s a real sense of accomplishment.
“It’s fun but not easy,” he added.
Norma Jean Johnston doesn’t look at singing in choir as more difficult than singing solo, just different.
“When you’re sing a solo, you’re trying to project," she said. ”When you sign with a choir, you try to blend.
“It’s a great release," she added. "It’s the way I celebrate Christmas.”
As to making choir singing look easy, those in the Rainy River Ecumenical Choir liked to give credit to everyone else before taking any for themselves.
“I’m surrounded by so many talented people," Downs said. "And Stephanie is wonderful. I cannot extol enough virtues on her.”