Arts & Life, Music

Singer love

Since 1996, the Ecco Singers have been performing their unique vision of choral music for friends, family, and those lucky enough to catch a show.

Not bound by what some may think of as stereotypical choir or choral music – you don’t have to go to church to see these folks – they perform rock anthems, big band hits, and current pop favourites.

This year has been a big one for the group. They performed for donors at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and this Sunday, October 26th they will be releasing their first CD, titled Singer Love at the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church.

The Spectator Tribune caught up with Artistic Director Carrie Wilson and learned about all things Ecco, and the road to releasing a CD.

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ECCO’s artistic director Carrie Wilson receiving flowers at the end of choir performance. Photo credit: James Anderson.

Spectator Tribune: How did you come to be involved with the Ecco Singers?

Carrie Wilson: I was an aspiring choral music teacher in the secondary stream (public high school). I noted that Ecco was looking for a new Artistic Director and I knew I wanted to be part of a community choir, especially an auditioned one. It was an opportunity to direct a group of high-level singers who were choosing to sing for the shear enjoyment of it. When I was in high school I remember seeing a performance by a community choir while in Toronto on a school music trip. The pure enjoyment of singing that they showcased had a strong impact on me. I wanted to recreate that for myself, so I applied for the job, performed an audition, and was selected by the board of directors.

ST: How has it evolved over the years?

CW: It’s become more like me, or I’ve become more like it. I don’t know that I could’ve articulated a consistent “vision” from the very beginning, but one has definitely emerged. I recognized early on that Ecco had to be a labor of love, therefore I only wanted to work with people I loved, and I only wanted to perform music I loved. Truthfully, I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to leave every rehearsal with the feeling of release that only comes from the purest forms of expression, the ones that are entirely authentic and real. I knew that if I could do that at every rehearsal, I’d inspire the Singers to do the same at concerts.

For the first few years I dreaded every concert. I would get very nervous. But I loved the rehearsals. I’ve come to enjoy performances now, mostly because I completely trust the process I’ve established and I have more confidence that the Singers will be successful at inspiring audiences. Some might say that this is actually driven by selfish pursuit, and I guess it is. I look at it like you can’t give what you don’t have, so you better find what it is that inspires you if you want to inspire someone else.

ST: This might not be the case, but I feel like choirs may be seen sort of stereotypically, sort of like “oh, that’s a Church thing.” Do you ever encounter this, and do you do anything to sort of “step outside the box” or make Ecco more accessible?

CW: I agree that the perception of choirs is often that they exist mostly in and for churches. That doesn’t describe Ecco! I am very conscious of the audience when I select music and when I determine concert order. I believe that with every concert and every song we have a job to communicate something to our audience. Like any form of communication, there is an art to doing this effectively. I try to read our audiences and anticipate the effects of our artistic choices on them. It’s fascinating. I’m not sure if this approach qualifies as “outside of the box,” that’s not my objective. I just want to be effective, whatever that takes. I think that if a choir’s objective is to gain notoriety or recognition, they will fall into a familiar pattern that already exists somewhere else, or they will be very unfocussed as they strive to find the “flavor of the week” to be noticed. Our approach to communicating through music makes every style and genre “accessible”. It’s not about the genre; it’s about what the music is trying to say and doing that effectively, regardless of genre. This is why our concerts usually contain a wide variety of styles.

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ST: How do people get involved with Ecco, or how do you get members?

CW: Singers are required to audition. We usually hold auditions at the end of August. This year, for the first time, I didn’t hold auditions because we had no available positions. I like to keep the group size around 30 Singers.

ST: How do you choose the pieces you’ll perform?

CW: Philip (Lapatha, co-director) and I establish concert themes in the summer prior to our season.  Then we pick songs based on those themes. Sometimes it’s a loose connection, but as mentioned, we believe we have something to say through music. So we choose music that communicates something. I had a very wise mentor/teacher who taught me how to choose music.  In my early years of teaching, I asked him what he did when he came across a piece of music that every choir “should” do according to all the really respected patriarchs of choral music education (of which this province has a lot), but he just didn’t like it. His answer, after a thoughtful moment, “why would I choose music I don’t like?” That has driven all my music choices; I only choose music I love. I know that what I love isn’t always the same as my Singers, but that’s the beauty of having a second Artistic Director; his choices plus mine represent even greater variety.

ST: Who comes to see Ecco performances?

CW: It’s probably mostly friends and family. But over the years we pick up audience members who don’t necessarily have a connection to the choir, they just really like our music. I would have to say that the only unifying factor would be an appreciation for authentically communicated music. Other than that our audiences are comprised of every type and age of person.

ST: You recently performed at the CMHA! Tell me about that.

CW: It was great! We sang at the donor gala on the night prior to the opening. All the invitees had contributed $1M or more. Jean Chretien stole the night by making a speech that he was not scheduled to make, but was quite entertaining! It was an honor to be part of that night. The organizers clearly understood the effect of a large group of people singing together, it creates it’s own special version of “awe,” not comparable to anything else. It was quite effective!

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ECCO singers. Photo credit: James Anderson.

ST: Tell me about the CD. Where did it come from, how long did it take, and what was the experience like?

CW: For several years singers have been suggesting to me that we should do a recording. I have (at times vehemently) always said no. Unequivocally. Preparation for a live performance is very different from preparation for a recording; your audience doesn’t have the visual effect. We use our faces and bodies to communicate almost as much as our voices, so when you remove all those options, the auditory preparation has to be that much more focused in order to communicate your message. I just never made it a priority because I knew how much work that would be. Also, what would we record? Everything that we perform has already been recorded. I couldn’t conceive a purpose. Then it dawned on us that with the addition of Philip as Co-Director, we also had an in-house arranger. We love Philip’s arrangements; he’s very thoughtful and thorough. He typically selects well-known songs and re-writes them for choirs, with or without accompaniment. There’s always something in the arrangement that causes us to hear the familiar song slightly differently, from his perspective. It’s a fascinating and inspiring experience, not to mention awfully convenient. Suddenly a recording could have purpose unique to us. The purpose of the recording is to showcase Philip’s arrangements; all the tracks on the CD are arranged by him. We anticipate that other choral directors will use the CD to sample his arrangements and ultimately purchase them from Philip.

We booked May and June of this year to complete the recording. But we’ve been preparing since spring of 2013. It was fun! We learned a lot.

ST: What do you see as the future of Ecco, and where would you like to take it?

CW: I genuinely don’t know. I know that I want to stay true to loving the music and the people and being inspired in order to inspire audiences. Where that takes us will be determined! I rely heavily on our Board of Directors to guide the activities of the group. That’s the place where we discuss new ideas and what we want to do or not do. Ecco is full of extremely talented and extremely smart people. I’d be a fool not to follow their lead.

For more information on Ecco Singers, check out their website.