Living a musical life: It’s all about New Discoveries for Ottawa baritone Jonah Spungin

Jonah Spungin has battled anxiety to forge ahead as a singer.

Every two years the Ottawa Choral Society offers a platform to aspiring singers. Those who have taken part in the New Discoveries process include mezzo soprano Wallis Giunta, the baritone Philippe Sly and the soprano Shannon Mercer.

You can include the young Ottawa baritone Jonah Spungin in that group.

The Master’s student at McGill University’s music school gave New Discoveries a whirl in 2016. He didn’t win or place but he did manage to attract enough attention to land solos this weekend in the OCS concert Eternal Light which features requiems by Gabriel Fauré and Howard Goodall.

Auditions and competitions aren’t “the fun part,” Spungin said in a phone interview about the life of a music student. But New Discoveries is pretty painless as far as competitions go, he added.

“I don’t think I did particularly outrageously well, but I guess I did well enough.”

Sometimes, even if you don’t win a competition but you are right for a certain piece, “it can be enough to be heard and have people know what you can do.”

It has been a winding road for Spungin who attended Canterbury High School intending to play the trombone. On the side he sang in a choir and he also was in a classic rock band.

“I really enjoyed singing in the choir, but I wasn’t particularly good. I was also singing in a classic rock band singing Bon Jovi, Rolling Stones and Journey covers. And I wanted to be good.”

So Spungin decided to take some voice lessons and worked with the well known local tenor and uOttawa music professor Dillon Parmer.

“After a couple of lessons, he said to me, ‘What if you tried doing this in university?’ At first I said, ‘No, you’re crazy.’ But then at the next lesson I decided to give it a shot.”

The then 17 year old knew some music theory but “I didn’t really know what opera singers did. Or what was good.”

Singing is hard work, but Spungin was determined.

“I went to McGill and stayed for my Master’s degree. It’s been a lot of fun. I did my undergrad with Winston Purdy, who recently passed away. And I have been doing my Master’s with Dominique Labelle which has been an incredible opportunity. She knows when you’re faking it. She knows when you are doing it right. She knows what she wants from us and she knows how to make us do it. I couldn’t ask for more in a teacher.”

With that kind of grounding, Spungin says he’s determined to “take it as far as I can. I am a singer who is fortunate enough to be working. Eternal Light is my first major solo performance, but I appear as a soloist occasionally and I sing in a couple of choirs.

“And next year I will be in the emerging artist program at Opera Calgary. It’s a good program and it’s an opportunity to do The Thing. It’s what we all want to do.”

Still, so much about being a professional musician is about hard work and luck.

Spungin has been lucky to have the support of his mother. His father passed away many years ago.

“Being surrounded by the right people and getting their support … if you have it, and I feel that I have it, you can just put your head down and go.”

Facing up to life’s struggles is important as well. For Spungin that has meant learning to manage anxiety.

“It’s hard to say when it showed up. I was struggling but everybody struggles at one time or another. But, at what point does it become a disorder? At what point is it beyond reasonable?

“If I had to guess I was say it pre-dates singing,” he said. And it came to a head a year ago when he was confronted by depression as well.

“That was the worst I have ever had it.”

Today he says he believes he has it together. He knows now what works for him.

“It’s still there. I still have to be conscious of it. I have to know if I’m just nervous about something coming up or is it more than that.”

Funnily enough, despite the stress of performing, music helps.

“When I sing, I feel better. Music has an amazing ability to penetrate my emotional superstructure.

“The act of singing is just about breathing. It’s about a few other things too, but it starts and ends with the breath. That release of energy in and out puts me on a different plane. Exercise does the same thing.”

Spungin lifts weights and swims regularly to overcome difficult moments and to be a better, stronger and more focussed performer.

“Swimming has helped me become much more conscious of my breathing.”

Music, he says, requires intense focus and awareness. It means he really delves into what he is doing.

“What did the poet feel when he wrote these words? What did the composer feel when he wrote this music? And what do I feel when I perform it? Going through that process takes away some of the intangibility of anxiety when you feel your feet aren’t on the ground.

“It’s different for everyone, but for me that’s it. I know I’m nervous and panicking but I don’t know what it’s about and the music takes that away. It puts everything in line.”

The Fauré Requiem is well known and regularly sung. But the Goodall is less so.

Spungin says it is “really kind of diverse music. He has a few different aesthetics going on and blends them in a way that is beautiful.”

It is a very energetic, accessible piece, he added.

“Goodall wrote this in a world where people are familiar with popular music so it’s pleasing and relatively easy to follow” but not saccharine.

Next step for Spungin: Graduation in April and then the young man will go out west where the real world begins.

The Ottawa Choral Society presents Eternal Light
Where: Christ Church Cathedral
When: March 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.