Girl power: Christ Church Cathedral choir builds connections and confidence

Nnenna Ebere is ready to sing in her choir gown. Photo: Peter Robb

There is a story about Nnenna Ebere when she was a six year old.

She was in the sanctuary of Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in Ottawa as the girls choir processed from the stalls after performing. Apparently the young girl was standing on a pew at the back of the space and pounding her hands … hard on the wood.

She just wanted to sing in the choir so badly, like her big sister.

Ten years later, she is a veteran of the group, which is the only all girls cathedral choir in Canada. The ensemble, led by James Calkin, will be performing a concert called Angels We Have Heard On High at the cathedral on Dec. 8 with well-known harpist Caroline Leonardelli as a guest performer. On the program, they’ll perform a piece of music by Ottawa’s award winning composer Kelly-Marie Murphy.

The Christ Church Cathedral Girls Choir is the only such ensemble in Canada.

It will be a chance for Nnenna and her friends to do what they love to do. Sing.

The College St-Joseph student said when her family moved to Gatineau they were looking for an Anglican church to attend. The Ottawa cathedral was just across the river and … bonus … it had a girls choir.

“My sister joined and she really loved it. Then I joined. I love singing and when I joined it was so much fun. You make so many friends.”

She loves the connections that singing in a choir can bring.

“The way you can c0nnect with the listener through the music is really powerful. I really love it. The idea that it was the only cathedral girls choir in Canada was something pretty special and that attracted me.”

Nnenna is a soprano. The Christ Church Cathedral choir is made of of 28 sopranos, mezzo sopranos and altos. And there is no shortage of music for this higher register choir.

“You might assume there isn’t that much repertoire but a lot of composers have written three-part music,” Calkin said. “There is a wide variety.”

Anyone who sings in a choir knows there is a strong sense of community. For a teenager, well-versed in technology and social media, that human contact is pretty important.

“With technology a lot of people don’t communicate face to face with another person. At choir we are not supposed to have our phones. On breaks we see the girls communicating. We get a chance to talk and get to know each other.

“It really does play a part in how we act,” Nnenna said. “We have all become a lot closer. We talk all the time. We see each other outside of choir.

James Calkin directs the girls choir.

After eight years in the group she knows what she is talking about.

When joined she said she was a bit nervous.

“There were so many girls who knew how to sing. I was so unsure. What if I don’t get this note right? The director taught us how to read music and you really evolve.”

That outburst in the sanctuary did attract the attention of Tim Pyper, who founded the girls choir in 2001 and she was allowed to join the choir at age seven. The normal age to enter is eight.

“I just wanted to be a part of it. I saw how much my sister loved it and I said to myself I want that too. She made s0 many friends. I wanted those friends and I really wanted to sing.

Her sister is six years older. Today she works in the federal government and she comes back to sing with the choir during certain times of the year such as Christmas and Easter.

“There is no age limit in the choir,” Calkin said, but typically, he added, people move on by 18 or 19. There are opportunities for the “alumnae” to come back at times of the year such as Easter and Christmas. They sit in. “Of course they know the repertoire from past years,” he said.

The choral tradition at the cathedral also includes a boys choir which was started in the late 19th century and for many years was led by Godfrey Hewitt, the father of pianist Angela Hewitt. Later it would be led by another well known Ottawa man of music, Matthew Larkin.

The girls choir has toured nationally and internationally. In the summer of 2016, they travelled to Europe, a trip that included a ¬†choral residency at St. Alban’s Cathedral in the U.K. and several appearances in Germany in collaboration with the cathedral girls’ choirs of Wurzburg and Bamberg.

The choir’s third international tour is planned for next summer to Japan and Hong Kong.

For Nnenna, the choir is her “music school.” She doesn’t play a musical instrument.

“I have been more of a sports person. My parents haven’t pushed me. So I don’t feel the need to play an instrument. Singing is my thing.”

She does have ambitions for a career … in medicine. She will finish high school this year and then go to Heritage College a CEGEP in the Hull sector of Gatineau. Then, she hopes, she’ll go to McGill University in Montreal.

Among her favourite composers is Felix Mendelssohn whose music “reaches everywhere in the voice from high to low. Once you achieve it, you realize how great it is.”

Calkin says he does like to hear a girl’s voice before she enters the choir, but his auditions are not intended to exclude anyone.

These days, he has a veteran group. And that’s a help.

“There is less that I have to be explicit about.

In the music performed, he said, the “balance we are always trying to strike is between playing to that natural love of tradition and the rhythm of the year and taking the choir to musical places the members don’t know exist. We do this judiciously.”

The choir does do a fair bit of new work such as the Murphy piece the choir is singing on Dec. 8.

At this time of year the choir is in the cathedral pretty much every Sunday and more. That’s no deterrent to Nnenna.

“I feel like I almost always will be in a choir. For the next few years for sure.”

Angels We Have Heard On High presented by the Christ Church Cathedral Girls’ Choir
Where: Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St.
When: Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: eventbrite.ca

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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.