Living a musical life: The Stairwell Carollers celebrate 40 years

The Stairwell Carollers in action on the Byward Market.

On Dec. 15, the Stairwell Carollers will celebrate 40 years of singing with a special Christmas concert at Knox Presbyterian Church. The ensemble of 30 voices will present … what else … a program of carols, called A Canadian Christmas. Three of the carols sung on Friday night are new. Massie has prepared a new arrangement of the Carol of the Bells, has written a bilingual carol titled A Baby is Born / L’Enfant est né and the choir will also sing the famous German carol, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, in a brand new arrangement by tenor David Rain. In all, 14 pieces of music and arrangements by choir founder and director Pierre Massie are on the programme. The choir will be joined by past members CTV Ottawa’s Joel Haslam and francophone singing star Michel Bénac of LGS (Le Groupe Swing). Dr Andrea McCrady, the Dominion Carillonneur will also be there. Before the big show, ARTSFILE talked to Pierre Massie about his creation.

Q. First of all congratulations 40 years is a real milestone. Take me back to the beginning. Why did you start. What motivated you?

A. I started a group at the University of Ottawa because carolling was something I had done when I was in my senior years in high school. Just a group of students going out in the streets of Timmins singing carols close to Christmas time. It always gave me a warm feeling sharing the Christmas spirit through song.

When I came to Ottawa to do my music degree at U of O, I thought it would be nice to carol in the residence stairwells entertaining students cramming for exams. My group would start at the top residence floor. We’d open the hallway door and sing a song or two.  Students would come out of their rooms and follow us into the stairwell. We’d move down from floor to floor collecting more students. By the time we’d reach the bottom, we’d have a stairwell full of students requesting their favourite carols along the way.

Q. What is the raison d’être of Stairwell? Why do you do what you do?

A. We have a couple of mandates, the first is to promote an appreciation of a cappella choral music by singing traditional Christmas carols during the Christmas season, and sacred and secular music during our Spring season. I also enjoy arranging some of the tried and true carols to give a new flavour to those traditional songs everyone loves to hear.  Our second mandate is philanthropic. The Carollers have produced several CDs as well as a cookbook. Revenue from concert ticket sales, CD sales and donations is mostly directed toward support of local charitable organizations and a student music scholarship. Since 1986 we’ve contributed over $135,000 to charities and to our scholarship.

Pierre Massie.

Q. How have you kept it together to keep this going?

A. A cappella music is certainly a big part of what drives me to keep doing this year after year, but it’s also the people who join the choir who love to sing and get as much enjoyment out of it as I do. Not only does singing beautiful music satisfy a yearning we all have, but seeing how much joy it brings to our audiences is what fuels all of us, to do this year after year.

Q. How many members and how often do folks leave and join?

A. We audition regularly in August and in January. Members tend to stick around a long time but there are the occasional departures. With a group of 30 people that’s bound to happen. This year we’re losing three — two of whom have been with me for more than five years and for them, it’s time to move on. From the original group, two singers are still Stairwellers (including my wife, Holly) and several others have been in the choir since 1993.

Q. Are your singers mostly amateurs who love to sing or has the group evolved?

A. Our requirement for admission is that members have a good solid voice and love to sing. Reading music is not a requirement. We do have members who have music backgrounds, but the majority of our singers simply love to sing and have no training. In fact, trained voices often don’t suit the style of singing that we do. The Carollers try to emulate choirs from the U.K. like John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers. It’s a choir of approximately the same size and voicing. We strive for a straight unified sound with a wide dynamic range.

Q. What are some highlights of the past 40 years?

A. There have been so many and there continues to be so many. Watching our audiences soaking up the sound of the choir as we perform is a highlight that continues to this day. It’s always how people react that gets me. Several Christmas TV specials on CBC, CTV and Rogers, many interviews on radio, singing for the lone parking attendant on the street, singing for the students in the stairwells and having a burly jock ask us if we knew The Little Drummer Boy all special moments for sure. But every performance we do is a highlight and it brings us so much joy to see how much joy we bring to others.

A major personal highlight is having my compositions and arrangements played on the Peace Tower Carillon by our Dominion Carilloneur, Andrea McCrady. She discovered my music in 2012 and has played pieces of mine every year since.  On Monday Dec 18, the noon hour Carillon performance will feature my works. It has been and continues to be a real honour for me.

Q. What kind of music do you perform? And what kind of music do you prefer?

A. As I mentioned earlier we perform sacred and secular works from all eras during our Spring season and in the Fall, we sing carols both traditional and new. These are not the Christmas songs you hear so often on the radio but rather carols, the difference being that songs tend to be more about Santa and carols tend to be more about the sacred message at Christmas time.

Q. In the past 40 years such things as impromptu Messiahs are popping up in shopping malls, TV shows such as Glee have become famous, Choir, Choir, Choir has become a bit of an internet success story. You guys were doing this sort of thing and have been for 40 years… What do you think of this?

A. When we first started singing back in 1977, there weren’t that many choirs around Ottawa. Now there are several and you can find choirs for every type of music out there. As for impromptu performances, we were the ones who would walk into a mall and sing carols while strolling along in the true style of carolling. We often sang carols in the Byward Market. We were the first to do the flash mob scene. We’d hop on a bus, take seats wherever available and break into a Christmas carol. People just loved it. We’d be at a pub and would break into song. Earned us a few good pitchers of beer on occasion. Plus, we sing a mean Happy Birthday. Of course, there were no iPhones or even YouTube then, so the only record is a few photos.

Q. Do you think this choral phenomenon has staying power? Why do you think it succeeds? 

A. The choral phenomenon is actually growing.  It’s all over the internet and people from all over the world join in virtual choirs to sing works together.  The fact that the choral community in Ottawa has grown so much since we started 40 years ago is a testament to the staying power behind singing. It succeeds because people have a need to express themselves and one of the most satisfying ways to do that as a community is to join in song. We hear it everywhere at Christmas time.  For the Carollers it’s a way to feed our own musical souls and satisfy a need to express ourselves and of course, just plain enjoying the experience plays a big part in it.

Q. Got another 40 years in you?

A. Well that would make me 100 years old, but from what I understand, research says that singing with a group is a great way to stay healthy and that it actually extends one’s life. If that’s the case, maybe I’ll be doing it for another 50. One never knows what the future will hold.

A Canadian Christmas
The Stairwell Carollers
Where: Knox Presbyterian Church, 120 Lisgar Street
When: Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: $20 at the door, or $15 in advance at; or from The Leading Note, 370 Elgin St; Compact Music, 206 & 785 ½ Bank St locations; or Books on Beechwood, 35 Beechwood Ave.


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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.