Article by Jamie Zabel
I met Vanessa Richards on a rooftop patio in the Woodward’s Building in East Vancouver. It was about a half hour before her choir group, the Woodward’s Community Singers, was about to begin and she invited me to sit outside with her and a few friends before it started. It was a gorgeous and warm summer day, and the sounds of the city below us mixed with our voices and the occasional bursts of music. Vanessa had a baritone ukulele and her friend Chris, the accompanist for the choir, had a guitar and occasionally they started strumming a dreamy melody that they planned to teach to their group that day. I was immediately put at ease and made to feel at home and, as I participated in the choir a half hour later, that feeling did not diminish in the slightest.
Vanessa is an accomplished singer who has a background in music, performance, and interdisciplinary work. While working as the Director of Community Engagement through the Arts at Simon Fraser University, she was inspired by a colleague’s choir that she saw during one of their practices. She admired the connection that clearly existed between the group members, and the absolute joy that they had singing in each other’s company, “a foundation from which to build almost anything because they relat[ed] to each other.” After approaching her colleague and asking how she could learn to inspire such a feeling amongst people, Vanessa participated in her colleague’s program called Community Choir Leadership Training. It was from this experience that Woodward’s Community Singers was born. Vanessa has just finished up two other choirs held at the Roundhouse and Douglas Park, while the one at Woodwards continues into the summer.
When I walked into the room where the choir was being held, I walked into a room of friends. Whether it was only the second time someone had been there, or someone’s 100th time, everyone had someone to talk to and connect with. I myself got the chance to talk to many of the participants and to hear what a truly wonderful part of their lives this choir has become. When Vanessa went to gather everyone together, we all stood around in a circle and began a series of vocal exercises intended to warm up our voices and make us entirely comfortable in our bodies. I felt a bit silly and self-conscious at first, but as soon as I saw everyone around me participating whole-heartedly, I was encouraged to do the same.
The singing itself was a magical experience. Vanessa shared a song that had been on her mind the past week and we learned the song line by line until we were all singing loudly and energetically together, even throwing some harmonizing into the mix. It was easier and more organic than I imagined it would be, perhaps because it was done in an environment completely void of fear or awkwardness. It felt completely natural to start clapping and swayed to the beat, not only because it kept me with the rhythm of the song, but also because it allowed me to engage with those around me.
There is something intensely powerful about singing with a group of people. Both Vanessa and Chris said that there’s something special about playing in a situation like the Woodward’s choir, as opposed to playing in a more professional setting. It’s a comforting atmosphere, one that’s based on the simplicity of a connection between people. Vanessa has been saddened by the sharp distinction that exists between “professional” and “amateur” singers. Even getting into the entomology of the word, she told me that the true meaning of amateur is not a person who is just not very good, nor is it a person who is not paid for their work. The true meaning of the word amateur is “doing it for love,” which is a beautiful thing. Using this definition breaks down the barrier between professionals and amateurs and this breakdown is exactly what Vanessa aims to achieve in her choirs. Everyone has the ability and the right to express themselves in ways that make them happy, professional or otherwise.
More towards the beginning of our interview, Vanessa told me that her choir has given her a template for how she believes everyday life should be, filled with songs from the heart. Songs that come from a place of happiness, sadness, exhilaration, mourning, songs that can express every emotion in every season of our lives. These songs are not only ones that come to us from the music industry, but are the ones that our moms sung to us as children and that have defined our lives ever since. As the production of music becomes less common in places like schools and more the property of the professional musical industry, Vanessa’s choirs are a space where the ability to express oneself musically is open to everyone. As Vanessa said herself, the goal of her programs is to give to everyone “equal access to the joy of music.”
If you would like to check out Vanessa’s choir for yourself, Woodward’s Community Singers meets on Thursdays from 6-7:30pm on weekdays until July 27. They will be starting up again on September 7 at their regular location, the Skyroom at PHS Woodward’s 131 West Hastings. There is no audition, cost, commitment, or registration required.