To understand pop choirs, the first thing you need to do is forget everything you thought you knew about choir music. Forget the church. Forget auditions. Forget matching robes. As for the repertoire, ever heard a choral rendition of Radiohead, Feist, or Bruce Springsteen? The four-part harmonies remain, but instead of Vivaldi, they are singing Talking Heads and Nirvana.
Inspired by a genre once relegated to stuffy church pews, pop choirs are springing up in pubs, community centres, and concert halls around BC. Victoria’s The Choir, for instance, started as a pilot project in 2013. Today, The Choir has 100 members and a 150+ person waitlist. The group has performed at Rifflandia Music Festival and collaborated with Juno-award winning roots duo Pharis & Jason Romero and Kathryn Calder of The New Pornographers. In Vancouver, singer-songwriter Jenny Ritter leads two choirs: The Kingsgate Chorus and The Mount Pleasant Regional Institute of Sound. In December 2015, both choirs partnered with ESCHOIR—a splinter choir based in East Vancouver—in a sold-out performance at Rickshaw Theatre.
To explain the appeal of pop choirs, many people point to the sense of community that choirs can bring to our modern and increasingly secular lifestyles. In 2015, researchers at the University of Oxford discovered that joining a choir is one of the most effective ways for adults to make new friends, arguing that, “singing together is a uniquely communal experience that can foster better relations between people from all walks of life.” The researchers further suggested that perhaps the recent surge in community singing is, “linked to a need to feel connected to something bigger than to oneself… singing together might help reduce isolation and loneliness by helping to recreate the sense of community many of us have lost.”
Singing with other people also just feels good. A 2013 Swedish study found that when choir members sing together, their heart rates slow down and become synchronized; group singing can thus be physiologically soothing. As expressed by Daveed Goldman of Toronto’s Choir!Choir!Choir!, “singing is one of the most organic things you can do, and singing with many others is one of the most heartwarming.”
Marc Jenkins, director of The Choir, suggests the popularity of non-auditioned choirs is also due to their inclusivity: “When people are told their entire lives that they shouldn’t open their mouths, do so, and realize they can, that’s powerful,” he says. “There’s an awakening in people that happens that I’ve never seen before.” This awakening is apparent in Arthur Buckland, a 26-year-old tenor, who says joining The Choir was the most intimidating, yet best decision he has ever made. “Choir has made me much more willing to try new things, and I’ve made a ton of new friends,” he explains. “I’m now a much happier and social person than before.”
So are pop choirs here to stay, or simply a passing fad? To Jenkins, this is a moot point. “It’s a community choir, it’s not about being cool,” he says. “So even if its popularity fades over time, I don’t care. It would still be amazing.”