Part choir, part social club and a whole lot of fun – that could best describe the Comox chapter of the Canadian Military Wives Choir.
Founded in January of this year, and following in the footsteps of Canada’s only other CMWC, in Ottawa, the Comox CMWC is an opportunity for military spouses and partners to express themselves in song, all the while forging friendships.
The Comox chapter was Brenda Dunne’s idea.
“The Ottawa choir opened just as I was being posted here, from Ottawa, to Comox… I had just heard about the Ottawa choir and would have loved to have joined, but we just got the posting to here,” she said. “When I got out here I saw that there were a lot of choral groups in the area, so I just figured it would be really nice to have a military wives’ choir.”
She began laying the foundation for the group. The first step was to hire a musical director. Cue Wendy Nixon Stothert.
“I was really lucky to find her, because she is really positive and really supportive of the whole ethos of military choirs,” said Dunne. “So it worked out really well.”
Nixon Stothert is well known throughout the Comox Valley for her abilities in all things choir-related, but she admitted there were some unique challenges in building the Comox CMWC .
“With the other choirs I have had, whether it be in school, or Just In Time, people come because they genuinely want to be in a choir. The women here have come, I think because, yes, they want to be in a choir, but they are also here because they want to be with other women,” she said. “The major driving force with most choirs is to sing, whereas I think here, the major driving force is the social aspect. Then choir is next.”
The choir charges drop-in fees, as opposed to season dues, which gives the women more freedom to come and go as their schedule allows.
That in itself causes challenges. If there are three absences in a choir of 50 people, that can be hidden, but three absences in a choir of 15, that’s 20 per cent.
Nixon Stothert said her ability to recognize the purpose of the choir was paramount in her being able to work with the women.
“These women have very busy lives,” she said. “There has to be flexibility, and patience, on both sides, but it’s fine – I don’t feel frustrated with this group at all, because (perfection) is not what it’s about. It’s about being welcoming, it’s about being positive, it’s about being inviting and compassionate…”
The military wives choir concept was the brainchild of English broadcaster Gareth Malone, who had a reality television series in the UK – The Choir. The original series featured teenagers with no previous experience being taught choral singing.
The success of that original series led to the offshoot series, The Choir: Military Wives – featuring spouses and partners of military personnel deployed to Afghanistan.
There are now more than 80 registered Military Wives Choirs worldwide.
The Comox choir currently sits at 15 members, but Dunne is expecting that to change.
“We are growing all the time, but posting season is upon us now, so we are losing a few, but with the posting season we will definitely be getting new members and we will also be advertising at Rexspo (19 Wing Recreation Exhibition, Sept. 12) so we are hoping to continue to build,” said Dunne. “The choir in Ottawa started with roughly the same number of people and they’ve grown to 50. The obviously have a larger community to grow from, but we are hoping to grow.”
As an unauditioned choir, there is a wide spectrum of ages and abilities.
Dunne said that is one of the appealing features of the choir: no experience necessary.
“We get women with babies and women who have grandkids,” said Dunne. “This is really different. Usually when you get a group on the base, it’s more focused on (the theme), but this about more than just the performing. It’s about opening up and building self-confidence. Some of these women have never sung before at all and now they are doing solos. It’s a very neat, unique dynamic.”
The choir has made a couple of public appearances, including singing O Canada at the funeral service for Sgt. Mark Salesse in February, but on Thursday, the stage is theirs, as they perform their first full-length concert.
The concert will take place at St. Michael and All Angels Chapel on Military Row at 6:30 pm. Public is welcome and admission is by donation.
“The show will be about an hour long and we are singing just about everything,” said Dunne.
That includes a couple of songs that were written specifically for the original British Military Wives Choir.
“One is actually an Andrew Lloyd Weber Song (Sing) and Gareth Malone also wrote a song for them,” said Dunne.
The Military Wives’ unofficial anthem is a song called “Wherever You Are”, which is created from extracts of correspondence between the original choir and their spouses in Afghanistan
The Comox choir’s concert will feature both Sing and Wherever You Are, as well as another British choir original, Stronger Together.
“We also have a couple of classical numbers, as well as some traditional military songs,” said Dunne. “So it’s a real diverse repertoire, which is great for us, because we are a real diverse group.”
Nixon Stothert said there are a few a cappella songs in the repertoire, which is impressive for an unauditioned choir.
”If you talk to singers, singing a cappella as a choir is one of the toughest things to do – it’s hard to pick up your tuning when you don’t have a piano playing with you, but these women are just doing it,” she said. “They don’t even know what they are doing is hard, and that’s real neat.”
The choir is self-funded – the military does not contribute financially (other than free space for rehearsals). The women pay their drop-in dues, which barely cover Nixon Stothart’s fee. A corporate sponsor would go a long way towards the long-term establishment of the choir, including the ability to hire an (piano) accompanist.
“The Ottawa group has huge sponsors – BMO, Via Rail… If we could get some help like that it could get us some uniforms, allow us to travel for performances, and the such,” said Dunne. “I think a lot of people automatically think that we are funded by the military, but we are not.”
As for the future of the club, the opportunities are far-reaching.
“The UK choir has done all kinds of big things – they’ve sung with stars, and they sang for the Queen and I’d really like to see us do (things like) that at some point,” said Dunne. “Actually the Ottawa choir just sang at the (Canadian Military International) Tattoo, in Hamilton and they managed to get one of the UK choirs to join them, so they sang as a mass choir. That would be wonderful.”
Nixon Stothert said if the growth of the choir to this point is any indication, the future is bright.
“If you’re feeling nervous and you are feeling self-conscious, your voice gives that away. But the way that their friendships have buoyed each other, and the quality of their sound has (improved) as their camaraderie and friendships have grown, has been really neat. It’s like watching a flower bloom. It’s really cool.”