Sun Times staff
Singing for family and friends isn’t quite enough to “raise the bar,” Chantry Singers music director Anne Little said.
So at least every second year, the 60 Saugeen Shores-based choristers take part in the annual Grey County Kiwanis Festival of Music.
The festival performance and the feedback from adjudicators motivates the group to work hard and excel, Little said as the choir was set to perform as part of the Festival Stars showcase concert Tuesday night.
“To come to festival we feel like we have to practise really hard. It puts the bar up a lot higher than just singing for all our friends and relatives who think we’re wonderful,” Little said.
“It’s all about the adjudication,” singer Chuck Beaton said. “I think there’s a sense of competitiveness in the choir that makes us want to sing really well, and then to hear from someone how well we did.”
Elizabeth Reid joined the Chantry Singers in 1975, a year after the choir formed. For her it’s the love of singing and sharing, with the Kiwanis festival performances a reward.
“At first you think it’s a lot of stress because you’re going to be judged on what you do, but it’s just a wonderful feeling and to hear the adjudicators speak highly of your choir is really something,” Reid said.
Faced with dwindling festival participation — registration has dropped more than 50% since 2005 — that’s one message and an example festival organizers want to highlight this year.
A federal New Horizons grant of more than $21,600 that MP Larry Miller announced during this year’s two-week festival will help hire someone to engage senior performing groups, people at retirement residences and other adults and promote the festival’s value to potential adult participants.
Festival organizers said they’ll also create new vocal and instrumental classes just for adults and welcome suggestions from the community for new categories and new musical genres.
Engaging that new, adult participation is only part of this year’s challenge, said executive-director Mary Jane Quinn.
Overall participation has dipped steadily in recent years, from more than 1,000 entries in 2005 to just over 800 on 2008 and 475 this year, which is the festival’s 80th.
“We do need to increase our entries,” Quinn said.
The festival awarded close to $14,000 in scholarships and bursaries this year, with the top soloists receiving as much as $300 and bands $350. About 100 awards were handed out during the two festival stars concert this week.
The money comes in part from endowments and from donations, including $70,000 over seven years from The Dock radio station, announced a year ago, and another $4,000 from a retired teachers group, Quinn said.
While participation from community choirs and bands was down again this year, most of the participation bleed over the years results from far fewer school choir, band and individual student entries.
That’s partly due to an overall enrolment decline, but it is mostly because of a change in school culture with less emphasis on music education, Quinn said.
Once, each school had vocal and instrumental music specialists. Vocal music teachers would lead several classroom choirs and school choirs. Instrumental experts taught Grade 7 and and Grade 8 music and led bands.
Many schools still have trained band instructors, but a board directive a few years ago did away for the most part with vocal music specialists, encouraging classroom teachers to cover all their own subjects, including vocal music, said Quinn, who for 10 years was a choir specialist at Hilllcrest school. She brought to the festival numerous groups each year.
“The music just gets shoved to the back now,” Quinn said.
Classroom teachers without music training may not feel competent or comfortable competing in the festival, she said.
That has the festival board planning a push this year, through a two-year $55,000 Trillium grant, to build its volunteer base and offer mentoring, workshops and whatever other resources possible to make it easier for classroom teachers to bring choirs and other students musicians to the festival.
“We need to show them that it’s doable, that even though they might not be a trained music teacher they can still lead a classroom choir,” said board member Sarah Clark, who teaches at Amabel-Sauble.
“I think there’s a lot more pressure on the academics and I think the music’s getting lost. I think we need to refocus our thoughts, that music education really is important,” Clark said.
Hillcrest music teacher Brad Crawford has been one of the festival’s most consistent and successful band leaders. His groups earned three gold and two silver this year and all gold a year ago.
But even Crawford had fewer entries from his school this year. He said participation is off because teachers are overburdened and most schools no longer have a music budget to pay the cost of busing.
“A lot of it is just the workload teachers are under, and they’re just feeling the obligation to do extracurricular stuff is too much,” he said.
Crawford, who also leads the all-ages St. George’s Anglican Church Ensemble, which has been part of the festival for a dozen years, said the new Kiwanis outreach to adults is promising.
“It’s quite a new direction,” he said. “I think this might be a great way to get another hook with kids” who may be inspired by adults and family members also participating in music.
That was ensemble flute player May Ip’s motivation for competing in Kiwanis, first as a vocalist two years ago, now as an instrumentalist. She said she wanted to inspire her children by example to participate as she did in similar music competitions as a high school student in Hong Kong.
Two sons are also part of the St. George’s group, while husband Gary Murphy, Ip, and all their children are also part of the Owen Sound City Band, which did not compete this year but has for two years previously.
“I went in as a mother trying to encourage my kids to get involved in music,” Ip said. “I thought maybe I should take part too so I can go through the experience with them.”
Clark, whose first-year bucket drumming group was featured at Tuesday’s festival stars show, also sees growth ahead through such new categories. Music theatre was added last year and bucket drumming and contemporary guitar categories were added this year.
Kevin Dandeno, a festival board member and a busy rock and blues musician with several groups in the area, said the festival’s future relies on expanding to include all ages and more variety in music.
He has pushed for several years to see the festival broaden its base. He imagines eventually including a category for garage bands and for the growing number of young singer-songwriters.
“That’s one of the things we’re going to to work on for next year, because how many kids play guitar and write their own songs. Lots do,” he said.
They would gain from expert comment on their songs and how to make them better, Dandeno added.
Any musician in the community who wants the same opportunity should contact the board.
“We’ll make a class for you,” he said. “We want to let people know if they want to get into the festival they can. Let us know.”