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CBC Christmas Sing-In: Confessions of an embedded chorister

After admiring the CBC Sing-In from afar for years, Homerun host Sue Smith decided to join the choir. Here's what she learned from the inside.

Homerun host and music lover Sue Smith decided to join the choir after admiring the Sing-In for years

Sue Smith, host of CBC Montreal's Homerun, seen here alongside members of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul choir. (Sue Smith/CBC)

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I'm in.

I am a chorister for the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. That's the church that hosts the CBC Sing-In every year. We insiders (that's me!) refer to it as A&P. And it wasn't just a slam dunk.

Not just a "let the CBC girl lip-sync in the back." No. I had to audition. I had to learn a Mendelssohn oratorio excerpt. I breezily said to organist Jonathan Oldengarm, "So, shall I just sing the alto solo at the beginning?"

"No, Sue, all nine pages."

I had to stand beside the piano and sing all nine pages for conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée. It wasn't my best audition. I found to my great surprise that I was nervous. Knees weak, seized throat nervous. But they were kind and understanding (see No. 10). They let me in the alto section.

Here are 10 surprising things about singing in the A&P choir.

1. Be careful what you wish for

For the last 10 years, I have attended the CBC Christmas Sing-In and wished I could sing in that wonderful choir. Here's what I didn't know: It's hard. Really hard. I can barely keep up.

I sing. I have been singing ever since I could talk, so pretty much from birth. I grew up surrounded by music, classical from my Mum and jazz from my Dad. I took piano lessons. In high school I sang in a madrigal group and in a choir that performed Handel's Messiah. I was the singer for our high school band. As a young adult I performed "Please Come to Boston" and other folk classics at coffee houses and bars. I paid my way through university working as a singer. (Yes, I did weddings). I read music.

But being a chorister at A&P is an altogether different challenge, which leads us to No. 2.

Sue Smith discovered the Sing-In is a lot more difficult than it appears, but the women of the choir are there to help. (Sue Smith/CBC)

2. I don't speak German

Or Hebrew. Or Latin. These are all requirements of a Sing-In chorister. My choir buddy Robert Rowat is coaching me on the German. I am faking the Hebrew — I just gargle my H's and it seems to do the trick —  and as for the Latin, I am catching on.

Note to self: Jesu is actually pronounced HAY-zoo or YAY-zoo or however William sings it (see No. 6).

3. I  forgot one important element of being a chorister

Church. I have never been a regular church-goer. But this choir is a working choir, and that means every Sunday. That means at least seven new pieces of music every week. And at least three sung "Amens" (they are my favourite part).

That means choir robes (see No. 7) and processions and knowing when to sit down and when to stand. I had a hard time with that at the beginning. This was received with much hilarity from the bass section, which sits behind us alto 2s. But now I have help.

You know the beautiful chorister with the long red hair and voice like an angel? That's Stephanie. She sits opposite me with the sopranos. She told me to watch her and she now gives me a little nod when it's time to sit (see No. 10).

4. I am an amateur

Quite literally. The choir is made up of volunteers and professionals. Many of the choristers are professionals or working towards making music a career. They are mostly music students but some are working in music. Some have agents. One is a bike courier.

Desmond comes on crutches, Anna comes by bus. Some, like the lovely Dorothy who often sits beside me, are very active in the church.

Dorothy is an "elder" and has been singing at the Sing-In for 30 years. For others, including choir director Jean-Sébastien Vallée, this will be their first Sing-In. I can't wait to see their faces when the brass players begin to play.

Dorothy Thomas Edding has been a part of the Sing-In for 30 years. (Sue Smith/CBC)

5. I have a very good stride

It is just right for processions. Duncan (see No. 6) informed me of this. He told me I was very easy to follow. This is apparently a real asset in a choir that proceeds in and out of the church while holding hymn books and singing.

I am strangely thrilled and quite proud of this hidden talent. Will I still be able to hit my stride while holding a candle? That remains to be seen.

6. I am a countertenor groupie

Years ago, when I hosted CBC's Citybeat, I did a profile on a countertenor named Daniel Taylor, who has since become very famous. He was at the time a student at McGill and his voice, the male equivalent of an alto, was very rare and highly in demand.

Ever since then I have been smitten: think of the soaring high notes of the all-male choir at King's College Cambridge and you'll know what I mean.

At A&P there are four countertenors. Outside of maybe Cambridge, this is unheard of. William, Nick and Peter are in Montreal because they study at McGill. Duncan is a former music student at the university — but he studied the cornet! 

And we have them all at A&P. And guess where I sit? Right beside them.

7. We go commando

Well, I do. Partially. I cannot speak for the rest although it is interesting to speculate. It's hot under those robes!

The idea with a choir is that no one should stand out. We sing as one. So we dress as one as well. I have my own white and red robe now. It's number 23 and the saintly Donna has made sure it fits me and is clean and all the buttons are attached. And then there are the shoes. Plain and black.

There's a box of old discarded black shoes in the women's bathroom. Came in handy my first day.

Sue Smith was given her own robe matching other members of the choir. (Sue Smith/CBC)

8. I can't feel my face when I'm with you

More like, I can't hear my voice when I'm with you. I sing very, very softly. This is not my usual style at all. I am by nature more of a blaster as people sitting near me for the last nine Sing-Ins will attest. But there are so many beautiful voices around me I want to hear. And also (see No. 1) the music is hard and I am afraid to make a mistake.

Sometimes, when I run out of breath or am not sure how to pronounce Barmherzigkeit, I even lip-sync. Really, who can hold their breath for four bars while coming to a rousing crescendo? Pretty much everyone. I am in awe.

Homerun host Sue Smith joined the choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul 0:30

9. Organists are acrobats

They take their music seriously at A&P and always have. The church administrators have remained firm in their belief that music is an essential part of worship. The result of this Presbyterian passion for music is one of the largest organs in the city.

Organist Jonathan Oldengarm is not only a maestro of the several manuals of keys, stops and pedals, but he tunes each and every pipe (there around 7,000!) by hand.

This requires not only a good ear but also a strong stomach, as he has to crawl up to the ceiling of the church to get to the really big ones.

Organist Jonathan Oldengarm tunes each of the 7,000 pipes by hand. Assistant organist Nick Waters helps out. (Sue Smith/CBC)

10. Choristers are the nicest people in the world

Not just nice. But funny and quirky. And welcoming to newcomers. And understanding of little tiny (barely noticeable, really) mistakes. And helpful and patient. And professional.

We have had a lot of long, late rehearsals to get ready for the Sing-In. Because even though they are all really good they want to make sure they are perfect for the Big Day. Someone (thank you, Donna) always brings food for the breaks.

Sue Smith and her choir buddy, CBC music producer Robert Rowat, unwind during a rehearsal break. (Sue Smith/CBC)

Nobody gets cranky. We go over the same difficult passages over and over and nobody complains.

Because there is always that moment when it comes together and is just all the things good choral music can be: uplifting and beautiful and transporting.

And we, the mixed bag of young and old and experienced and amateur, we all look at each other and we just smile.

See you at the Sing-In!

About the Author

Sue Smith

Sue Smith is the host of CBC Radio One's Homerun in Montreal.

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