When Judy Escott was 10 years old, a teacher in her Grade 4 music class told her something that stayed with her for most of her adult life: "Mouth the words. You can't sing."
"I was embarrassed to death. I think I cried for hours … and I didn't sing for a long time," Escott said.
It wasn't until she started music therapy 40 years later to help her deal with depression that Escott started singing again, and that gave her the courage to do something she never thought she'd ever do.
"When I joined Coastal Sounds, Andrew said, 'Don't worry about it. Half the people here had the same experience,'" said the 64-year-old soprano, who admits she sat in the parking lot for half an hour before plucking up the nerve to go in to her first practice with the group.
'It's just really beautiful to watch people reclaiming their birthright.' - Andrew Cranston
That was five years ago, and she's been singing ever since.
Andrew and Beth Cranston started Coastal Sounds in 2007 with eight members and one goal — to offer a friendly, welcoming place for people to learn how to sing.
Now, about 60 enthusiastic members regularly gather for weekly practices at a Conception Bay South high school.
"There's just something very special to watch people reclaim something that may have been taken away from them," said Andrew, who has a master's degree in choral conducting from Memorial University.
"A lot of the people who are in this choir came from a background where they've been told that they can't sing, they would never sing," he said.
"People like teachers, nuns, family members stealing that away from them, and then you bring them into this setting … and it's just really beautiful to watch people reclaiming their birthright."
The couple created the non-profit organization six years ago, and now they also run the Aurora Women's Choir, the Christmas Cantata Project and an adult choir camp in the summer, with private lessons in between.
Recipe for success
Working with Andrew helped Escott put to rest her long-held belief that she should only mouth the words.
"Anybody can sing! I'm amazed. It's like following a recipe. How you stand, how you open your mouth, where you put your tongue, how you breathe. I didn't know any of that," she said.
Singing with the rest of the group for the first time brought out mixed emotions for Escott.
"It was such a sense of accomplishment for me, but I was in some ways angry because why wasn't I taught [this] way back when? I missed over 40 years of singing. It was a feeling of empowerment, so I felt really, really good."
It's not just about the music. The choir is also a support network, a group therapy session and a place to have a good time all rolled into one.
"Every week you learn something new, and every week you laugh until your stomach hurts at something," said Dianne Butler, an alto who has been singing with the choir for the past four years.
While the practices and public performances are fun social activities, the choir was also there for Butler when she needed its support the most.
"My husband passed away suddenly 21 months ago, and if it hadn't been for the choir, it got me through one of the most difficult times of my life," she said.
"Beth and Andrew in particular came to my home and spent nights with me, and we ate meals together and they watched TV with me. They are really special people. They are really, really old souls in young bodies."
Everyone is welcome
There is a membership fee to join Coastal Sounds, but there's no audition process and no judgment. The only requirement for members is a desire to sing and a willingness to learn.
"It's a beautiful thing to watch people's faces when they get something that they didn't think they would ever get. It's addictive, it really is," said Andrew.
"It's a family … and it's part of our lives and it's never going to go away, I hope," added Beth.
Coastal Sounds is accepting new members for the fall session until Oct. 4, and the Christmas Cantata project — a mass choir that rehearses over four Saturdays in the fall — is open for registration as well.
More information on programs and registration is available on the Coastal Sounds website.