All welcome to sing: How a new choir has been 'life-changing'

A 10-week experiment to bring together neuroatypical children with experienced young singers turned out to be a powerful experience.

Lauda youth choir is 'much, much more than singing,' says Shallaway director Kellie Walsh

Lauda made its stage debut during the Shallaway spring concert earlier this month. (John Pike/CBC)

Earlier this month, a children's ensemble sang two songs and then hopped, jiggled, skipped and danced their way off the Arts and Culture Centre stage. The audience lept to its feet, knowing it had just witnessed something powerful.

It was the emotional debut of Lauda, the newest ensemble working with the acclaimed Shallaway Youth Choir, and one that marks a profound way of bringing performers to the stage who have never before had the chance to sing with others. 

Amanda Davis is a Grade 10 student who volunteers with Lauda. (John Pike/CBC)

"Over the last few years, there have been kids auditioning for Shallaway who were phenomenal musicians," said Kellie Walsh, the artistic director of the Shallaway choirs, "but it was obvious they would have a really difficult time in what we would call a normal choir setting — two or three hours of rehearsal without too many breaks and being able to stand up perfectly straight."

The Lauda ensemble is about neurodiversity; it includes seasoned Shallaway singers as well as other young performers who may be on the autism spectrum or may struggle with standing still, or are hypersensitive to sounds, or find communication challenging. 

The inspiration for Lauda — the word is a Renaissance term, describing the sound of one voice singing — came to Walsh through one particular boy who auditioned and was accepted to Shallaway, but who could not handle the structured environment of rehearsals.

Taking a chance

Walsh, who sought funding from the Bruneau Centre for Choral Excellence to start Lauda, said a team came together over a 10-week period for what turned out to be a powerful experience. 

I had the most amazing experience of my life… I can't even explain how happy I am to be part of this experience.- Student Amanda Davis

"We have an incredible team of people working towards this," she said, adding that no one knew at the start whether the new singers would be ready — or want — to perform on stage.

"There's myself, three music therapists, a developmental pediatrician, teachers and a music researcher who are working with these kids, and a lot of families who know their kids really well," she said. 

"We just took it a week at a time and said, 'If you want to sing in the concert you can.' And they said, 'Absolutely we want to sing in our concert.'"

Deirdre Costello directs Glen Collins on guitar and Lauda singers Sophie Doyle, Kathryn Stamp and Henry Doyle. (John Pike/CBC)

Amanda Davis, a Grade 10 student and Shallaway singer who aspires to be a pediatrician, volunteered to sing in Lauda and hopes other choirs will be inspired by the concept. 

"I had the most amazing experience of my life," she said. 

"I hope that different provinces will recognize this and do the same thing. I think every one changed and felt so much better," she said. "I can't even explain how happy I am to be part of this experience."

A chance to share the stage together

Charlotte Pinhorn lives for music and wants to be a pop star. Until now, she's had to sit in the audience and watch her big sister Sophie sing with Shallaway.

Their mom, Lisa, is thrilled that they can share the stage in Lauda.

"It's going to be life-changing for her. And she is proud of herself, she's in her element," she said. 

The Lauda ensemble finishes its set and gets a standing ovation. (John Pike/CBC)

Jen Adams, whose son Jimmy is an enthusiastic Lauda singer, calls the choir "a collective sense-making exercise." 

"I realized that every word that I had had a judgment attached to it, and so our hopes with the existing Shallaway choristers and with some of the neuroatypical kids is that together they would learn from each other," Adams said. 

"That reciprocal learning was our biggest hope for the whole endeavour."

'More successful than anyone could've imagined'

Adams said the parents of neurotypical kids need Lauda as much as their children do.

These kids have been undervalued in their schools and their communities.- Parent Jen Adams

"These kids have been undervalued in their schools and their communities. They're loved by their families and friends, but it's hard for them to make and keep friends and there's sometimes a strangeness about them that kids don't understand," she said. 

"The parents need to see kids who think our kids are as important and equal as we think they are."

The 10-week experiment is officially over but parents, singers and Kellie Walsh all hope Lauda will become a full time ensemble.

"It was more successful than anyone could've imagined," Walsh said.

"It's exceptional what these kids can do when we give them a chance. I can't imagine it being a more positive experience. It's opened my mind to looking at every child as differently abled and the idea of teaching kids to their strengths."


Angela Antle

Host, Atlantic Voice

Angela is a producer who works from St. John's and is the host of Atlantic Voice, a Sunday morning documentary program on CBC Radio.