Voices Combined in Praise
In the following interview on October 18, 2021, Bro. Levi Gelineau interviews Sis. Elle Wilson about her experience in founding the Southern Ontario Combined Christadelphian Choir (SOCCC).
Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Elle moved to Ontario, Canada seven years ago when she married Bro. Craig Wilson, and is now a member of the Cambridge ecclesia. Elle shares her experiences of an ecclesial life rich with music and offers a few thoughts for any readers who might be interested in starting their own choral group. Listen to the full interview on the December 2021 episode of the Good Christadelphian Music podcast.
Levi: Elle, what was music like for you as a younger person in Brisbane?
Elle: I grew up in a pretty musical family. I’m the youngest of three, and we all learned piano from about five or six. Our ecclesia (Wilston) was also quite musical; a lot of our pianists were very talented. At the end of every Sunday School year, all the classes would learn and sing a new song. If there was ever a study weekend or a baptism, anyone in the ecclesia was invited to come learn a new song on the theme of the weekend.
Levi: So, music was part of your experience with ecclesial life from the beginning?
Elle: For sure. Then as we got a bit older, there was an ecclesia in Brisbane that started a choir for all the ecclesias in the area. The first time I joined I was probably 14 or 15 and we sang Handel’s Messiah. It was amazing!
Levi: How many people were in that choir when you joined it?
Elle: The first time it was big—I’m going to say over one hundred. And then I sang Messiah again, maybe eight years later, and it was a bit smaller, maybe 50 or 60. It was also a really good preaching tool. I remember I invited a friend from high school who I’d continued to be friends with. It was just a nice way to invite someone along without it being anything too heavy.
Levi: So, then you traveled around and met Craig and moved to Canada. What year was the SOCCC founded, and how did it start?
Elle: I was missing the musical element I’d grown up with. There’s something about coming together to sing or to make music in an orchestra or a choir, it’s just such a happy place. The people who are there are generally people who are really into it, and it’s very inspiring. I missed working together on a project that was really fun and uplifting, and— I’m sure every ecclesia has its issues— but before I came here, I obviously wasn’t really exposed to the Unity issues in Southern Ontario.
I thought getting together to sing would be one way that people from different backgrounds or different perspectives could potentially come together in a group and work on something that was positive. I floated the idea to a few people at my ecclesia who I know are into music and said, “What do you think? Do you think we could get this bigger than our ecclesia?” They were all on board. Then, I contacted musical people from other ecclesias and said, “Would you be on board if we got a Southern Ontario choir going?”
You’re never too young or too old to love music and to make music.
Most people were pretty supportive. I was able to use the resources and music that I’d used in the choir from back home in Brisbane. I contacted the conductor there and got all that set up. So that was an advantage for sure, to already have the resources there, and I’d sung it before. It wasn’t new to me. I wanted to play the piano, so I didn’t want to conduct and play.
So, I had to find the conductor, Sis. Carolyn Jackson, Mississauga West ecclesia. Then I just had to recruit people to actually be in the choir. We started at the end of 2018 and then we performed in May 2019.
Levi: How many practices did you have, and where would you hold them?
Elle: We practiced from December to May, roughly every second week. Because we’re so spread out, I asked if there was anyone who would be willing to run practices in their own area. For example, we had a group of people on Manitoulin Island and there was someone there who could play the piano, so they organized practices for their group.
There were groups in Mississauga, the Cambridge/Kitchener area, and Hamilton. We ended up having 40 in the choir, and we split into geographical areas for practicing. Then once every six weeks we tried to all get together in a central location to practice.
When we got together for those combined practices, it was very encouraging to have the full force of the choir there. I think it gave everyone a boost and then they went back to their areas to do their practices in between. In total we had seven ecclesias represented and members ranged in age; the youngest was fifteen and the eldest was in their seventies.
Levi: You hit on this earlier when you were talking about the choir you grew up with in Brisbane. Just how it brings people together, working towards an event. And I think it’s really interesting how that’s cross-generational, and how it’s kind of an equalizer as well. So, it’s a unifier. A choir—a performance or a project like that—is a unifier and an equalizer.
Elle: I think that’s one of the things that makes music so beautiful. You’re never too young or too old to love music and to make music.
Levi: Did you get help from people you didn’t expect?
Elle: I have a couple of people at my home ecclesia at Cambridge who are very musical and who always are on board. Sis. Sue Brokaw, she’s a very good pianist and she was super encouraging as well, which is important, because sometimes when you are trying to get something off the ground, you can second guess it. I think, “Oh no, was this a good idea? Maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I don’t know if people will be interested.”
Sis. Carolyn Jackson, the conductor, was also really fantastic and encouraging, as being a very steady hand on the choir. I would definitely ask to team up with her again.
Levi: You got ready for your May 2019 performance. What was that like? Where was it? How many people came?
Elle: We rented a church between the choir practice locations. This ended up being amazing because it had such good acoustics! Sometimes when you do so much hard work and then you sing in a rec hall or something, the sound can be flat.
When we did a dress rehearsal on the afternoon of the performance, everyone was just so excited because we sounded as good as we could possibly sound! It was all set up to accommodate a choir. There were microphones and a little stage, there was recording equipment. There was a grand piano.
It was a very uplifting night: socially, musically, spiritually.
So that was really exciting as choir members to perform somewhere like that. We had to sell tickets because the place had a capacity limit and we sold out—150 tickets! We had refreshments. A couple of sisters baked all these delicious treats and had it all set out beautifully for afterwards. It was so exciting to see the people who turned up.
There were babies all the way to elderly. There were people who had wanted to be in the choir but were in isolation and couldn’t quite make it to practices, so they’d come for the actual performance. There were people there who hadn’t come out for a while. There was a big range of ecclesias represented. It was super exciting.
Levi: Wow, that performance became quite a thing. I love that feeling. I’ve experienced it in smaller ways, just building up to that big event. As you said, you’re working together with people you may not even normally work with.
Elle: It was really good for other people to see what we’d been working on because it was something new. The reaction was “Wow, we really enjoyed tonight. Please do it again.” People had heard there was a choir going on but hadn’t quite realized the scope of it and how many people were involved. I really enjoyed the cantata. It’s called Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a really good set of songs, in which there’s something for everyone. It was a very uplifting night: socially, musically, spiritually.
Levi: When was the second performance going to be?
Elle: A similar timeframe—around May. We’d rented the same venue again for the performance. The lady at the church said, “Oh, would you mind if I brought my family along for the performance?” And then we also had one of the arranging brothers after the first performance, ask, “Would you be prepared to do the performance again, but we open it up to the public?”
They said, “It’s such a good message. It’s the gospel, it’s the hope, it’s Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. It’s everything in a nutshell.” So yes, we had made plans to potentially do it later on in the year as a preaching effort. It was an interesting concept and I had never really thought before that it could have been a very effective preaching tool.
Levi: Yeah, it does feel like the kind of thing where if you’ve done all this work, you should repeat it like four times. Take it on tour, in a way. So, the pandemic happened. How has that worked out? What is the choir doing now?
Elle: Recently, a couple of choir members asked me about getting it going again, because we’re back in person at our ecclesia. In the past I had started it a bit before Christmas. So, I’m actually undecided. I don’t know whether to bring back the songs we started to sing last year, or to get a completely new set of songs.
Levi: Do you have any advice, for someone who’s thinking, “Maybe I could do this in my area, or help do this, or find a team to start a choir with.” What would you tell them?
Elle: Absolutely go for it! It’s such a joyous way to bring people together and to praise God. So, if you have an opportunity to do that, it doesn’t have to be on such a big scale. You could do something much smaller. I will say that if anyone is wanting to start a choir, and they want 50 copies of Jesus of Nazareth to give it a go, I’ve kept all the copies of music.
I’d like to, every time we do something like this, start a library where other people could borrow the music and do something in their own area. It is a lot of work, but I found it very rewarding.
When starting something new a lot of people are not necessarily on board right away. They need to be convinced or see it happen once. Then they say, “Oh, wow. That was amazing. I’d love to be part of it now,” which is great for the second time round. But the first time can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.
So definitely if you have even one or two people who are always keen, it’s very refreshing. If you’re the person who’s always keen and enthusiastic, I don’t know if you realize, but it’s so helpful. Everyone knows what it’s like when you sign up to do something—sometimes it is a drag. Even if it’s something you want to do, it can sometimes conflict with other appointments or things that you’re trying to do in your busy life with your family.
Don’t be discouraged if some weeks only half of your choir turns up, it’s very normal. They will definitely turn up on the night of the performance! From a practical point of view, make sure you’ve done all your homework with copyright of music. Make sure that you know your music very well before you start teaching it to other people.
One thing I found helpful was, I had a recording from when we’d sung the cantata back in Australia that I was able to send to the choir and say, “Here’re the songs, listen and get familiar with the sound of them.” And then for some of the songs that had particularly intricate four-part harmonies, I did record the soprano, alto, tenor, bass separately and sent those recordings to each group.
Levi: What do you hope for the future of the choir?
Elle: I would love to keep it going. I’d love for it to get bigger and include a wider range of people. I would love a way for people who are in isolation right now, or who are in small ecclesias, to be part of it and to be able to sing on the final night with fifty or a hundred people. That would be amazing.
One really great thing about last year, when we did get it going for the second time, we had some younger people in it. The youngest was maybe ten. We had a couple of younger kids and then we also were hoping to include a couple of songs for children. The thought was that they would practice in Sunday School and be part of the performance on the night, sing their couple of songs and then the adult choir would take over.
Hopefully, we’ll get it going again this year, and then do a performance next year. We’re also looking at maybe getting some instruments involved as well.
Levi: Well, thank you, Elle. You’ve said a lot of really impactful things. What you’ve already shared is definitely awesome. If someone did want to start a choir, could they get in touch with you?
Elle: Absolutely! I can give you tips on running the choir, even just little things that I learned along the way about how to run a choir and conduct a choir and inspire a choir. I learned a ton, because I’d never conducted or run a choir, I’d only been in them.
There are tasks from sourcing the material, to making sure everyone had their music, prepping a plan for choir practices and booking a venue. I’m more than happy to help or chat and be a cheerleader for anyone who’s even thinking of doing it.
Sis. Elle Wilson can be contacted at email@example.com.
We thank her again for sharing her story and experience!
Simi Hills, CA