Choir director and singer Earle Peach, seated at centre, with members of Highs and Lows Choir. (photo by Kathleen Yang)
For more than 20 years, Highs and Lows Choir has brought music back into the lives of its members. Established as a four-part choral group in the mid-1990s, its mission is the mutual support of singers, in a way that nurtures mental health and wellness. Auditions are not required for new members; musical activities and instruction are built into their weekly rehearsals. The main thing, according to choir director and singer Earle Peach, is “the desire to participate and the willingness to learn.”
Accompanied by pianist Elaine Joe, the choir of about 20 voices practises a wide repertoire of songs, which it performs at numerous venues around Vancouver. In December, the songs were festive and drew on a range of traditions – songs from Christmas in Victorian England, and a Chanukah song from Spain called “Ocho Kandelikas.” Between the seasonal items, the choir performed the satirical “Parking Lots and Strip Malls,” “Blue Moon” and, a favourite with swing bands, “Jump, Jive and Wail.”
“We’ll sing music from any place or time period, as long as it has beautiful harmony and isn’t too difficult,” said Peach of the set list.
The atmosphere at rehearsals is buoyant, even amid the hard work of managing tricky intervals and rhythms, as in, for example “A La Ru,” a Spanish lullaby. The choir sings in a range of languages, performing works in English, Latin, French, Swahili, Ladino and Haitian Creole. The music is “challenging but manageable,” according to Jewish community member Rachel Mayer, an alto singer who is also a member of the choir’s board.
In the break, members talk about upcoming events in the community. In December, the calendar was full of choral visits around town, including two events at Douglas Park Community Centre and a lunch at Carnegie Community Centre. At the end of January, the choir will be singing for the Suzuki Elders and, in February, they will join other choirs at the Home Ground Festival in Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside.
Bass singer Kevin Elwell has managed or co-managed Highs and Lows Choir since 2003, and has been a peer support worker and English-as-a-second-language instructor with Vancouver Coastal Health since 2006. He has seen firsthand the tremendous difference the choir has made in the lives of its members: a difference recognized by the Mayor’s Arts Award, which was given to Peach in the fall of 2017, for community-engaged art. A conductor for three other choirs in the area, Peach is also a performer, teacher, producer and recording artist.
Alaric Posey (bass) described the choir as “the highlight of my week.” Having sung in children’s choirs, he had been away from music for many years before joining Highs and Lows in 2003. This opened the door to a life full of music, as he is now the choir’s assistant conductor and co-manager. He also teaches music and performs with a number of other groups around Vancouver.
The singers explain that, while singing is good for you, the social element is equally important. “There’s more of an effect the more people you sing with. You’re a community with a common purpose,” said Posey.
Academic research confirms the views of the singers. A 2016 article on the neuroscience of singing reports that social singing evolved to serve the needs of early humans. By singing and dancing together, groups shared important information, forged strong social bonds and fended off enemies. While we may not need to scare away predators, our modern brains still benefit from the endorphins released into our bodies as we sing. These endorphins make us happier, healthier and more able to think creatively. Choir librarian Dale Sweet (tenor) sets a good example with his commitment to singing in seven different choirs around town.
While the choir was founded to nurture the mental health of its members, the lows are left at home during rehearsal. The choir is a place to be task-oriented while making music and laughing at the endless stream of bad puns emanating from the conductors. Still, the members always know that others have their backs. True to the choir’s name, soprano, chair of the choir board and Jewish community member Penny Goldsmith observed, “People look out for each other. If someone doesn’t show up, we call them.” Aptly named, the choir helps the spirits of its singers take flight.
The choir sings weekly every Tuesday from noon to 1:45 p.m. at the Unitarian Church at Oak and 49th in Vancouver. New members are always welcome. More information about the choir can be found at highsandlowschoir.ca.
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.