Conductor Matthew Jaskiewicz leads the choir’s first rehearsal of the year. Photo: Mohamed Omar

Adventures in harmonizing

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Online Editor Emma Prestwich brushes up on her vocal skills and finds out the origins and appeal of Ryerson’s only singing group

I squint at black spots on the lines as I try to sing “Fantasia.” Apparently eight years of piano lessons did nothing for my ability to read music.

This is the first practice for the Oakham House Choir and I’ve been designated an alto, along with half of the women in the room, most of whom didn’t put up their hands when asked if they could read music.

The Oakham House Choir is Ryerson’s only vocal ensemble, and it attracts Ryerson faculty, students and community members.

Choir conductor and co-founder Matthew Jaskiewicz and Marie Dowler, a former professor in Ryerson’s English department, started the choir in 1984. It was a small capella group composed mostly of Dowler’s friends, but when Jaskiewicz realized the demand for choirs that performed classical pieces with a “big sound that overwhelms you,” the number of members grew.

For many student participants, the choir is a way of maintaining a creative outlet that they found in high school choirs.

“You come to university and start working, and you lose touch with the creative stuff,” says first-year professional communication master’s student Azza Abbaro.

For Tara Grundmanis, a third-year business management student with a performance background, this is a welcome break from the world of academics.

“I had to pick a career, but I’m now doing this as a hobby,” she says. “It brings up the nostalgia of the old days.”

Nostalgia or no, I’m feeling discouraged by our collective screeching, as is a girl sitting in the soprano section who cringes at every flat note. Jaskiewicz remains encouraging.

“If you are new to singing, be patient,” he tells the group.

But as a long-time professional conductor, he is also practical. He wants to know who will be around in November, when serious work starts for the annual Christmas concert.

Every fall, a flood of students show up for the first rehearsal. Though it’s a packed room tonight, he knows not everyone present will be back next week. Of those who stick it out, most don’t stay for more than a year and, if they do, they usually jet off after they finish their degree.

So the choir relies on the commitment of community members like 83-year-old Peter McLaughlin, who was part of Ryerson’s English faculty when he joined the choir in 1984.

He says he stayed because he loves choral music, but also because of the community vibe.

“The atmosphere has always been wonderful. You can feel it bubbling with life and enthusiasm.”

Jaskiewicz thinks the learning opportunities are rich for students who commit their time.

“We teach them solidarity of a group, teamwork … they learn how to work together to reach a goal.”

Though the group has a relatively small presence on campus, he thinks the choir plays an important role in creating an artistic history for the Ryerson community that it currently lacks.

“It’s a young university, there are no traditions. Ryerson students, they deserve that.”

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