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In Choir!Choir!Choir!, song builds community – even if you can't carry a tune

Why We Wrote This

Singing together is a millennia-old way of building community, though these days it's largely relegated to the religious and professional realms. As an open-to-all pop choir in Toronto shows, it doesn't have to be.

Joseph Fuda
Singers participate in a Choir!Choir!Choir! show in Toronto in 2015. Begun in 2011, the singing group requires no auditions, just a $5 contribution and a willingness to learn a harmony. It is part of a wave of community choirs that has gathered force across North America.

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Choir!Choir!Choir! is arguably the most accessible singing group around. No auditions, no competition about who gets to be section leader here. All one does is drop in, pay $5 at the door, grab a lyric sheet, and self-select as a “high,” “low,” or “mid” to sing the hits from David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, Aretha Franklin, and Nirvana. The event's weekly sessions have become a social phenomenon, at least in Toronto, where participants range in age on any given night from 19 to 89. Started in 2011, Choir!Choir!Choir! is part of a wave of community choirs that has gathered force across North America. It’s also just old-fashioned fun, where adults who don’t know each other come together in common, musical purpose. “When we were younger, so many people were told that they should never sing because there's a right and a wrong way to do it. And if you did it wrong, then you were kind of banished from doing it," says co-founder Nobu Adilman. “And we're inviting all those people back and saying you probably can do it.”

Luc Rinaldi and Steph Braithwaite lead the high-range voices through the catchy melody of the ’90s hit song “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia. “Take a vocal rest, sip some lemon tea,” says Ms. Braithwaite from the stage when they're done.

It’s time for the “lows” and “mids” to learn their parts, an intricate harmony that the founders of Toronto-based Choir!Choir!Choir! have rearranged. “We’ll see you in about 30 minutes,” Mr. Rinaldi jokes.

The chorus is indeed complicated. There is a lot of standing – and then shuffling. One woman clutches a flashlight to better see the lyrics on her sheet. Some members have to take a seat – the participants range in age on any given night from 19 to 89. There is a constant urge to just belt it all out, but the singers must suppress it until everyone knows his or her part.

Two hours later – flat notes corrected, collective starts on the downbeat and crescendos perfected – a circle is formed. “Torn” might not be everyone’s favorite song – Rinaldi spends the better part of the night ribbing it as he accompanies the piece on his guitar. But after the choir cuts out from the last note, a long-held “oh” in a three-part harmony, there is single beat of silence, and then the rush.

“It is hard,” says Greg Fontaine, who has shown up weekly since 2015 to sing the hits from David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, Aretha Franklin, and Nirvana. “You are spending all this time and mental energy trying to achieve this goal, and it is a struggle sometimes. And when you kind of do that in song, I don’t know what it is, there’s this rush like ‘yeah, we did it.’ ”

Started in 2011, Choir!Choir!Choir! is arguably the most accessible singing group around. No auditions, no competition about who gets to be section leader here. All one does is drop in, pay $5 at the door, grab a sheet of music, and self-select as a “high,” “low,” or “mid.”

It is part of a wave of community choirs that have gathered force across North America. It’s also just old-fashioned fun, where adults who don’t know each other come together in common, musical purpose. (Full disclosure: This journalist joined it when newly arrived in Toronto in August, and thinks it’s one of the best groups she has ever participated in.)

David Pike
Nobu Adilman (l.) and Daveed Goldman, who collectively perform under the name “DaBu,” are the founders of Choir! Choir! Choir!

The founders of Choir!Choir!Choir!, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman (who work together professionally as “DaBu”), have since gone far. Their choruses have backed up stars like Rick Astley, and they attract massive audiences for tributes when artists like David Bowie or Aretha Franklin pass. Today Mr. Adilman and Mr. Goldman travel at least a full third of the year, taking Choir!Choir!Choir!, which is part singsong and part comedy show, to anywhere from small-town Ontario to Oklahoma.

But it’s the weekly sessions that have become a social phenomenon, at least in Toronto. Ken McLeod, an associate professor of music history at the University of Toronto, says that singing together – versus alone in one’s car – forges a sense of well-being and "secular fellowship,” as he calls it, “ in an era that is increasingly defined by virtual experience and hyper-real experiences.”

Even with a pop song like “Torn” sung in the back of a tavern, where Choir!Choir!Choir! meets twice weekly, the experience is powerful.

“Anyone who has done it knows there is this intangible ‘the sum of us is larger than the individual,’ this sense of energy that resonates, and just gets amplified in a group singing experience,” he says. “There is this vibrational resonance that sonically connects you to other people.”

Adilman says that part of their goal is to draw people back to creative expression they may have been cut off from.

“When we were younger, so many people were told that they should never sing because there's a right and a wrong way to do it. And if you did it wrong, then you were kind of banished from doing it," he says. “And we're inviting all those people back and saying you probably can do it. Maybe you won’t sound great right off the top and we'll make fun of you for that, but we'll do it in a nice way and encourage you to try harder.”

Fontaine happened upon Choir!Choir!Choir! by accident one summer night while he was out on a bike ride. He heard people singing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac and found himself drawn into the backroom of a bar. He had never sung in his adult life and remembers feeling so uncomfortable that he basically hid behind a pillar at the back.

“I was just really maybe making noises,” he says. “I was very quiet. It was a bit of a scary experience.” But he returned, again, and again. “I always assumed I couldn’t sing. I realized at some point in the fall that I am kinda singing, that’s a passable form of singing.”

It’s not surprising to Professor McLeod that people like Fontaine get hooked.

“To entertain ourselves as individuals, we’ve been sitting around campfires and singing songs communally since we were cave people,” the professor says. “This is something probably deeply ingrained in our human experience, even if we lost touch with it, or haven’t done it since we were kids, or have never done it and are experiencing communal singing for the first time. It can be tremendously empowering.”

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