I'm sure music is threaded into my DNA.
My grandmothers sang in church choirs, my mother still does, my grandfather played the piano and my father always tried. I've spent my life singing, but have never had the opportunity to sing the style of music that has always seemed to move me the most.
In December, my Aunt Julie told me about an upcoming singing workshop in Saskatoon and it gave me something to look forward to this winter. I told my friends and family about it and I was ready to feel the music.
Tuesday, before the workshop started, I began to feel a little bit off and Wednesday my nose was running, my sinuses were burning, my throat was burning and I was suffering from the worst cold I had felt in years. I wanted to lie in bed and breathe in menthol rubs, but I wanted to sing even more. So, I took my echinacea, vitamin C and a couple of cold medicines. I brewed up some fresh hot lemon and honey and headed to Saskatoon Thursday afternoon.
The workshop was scheduled for three hours on Thursday and Friday nights, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30p.m. on Saturday and for a two-hour sound check and rehearsal Sunday morning and a two-hour concert Sunday afternoon. It was going to be a lot of singing.
When I arrived at St. Paul's United Church in Sutherland Thursday I was welcomed, registered and was told to find a seat in my vocal group. The mood was set by the piano and a haunting rendition of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child by the workshop facilitators. The clear tones stopped the buzz of talking and it was time to begin.
Everyone seemed excited to be there and ready to add to the chorus. In Maidstone I sing in a choir of eight women and I am the alto. Thursday night I found myself in a group of about 65 singers surrounded by more than 15 friendly altos.
There were no music books and no lyric sheets and it didn't take long to realize this workshop, billed as a gospel and soul weekend experience entitled Praise, Protest and Purpose, wasn't for the weak.
"There is no fear in this music," explained Eric Dozier founder and artistic director of the One Human Family Gospel Choir when a section meekly missed a cue or wasn't sure where they should be singing.
Dozier told us to "be bold, that this, this isn't dainty music."
I was slightly afraid, afraid my voice would crack, afraid I would miss the cues and afraid I couldn't function without a nice comfortable crutch of a book to lean against. As he brought the piano life and emotion he taught each section their melody and words. Over and over again he played and sang as his co-facilitator, Kim Pacheco with her incredible vocal range, repeated each group's lines and brought it all together with her animated directing.
Without paper, the tunes and lyrics were repeated and we had to trust they would become part of our memory.
By Friday night we had learned seven songs and I was exhausted. I was still holding onto a bit of the cold and I had already made the drive to Saskatoon two days in a row. Luckily I had a bed waiting for me in the city and I hoped for a good sleep to get me through the hours and hours we would be singing Saturday.
The One Human Family Gospel Choir workshops have been presented around the world giving people a chance to experience a sound Dozier says belongs to all people.
"You are not here to observe, this is your music," said Dozier.
Throughout the weekend he shared the stories behind the songs and within the music lesson there was a history lesson, a fitting tribute to celebrate Black History Month. Gospel music laid a foundation for jazz, blues, soul, reggae and more and the songs selected for the weekend brought together a wide variety of rhythms and tones. As we learned the four-part harmonies we also heard how to project our voices and the sound filled the church as we practised.
My voice felt strong, although a little hoarse, and I could feel the vibration of the tones as the voices blended. It was moving, beautiful and amazing to experience, but I wondered if we would really remember what we needed to when we hit the stage Sunday.
Dozier demanded commitment to the pieces asking us take the risks and mess up there in the practises, to be bold. We tried hard knowing Sunday would bring a crowd of people to the Broadway Theatre.
We sang and sang and sang at the top of lungs and once again exhausted I got in the car to travel to North Battleford to meet my daughter so she could see the show the next day.
Sunday morning I put on black clothing a colourful scarf and couldn't remember a single lyric or line. I was ready to open my mouth with the faith some part of me would know the songs. At the sound check there were still parts we weren't completely sure of, but with the direction of Pacheco and encouragement of Dozier, we had to shake off our fears to give our all. In a weekend workshop there isn't the luxury of time.
My daughter sat through the sound check and took a few photos. During the concert she sang along to the songs and expressed her desire to take a gospel singing workshop the next time one came around. She had spent only a short time with the music but she already felt it pulling her to sing along.
There were plenty of people in the audience and even though the tone was different than in the church it was amazing to be part of something so big and so loud.
We started with a simple song to calm our nerves, followed our cues, and trusted we'd remember the words and melodies. We trusted and only had one major slip. Failing to find a line, the choir was in danger of losing our way, but Pacheco held us together with her smile mouthing "it's OK" and leading us into the next refrain. It really was OK and we sang together, a real choir made up of very different people whose voices blended to make something incredible.
Throughout the concert Dozier shared stories to go with the songs, gently educating and building unity. Pacheco's solo "Strange Fruit" a dark and terrible story so beautifully voiced brought even more emotion to a performance already bringing joy, tears, thoughts and excitement to everyone on the stage and in the audience.
I've always dreamed of performing on the stage at the Broadway Theatre, I've seen incredible acts perform there and I'm proud to say my voice echoed in the space.
At the end of the weekend I'd spent 1,200 kilometres on the road and over 16 hours singing at full voice. I'd learned almost a dozen new songs and a week later the words of one of them is still running in circles in my mind.
"I want to sing the harmonies of peace, I want my spirit to be free, free just to be." I want to sing."