Cool Choir conversation: Don’t just sing in your car!

Long shot people in blue singing onstage with conductor
In your progress from the shower to the concert Hall, Jamie keeps you on track! Photo by Neil Speers.

“I’m Jamie Serafi. I am the Founder and Creative Director of Cool Choir.”

MUSICAlive! notes the growth of “non-audition choirs” in the last couple of decades, and asks Jamie why did he choose this place (Calgary) and this genre (pop and rock music) to start this very successful local endeavour?

“Cool Choir is a British concept, reinventing the format of what a choir looks like in this day and age. When most people hear about a choir, their immediate idea is a load of people stuck in a church in robes, singing classical music. Or hymns, basically. And with all due respect to Canada, and everyone knows how much I love this country, when it comes to the choir scene I do have to tell you that it’s extremely backward still!

“I’m not talking centuries backward. But I’m saying in the UK the concept that you can walk into a choir with no experience, no need to read music, and no auditioning, and sing rock and pop songs in harmony . . . I mean, there are SOME choirs in Canada, but compared with Europe and especially the UK, it’s a concept that isn’t really known, to be honest.

“I identified a HUGE gap in the market here for something that welcomes everybody and anybody over 18 into a room who basically just stepped out of their car from singing along. And that’s very much who I was aiming at: shower singers; car singers; people who THINK they can’t sing!

“Which is actually the vast majority of people. If you walked down the street and put a microphone in front of somebody, and said ‘Can you sing me a song?’ 99 percent of people will freeze up. You might get the odd diva who says ‘Oh yeah! I sing in a band! I can do that.’ But to most people, the prospect of singing anything, especially in public, is actually akin to being naked in public! That ’s how scared and petrified they are.

“(It’s different) if you grow up in Africa somewhere, where they grow up with a culture of singing: they sing in the streets, they sing in the shops; they sing everywhere. but in (North America and Europe) no!”

People in blue from behind standing around director onstage
The shirt colour represents Alberta’s blues skies: the singing represents bursts of joy. Photo by Neil Speers.

MUSICAlive! asks if Jamie thinks that this communal choir singing practice is much more developed specifically in the UK because the culture is more community-oriented than in Canada?He’s not sure, “about it being more communal per se, I guess though it is geographically much smaller, so people ARE closer together (in the UK). But they’ve now got hundreds of choirs across the UK, with thousands and thousands of people singing in these choirs. From Scotland, down through Wales, down to the Jurassic Coast, (and) Ireland!”

We ask about the social aspect of the singing, having been aware for about a decade of these kinds of choirs elsewhere, and the importance of overcoming isolation that MUSICAlive! had noticed about such things.

“I have always been very transparent with the choir that this is MORE than just a choir. I tell people this from the firs time they come: this is not just turn up, sing, and go home! This is so much more! We organize socials . . . from hiring cinema screens for just cool Choir singalong movie events, picnics in the park, karaoke nights . . . a 2-course served lunch . . . an ornament exchange . . . a sweater contest!”

We asked how Jamie chooses the music that the Cool Choir sings.

“It’s important that you engage the members. I always say that my role has 2 functions: yes, I’m directing a choir, but as an arranger I have to choose music that actually engages. people join this choir to be uplifted: if we’re singing very downbeat, miserable songs, as (some) choirs do , it’s not terribly exciting! And it’s partially the music which uplifts them.

Side view of conductor performing with background of people
Clearly a performer himself, Choir Director Serafi wants to bring you along for the ride. Photo by Neil Speers.

“I’d say my job is, yes to choose songs that people know, but also to introduce people to new songs, to new music basically. We’ve just done that at Christmas: we’ve done a song called ‘The Heart of Christmas’: it’s a very uplifting, soaring Christmas song. kind of country/pop, which NOBODY knows! But every single person has absolutely eaten it alive! They have loved it!

“(On the other hand), they sing the Choir version of (a well-known) song, and the number of times that people have come to me afterwards, weeks in, and said ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but what was one of my most hated songs has become my favourite song since we’ve done it in the choir!’ Because when you create harmonies, when you give a song what I call The Choir Treatment, it enriches it.

“And they seem to go on and love it, for some strange reason! (we both laugh). You’re on this strange journey to convince people, or to discover something.

“ I always say to members it’s like winning the musical lottery for me every week! when I choose a new song, I sit in front of my computer with an electronic choir sound going ‘Ahhhh, Ooohhh, Aaaah’, (playback) software doing whatever it’s doing: but then you take it to a rehearsal and suddenly 100 people bring the arrangements alive, with the human voice! And everything that you’ve imagined in your head, or that you heard a computer play back to you, suddenly plays out in all of its glory!

“And THAT is a thrill that I will never, ever tire of!”

Posted by Carey Rutherford

Author: Carey Rutherford

Swallowed by the mutual loves of words and music (but far too chicken-shit to perform them with a band), Carey’s writing career started slowly as a freelance writer in 2003, starved him nearly to personal bankruptcy until 2008, and changed directions while writing for FastForward, Beacon Calgary, GayCalgary, and Examiner magazines. With the death of many old-school periodicals, and the explosion of musical diversity in Calgary, the modern approach to writing about live music performance in the Calgary region presented uncluttered landscapes for the focussed passion that Carey’s conversations with musicians, drag queens, festival producers and small animals has uncapped. He was moulded by the brilliance of paper-based periodicals old and new (Life, rolling Stone, Swerve! and Adbusters etc.), and sees the info-verse as needing creative, empathetic, but clear-eyed Agents to communicate these performances.