Choir! Choir! Choir! on the benefits of singing

One Toronto choir group shows how you don't have to be the best singer in the world to sing your heart out.

By Denis Seguin

Choir! Choir! Choir! on the benefits of singing
Photography by Joseph Fuda
When was the last time you sang? Not crooning in the shower, mindless humming or while-you-work whistling, but honest-to-goodness vocal expression of music? And in front of strangers, without the benefit of alcoholic stimulation?

Quite a while, in my case. It's a November night, and I'm climbing the stairs of No One Writes to the Colonel, an oddly named Toronto bar. The young woman at the door is welcoming. "Have fun," she says, as I exchange five dollars for a sheet of lyrics. Fun? I doubt it. A glance at the song list is not inspiring: Alice Cooper's "Go to Hell" and The Sex Pistols' "Liar."

This has been the lottery of Choir! Choir! Choir! for the past three years. Every Tuesday at No One Writes to the Colonel, and every Wednesday at the Monarch Tavern down the street, 
people show up, stand together and sing two songs per night. And maybe have a drink—or two.

Originally conceived as a "happening" to be entitled "Mr. Nobu and His Choir of 1,000 Voices," C!C!C! is a happy accident of Canada's fractured but unbroken social scene, with roots as far as Halifax. "It was something you talk about and never do," says Nobu Adilman, the man who conceived the operation.

It was 2009. There was a surprise party for a musician friend of a friend, and Nobu was tasked with arranging the music. Rather than hiring a DJ or live band, Nobu assembled a choir. Thirteen people and a guitarist performed "Magic" by '70s Scottish pop band Pilot. "We stumbled through a practice and it was super fun," says Nobu. Everyone at the party agreed: This was something to pursue. Nothing happened. Years passed. Then, in 2011, Nobu got the nudge he needed when he bumped into the guitarist who played that night, Daveed Goldman. "When are we going to do that choir thing again?" Daveed asked.

Nobu posed the question on Facebook and received 30 responses. Nobu and Daveed borrowed office space from a member on Feb. 4, 2011. "It was one of those ideas that landed at the right moment," says Nobu, "and we haven't stopped."

That's an understatement. After seeing one of the choir's videos, punk pioneer Patti Smith asked C!C!C! to sing with her during a private gig at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Beatles Story, the themed museum in Liverpool, requested C!C!C! record a cover of a John Lennon song. The choir chose "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." The C!C!C! version of Wham!'s "Last Christmas" is on iTunes with all proceeds going to Doctors Without Borders. Leonard Cohen described C!C!C!'s arrangement of "Hallelujah" as "perfect." Word is spreading. Daveed's rabbi was at a conference in Israel where he encountered a California colleague who was extolling the virtues of community building and using C!C!C! as a model. The project has been so successful that the partners have taken the show on the road, setting up a C!C!C! night in Brooklyn, N.Y., last year.

Tonight, there are around 50 of us, but some nights it's closer to 150. "Highs to my right, lows to my left, mids in the middle," says Nobu as he corrals the congregants into their 
diatonic divisions. It's an even mix of newcomers and regulars, and each choir builds itself. The demographic skews young and female, but there are a number of tenors among the talent. 
Safely toward the back of the mids, I watch through the thicket of heads as Daveed launches into "Liar." (Nobu has dedicated this evening to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.) It's surprisingly 
tuneful, and tonight's choir is a quick study. It isn't rocket science, but you've got to get your breathing right.

Lie-lie-lie-lie-liar
You lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.
Tell me why
Tell me why
Why d'you have to lie?

Through starts and stops and frequent admonishments—Nobu and Daveed are fierce critics—the voices are aligned, the harmonies assigned, then refined.

"We strip it down to its bare parts just to hear the song," says Nobu. "We will sing things to each other: Are there places in the margins where we can add some countermelodies?"
 
Recordings cast songs in amber. The genius of C!C!C! lies in cracking the mould, revealing the malleability and resiliency of music. This isn't karaoke, a sad-sack attempt to recreate the 
studio original. The song is just an outline, a road map of chords. And so are the lyrics, as in Nobu's and Daveed's Alice Cooper adaptation, "Go to Hell (Rob Ford)."

"The May-or that Ne-ver should have happen-ed," sing the highs. "No, no, no," Daveed says, then sings, "The may-OR that ne-VER should'VE HAPP-end."

By the third go-round, the highs are trilling, the lows are rumbling and the mids are holding the core. There's a light glow of perspiration on the upturned faces. It's no wonder there have been hookups aplenty. One couple who met at C!C!C! are now engaged. The duo's choir may not have a thousand voices, but Nobu and Daveed have endowed this room with a black-magic glamour that makes the lowliest vocalist feel like Tom Jones.

C!C!C! isn't just about having fun. It's about letting go and getting something back. Have a good time, by all means, but be prepared to bare your soul, if only to yourself. As Daveed tells me, "People are finding something in themselves that they didn't know was there."

Jill, a middle-school teacher and a C!C!C! regular of four months, puts it more succinctly. "It's an instinct," she says. "It feels good to sing." 

Adilman and Goldman recently launched a third weekly session, C!C!C! Minor, part of their efforts to turn a profit and take the model into schools. Tellingly, they charge kids twice as much as adults. Call it "danger pay." But they get results. Anyone who has sat through a primary-school concert would be amazed to hear such clarity of tone.

For more inspiring stories on daring people, read about one woman's journey of becoming a comedian.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Music for the Masses" in the April 2014 issue.
           
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