As in many other Unitarian congregations, most services at the Unitarian Church of Calgary (UCC) end with everyone singing “Spirit of Life”. But that’s about as predictable as music there gets. During the service, congregants may have heard from one of three resident choirs. After the service, they might gather for the annual chamber music concert. And one weekend every spring, an enthusiastic crowd shows up for the church’s cabaret, a theme-based musical extravaganza that has ranged from “A Rock and Roll Odd-yssey” to “Goofy Greats and Comedy Classics”.
Jane Perry didn’t originate all of these elements of the church’s music program. But she can take credit for many of them, and even those she didn’t invent still bear her imprint. A classically-trained pianist, Perry had served as music director for over a decade at the Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa when a somewhat unexpected move to Calgary coincided with a vacancy in the music director position at UCC. Perry readily applied for the position, which offered her a chance to work again with Rev. Debra Faulk, who’d served alongside her as a student minister in Ottawa and was equally eager to resume their collaboration.
“Jane [has an] amazing ability to bring out the best in people singing, to honour people wherever they are, and to encourage the whole congregation to be the choir,” says Faulk.
Indeed, it wasn’t long after Perry arrived that it began to seem as though the whole congregation literally was the choir. From a little over 20 singers when she took up her post, UUphonia — the church’s unauditioned mixed-voice choir — grew to a peak of 45, almost a third the size of the congregation, attracting new members from both within the church and the wider community. The remarkable growth surpassed Perry’s initial hopes of growing the choir “a little”, but she’s modest about the formula for her success.
“I think that perhaps people were just waiting to see if the new director was any good, and once people realized they could come and have a good time at choir, that their friends were enjoying choir, more people started showing up,” she says.
Fun is a key element of UUphonia rehearsals, which kick off with a light-hearted warm up in which Perry encourages choristers to “pant like puppies” or attempt any one of a number of musical tongue twisters. Lots of laughing happens at practice, but Perry has also introduced a more serious side with a weekly “joys and concerns” segment, an experience she says choristers look forward to and that has brought them closer together beyond Thursday nights.
“Choir is more than just choir practice,” confirms Faulk. “It’s a community.”
Perry’s development of the music program at UCC has featured a mix of tradition and innovation. She knew there was no question about retaining the church cabaret, although she has worked hard to improve its quality with changes such as individual coaching sessions for performers. She also discovered that, as befits a prairie city, the church community likes folk and roots music, something that inspired her to form a tribute band that performs in services devoted to the music and philosophy of artists such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone.
New features, in turn, have included two choirs in addition to UUphonia: the Multigenerational Choir, a chance for parents and kids to sing together (sometimes with kazoos); and Chor Vida, an auditioned chamber choir that performs everything from Renaissance music to pop and jazz periodically throughout the year. There’s also the chamber concert, which Perry started along with a member of the congregation who’s a cellist in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.
But while Perry’s innovations may be unique within Canadian Unitarianism, the challenges she’s faced are familiar, among them choristers’ discomfort with singing words such as “God”.
“For me as a choir director, the challenge in this is that there is so much good choral music that includes those sorts of words, and I find myself having either to exclude such pieces or to use them only sparingly through a choral season,” says Perry. “It’s not that I want Canadian UU choirs to be singing the word “God” every Sunday — it’s just that I’d like the room to be able to choose a piece that moves me and that I think will move my choir and my congregation whether it has the word ‘God’ in it or not.”
Perry’s goals for the future, however, extend beyond her own congregation. While she’d like to help UCC’s singers and musicians continue to become the best they can be, whether through new music to consider or choral workshops, she’s also eager to see them representing the church at what she sees as a time of increasing insularity.
“I think that it’s our job as Canadian Unitarians to make sure that we keep extending hands across the walls, keep building bridges, keep reaching out to others, going to where they are, inviting them to come to where we are so that we can learn more about each other. I think that’s really the basis for a healthy community, that we continue to learn about those around us and continue to build and strengthen bonds.”