For Rev. Blair Odney, there is a particular power in choral music.
It lies in the relationships of the singers to each other and to the music. It lies in the human struggle to learn the notes as individuals and meld them in a collective musical whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
“Music, for me, is a replication of what it means to connect to the holy other, particularly in choral music,” Odney said. “When individual singers connect to something larger, there is a moment when it happens; when we touch something that is holy, sacred, beautiful.”
He’s lived that experience throughout his life as a chorister, as a musician, as a conductor.
Now he’s inviting people to come share the experience with him – in particular, the people of the LGBTQ+ community.
Odney, the minister at Queens Avenue United Church, is launching a new choir: the Rainbow Chorus of New Westminster. It’s open to singers of all ages and backgrounds who identify as part of the queer community, plus allies.
“The church has done a lot of damage in the LGBTQ2S+ community over a lot of years,” Odney said, “and while the United Church of Canada has done some significant work in studying human sexuality, people are still in trauma over the way the church writ large – the small-c church – has rejected them.
“The community is in trauma about it.”
The new choir is born out of that recognition. It grew out of a focus group Odney conducted before Christmas with members of the queer community.
The Rainbow Chorus isn’t a “religious” choir, and its repertoire won’t be based in specifically sacred music.
“This isn’t going to be a church choir, but nothing I do, ever, is outside the realm of what my faith is about, and I believe that all music is sacred,” Odney said.
“I’ve developed this choir to say, what would it be like to gather the queer community to make music together? Will I proselytize? No.”
Odney is working alongside accompanist Amy Stephen, a teacher, choral director and multi-instrumentalist who’s skilled on Celtic harp, piano, accordion and penny whistle.
Together, they’ll lead singers in an array of choral arrangements of familiar and popular songs. For the inaugural term, Odney has chosen a selection of music that includes This Is Me from The Greatest Showman, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Abba’s Dancing Queen, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, and Sting’s Fields of Gold, among others.
Choir welcomes singers of all skill, experience levels
Already, 32 singers have signed up, all of whom have found the choir through social media and word of mouth. Their backgrounds are varied – there’s a lifelong classical musician; there’s a musicologist from Russia; there are a handful of singers who can’t read music at all.
Most excitingly for a choral director, there’s a balanced mix of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses to achieve the right four-part blend.
“I’m blown away at the response,” Odney said.
Odney welcomes singers of all skill and experience levels, and no audition is required.
He had originally planned to start rehearsals Jan. 17, but the changing COVID-19 pandemic pushed that back – first to the end of January, and now until March 14. Odney plans to host a sing-along before that for the new folks who aren’t sure of their vocal range so he can place them appropriately.
He doesn’t want the choir to be onerous for singers or place heavy demands on their time between Monday night rehearsals.
“I want people to come and have a two-hour experience of fun,” he said. “We learn some music; we get better at it. … We’re going to sing lovely songs, and we’ll hopefully have fun doing it.”
Ultimately, Odney would like the choir to perform in public. He’s hoping to take a set of 10 pieces to the stage this year, perhaps in a Sunday concert connected to Pride celebrations.
“I just hope it’s a really rich experience. I hope it sets something in motion that outlives me, that it becomes an absolute community endeavour, that the queer community coalesces around music in a celebration of all that’s beautiful and holy and good and begins to be claimed by that. You can call it God if you want to,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful and easy and beautiful entry point into being part of something that’s bigger than yourself.”
NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 21 with a new rehearsal start date.
Want to know more or sign up?
For more about the choir, check out its Facebook page.
Singers who’d like to join can fill out an application form online.
You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions.