Monterey School Choir

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Lorna Griffiths was not your average school teacher. Mrs. Griffiths, as the students knew her, had the rare ability to extract the best out of each student by setting the bar high, yet when it wasn’t reached there was never a sense of inadequacy or failure. I remember, as a grade five student, Mrs. Griffiths bringing an entire class to a halt in order to play “Seven Up” as a way of relieving the tension that may have been building up- mostly hers, I’m sure. If you were to ask me how we played the game today I would be able to give vague instructions about putting my head down on the desk and giving hand signals of some kind. The details aren’t as important as the collective sigh that we let out just as a tidal wave of frustration was about to overwhelm the class during a math lesson. Lorna seemed to know just when to pull the plug, especially on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend, when nothing more was going to be crammed into brains that were focused on anything but math.

Mrs. Griffiths had high standards for the Monterey School Choir and conducted auditions every year. It wasn’t an easy audition. She would have candidates stand beside her at the piano as they sang the national anthem while she banged away at a completely unrelated tune. It wasn’t because she didn’t know how to play the piano, it was just her way of finding out if we could carry the tune despite the cacophony of loud and dissonant sounds that competed with our voice. It’s amazing to think of that process now in an age where everyone is seen as having equal access to a school program, and it explains the difference between achieving a caliber of excellence as individuals who are part of a disciplined group and a sense that group activities need to accommodate to each individual member. Even the concept seems harsh given the decades of recalibration that have taken place in the school system as a whole. My sense is that the gift offered by Mrs. Griffiths in the 1960s would not be allowed to flourish today and, indeed, Lorna took a position at the local university not long after we moved from elementary to high school. Whether it was because her talents were far more suited to serious music students than to the public school system or because she was scouted to be part of the Faculty, I knew even then that we were blessed to have had the experience of practicing perfection under Lorna Griffiths.

Although perfection is unattainable by even the most professional singers and musicians, understanding the artistic standard and setting goals that seems to far exceed the capabilities of children stretches their abilities further than could have been thought possible. Whether it was the choice of timeless music, the focus on enunciation, the intricacies of three and four part harmonies, solo performances, the etiquette expected travelling to or performing in festivals or the privilege of rehearsing for and cutting a record, Mrs. Griffiths presented the members of the Monterey School Choir with challenges that developed skills and character. When, as in the classroom, those challenges were proving to be overwhelming Mrs. Griffiths would blurt out a zinger to break the tension or use a self-deprecating tag line at the end of a long explanation: “Clear as mud?”. She could also get our attention by catching us off guard. When learning the words to a Scottish tune, for example, the lyrics were getting jumbled by a bunch of Canadian kids. She stopped us mid-bar to announce that the phrase was not “young and fresh shit”, but rather “young and fresh it”- the perfect way to put the requisite smile on our faces as we went back to bar one. Later, as a theatre and speech teacher, I used many of Lorna’s tactics to prepare kids of the same age for performing arts festival appearances. The tactics included tricks, like creating such a sense of unity that we wanted to get it right ourselves without having to be constantly chided by a teacher. I remember the threat of having the Soprano singer next to me turn me in if my Second Soprano harmonies didn’t begin on the proper note. We all wanted to raise the bar when it came to our performance because of the atmosphere created by the choir mistress.

I remember making the record you are about to hear. It was long-anticipated, coming at the end of the year. Presumably this was to maximize our practice time and to weed out any of the choir members who weren’t willing to put in the necessary work to learn the songs. We had performed many of the pieces throughout the year, sometimes at school concerts, sometimes at the Choir Festival and one time in particular “off island” at a venue in White Rock. I know that we sang on the ferry at one time or another so maybe we did a performance as part of that trip. I’m sure my choir-mates, many of whom still stay in touch via a school Facebook group, might have conflicting memories or may be able to clear up anything that I’m making up on the spot, but suffice to say it was an action-packed year which culminated in a recording session at the University of Victoria. One of my prominent memories is of Mrs. Griffiths emerging from the tech booth having just listened to one of the cuts, and telling us that we may as well go home if that was the kind of performance we were going to turn in. I was petrified that the school bus was about to roll up in front of the building and we would be hustled back to Monterey in defeat. I’m sure it’s akin to being on a sports team, something that I had literally no experience with as a theatre and music kid where “the show must go on”. We were given a little time to think about it as I recall, and when we came back together I seem to remember a tear coming to Mrs. Griffiths’ eye when we knuckled under and gave what was probably one of our best performances.

I hope that this crackly chestnut will bring back amazing memories if yours is one of the voices on this recording. If you are an aspiring singer, a teacher, a parent or music lover of any kind the pieces may give you a new or renewed sense of what’s possible when children are given the kind of leadership we were blessed to receive as part of the Monterey School Choir.

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