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Achill Choral Society holding three ‘open house’ rehearsals

January 2, 2020   ·   0 Comments


You are invited to three Open House Rehearsals of the Achill Choral Society, whose Christmas concert this year in Orangeville sold out some ten days before the performance. 

They are inviting people to come and sing with them initially at their first three rehearsals of the New Year (2020) Wednesdays: January 8, 15 and 22 at St. John’s Anglican Church, 3907 Highway 9 (south side). The rehearsals run from 7 to 9:15 p.m. 

In a telephone conversation, conductor Shawn Grenke said the open house rehearsals normally take place in September “but we thought, why not do one in January when people could join and be able to participate next Christmas?”

He went on to tell us about the content of the planned rehearsals, “The spring concert [to be performed] is quite an array of music – Broadway musicals and folk songs from across Canada, starting in the East Coast and to B.C., arranged by Howard Cable. He was a wonderful Canadian arranger, very widely admired, who arranged folk songs to be sung by choirs.

“There’s so much harmony with choirs, so much of interest happening in the music.” 

As for the open houses, “I think this is something we’ll do bi-yearly. We want the community to feel that they can be a part of this choir and that we are not an elitist group that you have to be a musician to join.”

Up until now, “this was more done in-house through the membership. That way, there were 10 or 12 new people join but I’m hoping to do better than that. I would love the number of the choir to be 85 to 90 members strong.

“Auditions are more as vocal placements rather than the whole thing,” he remarked. “It’s an amateur community choir. If you will learn the music on your own by listening to it and with sectional rehearsals, at homes and at rehearsals – it really speeds up the learning process so much and is really beneficial for everybody.”

Mr. Grenke has a life full of music: “I have a 45-member church choir but it has professionals in it at Eglinton St. George’s in Toronto. There is a plan for Achill to sing there in 2021. 

“I went to Mount Allison University in New Brunswick to study music, then to University of Toronto in Organ Performance; Choral Conducting was a minor.” 

Further back, “I began playing the organ when I was actually looking for a part-time job and I answered an ad for a church organist. So, I applied for it, in Belleville. I got the job, honestly, I don’t know how. I was 15 and my mom had to drive me to the interview. 

“I had been studying the piano; I started but, by the end of high school, I was playing at an ARCT level.

“I just kind of faked it at the church until I did it. I would start taking organ lessons with William Maddox who is now playing at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. I liked it so much that was what I wanted to do. Then, I went off to university to study it.”

As the world turns, “Organs are disappearing from traditional churches, a large part of it is, you’re seeing more and more in concert halls. As society becomes more secular, the organ is being taken a different way; it was seen mainly as a liturgical instrument but now is being used for secular music. 

“Even in Toronto, you see churches being closed and turned into other buildings. Sadly, a lot of the pipe organs are being torn down with the churches but it costs thousands of dollars to pack up and store the pipes of an organ. They do go to fundamentalist churches. They are doing well and building new churches. A lot of these pipe organs are going into these new churches – it does a really good job at leading hymns.”

He commented, “You look at a church like Westminster [United in Orangeville], doing well. We are so privileged to be a part of that. We love to do our Orangeville concerts there and it’s a privilege to go there. 

“In the past, the choir had done concerts at Westminster. I think when I started working with the Achill, I wanted to be in an open space and sing with a grand piano.

“When the choir decided to hire an accompanist for rehearsals every week as well as our concerts and that was Nanci Sicsic. It worked out so well. She’s been such a help for me because I have had to conduct from the piano and this has been a real help. 

“When I’m on tour with the Elmer Iseler Singers, she can take over. I am also Associate Conductor with the Amadeus Choir. Their new [lady] conductor is wonderful, really nice. 

“Women conductors are more with choirs and I think it’s changing too in orchestras, which I think is great. There’s a woman conductor in Hamilton [Philharmonic Orchestra], Gemma New, and she’s doing wonderful things there.”

For the Open House Rehearsals, “People will arrive; there’ll be a meet and greet, vocal warm ups to prepare for rehearsal. What I generally like to do is to sing through the concert content. It will be more of review of what we’re planning to do. We’ll socialize at the beginning and then snacks later and talk. And people can buy 50/50 tickets.

“Anybody that’s new, we’ll invite them to come back to two or three rehearsals.”

He said, “I’m a real firm believer that anybody can sing if they try. One member makes tracks for every section so you can hear how that section sounds. Then, we get a recording of the whole pieces.”

He summed it up, “We often do get people who have never sung with a choir at all: it’s very different from, say, a pottery class. When people come together in music, it is such a magical thing. My vision for the choir is, I would like to see the choir tour. They would really enjoy that and it would be something to look forward to. 

“It’s also important to pay attention to the average age of the members,” He boasted, “We still have original members; at the bottom age, we take from high school up.” 

Mr. Grenke added, “One of the unique things to remember is Achill doesn’t relay on government support. They are really good at fundraising. So many Toronto choirs depend on grants from arts organizations. Achill is by no means rich but they are able to stay financially viable because of the way they manage their finances.

“I have been involved with the choir since 2003 because I was playing the piano for them. When they originally called me to help, they didn’t realize that I was a conductor as well. I’m Hamilton-based. The choir has always been special to me because I have been with them for so long. I come to rehearsals up Highway 6 and the back ways. I give myself one and a half hour to get here. I just zig zag north until I get here. 

“I think that people who haven’t sung in a choir before, they don’t what they’re missing. People leave uplifted. There’s so much negativity and trauma in people’s lives. Singing in the choir during rehearsals, they can just forget it for the time being and come home lighter,” he offered as encouragement to come.

If you would to like attend these Open House Rehearsals, please RSVP to



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