Choir uses music to bridge culture, memory

Special to Western News

Danxu Ma, a Music Education master’s student, has hit a high note in the London Chinese community as the founder of the London Chinese Intergenerational Choir.

Ma came to Western from Beijing, China, in 2014 and experienced feelings of anxiety over the cultural differences between her home and her new life as a student in Canada.

After attending the Don Wright Faculty of Music Research Day last October, she was inspired by a performance of the Intergenerational Choir Project, a collaboration between the Alzheimer Society London and Middlesex, Sisters of St. Joseph and Medway High School. Designed for those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and their caregivers, this group brings together singers of all ages to share music.

This performance, and her own singing experiences, inspired Ma to start the London Chinese Intergenerational Choir.

“The Chinese Intergenerational Choir is a small community in which we celebrate our music culture,” Ma said. “I see the value of this choir for younger people who were born in Canada or immigrated with their family at an early age. This experience gives them a memory of Chinese melody and a good chance to let them know their parents’ culture.”

Music has a way of bringing people together, connecting generations across language and cultural barriers. To put her idea into motion, Ma spread the word about her idea amongst the Chinese student and immigrant community.

After the first rehearsal date was set, anxiety set in about whether anyone would show up and, if they did, could they sing? A friend of hers, a Mechanical Engineering PhD student, expressed doubts about his ability to sing in tune. Her answer: “One of the solutions to singing out of tune is to sing softly, listening more to the people singing around you. Remember, if you are not sure whether you are in the tune or not, please do not sing louder and try to ‘correct’ others.”

As Ma grappled with the logistics of organizing a choir, people came forward to help.

A Western faculty member volunteered rehearsal space free of charge. Another music student, Cherry (Yichuan) Zhang, offered her services as an accompanist. One of the singers is a member of the London Chinese Association, which offered travel insurance, a rehearsal space and greater access to the London community and performance opportunities.

Unlike professional choirs, which have auditions to evaluate members’ musical backgrounds, Ma welcomes people of all musical abilities and experience. The first songs the choir performed were Do Re Mi (from The Sound of Music) and Jasmine Flower (Mo Li Hua). By choosing such familiar melodies, the collection of strangers harmonized, she said.

“People were familiar with the melody, but they didn’t know each other, so using well-known songs made them feel comfortable getting involved in the choir and engaging with the music.”

Ma also translated the five-line staff to the Chinese numbered musical notation to assist the elder members who can read that type of notation. She also rewrote some sections to simplify complex harmony.

“Most of the seniors in the group are female and very enthusiastic about the choral experience. We discussed (the idea) to set up a goal, so we have an aim for each rehearsal, rather than randomly singing,” she continued.

The choir’s first goal was to participate in the 2016 London Chinese New Year Celebration, sponsored by the London Chinese Association.
After each practice, Ma asks the members to share their thoughts and feelings about improvements to singing or understanding music. The choir also makes some operational decisions together, such as repertoire.

One of the older choristers remarked: “I am glad to know and have activities with the next generation of Chinese students. They are shy, but confident, just like when I first came to Canada.”
Ma sees the value for both the young and senior members of the choir.

“This is a community for lifelong learning, improving the quality of life, and sharing the happiness. We offer a warm harbour in our approach to community music education,” she said.