Cantiamo Girls Choir nurtures and challenges

Cantiamo Girls choir at their annual fall camp and workshop.

By Anne and Mario Cappelli

The Cantiamo Choirs of Ottawa (CCO) is led by the renowned Jackie Hawley and it is quite simply much more than “just a choir.” It is also an all-girls environment that is supportive, nurturing, non-judgemental, a place where you are challenged, where you can step out of your comfort zone, and of course, where beautiful music is created. Jackie unabashedly shares her passion for singing and music with the parents and choristers. She has the ability to form a genuine connection with all of the young girls and teens and the skill to teach and bring to performance-ready a demanding repertoire, all within about two hours per week!

Cantiamo Choirs of Ottawa actually consists of four choirs beginning with the Primary Choir at age five up to the Cantiamo Girls Choir of Ottawa to age 19. Cantiamo is known nationally and internationally as a leading youth choir. Jackie Hawley is the founding artistic director of CCO and of Nipiit Katittut –Voices United (NKVU). The artistic team includes Leslie Bricker, Kathy Goodsell, Teresa Van den Boogaard and Dian Wilke.

I recently sat in on a regular Monday rehearsal to see first-hand the magic that happens each week and had the opportunity to chat with Jackie Hawley about Cantiamo and its future. Here are some of her ideas.

Jackie Hawley, founding artistic director of the Cantiamo Girls Choir. Photos: Courtesy of CCO

Why an all-girls choir?

Before Cantiamo was “official” it was a gathering of a group of singers to support a composer who needed choristers to sing one of his works at a festival. The group of singers that came out happened to be all girls. We started to receive other invitations to perform, a few more singers were invited and again it was all girls who accepted. When we decided to officially become a choir I decided to stay with all girls because that is authentically how we began. I kept it only girls because it made sense for repertoire selection, rehearsal approach and travel. It has made for invaluable opportunities for development of leadership skills and personal confidence.

Choral and communal singing is having a resurgence. Why do you feel this is?

Human beings need to sing! It is natural and necessary. Human beings need one another. It is fundamental to our survival! In this time of devastating social disconnection, we are experiencing extremely damaging physical, mental and societal issues. I have been an educator for over 30 years and have never seen so much anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in our young people. I am convinced social isolation is a huge part of the cause.

Cantiamo had the opportunity to work with Craig Kielburger and the National Arts Centre on building community through music. Craig mentioned that when he builds a new school in Africa the first thing he does is start a choir. In his experience all over the world, nothing connects people as deeply and quickly as communal singing. All over the world there are more and more “community sings” happening and people are experiencing the personal and group joy that results from singing together. Neuroimaging and brain research indicates that there is a positive change in brain chemistry when people sing together. We must have daily singing back in our schools for all of our students and the adults who work with them!

What do you see next for Cantiamo? 

We are confident in our motto: “music – leadership – community,” and will continue to nurture a dynamic, vibrant, relevant choral education experience. There will be an expansion of our focus on mentoring with increased opportunities for alumni to be more involved. There will also be an increase in our educational engagement activities locally as well as nationally. In our 16-year history, we have premiered one or more Canadian compositions annually, most of which were commissioned by Cantiamo. We will continue to commission and premiere new Canadian works every season. In the past three years we have added two more choral education levels to our organization and we continue to grow steadily in numbers. I see a thriving, joyful future for the Cantiamo Choirs of Ottawa!

There most definitely is something positive and healthy about singing together. As rehearsal wraps up, you can’t help but notice a few more smiles on faces, a little more energy in the air and lots of girls (and parents) humming along as they leave the building and head for home.

Anne and Mario Cappelli are Glebe residents and parent volunteers with CCO. Their daughter has been a chorister with Cantiamo for six years.

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