Longtime chorister Rachel Manko Lutz heard a consistent story when she worked for the Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia: loneliness. “People weren’t getting enough opportunity to practice English and meet Canadians—and feeling a sense of loneliness and isolation that is quite common among newcomers,” she said.
Manko Lutz had sung in choirs for most of her life, and did her master’s thesis on how to teach English through choral singing. She met Rebecca McCauley at a choir camp, and they came up with the idea for the Newcomer Choir. The principle: All are welcome — you don’t need to know how to sing, how to speak any particular language, or show up with any past expertise.
Five singers attended when the Halifax Newcomer Choir first met in November 2021 at St. Andrew’s United. Now, 35 regulars come together every Tuesday evening to learn English, make music and connect with others.
“I tried to search for many choirs because I like to sing, but most of them required some good experience and also there was some high hurdles,” said St. Mary’s University student Ayaka Shingu. “But this choir is so very different, because I can show up any time and this choir is meant for newcomers, so this atmosphere is so homey. I feel relieved when I come here.”
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Rehearsal break times are used for people to talk to each other—always in English. After breaks, singers report back on who they spoke to and what they learned. “I just moved here last October. Before I came [to choir], I had no friends,” said chorister Ruth Jin. “But when I’m here, I say, wow, so many nice people. Every time I’m here, I got to know more people.”
The Newcomer Choir sings from a songbook compiled by Manko Lutz—mostly pop and folk songs, though more straightforward choral works have been added recently. When they’re not preparing for a specific event, choristers request their favourites for rehearsal time— traditional ballad ”I’se the B’y” and The Tragically Hip’s “Ahead by a Century” are regular picks.
Below: The choir practices “Sisi Ni Moja” by Jacob Narverud
Rehearsal time also includes vocal techniques, breathwork and pronunciation. “And in this way, you can improve your English because you can improve your vocabulary reading the songs and your pronunciation as well,” said Marcio Silva, who’s been with the choir almost since the beginning. “Here [is] different from the English classes, for example, that don’t teach you how precise we need to say some words. You realize how these little things can enrich your performance in the songs and your life every day, day by day.”
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The choir has also made connections between choristers and the broader community—for English lessons, networking opportunities and job application help. The choir has sung several times at seniors’ homes in the area and at St. Andrew’s United.
“[The seniors’ concerts] really locked in a sense that we were performing, which raised the bar for everyone—knowing they had to have a whole hour of music to go out and sing,” said Manko Lutz. “It solidified the idea that we could offer something broader to the community. So often newcomers are perceived as being the recipients of generosity, and it’s so nice to be in a position to offer something of creative value to others.”
Manko Lutz’s vision for the future includes a variety of choirs for newcomers of all ages, from babies to seniors, with music workshops and touring opportunities to meet other newcomers across the country. In the shorter term, if you live in Nova Scotia, you can catch the Newcomer Choir at the Nova Scotia Choral Federation’s Robbie Songs Project concert on April 30 and at the Halifax Public Library on July 29.
Kate Spencer is a writer in Halifax.
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