Spirits rise with the Highs and Lows

Vancouver choir for people who have or have experienced mental illness was founded in 1993

It’s at the end of a joyous rendition of the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” when an unexpected solitary note, more than slightly off key, resonates loudly throughout the gymnasium at the Douglas Park Community Centre.

Later, choir member Seidi Kiviniemi confesses to ad-libbing the note.

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“I wanted everyone to know that it doesn’t matter what you sound like, you can still sing and join the choir,” says Kiviniemi. “I just want everyone to be happy.”

THE HIGHS AND LOWS SING DECK THE HALLS

Happiness is a key component of the Highs and Lows, a “fun and friendly” choir for people living with a mental illness and their friends and family.

The group meets at the community centre each Tuesday for practice under the direction of choirmaster Earle Peach, who tells the Courier he was not previously aware of Kiviniemi’s plan to belt out the final note of “Deck the Halls.”

The memorable performance took place in front of the Wednesday Social Club, which offers activities and outings for young adults with physical and developmental disabilities at the Douglas Park Community Centre.

On the previous day the Highs and Lows performed for the Young at Heart seniors group in a programming room at the community centre, but for the Wednesday show the singers cautiously made their way onto the stage in the gym to take their places in front of a cardboard fireplace adjacent to a folded ping pong table.

For this performance many club members from the audience are in wheelchairs, but their lack of mobility is no match for their love of Christmas carols and those who can’t sway their body instead nod their head and tap their fingers in time with even lesser known songs, such as “Castanets are Sounding.”

The Highs and Lows is a four-part choir with a repertoire of surprisingly difficult pieces, including a haunting rendition of a Sarah Williams poem set to music, “Though my soul may set in darkness it will rise in perfect light, I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night...”

“I used to have them perform songs that are much more complicated and way harder,” says Peach, who conducts three other choirs. “But I decided it was more important to make them feel comfortable than getting up and impressing people.”

But on this Wednesday, it’s traditional carols, such as “Deck the Halls” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” that has the small audience most impressed.

It’s also those same songs that have Peach rolling his eyes. It’s no secret the choral director is not a fan of modern-day Christmas carols and over the course of three visits from the Courier, it’s just as obvious members of the Highs and Lows delight in ribbing him about it.

Following the seniors’ concert Tuesday, several choir members began an impromptu Christmas sing-a-long in the lobby of the main entrance to the community centre, much to Peach’s chagrin. And the more the conductor good-naturedly protests, the louder they sing “Silent night, holy night...”

All of the choir members the Courier spoke to during those visits credit Peach’s good nature with bringing out their inner-singer. With no fear of rejection or ridicule, Peach allows each to find his or her voice.

“A couple of years ago another conductor told me not to sing,” says one grey-haired woman, who asks that her named not be used.

“I was told the same thing as a child, but I love to sing and Earle has no problem with my voice. I want to sing even if I sing the wrong note and Earle doesn’t mind. Singing makes me happy. I read an article about singing helping people with Alzheimer’s and I don’t know why it’s not used more often. People need to know that.”

The Finnish-born Kiviniemi agrees singing helps what ails you.

“Singing helps me naturally with my SADs,” she says, in reference to seasonal affective disorder. “It’s like when the sunshine comes out and everybody’s happy, well that’s what singing does too.”

Kiviniemi says between singing and acupuncture she’s dramatically reduced the amount of medication she previously took for pain and anxiety.

“Singing helps take the blues away and my mind off my pain. Earle puts you up, he’s not like the Dance Mom,” Kiviniemi says referring to a reality TV show about child dancers. “It’s like ooh la la.”

Kiviniemi is queen of the one-liner and throughout the course of several conversations offers this reporter several pieces of advice, including “You don’t need a square chicken,” and “Don’t be a pooh-pooh platter.” Kiviniemi explains it’s her way of kindly reminding an increasingly impolite world that there is no excuse for using swear words, particularly in front of children.

“There’s no need for vegetable soup with F-this and F-that,” she advises.

Kiviniemi agrees Peach has made the choir a welcoming place where even the shyest of members eventually blossoms.

“I used to get nervous, but now it’s easy breezy,” she says.

“I’m a non-yeller,” says Peach when questioned about his easy-going style of conducting. “There’s a difference between yelling and bellowing. I bellow without rancor to get their attention. That seems to work.”

“I’m a little tea pot short and stout.”

“Again.”

“I’m a little tea pot short and stout.”

“Again.”

It’s 30 minutes before the Highs and Lows take to the stage at the Douglas Park Community Centre and Peach has the choir warming up by repeatedly singing the first line of the familiar children’s song in rising octaves.

Dressed in a maroon shirt, grey slacks and dark track shoes, Peach has members of the choir reaching for their toes, slowly rolling back up and taking deep breaths. As Peach rolls forward, his trademark halo of curly hair falls forward and his oversized glasses slip, once again, down his nose.

Returning to a standing position, Peach pushes his glasses back up his nose in a familiar gesture and has the choir sing the notes from Pachelbel’s Canon.

After observing two choir rehearsals, one warm up and two performances, the Courier remarks to Peach that on occasion his efforts look akin to that of herding cats.

“And it can be on some days,” says Peach, laughing. “But that’s the case anytime you put a large group of people together in a room and then try and get their attention once they start talking.”

Peach has been choirmaster of the Highs and Lows for 15 years. The choir, founded in 1993 by mental health administrator Helga Hicks, is funded and falls under the umbrella of the Consumer Initiative Fund (CIF), a branch of Vancouver Coastal Health.

The CIF funds and supports projects proposed, managed and led by people with “lived experience with mental illness.” Each program consists of a manager, a liaison worker or committee member, participants and a coordinator.

To that end the Highs and Lows is managed by Alaric Posey and assistant manager Kevin Elwell, who has a degree in linguistics with a minor in music. Posey also sings with Peach’s wife Barbara Jackson in the a capella quartet Quatro.

Choir members are never asked what mental health issue they live with, but instead are embraced for their love of music no matter how well, or badly, they sing. There are no auditions needed to join and musical experience is not required.

Josh Florence sings with both the Highs and Lows and Gathering Place choirs.

Florence stands out from the other choir members in his appearance, which on this day includes dark jeans, a black leather belt with silver studs, a black and white baseball cap with sunglasses perched on the brim, and blond hair close to touching his shoulders. Not surprisingly, Florence also plays bass in a rock band, which he describes as playing “heavy stuff that peels paint off the walls.”

“But I never sang,” Florence admits, following rehearsal at Douglas Park Community Centre.

“I was afraid to, but I wanted to express myself. Then I heard the choir in the cafeteria of the Gathering Place and decided to join. I was terrified, but it was so much fun.”

Pianist/accompanist Elaine Joe says that transformation is the reason she so enjoys working with the Highs and Lows.

“One woman was afraid of open spaces when she joined, but now after choir she goes and works out,” says Joe who has been working with the choir for almost 13 years. “With this choir when you ask how everyone is, they actually tell you. There are no masks.”

Peach adds because every single singer is a valuable, contributing member of the choir there’s none of the rivalry often found in groups.

“It’s hierarchically flat,” says Peach. “It’s one of the reasons I typically avoid giving anyone a solo.”

It’s a style of managing he evolved while at Carnegie Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside for 16 years. Peach also conducts the Solidarity Notes Labour Choir made up of labour or social activists, as well as Inchoiring Minds.

The warm up prior to the seniors’ concert has already started, but there’s no sign of Kiviniemi. Moments later she rushes into the room dressed in a one-piece, multicoloured snowmobile suit and boots to keep out the cold during her lengthy bus ride from Surrey.

On this day, Kiviniemi’s hair is done up with sparkling clips and her fingernails are painted the same blue splashed across her ski suit.

“Sorry, the bus was seven minutes late,” Kiviniemi tells Peach as she quickly doffs her winter gear and replaces her snow boots with black high heels.

Later Kiviniemi tells the Courier she makes the lengthy return trip to the community centre for choir practice from her Surrey home simply because she enjoys singing with the Highs and Lows.

“Singing helps my self esteem and the choir encourages me to get out of the house and enjoy life,” says Kiviniemi, who unable to resist one last giggle, adds, “It’s like a big, huge oomph.”

The Highs and Lows has completed its 2013 season, but the next session begins at Douglas Park Community Centre Jan. 8, and everyone who has experienced a mental illness is welcome to join.

The choir will learn new music in January and February and anyone interested in joining can drop by the community centre, 801 West 22nd Ave., on Tuesday afternoons where rehearsals run from noon to 1:45 p.m.

sthomas@vancourier.com
twitter.com/sthomas10
 

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