Bob Poutt seats himself at the piano and strikes the opening chords of, “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.” Bright sunshine warms the third-floor room at Vancouver’s 411 Dunsmuir Seniors Centre. Christmas is still three months away, but members of the 411 Multicultural Choir respond with a rousing rendition. Those familiar with the song, that is. Some have never heard it before, but they give it their best try anyway.
Male and female voices from 20 countries, 20 different cultural backgrounds, bound together with a shared love of music, blend joyfully in song. They sing in English, but few of the choir’s 32 members were born here. Most have come from other parts the world, some to escape discrimination, repression and poverty. English is a second language they learn through song and the spoken word. Earlier in life, one or two sang in church choirs or with operatic groups, but for most, singing with a multicultural choir is an exciting new experience.
But singing is not the only glue that binds together this lively, enthusiastic group of seniors who make up the 411 multicultural choir. There is a strong feeling of kinship, of belonging; a sense of friendship, fellowship, fun and, despite cultural differences, joy in their shared interest in music. And there is Bob: the choir’s beloved director.
Three years ago, Vancouver resident Bob Poutt impulsively decided to drop into the 411 Seniors Centre, a facility he knew little about. Picking up a newsletter, an article about a multicultural choir in the process of being formed attracted his attention. Curious, Bob telephoned José Mendosa, 411’s Multicultural Co-ordinator, at the time, to see how the choir’s recently held inaugural meeting had turned out.
“Not very well,” said José, “nobody came.” When he learned that Bob had a strong musical background, José suggested they meet for lunch.
Bob’s family had immigrated to North America’s west coast from Finland when he was a boy, settling where his father could find jobs in the lumber, fishing and mining industries. Bob started piano lessons in 1948, when he was in Grade 8, and received singing instruction after his music teacher, who taught voice, discovered he had a strong, melodious voice.
After graduating from high school, Bob majored in music therapy at UBC, before switching to a career in education. He earned his teaching certificate and, for the next 23 years, taught administrative and supervisory programs at UBC, a position that later, as supervisor, enabled him to utilize his early music therapy training.
At 411, the meeting between Bob and José went well. As Christmas approached, it was arranged that Bob would play Christmas songs at the Centre three times a week. Encouraging sing-along participation, Bob had interested people signing up for a three-prize pre-Christmas raffle. “Just his sneaky way of getting our phone numbers,” quips choir member Virginia, with a smile.
Bob distributed the prizes and sent letters to each person who had signed up, and encouraged them to attend a first rehearsal. Ten people showed up. Since then, the choir has gone from strength to strength and has never looked back. Ranging in age from 45 to 94, almost all the choir’s founding members have stayed with the group, including Betty Shimoda, who says, “I couldn’t sing a note and joined on a dare.”
Meeting every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon, Bob instructs the choir in how to learn music, memorize songs and vocal technique. Appreciative of the quality of instruction they receive, the group works hard to improve their knowledge and skill. “We are serious about our music,” Bob says, “but the approach is relaxed, with the accent on friendship and having fun. And for anyone wishing to join the group, no previous voice training or auditioning is required.”
The choir learns new and seasonal songs throughout the year, with input from everyone. Sharing individual life stories draws the already cohesive group closer. Choristers talk about their homeland; show pictures with maps and photographs. They sing in a multitude of languages - Mandarin, Japanese, Filipino - from memory, spontaneously, and from the heart. Sometimes Bob translates the words into English and the group sings the song together.
Musical instruments - piano, guitar, violin - played by choir members often accompany. For special occasions, zipper songs are sometimes used. To create a zipper song, a familiar melody (such as “Happy Birthday”) is chosen. Arnaldo, a talented Filipino, or Bob, create a lyric that suits the occasion and can be sung with the melody. When a piece of music is particularly irresistible, the lively group may get up and dance.
The choir enjoys road trips. Not to distant venues, but to hospitals, senior residences and community centres throughout the Lower Mainland. They have visited Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, the Holy Family Hospital and Mount Saint Joseph’s, to name a few. A young-at-heart, upbeat group, they like mingling with the audience, encouraging others to participate in sing-a-longs, dancing and clapping.
Without exception, the group attributes the choir’s success to the knowledgeable, friendly, professional expertise of its director. “Without Bob, we wouldn’t have a choir. He keeps us coming back, week after week,” they enthuse.
Bob laughs. “We’ve had three wonderful years together. They are my therapy group; a joy and a blessing.”
DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
New members welcome. No previous singing experience or audition required.
Contact: Bob Poutt, Choir Director
411 Dunsmuir Street Seniors Centre (3rd floor)
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