The Hippest Chorus

By Kevin McKay


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No shortage of choirs for seniors in the Lower Mainland exists, but there are none quite like the PALS Chorus from the West End of Vancouver. What sets this chorus apart is not talent, though they have plenty of that, nor camaraderie, though they have that in abundance. No, what sets this group apart is their repertoire of modern pop songs from artists like Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Adele, along with some bold choreography. Though the chorus is relatively new, they have come a long way in just a few short years.

The acronym PAL stands for Performing Arts Lodge, a residence for former members of the performing arts community, whether in theatre, music, film or otherwise. PALs Chorus President, Bill Harvey, a now-retired staff member at PAL Vancouver is, at 72, one of the co-founders of the chorus.

“In 2008, we started looking at ways to make the Lodge a more viable member of the community,” says Bill. “We decided to develop a choir and applied for a federal New Horizons For Seniors grant, which we received in 2010. Our goal was to engage the wider community and to make PAL an important player in the cultural life of the West End and Coal Harbour communities.”

With funding secure, the choir started advertising for members both from within the PAL building and from the neighbouring communities. Once the grant money ran out, it was important to the chorus that they not become a burden to PAL.

“We established ourselves as an independent organization last summer,” says Bill. “We are autonomous and maintain our own bank account. The quid pro quo with PAL is that we provide free membership in the chorus to PAL residents, and in return we are given free access to the theatre for rehearsals.”

The first musical director of the group was Dominique Hogan and while the choir really enjoyed working with her, she was busy with other projects and moved on after only one year in charge. She did not, however, leave the chorus without a replacement.

“Dominique suggested Lonnie Delisle, who is a fantastic musician and a wonderful human being,” says Bill. “We have been very fortunate to have him as he has great ideas on music and direction, and inspires our members enormously. We have also been very fortunate to have Barb Brolly as a member of our chorus. In addition to providing some great ideas for selections, Barb has been a key member of our management team, and has unselfishly given her time to lead all our sectional rehearsals. Between Lonnie and Barb, we have a formidable team that brings forward exciting and well-presented concerts.”

Seventy-one-year-old Anna James comes from a musical background, having taught music in the school system, and having belonged to several choirs over the years. She was singing in one choir and looking for another when she heard the PAL group advertising for singers.
“I’m really happy to be part of the chorus,” says Anna. “I enjoyed it from the start but once Lonnie became our director you will have to drag me away. He provides us with MP3s of our songs, using his voice, to allow us to practise at home.”

The PALS Chorus is an example of the perfect blend of talent.

“Many members of the chorus made their living in performing arts, and they really set the tone,” says Anna. “Lonnie draws that out of us too. There is no playing the ‘senior card’ around him. The group is unique because age is not a factor and the quality is so high.”

Eve Rockett is a writer, who has been published by everyone from *Chatelaine* to *Maclean’s* to *Canadian Living* and back again. She says, “When I was a girl I used to go into a forest near our home all by myself so I could sing ‘Indian Love Call’ at the top of my lungs. For 50 years, that was the last time I really sang out loud. Twenty years ago, I took a Charisma course in New York to write an article about it for *Chatelaine*. I mentioned singing in the forest and burst into tears. My Charisma instructor told me I must sing. So here I am, 20 years after that advice, finally and happily singing out loud.”

After her husband died, Eve was looking for something new and saw the chorus performing at a pancake breakfast. She joined on the spur of the moment and has not looked back. She credits having to memorize the new songs with helping improve her memory and enjoys having something new to focus on.

“I love to see things come together, and with this group they are doing so more and more quickly,” says Eve. “Being with this group is like typing one finger over - you never know what is going to come out next.”

Fifty-nine-year-old Don Griffiths is another newcomer to singing, joining the chorus at the same time as Lonnie. The first thing he discovered is that he is not a bass but a tenor. At first, the group surprised him, but now he enjoys having the group surprise others.

“When we started, Lonnie wanted us to consider doing choreography for ‘Time Warp’ and I thought I didn’t need to worry because they’d all say no and we wouldn’t do it, but I was wrong. Many people think older people are unwilling to try new things, and just sit on their rockers, but instead we rock out!”

Don’s partner, Nan Gregory, is another relative newcomer to choirs. She sang in a choir years ago, but was only there a few months because she was in fear of coming in at the wrong time. She says, “I felt all alone in that choir.”

Nan never joined another chorus until getting involved with PALS Chorus a couple of years ago. She attributes her renewed interest in singing to taking an overtones workshop taught by Jerry DesVoignes.

“Following that amazing workshop, I felt so happy! I attributed it to singing with other people. After that, I wanted to sing in a chorus because it felt so good blending my voice with others. My theory is that it’s the physical vibrations but, whatever the reason, I just know I feel really good.”

Now she looks forward to weekly rehearsals and social gatherings like potluck lunches and retreats, and cannot imagine giving it up.

“I will stick with them until they cart me away,” says Nan. “It’s the one thing in my week guaranteed to make me feel better. I’ve now discovered the healing power of singing with others. It’s not just mental; it’s emotional and spiritual too. It keeps you young.”

It should come as no surprise that the admiration the chorus has for their director is reciprocated. Forty-five-year-old Lonnie Delisle comes from a music background, specializing in keyboards and voice. He saw the documentary *Young @ Heart* and was inspired by it, so he jumped at the chance to work with the chorus. Once they met and decided it was a fit, the relationship started to grow to mean more than just making music.

“There is quite a depth to the way they connect with and care for one another,” says Lonnie. “My partner came from South Africa, and it was very difficult for him to get here. They knew this and were very celebratory when he arrived. He looks to them as being part of his family. He is not used to finding that kind of thoughtfulness amongst people of the PALS generation, and finds it refreshing and redemptive.”

But in the end, it is about the music. Lonnie introduces songs to the chorus for them to consider and, sometimes, the PALS suggest songs as well. They discuss the selections, Lonnie writes an arrangement and they move forward to rehearsing. Lonnie says, “The conversations are very thoughtful and they are able to articulate their opinions. Then they trust me to take them down musical roads they may not like and, at first seem odd or scary, but we all end up enjoying the process and loving the result. They are fun and they are thoughtful, a delight to lead and that is a good combination. They are unique.”

To join this chorus or find out more, check out their website at palschorus.com or call 604-790-6950.

The PALS chorus will be performing at an AIDS benefit on May 19 at the Gazebo in English Bay, and their year-end matinee and evening performances will take place Sunday, June 9 at the PAL Studio Theatre. Tickets will be available at the door or online at brownpapertickets.com

Recruiting of prospective members for the fall season is underway, so if you are over 55 and love to sing, the PALS Chorus wants YOU! Rehearsals are held every Monday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. in the PAL Studio Theatre (8th floor, 581 Cardero St. at Georgia), and the fall season kicks off on Monday, September 9th. This fun chorus would also welcome an opportunity to perform in your community! For more information, email palschorus@gmail.com, and visit their website at www.palschorus.com.

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