Over 250 students from OACS high schools across Ontario gathered at Redeemer University College this past weekend to participate in the 40th annual Ontario Christian High School Choral Festival. This year’s festival was a two-day event comprising of many new opportunities for students to celebrate worship through the gift of music. The weekend culminated in an evening of praise, with the seven choirs joined together as one mass choir to share their love for God and for singing with the community.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary milestone, the Choral Festival organizers decided to add an extra day to the event, leaving room for a variety of additional opportunities for the participants.
“We wanted this anniversary year to be special,” shared Hamilton District Christian High School conductor and event organizer Kasia Konstanty. “We wanted it to include opportunities that coincided with the festival’s past vision of demonstrating quality and excellence in singing, but our hope was to extend this vision to include the building of relationships and offering opportunities for service.”
Seven Christian school choirs arrived at the university early Friday morning from across the province—some travelling over six hours to participate in the weekend activities that were geared towards uniting student hearts and voices.
The weekend began with students participating in mass choir rehearsals, uniting the voices of individual choirs on musical pieces they had been practicing throughout the year in preparation for their final mass choir performance.
“One of the highlights for me was the opportunity to witness the focus on worship throughout the weekend,” shared Matthew Atkins, choir director at London District Christian Secondary School (LDCSS). “During our many rehearsals, both of our guest conductors continuously pointed our students towards God, reminding them that all of our praise belongs to Him.”
[caption id=”attachment_13273” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Mass Choir Rehearsals[/caption]
Interspersed with these rehearsals, the choirs were also given opportunities to attend clinics in choral improvisation with Dr. Gerard Yun, (conductor, composer, and global music specialist) and vocal production with Jen Moir, (music professor at the University of Western Ontario in London). The clinic leaders demonstrated how our bodies were created to sing, and encouraged students to be bold and to try new things with their voices. As well, each school choir performed their individual pieces and received feedback in the form of adjudications from the two guest mass choir conductors, Karen Burke and Brenda Uchimaru.
“Hearing from the guest conductors was a great experience for our choir,” shared grade 10 student Kyra Schat. “They were incredibly intelligent and gifted, and they gave us some great tips for singing. They were also fun, joyful, and full of life which inspired each of us to want to sing better.”
Kyra also shared that performing in front of the other Christian high school choirs was intimidating at first, but that everyone was supportive of one another through the entire weekend, and in the end it was an enjoyable experience to inspire each other with singing.
[caption id=”attachment_13317” align=”aligncenter” width=”429”] Students participating in Choral Improvisation workshop[/caption]
On the Friday evening, choir members from each of the participating high schools enjoyed an impromptu talent show, spontaneously hosted by two students from Woodland Christian High School, before heading to their designated university dorms to sleep.
“I loved seeing all the different talents that people from every school shared, and how positive everyone was about the performances,” said Megan Hilborn, a student at Toronto District Christian High School (TDChristian) in Woodbridge.
“The talent show on Friday night was a fantastic community event,” shared Woodland Christian High School (WCHS) conductor Jonathan Hunse. There were some great acts, and the students performing received incredible support and recognition from their peers. I loved that the students were given opportunity to build community with students from other schools.”
This sense of building community continued to develop among the choirs on Saturday morning, as students participated in one of three service opportunities in downtown Hamilton, dubbed “Sing and Serve”. Choirs were paired up with a choir from another high school, and the groups rode buses to the Good Shepherd Women’s Shelter, Wellingstone Christian Homes, and the Hamilton Farmer’s Market to share their songs of worship and praise with the Hamilton community.
[caption id=”attachment_13269” align=”aligncenter” width=”640”] “Sing and Serve” - Choirs singing at the Hamilton Farmers Market[/caption]
“It wasn’t about us going out and singing in a venue that made us feel great about how our choirs sounded,” shared Ms. Konstanty. “It was about sharing singing with others, and maybe inspiring them to sing, or inspiring them with the lyrics that we were singing—just sharing song!”
LDCSS student Emily Wright added that going out into the community to sing for strangers pushed her out of her comfort zone. “I found it challenging to meet and sing for new people,” she shared, “but it ended up being a blessing not only to them but also to me.”
[caption id=”attachment_13277” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] “Sing and Serve” - Choirs singing at Wellingstone Christian Home[/caption]
By the time the seven choirs returned from their service opportunities to have lunch at the university campus, new friendships had been forged and the vision for relationship through shared worship had been established. Students gathered in a large circle on the grass to eat their lunch, and spontaneously broke into a super-sized, multi-high school game of “duck-duck-goose” before preparing for their formal mass choir performance that evening.
[caption id=”attachment_13322” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Students from all schools mingling outside at lunch[/caption]
The festival concluded with an energetic and spirit-filled mass choir concert on Saturday evening. As students squeezed together onto the large stage at Redeemer University to perform their final pieces that they had worked hard to perfect over the past two days, it was evident that not only their voices had blended together to create a unified beauty for everyone in the audience to appreciate. They had sung together, worked together, shared meals together, laughed and played games together, been vulnerable with each other, and served together—and it was clear that their hearts had also unified. They not only sang for their audience, they worshiped together. The presence of the Holy Spirit was evident to all who were in the room that evening.
“It was an exciting weekend of praise and worship through the gift of music. Singing in a mass choir is something everyone should do at one point in their lifetime,” exclaimed WCHS student Ben Wallace. “The music sounds just so incredible—we got to make one big, joyful noise. It was a glorifying experience.”
Emma Wiebe agreed. “It’s awesome because no two voices are the same, and somehow our voices blend together to create a beautiful sound.”
As a special addition to the final program this year, the conductors of the choirs also performed a piece together—an experience that was new for most of the conductors.
“It was scary, but it was such a good experience for us to get up there and sing together,” shared Ms. Konstanty. “We expect a lot from our students—we ask them to sing well and to be vulnerable—so it’s important for us, as conductors, to do the same.”
“It was really great to hear our conductors sing,” Ben expressed. “They did this really challenging five-part piece from the 16th century, and it was just fantastic. It was like the angels were singing to us.”
[caption id=”attachment_13282” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Choir Conductors performing[/caption]
It is this unity in worship that continues to bring joy and purpose to the work of Christian High School conductors. “I am always grateful for the opportunity to gather together as a community to proclaim truths about our Lord and Saviour,” affirmed Mr. Atkins. “This is why I love teaching choral music in a Christian school!”
Kimberly Furtney, conductor at Unity Christian High School in Barrie, admits that music and the arts are often in danger within Christian schools. “I continue to pray that music, particularly choral music, remains a priority in Christian Schools. Singing is a Biblical mandate! It’s such an incredible part of our foundation and Christian heritage, and an amazing way for students to connect with God.”
“Singing is foundational, as Christians,” echoed Heritage Christian High School conductor Erik VanDyk. “David was so moved in his relationship with God that he sang and wrote songs of praise, lament, triumph, and trust. He also instituted singing into the very fabric of tabernacle service. In the New Testament, Jesus sang with his disciples. And the book of Revelation gives us a foretaste of the song of heaven, where we will all be singing together one day.”
Mr. VanDyk emphasized that the yearly Choral Festival is a huge push behind choral programs in high schools. “If it weren’t for an organized choir in our high school, our students would have very limited opportunity to develop singing skills and to taste the joy of performing choral music. Nothing can bring such excitement, and a spirit of togetherness, like this festival can.”
“Performing choral music reaches the very heart of who we are as creative physical, spiritual, and communal beings,” reiterated Mr. Hunse. “It allows us both to experience and express truth and beauty to God’s glory. I love the opportunity to be a choir conductor at a Christian high school. It’s a unique opportunity for students to experience a spiritual connection that only exists at the intersection of well-crafted music, true and worshipful lyrics, and excellent performance within a community of uniform purpose—writ large in a context like the Choral Festival.”