Oshawa choir performs at Carnegie Hall

O'Neill CVI chamber choir director, Erin Collins conducting the group during rehearsal. Photo credit: Melanie Lennon

For aspiring artists all over the world, the idea of being invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with a famous choral composer sounds like a dream. Yet, for the music students at O’Neill Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Oshawa, this dream has become their reality.

O’Neill’s Chamber Choir director, Erin Collins, said the choir was discovered by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) after a student posted a video of the group performing in Toronto last year.

The choir was singing a piece by Eric Whitacre, one of today’s most renowned choral composers.

“They contacted us and asked us to be part of this Eric Whitacre mass choir event at Carnegie Hall,” Collins said with a smile. “I was so excited.”

The O'Neill CVI Chamber Choir preparing for its Carnegie Hall performance. Photo credit: Melanie Lennon

The choir is set to perform alongside Whitacre on April 26, 27 and 28.

Collins has been a music teacher at O’Neill for 20 years. She said in all that time, she’s never come across an opportunity as big as this one.

“Everyone has heard of Carnegie Hall. So, it’s extra special, for sure,” she said.

However, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes with a price. The trip itself costs $1,500 and each student is required to pay an additional $1,000 to be a part of the three-day concert.

To ensure all members are able to attend, Collins said the school has completed various fundraising events.

Collins said all the money that has been raised at the school’s concerts and music events has gone towards their Carnegie Hall fund.

“[We’ve] even had people sponsor an entire child,” she said. “There’s just been a lot of outreach to us, which has been great.”

The choir has received help from Tim Hortons, the Oshawa Arts Association and their own community.

While financing the trip has gradually become less of an issue for the group, finding the time to rehearse is now their main concern.

Through a combination of snow days, frequent bus cancellations, music events and, most recently, March break, the choir has lost a large number of rehearsals.

“We’re supposed to be practising once a week on Tuesdays for two hours,” Collins said. “They’re really having to learn a lot of the music on their own because we’ve had so many cancelled nights.”

Despite the various obstacles thrown their way, the Chamber Choir is doing everything it can to ensure the musicians are prepared for next month’s big performance.

Collins said the choir will be performing all of their Carnegie Hall pieces, consisting of Eric Whitacre songs and ‘Negro spirituals’ – gospel music created by blacks – composed by Moses Hogan, at a local concert on March 31.

The concert falls on the same day that the choir is required to record themselves singing everything by memory and submit it to DCINY to prove they’re prepared.

“We’re working hard to make sure everything’s memorized,” Collins said. “Otherwise they can tell us we lose our money and we can’t come.”

To ensure they’re prepared for what lies ahead, choir member Sarah Whitehorse, 17, said they’ve been fitting in as much practice time as possible.

“We’re pretty much having rehearsals every single day after school,” the Grade 12 student said. “It really all depends on how prepared we are and how much practice we need.”

Despite the consistent work put into perfecting their pieces, Asher Tomlinson, 18, said the process has been far from tiring.

“I feel like it’s not necessarily a challenge because I enjoy practicing,” he said. “You go home and you learn your part, then you have that motivation of coming back the next day… and these voices come together and it’s just beautiful.”

Collins stressed just how proud she is of her students and how far they’ve come.

“When they walk on stage, they really look like they belong there. They sort of exude a confidence, whether they feel it or not,” she said with a smile. “They’re excellent musicians – they really work hard. It’s a privilege that I get to teach them.”