One-on-one with Aella: Jennifer Berntson on Aella's founding
Get to know our members in One-on-one with Aella, a series of blog posts in which members of the choir interview each other. In our first interview, choir manager Erin Joyce speaks with founder and artistic director Jennifer Berntson on the choir's beginning and growth.
E: How did Aella start?
J: Earlier this year, First Baptist Church approached me about doing a noon-hour recital on July 1st. At the time, I’d recently returned from the 20th anniversary reunion of the Saskatoon Children's Choir (SCC), where I had an amazing time revisiting the music that I grew up with and that first nurtured my love of choral singing. Rather than performing by myself, I thought I could take the opportunity to sing more of the treble choir music that I loved and missed. So I brought together some friends from other Ottawa-area choirs.
From there, things spiraled madly out of control. There was such obvious passion for the project, and singing together was such a special experience. Almost immediately, there was a general consensus that we should keep going.
E: What was so special about singing together?
J: Part of it is performing without a conductor. You are forced to connect with and get to know the other members of the choir so much faster, and you gain a great appreciation for how talented they are! It fosters a collaborative spirit that, I hope, makes everyone feel free to voice their opinions.
And I love that it’s a space to build camaraderie and fellowship with other women. Women sometimes feel like they’re not allowed to be supportive of each other; we’re socialized to be competitive. But singing in a women’s choir helps us build friendships and connections with each other. And I really believe groups that are socially cohesive are musically cohesive. They have a better sound.
E: How is a choir different than other contexts in which women come together?
J: Because it’s very literally about women finding their voices, using those voices, and then combining them to make something that is more powerful than they are individually. Finding vocal strength and freedom can really build self-confidence. It’s an empowerment thing.
E: Have you ever experienced that empowerment yourself?
J: Yes, when I was singing with SCC. I think that young people sometimes feel disenfranchised, and can devalue themselves – it can be a really challenging time. As a young person, being a part of SCC was transformative. It made me feel like I was a valuable part of something important and beautiful.
E: How do you choose repertoire for the choir?
J: I enjoy choosing music that allows me to feature as many of our singers as possible. We really have an abundance of talent. One of my favourite things about singing in such a small group is how well you get to know the voices. Knowing that certain combinations of voices will blend together perfectly, and getting to put them together. Or knowing that certain singers will sound amazing singing certain solos. It’s been fun hearing everyone’s reactions: “My jaw hit the floor when she started singing!” “I didn’t know she could make that kind of sound!” Recently someone told me that she had the experience for the first time of singing in a particular standing arrangement and feeling so well blended with her neighbours that she couldn’t tell where her voice ended and the others began.
I try to make a point of choosing music that’s enjoyable to sing, and a mix of contemporary, pop, folk, and classical music. This year we're performing some new compositions and arrangements, so we can support our talented friends who are composers and arrangers.
It’s also important that our programs be interesting and varied, from both the singers’ and the audience’s perspective. I like choosing repertoire that gives our members different experiences. For example, we’ll be singing in some fun stereophonic configurations for our February “Snow Angel” concert. And we’ll be working with a lot of percussion in “Her Voice” – our spring concert – as well as incorporating movement into some pieces.
E: Is it rare for adult choirs to incorporate movement into their performances?
J: Certainly much rarer than it is for children’s and youth choirs, yes. I think that, as kids, we’re encouraged to be active. Whereas as adults, we’re encouraged to exercise for health purposes, rather than just for the joy of movement – and then sit at desks all day. We become uncomfortable and self-conscious about the idea of movement in general.
In western culture, especially, we’ve learned to divorce singing and vocal production from movement because we are “presenting” the music. This isn’t something that happens elsewhere, especially in many African cultures where the notion of separating music from movement is impossible. When you sing, your body is the instrument. And a more relaxed body is going to produce a more relaxed sound, which is going to be more enjoyable to listen to.
We’re not a dance troupe – I have no ambitions there! But I hope to start incorporating movement that will add visual interest as well as help singers experience and embody our repertoire in a new way.
E: Where did the name "Aella" come from?
J: I am terrible at names.... but I was hoping to find something that represented the spirit of our group, so I solicited opinions from our members. We played around with a variety of ideas, ranging from Latin legal terms to Germanic water sprites. Then we had a rehearsal where we sang Warrior by the Wyrd Sisters for the first time. It's such a powerful song, and it really resonated with the group. One of our singers, Teri, sent out a list of warrior themed names the next day, one of which was Aella. Aella was an Amazon warrior who fought Herakles in Greek mythology. The name also means whirlwind, which is a great connection to wind and breath and the voice, as well as the circular formation that we often rehearse in. It was the perfect fit.
I'm thrilled with our warrior-themed name because, as I said earlier, I feel like choral singing is an empowering experience. And the choir is full of amazing warrior women!
E: How many of the singers in Aella knew each other before they joined?
J: Not all – but many of them. Mostly because of how Aella first came together, a lot of women are ones I have sung with in the Capital Chamber and First Baptist Church Choirs. It’s been really fun to see friendships form between people from different groups who’d never met before. And also to see women from the same groups, who didn’t know each other well, really deepen their friendships. Because it’s a smaller group, we have more chances to chat and interact. Plus, because Aella doesn’t have set voice parts, people who might usually be sopranos end up beside altos and other people they don’t usually get to sing with.
I feel like, when I started Aella, I was under the impression I was asking a favour of friends; I had no idea how much this would grow, and I've been blown away by the enthusiasm and passion that has emerged from the group.