November 2017 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
Students at Morell High School where choral leader Kelsea McLean is music teacher say she sings when she teaches. She admits she’s been accused of being “singsongy.” “I don’t think I’m a ray of sunshine,” she says, “or even all that optimistic—it’s just the delivery!” She laughs, melodically.
“I know all the kids in the school,” she says, “even if they aren’t my own students—even if some kids don’t want me to know their name… I’m lowering their street cred in the hallway, one (singsongy) ‘hello’ at a time.”
Choir “hooks people into community,” Kelsea insists—and by that measure, she’s very hooked in, as artistic director of Sirens women’s choir (a choir “trying to produce a professional-level choral aesthetic”) and Harmonia girls’ choir (another choir “demanding excellence,” through “vocal training in a group focus”). She also has directed the Indian River Festival chorus for two seasons.
Kelsea’s commitment is to music education and learning. “A large part of what I do is give singers something to work for,” she reflects. And letting loose her inner teacher, she adds, “The repertoire is the curriculum.”
Kelsea was raised by music-educator parents: at her small-town Saskatchewan high school renowned for music programs, her father ran the band program; her mother, the choral program. “Home was a little intense at times,” she says. “It forced me to be critical of my own musical skills, to be self-reflective.” At one moment, she and one of her brothers, a band director, could have taken over the music programs at their old high school: “We could have stepped into our parents’ roles,” she says.
Instead, she ended up here on PEI, where her husband’s family originates. “I moved here in 2012 and didn’t know anyone in the music world—and it all just fell into place,” she says. “In Saskatchewan, everyone knew me by my last name”; on PEI, “I don’t have those endless connections that some people have here—but I feel I’ve been embraced.”
She arrived with “an assumption that on the East Coast, there would be choirs around every turn,” and while there are many, she had to find where she fit. She met Andrea Ellis and Jennifer Gillis who were just beginning Sirens. Kelsea was instantly desperate to join—“And it’s a funny story,” she says, “but apparently, when they told me about Sirens, I played it really cool. I wasn’t playing it cool on the inside!”
Sirens started without formal leadership, but when it needed direction to grow, Kelsea says, “It just happened that I became artistic director.” The Sirens family grew to include Harmonia Girls’ Choir, which is in its third year. Kelsea says, “When I see the way the girls relate to each other, it makes me so happy and joyous.”
The group has recently incorporated as a not-for-profit organization as Sirens Choral Association Inc. to raise funds and especially “to help support the education aspect of the work.”
Sirens is also working on an exciting commission of original music, in partnership with the Mi’kmaw community. “Sirens has done Canadian programs and the choir repertoire includes amazing Canadian folk songs,” Kelsea says, “But it feels like the Indigenous voice has been missing.” The challenge was to avoid cultural appropriation; the answer was collaboration.
For the commission, Matilda Knockwood has recorded a legend—“with a focus on the sea and sustainability and mermaids—very appropriate for ‘Sirens,’” Kelsea smiles—and this will be presented in parallel with music that draws inspiration from the legend. The world premiere will be at the “Podium” national choral festival in St. John’s next summer.
Despite her work with women’s and girls’ choruses, Kelsea is a champion of boys’ singing. “I’m so worried choirs get deemed as a female activity,” she says. The key, is to “keep boys singing through the intermediate level” (which coincides with a “tumultuous time” in teens’ lives – and boys’ voices).
“I grew up with a band program running alongside a choral program,” Kelsea says, “and I’m bound to make it happen.” Kelsea’s goal is a choir for everyone and everyone in a choir—one singsongy “hello” at a time.