Three Brothers - One Choir Family

Photo credit: Kelly Skinner, Friday Design and Photography

Seventeen-year-old Callum Mitchell is part of a trio of brothers, all involved in our organization. We caught up with Callum as he settles into his first season in Kokopelli after three years as a fixture in Shumayela.

Let’s start with your origin story. How did you first get involved in choir?
I had been in a different choir. I started in Grade Two. My older brother Alastair had been in Shumayela for a couple of years. So, once I left that choir I also joined Shumayela. And I was there for three years, I think. And now I’m in Koko.

What was it about Shumayela that kept you hooked?
I can say from experience, and you can really tell from outside, that the choir is a lot of fun. And Kim’s a really great director.

It feels professional in a way. It’s very high level, and we did very complex and interesting music. And we’d get to perform in places like the Winspear. It gave me all kinds of experiences that I wouldn’t get in other places.

What was your most memorable experience with Shumayela?
It was the Stories concert, the first year it was at the Winspear [2019]. That was also my first time performing at the Winspear. I had been there a few times to listen to other groups. But actually being on the stage, and singing for people, really stands out for me.

One particular piece I remember from that concert was Lunar Lullaby. Seeing the stage all lit up with the lanterns was quite special.

Obviously, last year was a challenge when it came to choir. How did Kim manage to keep people engaged? Was there anything particularly cool that stands out?
We still had our weekly rehearsals over Zoom. But, in terms of cool stuff, there were the music videos we did for each of the pieces we worked on. Eye of the Tiger was really the big one, where we put together an awesome video to go with our recordings. Everybody recorded their singing and dancing at home, and those got stitched together later. And we also did that for other pieces later in the year.

There were also smaller things we did. At one point, we all split up into groups, each with our own little project to work on. Then we got to share them, and that was also a lot of fun.

What’s it like coming into Kokopelli after your years in Shumayela? How did your Shumayela experience prepare you for this next step?
There’s a step up in the musicality of what we’re doing. It’s hard to describe, but the feel of it all is amazing.

Having been one of the older kids in Shumy, we had the space to really delve into our parts and learn them. It helped get us ready to move into Kokopelli.

The Mitchells are unusual for our organization—three brothers from one family. [Editor: It's happened once before that we can remember!] What has that meant for you as a choir member? What sort of support do the various brothers provide for each other?
Especially with my younger brother Owen joining Shumayela this year, it’s interesting to see him go through that, and to hear his experiences and compare them to mine. It’s a different look into the choir than you get when you’re in it.

What would you say to a guy who might feel drawn to choir, but who worries that choir is uncool?
Choir is totally cool! Any time anybody sees our choir videos, they always think it’s cool. I show that “Eye of the Tiger” video to people and they think it’s really amazing. So I’d say, “You could be a part of that.”

When you join choir, nobody expects you to be some kind of A-tier singer, or anything like that. We’re all so supportive. We like to lift each other up and work together to make a great thing.

What do you look forward to in the next few years, choir-wise?
I really look forward to getting to know the people in choir better, and building those relationships.

Three Generations - Interview with Janice Hurlburt

Three Generations, Photo Credit:  Kelly Skinner, Friday Design and Photography

How did you first come to our organization?

I came to the organization when my daughter Shannon joined Kokopelli. And she then moved on to Òran. We started attending these concerts where we were just blown away with the music. I mean as soon as they started singing I would almost start to cry, every concert. The beauty of the music—and the variety, and the movement—was always very inspiring.

Then, when Vacilando was created, Shannon said, “Mom, you gotta join, you gotta join!” She kept nudging me (laughs). So I signed up.

How would you describe your initial experience? Had you been in a choir before?
I had studied years ago in the music program at MacEwan, back when it was a community college. I got a diploma in voice, and sang in the jazz choir there. And I'm a lifelong Anglican, so I grew up singing the alto part in hymns.

What’s different and special about singing in a group, as opposed to solo?
I had a bit of a quirky start when I joined Vacilando. I had acquired a dizziness condition. Just being in a room with that many people was overwhelming. It was a real challenge. But the choir helped heal me. Choir brought me back to myself. Just singing the same thing together, rather than having a room full of people who are all having different conversations. To create something together—holding each other up and moving each other forward.

At the same time, singing is just so joyful. You can go to choir feeling really lousy and down in the dumps, and by the time you finish singing together you’ve just got a pep in your step.

You started in Vacilando, but moved to ChandraTala when it was started. What drew you to the new choir, and what makes ChandraTala special?
Yeah, I was in the first six seasons of Vacilando, and I just cherish that choir so much. In my last season, we sang Laura Hawley’s composition “Sonnet 43,” which I just loved. When I heard she was coming to direct a choir, I just thought, oh yeah, it would be so incredible to sing with her, and it has been. And I also thought that singing in an upper voices choir for experienced singers was an interesting challenge, and part of that challenge is that as an Alto 2 I am singing as the lowest voice in the choir rather than singing in the middle.

I know it’s really special to you to have three generations in the choir—you, Shannon, and now her kids Rosie and Noah. What has that been like?
So far, I’ve been able to sing onstage with Shannon and Rosie—each of us in our own choir outfits. It’s been such a thrill, knowing that we’re performing together. If there’s any kind of mixed choir or mass choir piece, Shannon and I will make a point of standing together. It just feels so wonderful to be sharing that.

I can’t imagine there are many choir associations out there where that sort of thing would be possible.
Exactly! In the older choirs, so many of us are “parents of.” It’s so wonderful to sing with our kids. I’m thrilled the organization created choirs where we could do that.

We’re the first actual three-generation family, but there are many other families with more than one generation singing in the choirs.

So, you’ve got that feather in your cap forever. To finish off, what would you say to somebody who, like you, is in the seats listening to the choirs, and who thinks they might want to join in?
When you go to a performance, you're looking at something that’s been rehearsed—a lot. You may think, “Oh, well, I could never do that,” but when you go to rehearsals it’s always very supportive. You’ve got all the other people in your section who are there to help you build that experience. By the time we get to the performance that'll be you doing that!

Meet Jenica Hagan: A Koko from Day One!

In the last two stories we have featured a Kokopelli alumnae and a long-time volunteer.  This time we feature a singer who has been with the Kokopelli Choir Association for 25 years - Jenica Hagan!

With the exception of Scott Leithead, Kokopelli’s most constant face has probably been Jenica Hagan. A founding Kokopelli member, Jenica has sung with one of our choirs (and often more than one) for all 25 years of our association’s existence. (Okay, there was that one year when she worked in Newfoundland, but let’s not get picky.)

photo credit: Blake Loates

Tell us about your earliest involvement in Kokopelli.

I went to Victoria School, and when I was in Grade 11 Scott Leithead started teaching there. I worked with him a little bit in my musical theatre class, but I didn’t really know who he was. But then I saw his choir, Vic Singers, perform, and I was like, okay, I’ve got to be a part of that.

So I was in Vic Singers for my Grade 12 year. And then, the year after that, we started Kokopelli. At that point, it was all Vic students except for two people from Scona. But it was awesome. And then, over the next year or so, it started to evolve into a wider community. But, yeah, I was in it from the very beginning.

And how has your involvement with Kokopelli impacted your life? What keeps you around?
All my best friends are from choir. It’s been my social circle, my community, for years and years and years. It’s easy to stay “in,” because everyone was doing it.

The reason I’ve stayed so long is, it has been a constant in my life when a lot of things weren’t. I may have been changing jobs, or dealing with some mental health issues—life has been a bit tumultuous, but choir was always there. We’d meet every week, or twice a week, and all my friends were there. It just naturally supported me through a lot of things in my life.

And that’s not even saying what it did for me musically. The music is at such a high scale, but so approachable for so many different types of people. I just love that about the choir.

And it keeps me challenged. There are a lot of things I don’t do because I don’t want to venture out of my comfort zone. But, with choir, I’m learning a new language, or a new dance move, or something about a different culture. It’s always exciting. That’s why I’ve stuck around for 25 years now.

What do you wish people knew about Kokopelli?
I wish people knew just how hard everybody works. They’ve got jobs, and in Òran and up they’ve got kids, and lots of things happening in their lives. And yet they set aside the time to learn music, and to perform it at such a high level. It’s a lot of commitment. I hope people know how much time and effort is involved.

Do you have any favourite memories? I bet it’s hard to think of just one.
I’ve been trying to think, what’s the one critical memory. The ones that keep popping into my head are anything with tours.

Speaking of life-changing, and why I stay in it: I would never have travelled, I don’t think, before I joined choir. I was too sheltered, too, “Oh, what would I eat?” (laughs) But, going on a choir tour, all that was set out for you. Somebody else would plan the agenda, and I’d be, “Okay, sweet.”

I’ve seen so many amazing things, and experienced so much. One amazing one was singing in the catacombs under the Frauenkirche, the church in Dresden. It was just a small group of us who had travelled to Europe, from Òran and Nuf Sed. We performed up in the church, and then we went for a tour of the catacombs. And we sang down there, and it was really cool. But, there are so many other memories too.

And this time of year, I always get a lot of memories of Banff, and singing at Rolston Hall. Those concerts were the epitome, my favourite performances. The choir has a view of the mountains through the window at the back, the audience has the view at the front. It’s just such a magical place, and so many memories were made there. I really miss doing that every year.

And all the tours, really. It didn’t matter if you were sleeping in a five-star hotel or on a gym floor. It was all about being together, and getting to share our music.

Meet Elaine Kinghorn: Volunteer Chat

Elaine Kinghorn is a Kokopelli volunteer extraordinaire!

When young Jennifer Kinghorn (now McMillan) joined 'Nuf Sed in 1999, and then Kokopelli in 2000, she also brought her mother into our choir family. For two decades, Elaine Kinghorn has been one of our most dedicated and cherished volunteers. A longtime board member, Elaine became best known for capably running the box office at Kokopelli events. Behind the scenes, Elaine also found a million other ways to contribute to our organization.

Tell us about your earliest involvement in Kokopelli.
Well, I think it was around 2002. I used to help Louise Ludwig now and again, because she was just overwhelmed at times—collecting for tours, especially. She couldn’t come to every rehearsal. I told her, “You know, I’m not that far from rehearsal. I can pop in and collect for tours.” So, I’d just collect payments for her. And, the next thing I knew, I was involved selling tickets at the door.
I enjoy choral music, and where else can you go to get the best choral music? Once I got involved, I’d go and listen to it every week.

And how has your involvement with Kokopelli impacted your life?
Oh, goodness gracious. The tours alone. I mean, can you imagine? In my wildest dreams, I never dreamed I’d be going to Africa—not once, but twice.
And meeting the people in the choral community. Like Anne McIntyre. My gosh, I never had such a good time in my life, as when I travelled with her in Africa. And getting to know the staff, like [Koko bookkeeper] Maxine. Who could have brought a nicer person than that into my life? I’ve learned so much from her. The two of us worked together so well, for many many years.
It has impacted my life tremendously. If I hadn’t loved it so much, I wouldn’t have participated. It gave me something to do when I needed something to do.
All the people I’ve met! Hanging around in Africa for not one trip, but for two trips with Scott [Leithead]’s parents. And all the other parents, like the Olson family.
Man, I have been one lucky person. To have all this given to me. Well, not given to me, exactly, but I certainly took advantage!

Do you have any favourite memories? Something that sticks out as a real highlight?
I have so many favourite memories. But, the best one of all was probably [future son-in-law] John proposing to [daughter] Jennifer when we were in Africa. That was in 2007.
I think there were actually two proposals that year. Might even have been three.
Jennifer had been in Africa for a while—she was the exchange chorister that year. She was living with [Mascato founder] Mrs. Venter.
John decided that he would come to Africa that summer for the trip with Kokopelli. He had been away from Jennifer for several months by then, and this was killing him. He came over to our house, and he was the most nervous person in the whole wide world. I knew he was going to ask for our blessings. And, sure enough, that’s what he did.
So then, I think the very first night we were in Africa, we all went out to a nice restaurant, the Lighthouse. John was so nervous, and Jennifer kept saying, ‘What on earth is wrong with you?’ He knew he was going to ask her that evening. He was just as nervous as nervous can be.
But it all went down that evening, and the rest is history!

How has the choir experience affected your family—not just Jennifer, but now the next generation as well? What’s it like seeing your two granddaughters out there where Jen used to be?
You’ve seen little Alexis perform—that little girl can’t stand still if her life depended on it. (chuckles).  Jennifer was always such a little goody-two-shoes when she was in children’s choir. But Alexis has grown up with Kokopelli, and she knows you have to move—and she moves all the time! But I do love seeing both the grandchildren. I love every minute of it. All of the little ones! I just love all of them.

Meet Aidan Johnston: Why is it important to give back?

Aidan Johnston (née Ferguson) as the Sandman in Edmonton Opera’s 2019 production of Hansel & Gretel
Photo credit: Nanc Price

“It’s so important for me to give back to something that had been such an instrumental part of my youth.”

Aidan Johnston has performed in operas all over the world, after completing two degrees in music at McGill. Currently she is living in Victoria and loves her job at the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island. Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Aidan at the end of January about the formative role that Kokopelli played in her career and in her life.

How did you get involved with Kokopelli?

I first met Scott Leithead when I was a kid singing in the Edmonton Children's Choir and dreamed of being in one of his choirs. That dream became a reality when I joined Edmonton Youth Choir (EYC). During that first year at EYC, I was going through a challenging time in my life, and Scott suggested that it might help to come to a Kokopelli rehearsal.  To say that it helped would be an understatement, that invitation saved my life. I instantly found a second family that led me to pursue music as a career.  

What was it about Kokopelli that influenced your career?

Up until my experiences with Kokopelli, I loved choir, but didn't really realize the power of music and what it could achieve.  It was by seeing an audience moved by a chord, a line, a song, that I began to understand the transformative power of music. I was suddenly able to communicate with people in a different way, offer them respite from whatever was happening in their day and I wanted to explore that further.

One of the greatest lessons Kokopelli taught me was the importance of making sure those around you, on or off stage, know they are valued and appreciated. Like many teenagers, I was consumed with anxiety, except when I was with my Kokopelli family. Kokopelli was a place where everyone, not just choristers, but every parent, every audience member and every other choir we met was valued and shown gratitude for their contribution to Kokopelli. That connection and community is the reason I pursued a career in music. Even after working in the professional opera world, I come back to Kokopelli rehearsals and concerts to reconnect with that "why”.

Describe a magical moment with Kokopelli. 

We were singing "True Colours" in Banff, and everything was there… the emotion, tuning, blend... you name it. I will never forget seeing Scott's face light up as we hit a beautifully resonant, perfectly tuned 1000 part chord and little did we realize, at the same moment, he saw a giant rainbow appear behind us! I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

As a singer or audience member there is always at least one of those magical moments in every Kokopelli concert from one of the choirs!  We would be talking for hours if I mentioned all the reasons Kokopelli is special… but I think the main reasons are the support, community, love and of course the music.


What are the great secrets of the Kokopelli choirs? What do you wish that others knew about Kokopelli?

Being in one of the choirs is not just about learning to sing, it’s about learning about life…relationships, pain, friendships, beauty. For me, and I don’t say this lightly, it saved my life and it changed it. 

I just think people should know about this gem that is changing the youth in the Edmonton community. The more informed, accepting, loved and cherished a youth or child feels, the more likely they are to become “who knows what” in the world and spread that love elsewhere. 

I also really admire the adults who are putting themselves in a vulnerable position and want to try singing. It’s a comfortable safe space where people can go and do that.

Why is it important to give back to Kokopelli?

I try to live my life (as much as possible) from a place of gratitude, and I believe you have to give back to the things that were given to you.  It's amazing to see the growth in Kokopelli from one single choir to seven choirs.  Giving back is a gesture of encouragement to keep going and changing lives.  It doesn't matter whether it's time, talent or treasure, I challenge each person who has been touched by Kokopelli to give back in your own way!