A choir for all ages

"This is more than just making music ... it’s really about coming together to do something we all enjoy."

— Josée Benoît

By Sophie Coupal

In 1998, when alumna Marie-Josée Vignola (PhD ’94) came up with the idea of starting a parent-child choir at her daughter’s school, she wasn’t looking to break new ground. However, without fully realizing it, she had paved the way for a fun new activity that would give children, parents and grandparents a voice.

Choirs made up of people of all ages were just as rare then as they are today. But this professor at the Faculty of Education had a very specific goal in mind when she started down this road. She wanted to find a way to continue singing despite her very busy schedule and the demands of her young family.

Today, 16 years later, the choir Francophonia, at Francojeunesse public school in Ottawa, is alive and flourishing. Year after year, an average of 30 choristers—parents, grandparents and children from junior kindergarten to grade six—gather together once a week to enjoy an hour of singing with family members.

Ubald Laurencelle (MEd ʼ72) is one of three generations of his family singing together in the Francophonia chorale group.

“I became a member of Francophonia three years ago when my son and granddaughter asked me if I would join. I rediscovered the creativity, the spontaneity and the refreshing candour of the children. That says it all! What more could a grandfather want?”

The repertoire of the Francophonia consists mainly of songs sung in French, but the members also sing in other languages, such as Yiddish and Chinese—reflecting the different cultures of the members.

Singing in a foreign language is not the biggest challenge for the choir, however. Keeping parents interested and small children focused can sometimes be a little tough. The person who directs all these wonderful people has to have a good musical background, the ability to adapt and a good sense of humour.

Marie-Josée Vignola regularly recruits rare gems to lead Francophonia from members of the choral direction class given by Professor Laurence Ewashko (BMusic ʼ82) at the School of Music, including its current director alumna Michelle Vandal (BEd ʼ09). Many members are Faculty of Education alumni.

Today, alumna Josée Benoît (BEd ʼ03, MA ʼ06, PhD ʼ11) accompanies the choir, after having directed it for a number of years. “This is more than just making music,” she says. “Of course we sing, but it’s really about coming together to do something we all enjoy.”

As passionate about the chorale group today as she was in the beginning, Benoît is currently co-writing a journal article with Professor Vignola on the experiences and motivation of choir members.

A girl, Charlotte, sings with her father, Alain, and grandfather, Ubald as part of the Francophonia choir.

Charlotte, her father, Alain, and grandfather, Ubald. Photo: Mireille Piché

Over the years, the choir has been the catalyst for creating connections. Not just between children of different ages—it’s one of the few extracurricular activities that children as young as three or four can participate in—but also members of individual families as well as families within the community. The choir is important for francophones and new Canadians who are looking to make connections with their new community. Anglophone parents like Marna Zinatelli also like to get involved.

“My French-language skills are weak so it gave me a way to learn more and practise the language in a fun and friendly way and connect more easily to the school community. It gave me a fun activity to do with my child on a regular basis.”

Nathalie Le Marec, in her fifth season with the choir, is clear about what keeps her coming back.

“My daughters are involved in a lot of sports, so I thought it would be a good idea to do something different that they enjoy as much. Being in the choir allows me to sing…even though I don’t have a very beautiful voice! Over and above that, it’s a great opportunity for us to do something together as a family.”

Beyond its originality and the positive impact it has on all involved, the Francophonia choir is first and foremost about family … and music.

Main photo:
Alumna Marie Josée Vignola, a professor at the Faculty of Education, sings a French song with three young members of the Francophonia choir. Photo: Mireille Piché

 Mireille Piché

The parent-and-child group of the Francophonia choir is led by its director, alumna Michelle Vandal (pictured left, back row). Photo: Mireille Piché


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