Creative Age Profile: Jackie Smith & The Churchill Singers

 

Jackie Smith brings a lifetime of experience to her current role, leading the sing-a-long group at the Churchill retirement residence. Jackie was a singer in various choirs from a young age. As an adult, she was musical director for school groups, and led church choirs. 

 

She was once asked to fill in for an exhausted organist at her church for a few weeks, despite the fact that she didn’t know how to play. 

 

"The organist said, 'Jackie, I'm so tired. I've held this position for so long. Could you take over for a couple of weeks to give me a rest?' And I said, 'But I don't play the organ.' And she said, 'I'll give you a few easy books.' The organist never came back, and so I ended up buying an organ, and teaching myself to play. I ended up being the organist there for seven years." 

 

When Jackie and her late husband moved in to the Churchill Residence, they were slow to get involved in any activities. After about a year, Jackie and a fellow resident, Lorraine, put together a program of songs for Christmas Eve. It was such a success, that her husband encouraged her to “do more of that.”

 

Jackie and Lorraine decided to start a Glee Club, with the intention of gathering folks together to sing once a week. The turnout was quite low in the first weeks of the group, and then it got back to Jackie that some people thought that the term ‘glee club’ implied that they would have to be musically proficient to join in. “They thought - 'I bet you have to be an opera singer to be a part of that!”

 

Jackie wanted to ensure that it was clear that all voices were welcome, and so the group was reborn as The Churchill sing-a-long group, and attendance grew right away. Years later, though participation waxes and wanes - due to illness, or residents moving to care facilities - there is a strong core group of singers who clearly relish the hour-long gathering every Saturday morning.

 

Jackie spends a great deal of time choosing material for each session, pouring over a sheet music library to decide the songs that best fit the group. She also takes into consideration the repertoire of the three resident pianists who take turns providing accompaniment.

 

On a chilly Saturday morning in early April, the songs range from Waltzing Matilda and a jaunty piece from Brigadoon to the 23rd psalm. Other residents and visitors gather around, drawn in by the warmth of the voices that fill the great room where the singers practice.

 

One of the members of the group enters a bit late, but in style, singing along to a well-known tune as she makes her way to her seat.

 

The sing-a-long group, now known as The Churchill Singers, give three public performances over the course of the year, for Canada Day (Canadian songwriters representing each province), Remembrance Day, and Christmas Eve.

 

This year, they will also be performing at the launch of Creative Age Edmonton’s FEST & More on June 3, at 2pm at SAGE: Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton. 

 

Betty and Lil have been regulars at the sing-a-long group since moving to the Churchill. When asked about the benefits of taking part, they said, "Being a part of the group keeps our brains moving, because we're reading music. And we come down every week to socialize." 

 

Betty adds, "Jackie is a very good coral conductor. It's more like choir practice in lots of ways. It's very good for us."

 

While it’s clear that fun and fellowship are what drives the group, Jackie does challenges the participants musically, and offers them opportunities to do harmonies, and solo performances. In between numbers, she gives insightful and clear suggestions to the singers with gentle good humour. 

 

Jackie has obviously struck just the right balance, making the experience stimulating and challenging, but also relaxed and fun. She says, "It's a good group to work with - they're friendly and kind, and they do the best they can. We just come because we want to have a good time, and sing old songs."

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