The last song: Big Sing co-founder moves on
The Big Sing community choir turns 3 and loses one of its closest friends
January 15, 2020, 2:04 pm ASTLast Updated: January 15, 2020, 2:41 pm
The Big Sing entered its third year Tuesday night with a packed birthday celebration, cake and an emotional goodbye to a founding member.
As well as well as singing of course.
The show took place at Gus’s Pub in the North End and kicked off the Big Sing’s third year. Partway through, co-founder George Woodhouse announced he would be stepping down as the project’s host guitarist.
The Big Sing is a bi-weekly choir where community members can drop in to learn and perform a three-part harmony in one evening. Each night ends with a filmed performance of that week’s song, which the group posts online.
“I’m going to miss it,” said Woodhouse in an interview before the event. “But my life’s been especially rich over the past year and I feel my plate hasn’t gotten any bigger, but the good things that are on it, community, relationships, music, have been piling higher, which is a great problem to have.”
Woodhouse announced his departure publicly partway through the show Tuesday night. In an emotional speech, he fought through tears on more than one occasion to thank those who have helped run and support the Big Sing over the past three years.
“What we do at the Big Sing, it’s a bit weird,” he told the crowd, who yelled out cheers and the occasional ‘We love you, George’ as he choked up on a few words.
“For 99 per cent of us, even those who love to sing, the idea of singing in public is very scary. Yet here we are, standing in a pub full of strangers. But they don’t feel like strangers. They feel like friends … because we all decided to show up tonight in spite of that fear.”
Over the last year, Woodhouse said a new relationship and musical project, on top of a full-time job with Parks Canada, have taken up more of his time and energy. Still, he said he hopes to continue helping out occasionally with the Big Sing.
“The best standing room in the house”
The Big Sing started in January 2017 when fellow co-founders Jack Bennet and Seth Levinson approached Woodhouse, asking if he’d be interested in playing guitar for the project, in addition to co-hosting with Bennet.
Woodhouse agreed to do it and the two have been the main hosts every two weeks for the past three years. That included Tuesday night, when the pair taught a full house to harmonize to When the Night Feels My Song by Bedouin Soundclash.
Bennet, who is dean of music at the Maritime Conservatory, conducts the crowd. Musical direction at the Big Sing is light on theory though. He and Bennet essentially work to reassure and guide the mostly untrained, but enthusiastic, people who come out.
“It seems hard,” Bennet said at one point, trying to lead the mid-range voices through a particularly troublesome section. “But it’s actually pretty intuitive.”
The mid-range section laughed, seemingly unconvinced, causing Woodhouse to interject.
“Well, if you have intuition, it’s intuitive. If you don’t, just follow someone who does.”
Woodhouse said in an interview that this banter has become easy with Bennet over the many shows they’ve hosted. He said he’ll miss being on stage with him.
“The two people who really have the best standing room in the house is Jack and myself because we hear all the voices directed at us,” he said in an interview. “People bring their vulnerability, their joy. I remember the first time I actually heard people sing in harmony, sing a song I was playing and Jack was conducting. It was like a drug.”
That show, he said, had him incredibly nervous. The song was ABBA’s Dancing Queen, which he said might still be the hardest song he’s had to play on guitar for the Big Sing.
“I was very sweaty. I was listening to the song on repeat for days leading up to the event,” he said.
A community of singing strangers
In Woodhouse’s opinion, the people who come to the Big Sing are what make it. He said it’s why they’re still going strong after three years.
They’re an eclectic bunch. Tuesday night there were singers with white and grey hair, singers wearing university sweaters, even singers missing their bedtimes.
Some were there for the first time. They included Helen Myers Shields, who traveled two hours from Middleton to see what her friend in Halifax had been raving about. She was not disappointed.
“These are cool people,” she said. “What other type of people would fill a bar on a Tuesday night to sing?”
There were regulars too. Like Beth Wilson, who stood front and centre with a bright green “Big Sing” T-shirt. Wilson, 64, has been attending since partway through the group’s first year.
“I love the idea of learning a song over the course of a couple of hours in parts,” she said. “I love the way Jack and George approach it. They’re good at it … Plus the group you meet is so much fun.”
She was there with second-year Dalhousie student Amy Tenenbaum. The two met before Tenenbaum moved to Halifax, when her family was visiting from Rhode Island. Wilson invited them to the Big Sing and they’ve stayed in touch ever since.
“We’ve become friends just from that one little interaction, which I think is pretty darn cool,” said Wilson.
The evening ended with an emotional final performance of the Bedouin Soundclash tune, followed by the cake. The other members of the Big Sing, including lead arranger Rachel Delano, social media editor Shayna Young and videographer Tim Mombourquette, presented Woodhouse with some parting gifts. They included a can of Pineapple Crush pop, a Big Sing sweat-shirt and a pair of socks printed with Woodhouse’s face on them.
Woodhouse said he’s now focusing on recording an album with his band. Caitlin Bowers will take over guitar duties at the Big Sing and Jack Bennet said they hope to tour the group around the province in the coming year.
Woodhouse expects to take a long break before returning as a guest with the Big Sing.
“It’s not a bad breakup. I want it to be clear I’m leaving on good terms,” he said, laughing. “I can’t stay away completely. There’s always something here to smile at and be proud of at the end of the night.
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