My friend Stan was a fine tenor and a brilliant choir director. His musical gifts spread widely and touched many through his work as a music teacher in the Calgary public school system. He gathered musically untrained youngsters together and turned them into prize-winning handbell groups.
A bank manager’s son from Magrath, Alberta, Stan might have gone into banking himself had it not been for a music teacher named Lloyd Erickson at Calgary’s Crescent Heights High School. Erickson encouraged Stan to develop his talent as a singer. “He had an incredible energy and devotion to what he did,” Stan told me. “He was my mentor all my life.” Stan completing his training in musical performance at the University of Toronto and returned to Calgary where he landed his dream job, as a music specialist with the public board.
We met in the late 1970s at St. Pius X Catholic Church in northwest Calgary. I was playing piano and guitar with the Saturday evening folk choir. Stan was directing the Sunday morning senior choir. Very few of the singers in his amateur choir could read music. That meant most of them would have been content just to sing the melodies of the hymns, like the people in the congregation. But Stan wanted them to be more than just a bunch of singers chanting in unison. He wanted them to sing four-part arrangements, with the eventual aim of tackling such challenging pieces as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.
He assigned them seats in the choir based on how high or low they could sing. If they sang high, they became sopranos or tenors. If they sang low, they became altos or basses. He taught them their lines at the Thursday evening rehearsals by having the accompanist first play the lines on the organ, and then having the singers repeat the lines over and over until they had them memorized. It was slow and painstaking but it worked. Though they didn’t know what actual notes they were singing, the singers could tell from the direction of the notes on the page whether they were supposed to be going up the scale or down.
Our opportunity to make music together came in 1979 when the two choirs joined forces for a Mass at St. Pius. Stan suggested afterwards that we put together a secular folk/pop group to raise some money for the church building fund. Stan and his talented wife Elaine came from the senior choir. I and three others came from the folk choir. We booked the church hall for a Saturday night concert, taught ourselves a bunch of songs from the repertoires of performers popular during the 1960s and 1970s, named ourselves the Pius Few, and put on a three-set show.
The show went well. We knew we couldn’t stop there. We had to do it again. And again. We did it every couple of months or so at St. Pius, with a portion of the proceeds going to the church. We also did it at Calgary’s Kensington Delicafe, at various private functions, and as guest performers at Calgary’s Saturday Night Special folk club. At one point, we changed our name to the Chosen Few. However, we quickly changed it back when we discovered the name was also being used by motorcycle gangs in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe. The last thing we needed was to have tattooed guys in leather and bandanas showing up at our gigs.
The Pius Few continued performing regularly through the 1980s, constantly learning new material because we wanted to give our audience something fresh every time out. At that point, the group consisted of Stan, Elaine, myself, and Murray Cameron of Stratus on bass, guitar and fiddle. In the 1990s we slowed the pace considerably. By the start of the 21st century, we were getting together just once every couple of years. Our final public performance, our Last Waltz as we called it – with a nod in the direction of The Band – was in April 2007. It made for a substantial contribution to the St. Pius building fund.
Stan continued to conduct the St. Pius senior choir through the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century. Then chronic arthritis and other health problems forced him to not only give up the choir position but also take disability leave from his teaching job. I served as his keyboard accompanist for the last half of the 1990s and was constantly impressed by how well he knew the music. It seemed he had memorized every line, note, pause, crescendo, and tempo change of every song he had ever conducted. Not only that, but he added strength and power to the tenor section of the choir with his soaring, classically-trained voice.
He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer several months ago. He wanted to have one final musical get-together before the disease took him, so in May he and Nova Scotia-born Elaine put on what East Coasters call a kitchen party at their home. We did a few Pius Few numbers, Stratus did a few numbers, and the choir members sang along. We shared a few stories and a few laughs. It was a celebration to remember.
Stan died on Monday at age 68. I will miss his talent and his friendship. He made the world a happier place.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2015 Brian Brennan - Writer