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Big Rock Singers test vocal cords in Ireland

More than 40 singers from the Okotoks-based singing group performed in churches and cathedrals during a trip to Ireland early in July, receiving a standing ovation at the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.
Big Rock Singers Ireland
St. Mary's Church in Killarney, Ireland is among several churches the Big Rock Singers performed in earlier this month.

Forty-two foothills singers were in for a surprise when they let loose their vocal cords in cathedrals and churches in Ireland.

Members of the Big Rock Singers spent a week in Ireland in early July singing in stone buildings that date back hundreds of years.

What they heard bounce off the walls of stone amazed them.

“To sing in a structure that has acoustics where you can hear every word at the back of the church 200 feet away, it was just incredible to sing at a place like that,” said Nairn Nerland, Big Rock Singers marketing director. “It’s not like singing in the facilities we build today. The sound is phenomenal.”

The international singing experience follows a trip the Big Rock Singers took in Vienna, said Nerland, who’s been with the group for 20 years.

“When we did it in Vienna in 2015 it was tremendous fun because you sing in cathedrals and churches that were built in the 1200s,” he said. “We wanted to have that experience again.”

The trip included four pre-arranged, advertised concerts in Dublin, Kinsale, Killarney and Galway, as well as impromptu performances at various locations in southern Ireland.

If the group was headed to a castle or historic ruin, the organizer would phone ahead and ask if they could sing there, said Nerland

“The best part was the facilities we sang at, the reception we got and, of course, the impromptu singing,” he said. “It took people by surprise.”

The singers prepared a repertoire of 13 songs, including Canadian folk, gospel and pop music, as well as traditional Irish hymns, said Nerland.

“We really presented a lot of music from Canada and some classics from Ireland,” he said. “It was really a diverse eclectic mix of songs.”

Nerland said one of the group’s most receptive performances was at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin on its final day. The earliest manuscript dates the cathedral to its present location around 1030.

“We got two standing ovations, which was tremendous – one after an Irish gospel song and at the end,” said Nerland. “We really enjoyed that.”

The performance was also a highlight for Kel Maxwell, who’s been singing with the Big Rock Singers for 11 years.

“The church was quite full,” recalls Maxwell. “Some people were coming deliberately to hear us sing, others were touring the grounds and just drifted in.”

Maxwell describes the acoustics as “amazing.”

“There is this wonderful echo you get when you sing a song and the last note just holds and echoes,” he said. “There’s stone and high ceilings and stain glass windows. There’s moments where you just stop and pinch yourself and say it’s a wonderful place to sing.”

Maxwell said the acoustics in these centuries old buildings are different than he’s used to in Alberta.

“Normally we sing our big production in the Foothills Community Centre where sound is a terrible issue and we have to get a lot of speakers and electronics to make that work,” he said. “When you perform in these places there’s a real sense of history that we don’t have here. We’re babes in the woods when it comes to that, that’s what makes it worthwhile.”

After their performance at Christ Church Cathedral, Maxwell said people came up to the singers to expressed how moved they were.

“There was a couple of songs where you look at the audience and people are tearing up,” he said.  

These included the Irish hymns Be Thou My Vision and May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.

“It’s interesting to see how audiences respond,” he said. “Out of the corner of your eye you’re looking at people to see what kind of reaction you’re getting. It’s that moment when they’re looking at you and you can see they have an appreciation of choral music.”

For Maxwell, singing for others is what being a part of the Big Rock Singers is all about.

 “We love to sing for others,” he said. “It’s about people who have hugely different musical backgrounds who learn to sign together at a very high level.”

The Big Rock Singers begin their next season of singing in September. Those interested in learning more or registering can visit


Tammy Rollie

About the Author: Tammy Rollie

Tammy Rollie is a staff reporter at and the Western Wheel newspaper, focusing on Wheel's West, local arts and culture and entertainment. For story tips contact
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