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Provincial, national gold a sweet melody for Okotoks choir programs

The Alberta High School of Fine Arts (AHSFA) choral group, led by teacher Matt Ellis, was honoured with Gold for both of its arrangements at the provincial level. Sam Shumka's Okotoks Junior High group was awarded Gold at the national level for its three pieces.

After more than two years, students in Okotoks' school choral programs were finally able to sing together again — and boy did they hit a high note. 

The Alberta High School of Fine Arts (AHSFA) choral group, led by teacher Matt Ellis, was honoured with gold for both of its arrangements at the provincial level. Sam Shumka's Okotoks Junior High group was awarded gold at the national level for its three pieces, one of which he and his wife wrote and arranged. 

"It's back from the dead," Shumka said of his program. "It literally came back from nothing." 

COVID-19 was a rough time for school music groups, given that practice couldn't accurately be held via Zoom. When school did return in-person, Ellis said  students had to wear masks and stand six feet apart. For a while, singing was even on a list of prohibited activities. 

Not having chorus classes also meant the awareness of the program declined significantly. Students new to both schools, in Grade 7 and Grade 10, likely had no idea such opportunities existed. 

Shumka made it his mission to make sure that didn't happen. 

He sent out emails to parents of previous students letting them know choir was coming back and he paid visits to elementary classes to get them excited about the prospects of being a part of a successful program. 

Though they are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels of participation, both educators were glad to have voices back in their auditoriums. 

Ellis said this year's group of 18 is the smallest he's ever had, with 24 being ideal for an ensemble. Eight of his students are graduating this year, he added. 

"This year was a total rebuilding year," said Shumka. "I started out with 18 and because it was after school it dropped to 13, but all 13 could sing.

"We had a really, really successful year in spite of everything." 

The junior high group was one week out from singing at nationals in 2020 before everything shut down, according to Shumka, so performing — and winning — at nationals this year was a long time coming. 

He was more than happy to be coming home with gold. 

"That's a rare feat at junior high," he said. "They don't hand out golds at the junior high level very often." 

Ellis said the adjudicator for his group had nothing but the utmost of praises, even remarking that "this is the best that it gets." 

Unfortunately, arts and music programs are often the first to see a reduction in funding and other resources, both by school boards and the Province. 

The pair agree that music and arts are essential for students across all grades. 

"They have such an impact on the kids who take them," said Ellis. 

"Music programs tick every single box that school communities are trying to achieve," Shumka added. "You want to develop community, you want to develop scaffolding, you want to develop self-efficacy and self-value.

"We have this whole focus on mental health right now. It has been proven that when people single together, their heart beats actually synchronize and if that's not the definition of what a community can and should be, I don't know what is. 

"Our programs are the soul of the school and they're the very last things that should be on the chopping block." 

Ellis said a graduating student of his was accepted to study bio-medicine with the intention of becoming a doctor. At the end of the year, she wrote him a letter indicating how impactful his classes were on her education.

"She wrote me a letter at the end of the year in which she stated, she wouldn't have been able to do any of that without my program," he said. "It was through choir and musical theatre that she was able to learn the leadership skills that are necessary to go forward and do that.

"She said it was through those programs she was able to develop the courage to just get out there and put herself out there and to trust in her abilities." 

Both Shumka and Ellis have every intention of keeping their programs alive and reviving them to pre-pandemic stardom. Their teamwork puts students through six years worth of valuable vocal training which allows their voices to reach new heights. 

And, maybe bring home a bit of gold at the end of it. 

Lauryn Heintz

About the Author: Lauryn Heintz

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