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BLANK CANVAS: Allison Girvan on artistic expression in a rural community

Columnist Sydney Black talks with Nelson’s celebrated singer and choral director
Allison Girvan directing her celebrated youth choir the Corazón Vocal Ensemble. Photo: Canadian Rocky Mountain Festival

by Sydney Black

Hello arts lovers …

I was so stoked to get to chat with Allison Girvan around her practice as a professional artist in our community. Her music career has seen experience as a professional singer, arranger, and director and she has directly impacted the artistic lives of thousands of locals through her work with Corazón, Lalin, Fireworks Community Choir, Summer Youth Theatre and more. I am very fortunate to be one of those humans and was delighted to learn more about her.

What’s your background/training/story as a musician?

I grew up super rurally half an hour outside of Prince George where I went to school. Every day on the way to and from, my family would sing in the car. My dad taught me how to harmonize when I was about four years old and he and I would sing harmonies while my mom and sister held down the tune. We had an almost inexhaustible list of songs from which to choose!

Throughout school, I participated in every possible music opportunity and played clarinet and violin. By high school, track and field was my number one passion and I had dreams of continuing athletics post-secondary. Knee problems made it necessary to re-evaluate in my grade 12 year and I auditioned for and was accepted to UVic on clarinet.

In my first year, I realized that clarinet was not going to be the thing for me and re-auditioned in the second term for voice. Longer story here, but ultimately not really important! What is important is that I suddenly found myself in an opera program having never taken a single voice lesson in my life. Moreover, I found myself involved in a genre at a time when not too many folks looked like me.

My general love of singing and a feeling of community in the program somehow kept me going through some pretty rugged feelings of imposter syndrome and an increasing awareness that the feelings of not really fitting in anywhere were guaranteed to continue throughout my sojourn as a “classical” musician. Despite this, I auditioned for a professional choir when I was 22. It was in that group that I realized my voice was well suited to Celtic music and was given several solos in the Celtic genre (cue more imposter’s syndrome!) and, during one such solo, was heard by Celtic tenor John McDermott who hired me to sing with him on a CD he was recording and join a tour that same year to New Zealand. That led to some pretty great opportunities, both with his group and elsewhere.

Why did you end up in Nelson?

My husband — composer, teacher and all-around adorable person, Don Macdonald — grew up here and we had just had a baby in Vancouver when he heard of a one-year position teaching in the Selkirk Music Program to fill in for someone on sabbatical. We had intended just to stay for that year. That was 27 years ago. I think that is a pretty common refrain for people who end up in Nelson.

What keeps you here?

The people, the nature, the distance from big city living… the food. And a deep respect and love for the level of artistic expression from those who call this place home.

How did you score your biggest professional gig?

Well, I’ll tell you how I did not score what might have been my biggest professional gig. I was suggested as a representative for Canada to sing in the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics since Canada was going to be hosting the 2010 winter Olympics but I was deemed not to look “Canadian” enough, whatever that means. It was definitely a different time and I am grateful for all the ways this would play out differently in 2024.

More recently though, a friend who was involved in discussions to choose a soloist for a recording project involving choirs in Canada and the US, instrumentalists from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and a Syrian artist, recommended me to those who were hiring. Interestingly, the solo part required someone who had an understanding of a “classical” approach/notation and was able to sing movements in the piece with heavy Celtic influence as well as one movement which was straight up gospel. Might be one of the only times I can remember feeling uniquely qualified for a gig.

Any hot tips for people who want to live rurally but be a professional musician?

Don’t expect to continue to be able to reliably perform elsewhere in the winter if you are depending on flights getting in and out!

And, prepare to be surrounded by some pretty amazing musicians who are also living rurally. I’m still discovering and being inspired by some incredible talent that is new to me around every corner in this area.

Sydney Black is executive director of the Nelson and District Arts Council. Blank Canvas appears monthly.