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Edmonton Swiss Men's Choir returns to make a joyful (and healthy!) noise

Forty years of camaraderie and song rekindled after two-year break

It’s been two years since members of the Edmonton Swiss Men’s Choir (ESMC) have been able to sing together, and the news they can now resume is a much-anticipated chance to recruit members. Spoiler: you don't have to be Swiss to be part of the choir.

“We stopped weekly practices mid-March 2020, and because of Omicron, we've just restarted,” said ESMC president Hans Voegeli, who co-founded the choir in 1980. “Due to COVID and other reasons, we lost several members. We’re always looking for new singers.”

When he arrived in Canada in 1974, singing wasn't top of mind: Voegeli says he wasn’t even supposed to stay. But after marriage and kids, "You could say I got stuck. We never went back."

Because of Voegeli's career in hospitality, the choir’s launch 40 years ago meant most initial members were in the same vocation.

“I was working at the restaurant downtown and the chef there, he started the choir with another Swiss chef," he said. "Most of us guys, we were more or less the same age. We had young families, we hung out together."

Many of those first members had no extended family in Canada, Voegeli adds, so the camaraderie that grew naturally was an important factor in the choir’s success.

Ron Marcinkoski, who thought he was a tenor but found out he’s actually a baritone after he joined in 2006, says his reason for joining--to stoke friendships--has more than paid off.

“Guys don’t have a lot of friends, not the same kind of friends that women do,” said Marcinkoski, choir vice-president and a recently retired pharmacist. “Now I have thirty guys that I’m friends with.”

The friendship and song happen under the watchful eye of the lone female aboard: ESMC artistic director Liz Anderson, who has conducted the choir since 1987. “I love choral music. It’s the kind of music that touches me and other people most deeply, because it’s made with the human voice," said the award-winning choral director and ESMC conductor. "And for the singer, music utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, so it's a good brain-building activity."

“People have been cooped up, and we know singing is good for your health, it’s good for depression,” said Marcinkoski, noting the mood-enhancing hormones dopamine and oxycontin naturally go up in the body when singing. The deep breathing associated with singing is also conducive to stress relief.

Choir singing has, in fact, been shown to improve mood and induce a sense of social closeness. A 2017 study at the University of Regensburg showed while twenty minutes of choir or solo singing boosts happiness and decreases sadness and worry, the positive effects of singing in a group were more pronounced. 

Perhaps it's why, around the globe during the pandemic--in Milan where citizens sang the national anthem from balconies, and Australia’s Pub Choir, which became virtual in over 40 countries--people were singing to boost happiness: to restore lost connections and relieve the stress of lock down restrictions.

Voegeli says he appreciates the discipline that has brought the Swiss Men's choir acclaim, a selection of CDs and touring dates. Beyond concerts in Alberta and Canada, the ESMC has toured in Switzerland and South America and performed in the U.S. as members of the North American Swiss Singing Alliance, for which they hosted the Sängerfest in 2000.

Choral singing is a deep part of Swiss culture, says Voegeli, adding an organized choral association in Switzerland goes back to the 1600s.

“There were choirs in every little village. People would get together to sing and yodel. There were no TVs, no cinema.”

The ESMC repertoire reflects that tradition, with songs sung in German, Swiss German, Italian, French, English and Ukrainian. The choir has also commissioned works by Canadian and Swiss composers.

The choir practices Tuesdays at 7:30 at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Edmonton. Contact Hans at president@esmca.ca or 780 940 2459 to find out more.