Victoria Children’s Choir director and founder Madeleine Humer is passing the baton.
DUCKING INTO THE WARM, crowded, Christmas-music-and-conversation cacophony of a Downtown Starbucks on the dreariest of December afternoons, I spot a curly-haired woman seated at a table. I’ve never met her, but I’ve seen that head from the back, conducting some impressively polished performances of the Victoria Children’s Choir (VCC). Madeleine Humer—“Mads” to the kids who have sung for her—and I exchange a wave. I’m here to ask why, after 20 years as VCC’s founder and artistic and concert choir director, she has decided to pass her baton to a successor.
As we settle into our conversation, it’s striking how genuinely ebullient she is—about her work with the kids, and about stepping down. Describing her musical passions, VCC’s history, and her hopes for the future, she is ablaze with vision and delight. This is no small feat for anyone, at any age, in any season—and I’m inspired by her energetic positivity on this particular day, damp and dark as it is, talking about the end of her tenure in a valued role. There isn’t an iota of shade coming from Humer (perhaps a fitting name for someone so jolly), and thinking back on all the dour choir directors I’ve had, I can imagine how much the kids will miss her.
Madeleine Humer (Photo: Tegan McMartin)
Humer grew up in Victoria; singing and blending her voice with others was always a passion. Since classical choral repertoire was a vital part of most kids’ lives here in the 60s, she says, “I sang classical repertoire at school; [church] choral classes were full.” There was, she recalls, no hard line at school between the “three R’s” and the arts; it was all seen “as education—including painting, including music—[the fine arts were] part of that culture.”
The 70s, she says, were a time of major shifts and upheaval. Churches all over the world lost their choirs “for all sorts of reasons,” and to this day, she laments, they are still struggling, “even in England.” Humer was studying music in Vienna in the early 70s and remembers the vote at King’s College which “only just scraped through to keep the choir.” The recovery process, she says, “has been very difficult for educators; the idea of singing in the choir is not as appealing for kids.” Classical music, once so prevalent, “is not ‘every day;’ most families have some CDs of classical music, and go to kids’ symphony concerts,” but it’s not woven into life the way it was a generation or two ago. “There was a rich, rich choral background for kids,” she says. “I think I was lucky, that it was something I was fascinated with from a very young age, when music was [more] accessible through records and concerts…I just loved that harmony, whatever it was,” Humer says with a warm smile.
One thing that hasn’t changed, she insists, is the sheer enthusiasm young people demonstrate for classical music, once it appears on their radar. “We’re cheating our children if we don’t give them an opportunity to know their choices,” she explains. “They get exposed to so many other types of music, everywhere—but they have to make an effort to find classical music. Kids are really hungry for it when they find it. They’re overjoyed.” She says she’s not passing judgement on other forms and traditions; “all music has value. Classical music is one of our heritages; it’s a shame that it’s gotten lost…in every [children’s] choir that I’ve had, if you ask them what they want to sing, to show off, they choose a classical piece. Why wouldn’t they?”
The Victoria Children's Choir (2017)
Humer, who adores the Baroque period of music especially, trained and sang as a professional soprano soloist and taught English-language songs to children as an educator in European schools. When she divorced, the single mom and her two young kids relocated to Victoria, and Humer began a new chapter in her life. She took a post at Glenlyon-Norfolk School as an educator and choral director. Her work there was so successful that the Victoria Symphony gave hiring preference to her Glenlyon-Norfolk choirs anytime the repertoire called for a children’s chorus.
Eventually, Humer felt it was best to form a not-for-profit community choir to answer those requests, and their inaugural rehearsal was on September 11, 2001 (Humer vividly recalls the exact date; there was a decision made, she says, to carry on, despite the catastrophic events of that morning). Originally called the Victoria Symphony Children’s Choir, Humer and the orchestra soon reached the conclusion that “Victoria Children’s Choir” would, for various reasons, be a more strategically beneficial moniker going forward.
Over the past two decades, Humer’s encouragement, insight, and meticulous direction have afforded hundreds of Victoria children the opportunity to grow their vocal abilities and confidence while preparing and performing challenging choral repertoire. Tens of thousands of local audience members have enjoyed their stage appearances with the Victoria Operatic Society, the Victoria Symphony, the Pacific Baroque Festival, and other professional arts organizations, and at high-profile events such as the official welcome ceremony for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and with The Tenors at the Royal Theatre. The choir has also made a name for itself internationally. In 2011, it performed at the Summa cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in Vienna—placing first in the Treble category—and, in 2015, at the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands. The choir celebrated Canada’s 150th Birthday with a Maritime Tour in July, 2017.
There are now three Children’s Choirs, two for younger musicians (starting at age 7), with the Concert Choir that Humer directs being for more experienced 12-and-ups.
Humer speaks so excitedly about the singers, the repertoire, and the choir camps she’s organized for her young musicians; I ask if she’s sad about leaving it all to someone else. She breaks into a huge smile and says, “Oh, it’s someone absolutely wonderful, and [VCC will] be announcing it sometime in the new year. I’m excited for the future. I said I’d be happy to sit on the board; I could help with fundraising. The person who is taking over has expressed a hope that we can sit down and discuss many aspects of the organization, including repertoire.”
Humer feels a sense of responsibility to leave on a high note, as it were, so that the organization she so loves can enjoy a smooth and positive transition. “I’ve seen too many colleagues my age hanging on by their fingernails to things they have started,” she says. “To me, the perfect departure is when everything is doing well; I have a sense with this choir that that’s where they are. I don’t want to be holding on. I want to hand this over with great joy to its new future. I’m very proud.”
Humer, who understands the enormous health and social benefits of singing together in groups, says her passion for vocal music will inevitably propel her toward new ventures in that arena. “At my age, I have opportunities to get involved in other things. I’m a passionate environmentalist. I’m feeling very strongly about…music being part of our education system. Maybe I’ve still got something to say, something to add from my experiences, to help kids who might otherwise not get a chance to try out this stuff.”
The Victoria Children’s Choir will perform during the Pacific Baroque Festival in early March. See www.pacbaroque.com and www.victoriachildrenschoir.ca.
Mollie Kaye is a vocalist and satirist who hopes more Victoria kids will join the Victoria Children’s Choir and enjoy the lifelong benefits of learning to perform classical choral music.
This story was edited to correct spelling of Madeleine.