by Brenda Baker, Founding Director
The first rehearsals for Kids of Note took place in September of 2005, but the choir would not exist if not for the birth of a beautiful baby two years earlier, on July 19, 2003. Her name was Tori Lorranne Slade and she was my daughter. She was a contented child who gave her dad, Art Slade, and myself five joyous years of parenting before she succumbed to leukemia just shy of her fifth birthday.
Tori had Down syndrome. Kids of Note — a choir for children with and without disabilities — is her legacy.
A Girl Who Loved to Sing
Kids of Note would not exist if not for another girl, Ali Cole-Johnson, who also happens to have Down syndrome. As fate would have it, from my hospital bed a couple of days after giving birth to Tori and discovering she had unexpected disabilities, I found myself on the phone with Dee Cole, Ali’s mother. One of the nurses had connected us so I could ask her questions. Six months later we met in person at her home where I learned that Ali, then seven years of age, loved to sing. Dee was looking for a choir she could join, but there wasn’t one that was set up to accommodate Ali’s exceptional needs.
I remembered my own childhood and my love of singing. I thought of Tori and how much I would want her to experience the fellowship of music and joy of performing as I had in church choirs, school choirs and school musicals. There had been so many opportunities. I mulled this over until the spring of 2005 and finally gave Dee a call.
Dee was the one who already had nine years of immersion in the disability community and I was still just getting my feet wet. She caught me up on the politics, the expectations, the different needs of possible participants. She was a sounding board and a thoughtful advisor. Together we imagined a choir that would work for children who required some extra considerations and supports in order to be successful.
Because my home church was Grosvenor Park United (GPUC), I was also imagining a choir that might be able to make use of the facility and occasionally sing at services. There weren’t a lot of children in the congregation (the number has grown considerably since then) so there was no children’s choir. Their voices and energy were sadly missed. Dee and I wanted “typical” children to also be part of the choir. What if some of the GPUC kids would join? What if we offered to sing at GPUC services as a thank you for their support? Could Kids of Note include a song or two of a more religious nature in their repertoire even though the group was aiming to be a non-religious, community choir?
We took our proposal to the Church Council and asked for seed money and the use of rehearsal space. GPUC embraced the idea of Kids of Note immediately and we have had a strong partnership ever since. (At first there were only one or two GPUC children involved but as I write this in October 2011, in our seventh year, six singers are also members of GPUC. These children have joined via the usual waiting list protocol like other members.)
Off the Ground
With Dee’s guidance we found families from the disability community who were interested in the Kids of Note concept and we also invited children who were typical to participate. Ken Neitz, the GPUC pianist, was quick to come on board and Cindy Garnham, a church member, jumped at the chance to volunteer weekly with the children. She became my main rehearsal assistant for the next five years. With her background in special needs education and suggestions from parents, we experimented with different ways of communicating with the singers. Several parents also took turns volunteering at each week’s rehearsal. The children worked hard and in December twenty excited, proud children, including Ali (who was over the moon and a wonderful performer) presented for families and friends the first ever Kids of Note Christmas Concert. There was not a dry eye in the church, including my own.
For the first two years I was a volunteer music director and, until January of 2007, I was also the manager. Thankfully a GPUC member, Sharon Pendleton, stepped forward then to take over all aspects of managing the choir, freeing me to focus on music direction, show production and promotion. With her financial and organizational expertise Sharon played a critical role in the next stages of our development.
In October 2007 parents met with Sharon and myself to advise on how to set up a Steering Committee and how to raise funds to sustain Kids of Note for the long term. (By this time Kids of Note had received a lot of donations, making it possible to begin paying the music director.)
On November 5, 2007, the first official meeting of the Steering Committee was called. Eleven people were involved in the early meetings.
In the summer of 2008 Mary Dolan became our manager. Once again we were fortunate to find an extremely dedicated and organized person to keep Kids of Note on track. Mary’s granddaughter is a member of the choir and her grandson has been a member in the past.
Developing the Program
As mentioned, we experimented a lot in the first few years with different kinds of songs and different ways of teaching the lyrics and music. We conducted surveys regularly to get feedback from parents on how we were doing. Through trial and error we discovered the best way to structure the choir and developed the necessary supports for practising at home. Everything was aimed at helping the singers to do their very best in the final concert. Please see How We Work for more details.
We have attempted to keep the age spread of our singers no greater than eight years. Over time we noticed that our singers with disabilities tended to stay longer and grow older within the choir, and that we tended to have a disproportionate number of typical children in the younger years on our waiting list. We could see how it might be possible to end up with most of the younger children being typical while the older singers could mostly be those with disabilities. Parents expressed concern that their teenage children have “typical peers” within the choir. For this reason we strive to achieve a balance of children with and without disabilities within three age groups: 7 to 9, 10 to 12, and 13 to 15. Please see Join for more information on how our waiting list works.
One of our concerns all along was the future for our oldest singers. We couldn’t bear the idea of asking anyone to leave Kids of Note when they became too old. Thankfully my sister, Diane Phillips, volunteered to start The Notations in the fall of 2009. The ensemble is for 16 years and up. Several of its members are “graduates” of Kids of Note.
2003 Tori Lorranne Slade is born to Brenda and Art in July; in December Brenda meets Dee Cole and her daughter Ali, age 7, who loves to sing but can’t find a community choir that is a good fit; Tori and Ali both have Down syndrome.
2005 Brenda asks for Dee’s guidance in starting a choir that includes children with disabilities and they approach Grosvenor Park United for space and seed money; Brenda volunteers to direct and manage the group; GPUC’s music director, Ken Neitz, becomes pianist and advisor; GPUC member Cindy Garnham volunteers as assistant; first rehearsal with 16 singers held in September; first Christmas concert with parents and GPUC contributing to the reception for 100 people; first donations received.
2006 Membership jumps to 19 in January; first Spring concert and 150 attend; in September capacity membership of 25 reached; Ian Thayer creates first advertising poster and sanctuary is almost full for our second ever Christmas concert! Perform first Outreach Concert at Parkville Manor.
2007 In January GPUC volunteer Sharon Pendleton becomes first manager; first official community grant received; Advisory Committee formed in September including GPUC liaison Sam Robinson; Brenda hired on contract; waiting list for choir established.
2008 Mary Dolan becomes new volunteer manager in September; largest attendance to date for Christmas concert and reception.
2009 First “professional” gigs for the Saskatoon Symphony and Saskatoon Chimo Chordsmen; GPUC volunteer director/pianist Diane Phillips forms The Notations (TN) in September with 6 singers; Hal Schrenk is first featured guest artist; begin tradition of hiring band.
2010 First “road trip” to Regina to perform for the Canadian Down Syndrome Conference; 9 singers in TN; “outreach” concert policies are formalized due to waiting list for KON shows; first and only ticketed concert performed – Brenda Baker’s The Old Elephant’s Christmas.
2011 Advisory Committee develops long term plan; website launched; Janice Paterson is Christmas guest artist.
2012 Sheldon Corbett becomes TN pianist; Solstice joins us for Christmas show; begin strategy to connect with U of S; join Facebook; keep $600 program cost/singer to a $150 fee to remain affordable to more families.
2013 TN reach 12 singers and director is paid for first time. Choirs receive their first professional fee for an outreach show. Brad Johner and Trevor Wingerter are guests.
2014 Our choirs “donate” for the first time – they contribute funds from their shows to help install automatic accessible doors at GPUC; our manager is paid for the first time; Henri Loiselle and Joy of Vox are guests.
2015 KON’s 20th concert and first ever Gala Celebration in May! With 26 KON and 15 TN singers, concerts that consistently “sell out,” staff who are paid for their work, and fantastic community support, we are proud to have built an organization that can be sustained for another 10 years!!