Along Stettler’s sleepy part of town is musician Rhonda Sylvester’s musical paradise, where she trains voices to hit the right note.
Having started voice and piano lessons when she was five-years-old, Sylvester immediately fell in love with making music.
“It has always offered me so much in the way of expression and creativity that I have never been able to find in anything else,” mused Sylvester. “It has become my comfort, my joy and my way of life. As a musician, you tend to look at the world in a bit of a different way than other people might.”
Anyone in town who has ever wanted to learn how to sing would have crossed paths with Sylvester, who trains Tiny Gracenotes, aged between five and eight, Rhapsody Girls and Tiny Tenors, aged between nine and 12, and the Gracenotes Choir, aged between 13 and 18.
With over two decades of music in Sylvester, it is easy to see why the Gracenotes Choir and the Rhapsody Girls and Tiny Tenors have been past Provincial Choral winners several times, with the Gracenotes Choir also being recognized as the “Gold” winners and “Spirit of New York” winners at the New York Heritage Festival in 2010.
Explaining the process of what goes into planning choral productions, Sylvester said, “When planning our choral productions every year my first and last inspiration is always my students. I always want to give them goals to reach for and I want them to learn not only to become strong musicians but also to learn life lessons.”
According to Sylvester, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and team work to put together the shows.
“We have many different musical levels and it isn’t always easy to choose repertoire that will suit such varying groups,” added Sylvester. “We also have many different personalities and they have to learn to work together and be responsible for not only themselves, but each other.”
She said that often students start the year not knowing one another and even feeling shy or apprehensive about the whole process but, by the time the year ends they are sharing ideas, laughter and hugs with one another like they have known each other forever.
“There is a very special bond that happens in music when people allow themselves to believe in the magic,” explained Sylvester. “The magic of sensitivity, of creation, of laughter, of dance and of course, singing.”
Contemplating on the art of music, Sylvester said, “Music can lead us to feel things quite a bit deeper or even perhaps a little more critically at times, because it teaches us to open ourselves up to all possibilities and emotional levels of expression.”
Drawing an analogy from the world of photography, she explained, “Like a photographer learns to see and sharpen or blur images with a camera, musicians live through emotional expression and sensitivity that is unique to each and every one of them.”
This is Sylvester’s 23rd year of teaching singing and choir.
Recalling her first voice teacher Elaine Pitt fondly, Sylvester said, “She was a lady who I will always love and admire. She planted the seed and helped me grow both as a musician and a person. I owe her so much.”
Sylvester’s first piano teacher was Muriel Hearonemus followed by Evelyn McCourt.
“Both wonderful and patient ladies who I’m so grateful for,” Sylvester said.
Other amazing vocal/choral/band teachers and professors that she has had include Eva Bostrand, Kathleen Corcoran, Sharon Braun, Gertrude Heintz, Ken Mallet, Gordon Moorlag, Bill Simon, Noeline Brockley, to name a few.
According to Sylvester, on how technology has altered the landscape of music, she said, music genres have changed and varied over the years and just as everything else has evolved, so has music.
“A lot of the mainstream music nowadays is digitally enhanced or remixed and it seems that sometimes anyone can be a recording artist,” Sylvester added. “In a way I suppose that may be true but, even those music producers, engineers and artists who use digital technology have a vision of where they want their music to go, whose souls they want their music to touch and what statement they want the world to hear.”
Some of her personal vocal and performance highlights include workshops with Madame Marie LaVare of Montreal, singing in choirs and as soloist in Kassel, Germany, performing “The Darling Diva” shows with the beautiful Karen Fawcett, and performing in “Nunsense, Nunsense the Second Coming” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with an amazingly talented cast from the Stettler Heartland Arts Troupe.
“Right now, the choirs are starting to prepare for our annual Christmas concert, which takes place on Saturday, Dec.10 and then right after the Christmas break we start to work towards festivals and spring concerts,” added Sylvester. “I am hoping to take the older Gracenotes Choir on a possible tour or trip next year, so with that in mind I will be searching for appropriate music and costuming and hoping to find some sort of sponsorship to help with costs.”
Sylvester said that she was grateful for the opportunity she gets to teach music in the community.
“To me, all music is a form of art, whether it be the pure raw sounds of opera, the twang of a country guitar or the driving beat in a hip hop song,” she said. “They all take creativity, hard work and talent to create.”