When Tara Newell first began singing as a first-grade student with the Whistler Children’s Chorus (WCC), she hardly imagined she would receive international recognition somewhere down the line. Music for her was but a passion and a source of fellowship with like-minded people. It continues to be those things—but it has also brought her to new heights.
On Nov. 4, Newell and approximately 100 other acapella singers in the Lions Gate Chorus were named victors at the 75th annual Sweet Adelines International Convention and Competition in Louisville, Ky. It is the first such title in the Vancouver-based choir’s nearly-70 year history, and they earned it in style: becoming the first group ever to receive a perfect score in any category from the judges.
Understandably, Newell is over the moon.
“I’m still probably in shock,” she admits. “While I've been in the chorus for nine years, this is my fourth International. We've won second twice and fifth once, and it's a huge achievement.
“There's so much hard work that goes into this win, not only from each individual chorus member, but behind the scenes from our production team, our music team and our artistic team. We have so many different leaders in the chorus that have put so much time into this. Our director has been here 32 years, so she's wanted this for 32 years.”
The director in question, Sandy Marron, was indeed ecstatic.
““As soon as they announced second place and it wasn’t us, I knew that after 32 years of directing this fabulous group of singers we had finally achieved ‘the impossible dream’ of becoming world champions,” Marron says in a press release. “This was a life goal for me, and I couldn’t be any happier. These singers are not only my chorus members, they are my best friends.”
Fellow Lions Gate member Cammi MacKinlay likened the Sweet Adelines International to “the Olympics of acapella singing”, and Newell agrees with that sentiment. She likens the in-depth rehearsals and committed mental preparation undergone by chorus members to the training of an athlete, and as a longtime Whistler resident, she’s seen her fair share of athletes.
Hobby or lifestyle
In the wake of her greatest artistic achievement to date, Newell looks back to where she came from. Her family moved to Whistler in 1995, and her grandfather once traveled the world as a singer. Yet it was the WCC that kept Newell involved with music, granting her opportunities to perform from Ottawa to Montreal to Nova Scotia. Newell credits WCC instructors Alison Hunter and Janet Hamer for playing key roles in her development—though she perhaps was not always a model student.
“There's some really good photos from when I was little in either the Whistler Question or Pique, of me just not paying attention to Janet and completely singing with my mouth wide open,” Newell reminisces. “I always thought I knew the music and never paid attention. That was something I had to work on when I joined the Lions Gate Chorus.”
Though Newell’s dad, a ski instructor, still lives in Whistler, she moved to Vancouver after high school to attend Simon Fraser University (SFU). Afterwards, she found employment at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where she is now the interim associate director of alumni engagement for the Faculty of Medicine. Newell’s continuing interest in singing brought her to Lions Gate, where she acts as the diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator.
“We call it a ‘hobby’ with quotation marks because it's more of a lifestyle than anything,” she says. “I have to rehearse on my own during the week. I also dance in the front row with Lions Gate, which means extra rehearsals and extra practice time on my own. I would say it’s like a course you're taking externally from work. So it definitely is quite time-consuming, but the course is also very flexible because we also know that life happens.
“My managers [at UBC] have been very supportive, which has been fantastic.”
Tradition and inclusion
What keeps bringing Newell back to the Lions Gate Chorus? For starters, it is rich in tradition: chartered in 1954, Lions Gate is Canada’s oldest Sweet Adelines choir. The group performs at all kinds of concerts and local community events, in addition to regional and international contests. By winning the Canadian Maple Leaf Region 26 competition in 2022—delivering their performance virtually due to COVID—Lions Gate earned a berth at November’s International in Louisville.
The group’s reputation as inclusive and inter-generational reflects Newell’s overall experience with singing.
“It's been my community the whole time. It has brought so many wonderful people into my life,” she says. “I actually met my husband through someone in the chorus and I have so many fantastic friends that I have gained through this. It is a stress reliever, it is something to achieve, and as a competitive person, it is something that I can constantly work towards.
“A lot of the things I’ve learned in the chorus, I can actually apply to my job. For example, I was marketing coordinator at one point, and I was learning certain things that I've applied to my work at UBC. I hope that I bring a sense of community and [make it known] to the community that everyone is welcome.”