When Ann Denny opens her mouth to sing, her young audience watches in amazement. They’ve heard plenty of singers before, but never like this.
Denny is singing opera to a group of 15 girls, some as young as grade five, at Rockingstone Heights school in the Greystone neighbourhood.
Denny, a youth worker with J.L. Ilsley high school’s Youth on the Radar program, began Project Sing in January, and has already visited the school four times on Mondays at lunch.
“Their eyes get kind of wide, and they’ll say, “There’s no way we can do that,” says Denny. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, you can! I’ll show you how I did it!’ And I explain to them that I started learning singing just when I was their age.”
She is offering the students free sessions of proper singing instruction – how to stand, how to breathe, and how to present themselves.
Denny was trained in the classical tradition, but has also touched on rock bands, singer-songwriting, musicals, and jazz.
The warm-up exercises come from Denny’s Italian bel-canto training, but the students branch out to everything from Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and the hip hop K’naan song Waving Flag. A few of the students in Project Sing are interested in trying opera or jazz.
The opera in particular is unusual, as for it is the first time most students have had any exposure to the genre. “They’re always surprised, and they really like it. They request that I sing some for them now, every time that I go in,” says Denny.
“The thing with opera is, it’s hard to get the full effect of opera singing off a recording. It’s really when you hear it live, you feel the reverberations from the sound. I only really got interested in opera once I realized I could sing it myself, because it’s really fun to sing. It feels very good inside to sing, it’s a very healthy thing.”
That is the benefit that Denny sees for the students.
“I think it’s giving these young girls exposure to a really beautiful form of self-expression,” she says. “I think it’s really empowering, because when you learn to sing properly, you can literally find your voice. Especially at that age, when it’s just before puberty comes on, and girls sometimes start struggling at that age.”
Denny says she has also seen that singing together can smooth away fights or tensions that come with middle school life.
“It’s been called the greatest social activity in the world, because you really feel like you’re with other people when you’re singing in harmony with them,” she says.
The girls from Project Sing are searching for community partners and performance opportunities. If you can help them, please use the Contact page to let me know, and I’ll link you up.